Healthy Living

'Friends With Benefits' Actually Benefits No One: Communication Breakdown Leads To Relationship Failure

Couple talking and drinking coffee
The secret to why a no strings attached relationship will never work lies in what you don’t say. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Unless you’re Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis in Friends With Benefits, or Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached, a friends with benefits relationship (FWBR) is a really bad idea — and comes without the rom-com ending. As we continue to evolve into a culture that embraces ambiguity, which comes from our fear of using labels, our inability to see things black-and-white and settling for shades of gray can influence our intimate relationships. According to a recent study published in the journal Emerging Adulthood, FWBRs are destined for failure because of communication breakdown.

A no strings attached relationship may seem like a good idea in theory when a) you’re physically attracted to someone, b) want to fool around in the bedroom, and c) want to hang out outside but not call it romantic to prevent things from getting messy. However, no matter how much you try to keep things strictly business, FWBRs turn into an “it’s complicated” situation. Kendra Knight, study author and a communications professor at DePaul University, wondered why relational talk, if valued, should be so difficult to enact in FWBRs.

Past research has shown FWBRs tend to work best with ample communication. Those who have participated in these attachments say communication is what actually helps them function successfully. A study published in the Journal of Sex Research found possible ramifications for FWBR include: lack of communication about the relationship (leading to confusion and insecurity), heightened conflict, an increase of negative feelings toward each other, lower sexual satisfaction, and lower overall relationship satisfaction when compared to adults who are not in FWBRs. Relational communication, or communication about the nature of the relationship, expectations, and appropriate behavior, is necessary to successfully execute FWBRs, but this is seldom practiced.

Knight’s current study assessed the relational dynamics that pose challenges when it comes to relational talk in adults’ FWBRs in a small cohort of college students. A total of 25 students were recruited for the study and were asked about their experiences with FWBRs. The study utilized qualitative, not quantitative, data to develop a sense of college students’ experiences in these relationships.

The findings revealed four themes emerged in regard to the communicative challenges experienced in FWBRs across participants’ accounts. The themes included: a) relational talk as (problematic) relational work, b) relational talk as stigmatizing/face threatening, c) expression of negative emotion as transgressive, and d) suppression of relational talk as a maintenance strategy. This suggests FWBRs tend to run smoothly when both partners are on the same page about the relationship.

Not enough people in FWBRs are actually having these conversations due to a fear of coming off as “clingy” or “unstable,” or emotional, which some interview subjects believe defeats the purpose of what a FWBR is in the first place. One interview subject said she wanted to kind of protect herself, "[so] that if it did really go wrong then at least no one could say anything more than 'oh they're just not hooking up anymore,’” according to NYMag. It all trickles down to the belief that it’s less fun “just hooking up with” when you’re worried they want to become either your boyfriend or girlfriend.

Ironically, the same reason these people get into FWBRs is what is needed to make these relationships successful. Typically, two people may engage in FWBRs to avoid the communication and emotion associated with intimate relationships, but it is this very communication in which FWBRs thrive off of. The functionality of FWBRs is a tricky paradox.

FWBRs actually reap no benefit for both partners without communication, and if no one is willing to communicate, the relationship is set up for failure. Whether it’s a budding romance or exes who just hook up with exes, FWBRs are just all about dirty deeds done dirt cheap.

Sources: Knight K. Communicative Dilemmas in Emerging Adults’ Friends With Benefits Relationships: Challenges to Relational Talk. Emerging Adulthood. 2014.

Kelly JR, Lehmiller JJ, Vanderdrift LE. Sexual communication, satisfaction, and condom use behavior in friends with benefits and romantic partners. Journal of Sex Research. 2014.

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