Claudia Bavel 2018
Why Friends With Benefits Are the Most Sustainable Relationships
In a few days, I’m going to Cuba on vacation with a guy I’ve been sleeping with for eight years, but whom I’ve never once called my boyfriend. We live on different continents, but inevitably, a few times a year, we find each other somewhere in the world, have a few days of romance, and then go our separate ways. This arrangement would generally be called a friend with benefits, or a fuck buddy, or a romantic friendship, or perhaps even a relationship—with “no strings attached.” But let’s be real: There are always strings, aren’t there?
It was while planning this vacation that it hit me: The two longest relationships of my life have both been with men who I was never officially dating. Boyfriends and girlfriends have come and gone, but my friends with benefits have stood the test of time. I mean, eight years. That’s longer than I predict my first marriage will last. And while I can’t imagine being with my Cuba date “for real”—I mean, he’s a low-key homeless anarchist who once took me on date to his Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meeting; there are red flags—I still value our relationship immensely. And he actually knows me better than a lot of my partners ever did. So what is it about the friends with benefits dynamic that is more sustainable, and often more transparent, than an actual relationship?
People are skeptical of fuck buddies. They’re like: How can you have sex with the same person, again and again, without falling in love? Or at least, without getting super-jealous and Fatal Attraction–esque? Some assume that one of the “buddies” is always being strung along, secretly hoping that the fucking leads to something more serious. Others dismiss fuck-buddy dynamics as just being compulsive sex that’s devoid of emotion. But why do things have to be so black and white? Surely it’s possible to find a middle ground between eternal love and zombie-fucking a stranger: a place where you can care about someone, have good sex, and yet not want to literally implode at the thought of them sleeping with someone else. Right?
Case in point: The most significant romantic friendship of my life was with an ex-editor of mine, whom I’ll call Malcolm. We started “a thing” five years ago and have yet to end it. When I met him, he was 45 and charmingly grumpy, and he would always tell me: “Sex is so perfect. Why destroy it with a relationship?” I’d go over to his apartment for a couple hours in the afternoons, we’d have sex (soberly, which meant I could actually cum), and then afterward we’d drink tea and complain about stuff. It was the best.
There were times when we saw each other frequently, and other times when things dropped off for a while, usually because one of us had a partner. And sure, when he would get a girlfriend I would be a little bummed out—I’m (unfortunately) not a sociopath—but it didn’t cause me to spiral into an emotional cyclone the way I would have if I’d been cheated on by a boyfriend. After all, disappointment comes from expectation.
Over time, Malcolm and I became really close. It felt like we had entered this secretive bubble of transparency—we were emotionally intimate, yet free of the burden of jealousy and ownership. We could spill our guts to each other because we didn’t have anything to lose. I told Malcolm about my previous relationships, my fantasies, my heartbreak. Once, he told me this long, complicated story about an affair he had with his cousin, adding, “That’s not something I tell most people.” Probably wise on his part, but I loved that story, as problematic as it may be, because I loved knowing something about him that no one else did. Sometimes it feels like we are more honest with our friends with benefits than we are with our partners.
This paradox always makes me think of that Mad Men episode when Betty seduced Don at their kid’s summer camp, well after they had both remarried. Afterward, when they’re lying in bed together, Betty says of Don’s new wife, “That poor girl. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” Harsh. But sometimes, romantic friendships can offer a type of intimacy that committed relationships can’t.
I was curious to know if Malcolm felt the same way I did about all of this, so last week (for strictly journalistic purposes), I paid him a visit. “Having a friend with benefits is great because it’s just—it’s just less annoying,” he said, smoking a cigar and dressed in an inexplicable beige silk onesie. “It’s more of a low-intensity intimacy. It’s not encumbered by obligations, which just lead to resentment.”
He then gave me that look—the one that means he’s about to admit to something despicable and blame it on humanity. “We are all selfish—we all live in this Ayn Rand–ish self-centered world, whether we like it or not,” he said. “When you’re in a friends with benefits situation, you don’t have go to the other person’s awful friend’s birthday party. But if you behave like that within a conventional relationship, it causes problems.
