How To Make Friends With Benefits Work, According To A Psychologist

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So, you’ve met this cute person and you’re both vibing each other and getting along great.

You move from texting, to eating out, to eating in, to Netflix and chilling… which leads to a reminder asking if you’re still watching the show.

Time goes by and your mind says you’re not ready for a relationship – and neither are they, so you both label this ‘thing’ as Friends with Benefits.

Having sex with no strings attached sounds like a good idea but can it actually work?

And if it can, why does Justin Timberlake, Mila Kunis and every other character in a friends with benefits situation end up falling in love?

Punkee put clinical psychologist Evette Braunstein to the test, to get her advice for those who are in a friends with benefits situation or anyone considering it.

What Happens To Your Body When You’re Having Sex?

While you might be thinking, “Cool, I got this friends with benefits situation down pat,” there are a few things happening inside your body that makes it a little more difficult than it seems.

According to Dr Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who’s spent years researching how the brain reacts to love, there are different hormones that our brain and body release during each phase we go through – from love at first sight to being exclusive.

While you might’ve agreed to being friends with benefits to avoid a relationship, the fun fact is that the same area of the brain that stimulates our sex organs also releases hormones that build trust and attachment to someone.

Clinical psychologist Evette Braunstein explains it like fighting against your natural instinct. “From an evolutionary perspective, we’re hardwired to bond and build communities.

“When we’re having sex with [the same person] on a regular basis, oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin gets released and becomes quite addictive and that’s where feelings start to develop,” said Braunstein who is also a psychology teacher at Bond University.

The Battle Of The Hormones

During sex (and when you orgasm), the brain releases large amounts of dopamine giving you that euphoric feeling of satisfaction and pleasure.

But that’s not the challenge – dopamine works in a ‘feedback loop’ where the brain will motivate you to do something and in return gives you a hit of dopamine which can make things pretty addictive (it’s also the same hormone known for creating drug addictions).

The other hormone that makes things difficult is oxytocin – the bonding or ‘love hormone’. Whether it’s holding hands, kissing or even locking eyes with someone cute (you know the look I’m talking about), oxytocin gets released. It helps us identify a friend from a foe and it’s the same hormone that creates a strong tie between a mother and their child.

Similar to dopamine, oxytocin works in a looping system secretly strengthening that bond while you’re distracted and that’s the exact reason why Evette says this arrangement can end up messy.

“The thing that makes it tough is that it isn’t [someone] anonymous it’s actually a friend, so you’re going to develop emotional attachments and it’s difficult to separate that part of yourself.

“There are people that have done it successfully but the vast majority I hear from as a psychologist, [the situation] usually ends up with one or the other developing something more,” said the Queensland based psychologist.

“We typically don’t have sex with people we can’t stand (unless that’s your kink) but there’s already a likeness and fondness there before we have sex. It’s usually a person we get along with that we think could work but we don’t want to commit,” she said.

How Can Friends With Benefits Work?

Being monogamous isn’t for everyone and maybe you’re at a point in your life where you don’t want commit and that’s OK! But to make a friends with benefits arrangement work, there are a few things to nail down first: like making sure it’s right for you before you say yes.

“A lot of people think it’s just what people do without considering if it’s right for them. It’s like everything with life you have to ask, ‘is this right for me?’ It’s also about knowing yourself and being true to who you are,” Braunstein said.

If you like someone who doesn’t want a relationship but agree hoping they’ll change their mind – that’s a red flag you should probably avoid it.

“I’ve definitely had clients where they’ve entered into friends with benefits hoping for something more and being very upset when it doesn’t,” Evette said.

“American psychologist, Robert Sternberg talks about the triangular theory of love, where you’ve got passion (which is sex), intimacy (friendship) and commitment. With friends with benefits, you’ve got the passion and the intimacy but no commitment and eventually, it’ll fall over – especially if it’s a regular thing.”

Over the years, Evette noticed something in particular that kept couples in open relationships strong and that was the commitment to being honest about expectations, boundaries, and feelings.

“It takes a very grounded and open and honest couple to make this happen and going back to the triangle – they have commitment. In both open and polyamorous relationships, partners are usually committed to making the primary relationship/s work,” she said.

“Friends with benefits work better when boundaries and expectations are discussed, where it’s open, transparent, honest and there’s commitment.”

Set Boundaries And Be Honest With Each Other

If you decide to give friends with benefits a go, it’s important to make your expectations and boundaries clear.

Get over the awkwardness at the start by asking a few questions like: are we exclusively sleeping together or is it OK to see other people? Are we just having sex or is it okay to hang out too? How often will we meet up and are there any days/times that are off-limits?

Don’t forget there’s a hormonal cocktail swirling inside you determined to create attachment, so it’s important to check in with how you’re feeling along the way.

Evette said, “the butterflies, thinking obsessively about them, daydreaming about a future with them, putting off your friends and other plans just to be with them,” are common signs you might be catching feels.

If things start to change, it’s a good time to have a chat.