Q.I’m in my last year of college. I had a boyfriend in high school, but we didn’t have sex, although we did do sexual things. My roommate at school and most of my friends are sexually active. I thought I wanted to wait for the right person, but then I decided that was stupid. I wasn’t drunk or forced or anything like that. I actually talked about it openly with a good male friend. We decided to be friends with benefits. From the start, I was comfortable with him and what we were doing. We were always careful to use protection. It’s been about 18 months, off and on, not dating, just connecting when we felt like it. We set firm rules – this would be casual. Here’s the problem. All of a sudden, he’s all into me, in a different way. He wants to hang out more. He’s obviously emotionally connected to me. He hasn’t said the L word, but I know he wants to. I thought guys were supposed to be less emotional about sex. I guess not. Here I am, now, with a wonderful friend who I may lose because I don’t love him. How do I tell him I don’t without breaking his heart? How can I remain his friend? When you said we could always ask you questions back in middle/high school, I never thought I’d be asking when I was an adult! Thanks for being there.
Mary Jo’s response
Asking questions is healthy and not connected to a person’s age. I’m happy to hear from you. People are complicated; sex is complicated. Friends with benefits is especially complicated.
The stereotype claiming men are less affected by sex is incorrect. While studies reveal more men may participate in casual sexual experiences, research shows there aren’t significant differences in the emotional well-being of men and women after casual sex. It appears each person reacts differently, in both positive and negative ways.
Friends with benefits adds another dimension. The sex occurs on the foundation of a friendship. Friendship takes time to develop. Friends typically trust one another and create a shared history of experiences, compatibility and mutual interests. Adding sex to the mix may seem easy, since trust is already established. Problems can still arise.
In my opinion, calling a relationship “friends with benefits” labels it, making it appear casual and safe, with no strings attached. Over a long time, and 18 months is long, relationships may deepen beyond physical contact. Increased intimacy can make things tricky. If you enjoy a successful connection with another person who cares about you as a friend, you have a mutual investment in each other’s well-being. Even when strong guidelines are established, people change. Each person is different. It’s possible for one partner to move beyond friendship into love. In other words, what you’re experiencing isn’t atypical. It happens.
Communication is the best way forward. Share your feelings. Gently discuss how much he means to you. Be honest about your emotions. Love is almost impossible to explain in words, although many try to quantify it. If a person feels they are in love, they are. Love isn’t enough to create a healthy relationship, however. Your friend needs to share his feelings, as well. Be open, kind and empathetic.
Remaining friends will involve some difficult conversations. It may only be possible if sex is removed from the relationship. If this friend matters to you, I think it’s worth a try. Good luck.
Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email email@example.com.