“With [FWB] there’s no illusion about the carnal aspect,” he went on, “so you can be really literal about it: You are two people who like and respect each other—andyou like to fuck. There’s beauty and freedom in that honestly. And you can be playful. You can have your sex-power persona, or you can play the super-misogynist pig, or the bimbo, and it’s okay, because you’re not being judged. But if you change that dynamic into being a real relationship, then those games might not seem so sexy anymore.”
In other words, your fuck buddy gets all the good stuff about being in a relationship—the wild sex, the cuddles, the juicy dark secrets—minus all of the boring, would-rather-die activities that go hand in hand with commitment, like having to help assemble your boyfriend’s IKEA bed, or having to watch your girlfriend stab at the ingrown hairs on her bikini line while she watches the Kardashians. (That’s me—I’m the girlfriend who does that.)
Essentially, you’re taking a relationship and removing the creepy ownership of another human being, which leaves more room for hedonism and sexual exploration. Like, who do you want to bring to the sex party—your boyfriend or your fuck buddy? It’s a no-brainer. I’ve done so many things with fuck buddies that I never would have tried with partners, because I was too much of a jealous monster. (Like once I let Malcolm tie me to a dresser while I watched him have sex with my best friend. Unsurprisingly, it was literally awful, but now at least I can say I’ve done it?)
One of the most masterful fuck friends I know is my friend Casey, a 26-year-old Ph.D. candidate in English, who until recently had a FWB for 12 years. It started when she was 13, with a boy whose family spent every summer in the same beach town as she did. (Cute alert.)
Over martinis at Cafe Mogador, Casey told me, “When I’m dating someone, my immediate impulse is to be like, ‘Let’s lock shit down! My anxiety will decrease if I know you want to marry me in six years from now!’ Which is crazy and not hot or sustainable. But my longer romantic friendships have been a safe space. They’ve helped me figure out how to relate to someone romantically without the immediate trigger of, Where is this going?” In other words, having a fuck buddy is a great exercise in non-possessiveness.
“The thought of my boyfriend fucking someone else makes me want to wear his skin like a goddamned wetsuit,” she said, eyes bulging. “But with my fuck buddies it’s been like, ‘Oh, my God, tell me more.’ There’s almost a level of titillation to sex stories when it’s somebody who’s not your boyfriend. But why is that? I wish I knew, so I could bottle it and never be possessive ever again.”
For all the benefits of fuck friendery, it’s still possible for this dynamic to screw with your emotions. “At different points in our relationship,” Casey recalled, “it was hard to respect the line between friendship and flirting when he started dating someone, because I’d known him more intimately than his new partner. It’s like my morals were thrown out the window, and I felt this gross egotistical sense that I should come first, because I’ve been around longer, like, ‘Girlfriends come and go, but I’m forever.’” Sometimes it’s hard to accept that these dynamics usually have an expiration date, which tends to be when one person gets into a committed relationship. And, unfortunately, not only do you lose the benefits, but you sometimes lose the friend, too.
We are taught that all relationships that don’t end up in marriage are failures (because, ya know, hetero-normativity and patriarchal narratives or whatever). But subscribing to that belief ignores the fact that romantic friendships can be extremely fulfilling, enlightening, and straight-up fun. Of course, I’m not dismissing the benefits of committed, long-term, loving relationships. But both dynamics are valuable in their own right. And perhaps the reason romantic friendships are often so sustainable is they lack the soul-baring vulnerability and intense emotional investment.
Maybe the coolest thing about the fuck-buddy economy is that it allows women to actually enjoy sex in a casual way, without having to enter an old-fashioned ownership contract. It celebrates female sexual autonomy. It’s a chance to explore ourselves and other people. And in the interim, we can discover who we are and what we like, instead of committing to a pseudo-marriage we aren’t ready for.