How exactly does "friends with benefits" work?

Philip
asks:
I have been looking for some information on what and how friends with benefits works. I am straight, does it only mean casual intercourse or can it be just things like “spooning” and holding hands? I am thinking of asking a very close friend if they want to be friends with benefits. But I am only comfortable with just cuddling or holding hands, maybe more but only if we both feel ready. How do I ask them? Do I need to specify what activities I feel comfortable with, or is that something that’s implied? I don’t want them to feel like I want to have sex when I just want to hold hands. Also, how do I know if it’s right to ask? We have mentioned the topic before but it was in the context of other people.
Mo Ranyart replies:

Just like with any kind of relationship, there's no way that a FWB setup looks for everyone who chooses one. The short answer is that being friends with benefits is whatever the people involved agree that it should be, so you'll have to ask your potential partner some questions and share your own feelings before you get anything started.

First off, "friends with benefits" is a term that encompasses a range of relationship styles, but it's commonly used for a situation in which friends add a sexual or physically intimate component to their relationship while keeping the friendship explicitly non-romantic. It can happen between acquaintences or close friends, be a monogamous relationship or one in which either party could have other sexual partners, and it can include a lot of emotional intimacy or very little. In other words, it's much like other sexual relationships in that there aren't any official or universal rules for how it should be structured.

I'll say, too, that plenty of people who would be happy to be sexual with their friends dislike the "friends with benefits" term, as it sets up the odd assumption that nonsexual friendships don't provide benefits, or that sex is the ultimate "benefit" of a certain kind of friendship. You may find that some folks are much more open to the idea of physical intimacy with their friends than to explicitly calling that a "friends with benefits" situation!

As far as how to approach the idea with your friend, I think the best thing to do is to be direct. Explain what it is that you want as clearly as possible, then ask your friend how they feel about what you've told them. It's good to be specific, here; if your friend thinks of "friends with benefits" as a dynamic that's usually sexual, they may assume you're looking for sex when it sounds like you're more interested in hand-holding and cuddling at the moment.

As I said above, "friends with benefits" is a vague term that encompasses a lot of different relationship types, so it may be better to avoid the term altogether and stick to describing the specifics of what you're looking for. Asking, "How would you feel about holding hands sometimes, or snuggling up when we watch a movie together?" conveys a much clearer request than, "Are you interested in becoming friends with benefits?" does.

You ask how to know if it's right to ask. That's harder to answer. If you're close friends with someone, and you've discussed topics that are related to sexuality or physical intimacy before, then I think asking if they're interested in physical intimacy with you is all right to do. If you know your friend has a hard time saying no or is conflict-avoidant, you may want to take extra care in making sure they know you aren't trying to push them into anything they don't want or don't feel ready for, but in general I think most solid friendships can handle a slightly awkward conversation if one person is interested in shifting the relationship in a certain direction while the other is not. Since you've discussed friends with benefits with your friend in a general sense, it sounds like it wouldn't be out of line to ask about adding a physical component to your own friendship.

In closing, I want to remind you that while you may hear people talking about a friends with benefits arrangement as a way to have sex "without a relationship," that's just not a healthy way to approach things. A friendship is a relationship, after all, whether those friends are physically intimate or not. Being sexual with someone in any kind of ongoing way is also a relationship. There are as many kinds of intimate relationships as there are relationships. There's no one blueprint that everyone uses to figure out how things will work. Some of our articles on building and communicating about relationships may be helpful to you; I've added a few links below.

Good luck; I hope that whatever the outcome may be, you're able to have a positive conversation with your friend.

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