Friends With Penalties

December 3, 2012

Dear Susan,

I have been hooking up with a guy consistently for four months. It started out that we both wanted a friends-with-benefits situation, and we would basically hang out, do homework, etc., and of course hook up, but that was it. He made it very clear to me that he wasn’t into me further than a physical relationship and that he was on a break with his gf, so he still had feelings for her. I didn’t really have them for him either, though. I just thought he was attractive and fun, so perfect hookup material.

Throughout these four months, I helped him deal with his gf calling things quits and I have been tutoring him in school, and we have become overall closer friends. He even told me that I am his best girl friend and that he trusts me more than any other girl he knows.

Recently he has started acting really sweet to me and like he wants something more:

  • He gets really upset when I need to leave him and always finds excuses to spend more time with me. 
  • He also has started wanting to go out on what I would usually consider to be “dates”, and he pays for me. 
  • He has been calling me beautiful and gorgeous a lot and he gives me random unexpected compliments much more often. 
  • The other day I awoke from a nap we were taking and he was holding me in his arms and just watching me sleep. 
  • He even mentioned that his mom (yes, I met his parents, but in a “just-friends” situation) thinks I am really pretty and that I seem like quite a catch, and he regards his parent’s opinions very highly. 
  • He also always makes comments about how he could see us being married in the future, but he does it in a joking way of course. 
  • He even wants to do more couple-ish things together, like cook and learn more about each other’s lives. 

Basically, I feel like these are all signs of him falling for me as more than a FWB, but am I just fooling myself? Could he just be doing this because he is single and bored/lonely? Even though he pays for me now, he has never said anything about it being a “date”, and he has never tried to hold my hand or kiss me in public.

I just don’t get why he is trying to be so much more involved with me if he knows he could still hook up with me without putting in the time and monetary investment. So I am pretty much just confused about whether he actually is developing feelings for me or if I am just getting my hopes up for no reason.  


Hopeful But Confused


Dear Hopeful,

What jumps out at me immediately from your letter is the fact that you obviously have strong feelings for this guy and hope that the two of you can become a couple. I wonder why you ever thought that “attractive and fun” was perfect hookup material, rather than relationship material? You say that you just were looking for a FWB, but I don’t understand what the benefits of that arrangement were. If you really weren’t interested in a relationship, you wouldn’t have developed feelings for him, right? But it sounds like you fell for him anyway, which is what usually happens in FWB – someone catches feelings. Sometimes both people do, but it’s much more common for one person to get hurt. 

I agree with your perception that his recent actions appear to signal increased interest in spending time together, and a more emotionally intimate relationship. It may well be that he does like you and wants to make something work. There are several things I think you need to be concerned about:

  • Is he truly over his ex?
  • I share your worry that he is lonely and adrift right now, enjoying your company. Is he just biding his time with his great FWB until he falls for someone new, or is he trying to make this something more?
  • He has relied on you for support, both emotional and academic. Does he feel that he owes you in some way? Can it be that he has picked up on your feelings for him, and is responding in a way that pleases you? 

One of the most common mistakes women make is that they read too much into the time they spend with a guy. A guy can spend a whole weekend with you, cook meals together, laugh together, be passionate – do all the things that feel like being in love to a woman – and have absolutely zero emotional investment. If he is in a “no relationship” mindset, or views you as FWB material only, he can enjoy your company and the sex without any worries that you might get hurt, because these are the terms you both agreed to.

It’s time to stop guessing and ask him directly. You don’t need to make a big confrontation out of it, you could just say something like, “You’ve really been acting different lately, what’s up?” to get the conversation going. Because you like him, you need to find out asap whether the feeling is mutual. If not, you need to get out right away. 

There’s an article in The Atlantic today about a new study of FWB relationships, Romance Trumps Friends with Benefits. (H/T: Stuart Schneiderman). Researchers from Harvard, Syracuse and Purdue conducted an online survey of college females, half in FWB and half in traditional romantic relationships. Their findings:

 Friends with BenefitsTraditional Romantic
Total # sexual partners6.41.9
Frequency of sexLowerHigher
Non-sexual time spentLessMore
Satisfaction with relationshipLowerHigher
Comfort expressing needs and desiresLower Higher 
Comfort setting relationship boundaries     Lower Higher 
Discussion of other sexual partnersHigherLower
Condom useHigher Lower 


I don’t find most of these findings surprising, but am particularly struck by the difference in sexual history between women in FWBs and women who are dating. This suggests, at least to me, that the casual, no-strings nature of a friends with benefits arrangement leads to faster dissolution of those relationships and increased likelihood of entering additional casual relationships, leading to partner counts for women more than triple the women in relationships.

If you were cut out for casual it wouldn’t matter, but you are not satisfied, you want a traditional, romantic relationship. So why don’t you get one? If not with this guy, with some other guy. As long as “attractive and fun” doesn’t mean “unavailable,” there are many other guys out there. 

Like so many women who try to do the FWB thing, you’ve found that it doesn’t really work. We are not meant to relate to other human beings in a strictly sexual way. We want emotional intimacy. I recommend that you not settle for anything less in future.

Hope this helps,