Key points

  • Friends with benefits relationships typically have rules, a recent study found.
  • In the study, 80 percent of people in FWB relationships talked about them with their partner.
  • Rules in a friends with benefits relationship vary and often contradict each other.
  • Open communication in casual sex relationships can help avoid confusion and hurt feelings.

Friends with benefits (FWB) relationships are more common on college campuses than ever before. These relationships are often viewed as a simple way to have casual sex and appeal to many people because they can sexually experiment without commitment. Scholars typically define these relationships as “no strings attached” or as strictly physical relationships. But in reality, FWB relationships are much more diverse.

Some people will use a FWB relationship as a trial for future commitments or use them to transition out of an exclusive relationship. Other times, FWB relationships are merely used for serial hookups—all the sex with none of the emotions. But some types of FWB also include sincere friends who want to have sex and care about each other emotionally, but don’t want to be romantic or exclusive.

Though there are many different motivations for starting FWB relationships, which are often viewed as easy, most are complicated. What makes FWB even more complex is that both partners may not view the relationship the same way or have the same goals.

Pascal König/Pixabay
Friends drinking

The way that casual sex is engaged in and talked about on college campuses has changed over the decades. College students are far more accepting of FWB relationships—and even though some people keep their FWB hush-hush, most are open with their friends about their relationship status.

In a recent study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, 109 college students reported on the rules in their FWB relationship. In this study, 80 percent of the participants said that they explicitly talked to their FWB partner about rules. The rules varied dramatically, representing a shift in the way that people might handle their casual sex relationships. Yet some common themes emerged, including the six rules below.

Six Common Rules for Friends with Benefits Relationships

  1. Be honest. Be open and honest with your FWB partner. You must tell your partner if you “catch feelings,” for example. Being transparent about your expectations and feelings is paramount so that everyone is on the same page. If you have sex with someone else, you should tell your partner about it. If your intentions are to just have sex with no strings attached, make that clear from the beginning.
  2. Restrict your feelings. In other words, keep your feelings to yourself. For some FWB relationships, you should withhold your expectations and feelings. For example, some people believe that you shouldn’t get jealous, and if you do, don’t talk about it. Pet names are not allowed, nor is talking about a future relationship with your friends with benefits partner or anyone else.
  3. No cheating. Even though the stereotypical nature of a FWB is not exclusive, some participants in the study reported rules about being monogamous. Participants with this rule believe that even though you are not committed to each other romantically, you are not allowed to sleep with anyone else. What is unclear with this rule is whether it is to prevent sexually transmitted infections or whether it is related to feelings of jealousy; it may be both.
  4. You can sleep with other people. In complete contradiction to the previous rule, a subset of participants in the study said that they are allowed to have sex with other people outside of their FWB relationship. This rule aligns with the conventional perception of FWB where the relationship is casual and you are allowed to sleep with whomever you want—no strings attached, no consequences.
  5. Sex rules. This rule varied and is bound by contextual factors. For example, some people reported that you are only allowed to hook up after drinking, you must leave immediately after sex, and you shouldn’t sleep with different people on the same day. Other rules included things like no vaginal intercourse (only oral), always using a condom, and no cuddling afterward.
  6. Relationship clarification. The last rule dictates that it should be made clear when you want to date someone else, if you’ve already started forming a relationship with someone else, and to clarify the casual nature of the relationship. Most people in the study wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page regarding their intent for the relationship.

Clearly, FWB relationships are not as simple as they appear. If you don’t know how your partner feels, or what they want from you or the relationship, it can make managing your friends with benefits relationship extremely tricky, if not impossible.

Whatever your reasons are for starting a FWB relationship, your best bet is to be open with your partner. Let them know what you are looking for, and if anything changes, be transparent with them about it. After all, those changes might benefit the relationship in the long run.


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