A few days ago, I watched the mid-2000s rom com “Friends with Benefits” with Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, and I have a bone to pick with it.
First off, as I’m pursuing a career in psychology, I’m finding I can’t enjoy movies or shows the way I used to. Instead of indulging in escapism like a normal person, I end up psychoanalyzing the characters. I usually decide they’re not that interesting, they’re just in desperate need of therapy.
I have never seen two people, real or fictional, more in need of a shrink than the absolute train wrecks that were Timberlake and Kunis’ characters.
The two main characters are marginally successful opposite ends of the non-committal spectrum. They meet in New York, instantly hit it off and become incredibly close friends all in the span of like six months. Then one night when watching a rom com — because friends just do that together — they decide to have sex because they’re both single and horny. The rule is that they have to promise each other that it is just sex and no emotions or committment will be involved.
Obviously the movie ends with both of them realizing their love for each other through convoluted and painfully infantile confrontations. They live happily ever after, complete with a flash mob at Grand Central Station and “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train playing as their outro.
I’m not gonna lie; I cried a little at the end, but that has more to do with my menstrual cycle than the quality of the film.
I love a trashy rom com that sets unrealistic expectations as much as the next gal, but as someone whose first consistent sexual experience was an eight-month-long friends with benefits situation, I can tell you it isn’t all it's cracked up to be.
In my experience, friends with benefits is like getting served Diet Coke when you ordered a stiff Jack and Coke with ice and a lemon wedge. You know you deserve better than the Diet Coke, but the waiter insists that’s what you ordered. But you’re Midwestern and non-confrontational, so you take the Diet Coke and hope that maybe the waiter will realize the mistake and bring you the chilled Jack and Coke. In the end, he never does, and you’re stuck with a warm can of Diet Coke and vague disappointment.
According to the sage advice of Cosmopolitan and anecdotal experience, nine times out of 10, friends with benefits never works out for either party. You sleep together a few times and then all of the sudden hanging out feels like a date. Soon enough, one person catches feelings and the other isn’t able to handle that. You try to ignore the feelings — or worse, you think the other person will break down and fall in love too, but that never happens. Eventually, things get weird, thus resulting in the expiration of the tryst and the friendship altogether.
The logic makes sense if you think about it. Relationships and the feelings of yearning that prelude one are built off of familiarity and moments of intimacy that go beyond canoodling in a dormitory bed.
In psychology there’s this idea called the proximity effect. It describes the tendency humans have to be attracted to things and people that are familiar to them. It’s the same reason why first dates always feel like charging into battle on the frontlines armed with a toothpick. The person you're on a date with tends to be unfamiliar, and that scares our caveman brains.
So if you have a friend you already are platonically compatible with, you’re familiar with and now you’re exclusively having sex with each other for “safety reasons,” of course your caveman brain is going to convince you that you’re perfect for each other due to the proximity effect. That’s what leads to the messiness that often accompanies a friends with benefits arrangement.
It’s well known that friends with benefits never turn out incredibly well, but I do think there can be a utility to engaging in this kind of emotional recklessness for the sake of experience.
I think every 20-something-year-old should experience friends with benefits at least once in their lives. Not because we’re gluttons for punishment, but more so because it tends to help you realize if you are actually ready for a committed relationship with someone who is emotionally available, or you just really really need therapy. For me it was a two-for-one special.
If you are brave enough to go through with a friends with benefits situation, there are a couple of tips and tricks that help minimize the messiness.
Always communicate with your partner. Make boundaries exceptionally clear. If you don’t want a relationship, don’t do anything that would lead anyone to believe that a relationship is possible. Don’t sleep over, cuddle or engage in pillow talk. Honestly, don’t hang out outside of the context of coitus. Keep everything separate and clear. Above all, maintain a stacked roster of other possible partners.
If you’re talking to multiple people, you're less likely to hyperfixate on your friend with benefits and fall into the nasty trap of sentimentality. Play it smart and when you feel like it’s time to stop and go back to “just friends,” communicate that clearly and with any luck the friendship might even remain intact.
It’s pretty clear that life is, in fact, not a rom com movie. Prince Charming isn’t coming to sweep you off your feet and friends with benefits don’t just miraculously fall in love.