The friends-with-benefits arrangement is a common one: Nearly 60% of respondents to a survey conducted by Zava, an online medical service, report having had a FWB. Yet at some point, these relationships usually end, leaving the participants to wonder what’s in store.
While it tends to be complicated, it’s certainly possible to drop the “with benefits” from “friends with benefits” and continue a relationship in a purely platonic manner. It just takes honesty, communication, and boundaries, says Alaina Winters, a professor of communication at Heartland Community College who teaches a course on sexual communication.
Be honest with yourself.
“A key to success in any relationship is the ability to be forthright and honest,” says Winters. “If one is not honest with oneself about what one wants, there is no way to be honest with someone else about it.”
This was something Rose*, 26, had to work through in her FWB relationship with Jake*, who she met at a bar not long after she broke up with her ex of five years. They started regularly hooking up and even traveled together a handful of times over the course of a few months. They were having also sex with only each other and hanging out a lot, which made things feel more serious than they were.
“I had a two-week trip to Europe planned. I wanted to go and enjoy myself, and I felt like my fake feelings of commitment to him were holding me back,” Rose explains. “I was restless and wanted to get to know and sleep with other people, so I thought the time had come [to break off the arrangement and just be friends].”
Conrad*, 28, found himself in the same boat. He became FWB with someone he met through Tinder but realized he wasn’t ready for anything more.
“I had just broken up with a long-term partner, so it was more of a rebound situation,” he says. “I enjoyed my FWB’s company, but after a few weeks, realized that I just wanted to be friends; I didn’t see him as someone I could be in a long-term relationship with. I had to prepare to tell him how I truly felt.”
Have a different kind of talk.
Transitioning from FWB to just friends “[happens] most seamlessly if there is a ‘relationship talk’ in which the participants outline and negotiate their relationship goals and terms, and come to a viable mutual understanding,” says Winters.
Clinical psychologist Rachael Polokoff, Ph.D. says it’s about being as kind and compassionate as possible while keeping your boundaries firm. “Communicate: ‘I don’t think it will work for us to be sexual in the future. If you’d like to remain friends, there will be no flirting, making out, or texting at 3 a.m.’” This is just an example — the terms are flexible depending on what each pair deems appropriate for them.
“If one is not honest with oneself about what one wants, there is no way to be honest with someone else about it.”
For Rose, the talk happened when she sat Jake down before she left for Europe. She told him that their dynamic was not working for her — that she didn’t feel like the relationship was romantic enough or what she was looking for long-term — and that they would be better off as just friends.
“He understood and told me he wasn’t the type to be a good boyfriend,” she says. “After I came back from Europe, very little changed. We related to each other exactly the same way; we just hung out less and didn’t have sex anymore, which has really led me to believe we were just better as friends to begin with.”
Conrad scheduled a time to talk to his FWB after a few weeks of hanging out, and he explained that while he wasn’t looking to continue down the road they were on, he genuinely wanted to remain friends.
“He was actually totally cool with it,” Conrad says. “We won’t be seeing each other a few times a week, like when we were hooking up, but we still plan on hanging out as friends. We even realized we have some mutual friends, so we talked about all hanging out together.”
Both Rose and Conrad happened to be on the same page as their former FWBs about making a friendship work. Of course, that’s not always the case.
“Allowing time for one person’s feelings and desires for the relationship to catch up to the other’s is necessary in all kinds of relationship change,” says Winters. “Recognizing and honoring that and treating each other with respect can help ease the transition and lay the foundation for friendship.”
In this situation, like most others, taking a break can be a great catalyst for change. It gives you much-needed time to become emotionally and sexually independent again, says Winters.
For Rose, distance — in her case, spending time out of the country — helped ease the temptation to be sexual with Jake.
Conrad also took a few weeks away from his FWB after they agreed to be just friends.
“We’ve since hung out in a group with our mutual friends once. It didn’t feel weird — we were distracted with other people and we had fun,” he says. “We’ve talked about hanging out in a group again in a few weeks or even meeting up one-on-one.”
Get outside parties off your back.
When mutual friends are involved — or if your former FWB was a coworker or student on campus who you can’t avoid — things can, of course, be messy.
Tina*, 25, had a FWB who happened to be in several of her college courses. After they transitioned to being just friends, there was an initial awkwardness.
“It didn’t help that we had mutual friends, and I saw him outside of class a lot too,” she says. “My friends would always nudge me and raise eyebrows when they saw him at the same campus bar.”
Tina chose to play it off like her friends’ gestures weren’t a big deal, saying hello to and chatting with her FWB-turned-friend when she saw him out. She started dating other people, and her friends eventually stopped teasing her.
“[Those around you] might question the honesty of the change, tease the people involved, and in some ways not allow the old relationship to be replaced by the new one,” says Winters. “It’s best if the pair present a united front about the nature of their relationship.”
When Conrad and his former FWB dropped the “with benefits,” they made it a point to announce the status change to their mutual friends who know about their relationship. They also made sure to follow through by publicly presenting a clearly platonic relationship.
Stay within your boundaries.
“Words and actions need to align for it to be a successful transition,” says Winters of going from FWB to just friends. “For example, you can’t say you are OK with transitioning to a friendship and then flirt with the other person whenever you see them.”
Polokoff, who has worked with several clients who were used to having a FWB call or text really late, believes it’s important to set new boundaries, however simple-seeming, when you transition to being just friends. “Making and receiving calls and texts during daytime hours is surprisingly helpful,” she says.
Rose and Jake stayed friends by doing this and setting additional guardrails. “We respect each other’s time and space, and we also don’t share a lot of details about the new people we’re seeing,” she says.
Winters, in her interpersonal communication course, defines a relationship as “a pattern of interaction between people.” A FWB-to-friends relationship, like any other, requires mutual respect and honoring of boundaries to thrive.
“If [the newfound friendship] is respectful and takes both parties’ needs and perspectives into account, then it’s probably a good one,” she says. “That’s what I would aim for.”
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.