By Dave Singleton
Friends with benefits — or “FWBs,” as they’re often called — are a hot romantic topic across the pop-culture landscape these days. Many wonder: Can hook-ups and FWBs ever lead to a committed, long-term relationship? According to the most recent Singles in America study (and contrary to conventional wisdom), it seems the answer might be “yes.” In this year’s survey, 47 percent of singles reported having had a FWB relationship in the past (40% of women vs. 53% of men). With a drastic year-over-year increase, FWBs are transforming into long-term romances more frequently than ever before (2012: 44%, 2011: 20%). And 33% of singles say they have had a one-night stand that turned into a relationship.
Those are the facts. But what’s driving them?
Some argue that the reasons are cultural. FWBs may be more common than ever in our fast-paced world, but the need for love remains one of our strongest desires. While we may step into the shallow end of the pool out of ease and convenience, we soon find ourselves swimming into the deeper waters and forming more profound connections. Others look to science for proof that biology always wins. “A one-night stand leading to love makes sense because of our biology,” says evolutionary biologist Dr. Justin R. Garcia of the Kinsey Institute, who co-authored the Singles in America study. “Casual sex is rarely casual because of the biological and psycho-emotional connections that form [between both people].”
To explore the reasons further, I went in search of the real-life stories behind these compelling statistics. These six men and women let us in on why they think their FWB relationships turned into the committed kind.
1. “I finally learned to clarify what I wanted from a relationship after my first marriage ended in divorce”
“I was not looking for love after my divorce,” says Marylander Tracy, 37. “Getting out of my marriage had been a hassle, and I just wanted to have some fun. My friends said to ‘be single and mingle,’ so I did — and along came Mark, who is a few years younger than me. It was easy and I felt no pressure, but I was so freaked out about getting into something serious that I kept telling him, ‘I can’t do this.’ Luckily, he was really patient with me. The more I was able to tell him why I was feeling worried and the more he just accepted me and where I was in my life at the moment, the more comfortable I became and the more we communicated — and isn’t that the key to every good relationship? You can probably guess the rest. We’ve been together for a year as a committed couple, and I look at our FWB period as a time of real growth. I learned how to clarify what I wanted in a relationship.”
2. “Our casual approach allowed us to enjoy a slow build-up towards being in a committed relationship — without all the pressure”
“I’ve had a couple of serious girlfriends, but there was always so much pressure,” says Washingtonian Jay, 29. “At some point, my family (who are pretty traditional) would ask: ‘Are you going to finally settle down with this one?’ I was tired of the hook-up scene, but wasn’t ready to dive into the marriage pressure-cooker just yet — so the only thing I was comfortable with was having a FWB-type of situation with a woman. I definitely got some push-back from girls who figured that I was just another commitment-phobe, but Lisa was different. She was really open to it and seemed comfortable with figuring out what really worked for us instead of giving in to family and society’s expectations. I remember when my feelings changed after six months, and I realized that I had really fallen for her. She laughed when I told her this, and then she said to me: ‘I thought this was supposed to be casual, buddy!’ But after being FWBs for so long, it turned out that she was ready for a more serious relationship, too. It allowed us to have a slow build-up towards something serious without all the commitment pressure.”
3. “Our FWB arrangement was just that — we were true friends who eventually became so much more”
“I always thought of Dan as ‘my fling,’” says New Yorker Kate, 41. “We both work in sales and met each other at an out-of-town conference where we shared a rocking weekend of romance — but we’re both workaholics with super-busy lives. I just didn’t put any stock into seeing him again. We parted ways on friendly terms, but with no plan for a follow-up meeting. I ran into him the week we got back from the trip and we went out for drinks, which was followed by another night of romance. After that, our get-togethers started happening weekly, but they were definitely not what anyone would call a date or on any kind of relationship track. Still, there was something different about Dan. In addition to being a sexy guy who I saw occasionally, he became someone I felt close to — so, our friends-with-benefits arrangement became exactly that; Dan became my real, true friend. And then our friendship blossomed over the course of two years and turned into an engagement. No one was more surprised than I was when he popped the question — and of course, I said yes!”
4. “I responded well to her honest communication about getting into a relationship after my divorce, and we’re exploring our future together”
“I’d recently gotten divorced and was still feeling badly burned by it,” says Californian Bill, 55. “My ex and I had experienced a breach of trust; I wasn’t interested in starting up something new. But sometimes you get tired of being lonely and think, ‘Well, maybe we could just hang out — I don’t have to get emotionally involved.’ I met a woman and told her all of this, and she still wanted to spend time with me anyway. It was refreshing to be able to be so open about where we both were in our lives and not have to feel bad about being skeptical and reserved at first. I responded well to the honest communication we shared. We’ve been together for three years now — happily, I might add! Neither of us feels the need to put a label on our relationship, but there’s love between us. It’s definitely turned into more than just a ‘friends-having-fun’ thing now.”
5. “He wasn’t the type of man who fit all the ‘must-haves’ I’d had on my dating checklist, but he’s just what I need in a partner”
“I’d planned on marrying my college sweetheart,” says North Carolinian Jenny, 34. “He was from a similar background as my own and we looked like the perfect couple together. But I guess fate had other plans, because he broke off our engagement three months before the wedding. When I was out with some girlfriends a few months later, one of the guys I’d known since high school asked me out on a date. I told him: ‘No, but we could be friends.’ He wasn’t what I’d had on my list of must-haves in a partner at all. He wasn’t the smooth, successful professional type, but I liked his personality, and there was definitely some attraction between us. After hanging out together a few times, the electricity got to us one night, and he stayed over at my place. I really liked him, but I wasn’t sure if this would work out for a few months. Now, we’ve grown pretty attached to each other. He wasn’t the kind of guy I’d have had on my list of potential mates back then, but he is now. Being friends who saw each other casually at first allowed me to spend some time with him and realize the old dating checklist wasn’t so important.”
6. “We met when I was burned out from looking for The One, but after a year of keeping things casual, his patience paid off”
“I was really intense about dating once I turned 30,” says Virginian Todd, 33. “I wanted to stop messing around and find The One before it was too late. My pressure was totally self-inflicted, but it was real. Guys who’d pull the bait-and-switch on dates disappointed me constantly. They’d say they wanted something serious, but then turned into flakes or phonies — or, I don’t know, just not right person for me, I guess. It was when I decided to stop partner-shopping so hard that I finally met Andrew. By then I was too burned out from looking for Mr. Right, and told him I was up for trying something more casual. I look back at that now as my overly protective way of safely sticking a toe back into the dating pool. We were just buddies who hooked up for months at first, but after a year, it became clear that neither of us was going anywhere.”