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A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

A new relationship being embraced across the age and gender spectrum is testing social norms.

Story Deirdre Macken

Highlighted Quote from Pamela Supple - Sex & Relationship Therapist - Sex Therapy Australia

If the television series Friends publicised a generation that invested more in their friends than family, then Ten Network's new show, “Friends With Benefits”, portrays relationships that far exceed traditional expectations.

The show about a group of twenty somethings, their love lives and complicated "friendships" captures a 21st century phenomenon - a friendship that also involves sex.

 The expression "friends with benefits" began filtering out of colleges and schools only five years ago but it is now the title of a 2011 TV series, a coming movie (with Justin Timberlake) and, more importantly, it's the way people are describing their own arrangements.

During the week, the RSVP dating site released a survey showing that 36 per cent of women and 30 per cent of men had had friends with benefits. And it's not just college students enjoying the perks but singles in their 30s.

RSVP's Lija Jarvis says: "It's common among 35-plus-year-olds because they're at that age when they're becoming more realistic about relationships and what they're willing to accept. A lot are looking for a stopgap. But it doesn't stop there. Research from Americas National Survey of Sexual Health and Behaviour has found older people are also hooking up with friends.

For one in eight people over the age of 50, their most recent sexual encounter was with a friend - and this rate was only slightly less common than the friendly hook­ups among those younger than 30.

What began as a convenient arrangement for youth who were looking for the one true love, but willing to settle for a friend in the meantime, is now stretching the boundaries of friendships across the age spectrum.

Whether it outlasts its box-office appeal is another question.

"This is new territory for us," Anne Hollonds of Relationships Australia says.

"New relationship rules are being written and this will have an impact on what friendships mean and how these sort of relationships are negotiated."

Not surprisingly, the definition of FWB is still loose. At one end it might describe so-called f— buddies who make booty calls to each other when their night out disappoints, and at the other end it describes middle-aged companions who meet for coffee and sometimes for cuddles.

Mostly, it refers to an agreement between a couple who have broken up but agree to have sex with each other until they meet someone else. It also encompasses friends within a gang who find it convenient to have occasional sex and people who have started having sex with each other but don't expect the relationship to progress.

The trailer for the TV series put it bluntly - "when dating is hard, it's good to have friends that are easy**.

As these friendly hook-ups come under academic scrutiny, experts are divided about whether such agreements signal an erosion of intimacy, an expansion in the nature of friendships or the emergence of a new social relationship. Or all three.

Fluid is the word that sums up the ins and outs of modern friendships. Hollonds says: "It says a lot about the fluidity of relationships today. They are not categorised in silos and this is especially so for young people, who hang around in groups.

“There is often an aversion among them to going on a date or even describing something as a date. They're just-all friends-and whatever happens, happens."

Jarvis agrees it suits both young men and women when they are happily single and wanting to stay that way. "If you enjoy being single, it can be a fabulous relationship, especially for men," she says.

"But even for women it can suit them when they're not interested in having a long-term relationship.

"If you look at what our survey found about women's attitudes to sex, they are just as progressive as men. It's only when they're looking for a long-term partner that they are more traditional."

Although the practice was christened by college students, older age groups have found other reasons for welcoming the friend who occasionally stays for breakfast.
Jarvis says it's often an ideal relationship for single parents. "I've heard of many who say they want company but they don't want a relationship that will impinge on their children," she says.

For middle-aged people, especially those who find themselves divorced in their 50s and 60s, having an obliging friend suits their slightly jaded attitude to romance.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that older people are interested in this," Hollonds says.

"After all, it's a lot easier for an older person who is newly single to look up old friends before getting back into dating or to hook up with an existing friend."

The fact that middle-aged people are finding sexual solace with friends has been seen as both a retro grab for the free love of the 1960s and a mimicking of their children's easy lifestyles.

But others suspect it is a little more pragmatic. Hollonds says: "It might be about companionship and convenience and it might also reflect their attitudes about re-partnering.

"There have been surveys that show a reluctance of older people to re-partner. For men, it's mostly about protecting their assets, while for women, it's mainly about not wanting to look after someone again.”

Whether it’s romance with roommates or dalliances with cafe dates, these relationships seem safe-but are often full of risk. The feeling of safety comes from bedding people they know, as opposed to one-night stands with strangers.

This sense of security might also account for the fact that only one in four older people use condoms when they are having sex with new partners. Their blasé attitude to safe sex is a concern among health experts.

For most, however, it's not disease but emotional damage that poses the biggest risk.

Because these arrangements are fluid and have no social template, they don't come with recognised rules or protocols. What is mainly a friendship to one, might be more about benefits to the other and what started as a convenience for both can become complex if emotions get involved.

There is rarely an exit strategy. One of the few pieces of research about the expectations of FWB relationships was released by Colorado State University this year. The findings wouldn't surprise many people.

For the men in these relationships, sex was the most common motivation whereas for women the emotional connection was more important.

Men were more likely to hope the relationship stayed the same and women were more likely to say they wanted it to change into a romance or revert to a basic friendship. For both men and women, however, the friendship was more important than the sex.

Experts in Australia say that because there are no social rules for bedding buddies, people have to be more careful when they enter these agreements. Setting the rules, alone, is full of pitfalls. For some, the arrangements revolve around "booty calls" - late-night calls to see if their friend is interested, or "sexting', sending invitations to bed via text. For others, it's a regular date night but, for most, it's a loose understanding based around opportunities.

Sex therapist Pamela Supple says: "You have to make sure in the beginning what each person expects of it and you have to feel free to ask questions of each other.
"For instance, you might not want to ask a friend who else they're having sex with, but you have to ask those sort of questions if you’re having sex with them.”

Even though negotiating the rules of intimacy with friends is frontier territory, both Jarvis and Hollonds know people who have had arrangements with friends.
Jarvis encountered a woman who said she'd expected her relationship to last a few months but was still in it five years later.

For most people, however, it's a transitional relationship – its premise, after all, is that this is a fringe benefit rather than the whole package.

Certainly, the desire for friendly bonks seems suited for those at both ends of the romantic journey - those who don't yet want a long-term relationship and those who have sworn off commitment. It also suits those temporarily out of the commitment phase-single parents.

But it's too early to tell whether the FWB will evolve into a socially sanctioned relationship.

One study among Michigan State University students indicated there is no typical progression. It found that 60 per cent of students had experienced this sort of relationship.

Of those, 10 per cent went on to have a romantic relationship with their friend, 30 per cent remained friends with benefits and 36 per cent stayed friends but gave up the sex.

Those who are still getting their minds around a relationship that sounds like an employment contract will find some enlightenment next year when the television series and the movie are released. Both explore why these relationships arise, how negotiations are done and what happens when love intrudes on a convenient arrangement.

The arrival of the expression "friends with benefits" in movie trailers and TV guides will probably help cement the social acceptability of these relationships.

But although it has now come out of the dormitory and entered the conversation (and entered the financial media, no less) some doubt that we will be writing it on our business cards any time soon.

Hollonds says: "I don't think we'll be going along to parties introducing ourselves as a friend with benefits in my lifetime.”

from the “Weekend Australian Financial Review” - “A Friend in need is a friend indeed” - October 16-17 Issue 2010