Despite having come a long way in acknowledging sexuality as a healthy and normal part of being human, we’re still very much confused about the distinctions and the intersections between sex and love. For those who want to have (at least somewhat) casual sex that doesn’t feel achingly impersonal, we’ve stumbled awkwardly on the model of “friends with benefits,” a non-committed sexual arrangement between two friends. The problem is that more often than not, friends with benefits is emotionally confusing and creates a zero-sum power dynamic wherein whoever cares more loses. This is despite the fact that if two people enjoy each other’s company, have an emotional connection, are attracted to each other, and are having regular sex, it’s not an outlandish notion that some romantic feelings might start to develop.
Perhaps there is a healthier and more viable model for regular and enjoyable sex without the commitment. It’s what I like to refer to as a “romantic friendship:” a casual romantic relationship built on a foundation of friendship. I’ve maneuvered a number romantic friendships in my dating tenure, and I’m happy to say that I’ve successfully remained platonic friends with each of them. Here’s how to pull it off.
Get on the same page about expectations.
Clarity is the glue that holds a romantic friendship together. Both people need to agree that for one reason or another, a committed romantic relationship is not currently a priority but that they will treat each other with respect and consideration.
“The key here is communication,” says relationship coach Andre Arellanoa. “In order to have a healthy casual relationship, you have to be clear as to what your intentions are. Speak about what you want to get out of this relationship, and be honest about it.”
Maybe you’re focused on saving up money to buy a taco truck. Maybe one or both of you have just gotten out of a relationship. Maybe you just don’t see it working out in the long run because you’re astrologically incompatible. Whatever the reasons may be, make sure there’s a mutual understanding that this is a low-investment relationship in terms of priority, amount of contact between seeing each other, and availability.
“One thing to remember in managing relationships is managing time,” says online dating coach Max Alley. “I wouldn’t worry too much about ‘catching feels’ as long as you’ve both communicated about how much time you have to spend with each other. By talking about these things, you allow room for your emotional relationship to develop.”
Don’t set rules around feelings.
Unlike the friends-with-benefits model, a romantic friendship leaves room for expressing and developing feelings. Relationships vary in intensity, and this one may have a low level of emotional intensity proportional to the low level of commitment, but some courtship and sparkle are still in play. A little post-coital pillow talk should not be off the table, and the occasional googly-eyed compliment need not send anyone running for the hills.
“Even if I’m not in a place to commit to something serious with someone I’m sleeping with, I still enjoy some thoughtful gestures like bringing me food or texting me good luck on a presentation,” says Al, 23. “It makes me feel more comfortable with them and like they actually care about me for who I am.”
If you’re having regular sex with someone, it’s natural for you to feel some tenderness toward them, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Setting boundaries and expectations upfront creates a structure that allows space to enjoy the emotional connection without someone freaking out that the other person wants more.
Be prepared for the relationship to change.
Priorities, interest level, and feelings can change in any relationship. In a causal relationship, they may change just as casually. If and when that happens, it is your responsibility to be honest both with yourself and your romantic friend.
“I started hooking up with a friend, and we had a great time for a few months,” says Nikki, 25. “After a while she let me know that she was starting to have feelings for me but didn’t think we’d get along as a couple, so she wanted to go back to just being friends. I was bummed for a couple of weeks but I think she was right, and at the end of the day our friendship was more important.”
Whether you’ve had a change of heart and want to nix the romantic part of your romantic friendship, want to press pause on the relationship while you explore another connection with someone else, or find yourself wanting to spend more time with your romantic friend than you initially expressed, the beauty of a romantic friendship is that it is, by definition, flexible.
The arrangement is only mutually beneficial so long as both people are on the same page, and either person is well within their rights to turn the page at any point. Appreciate the relationship for what it is while it lasts, and stay open to the possibility of a plot twist.