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Getting Stuck as Just Friends or as Friends With Benefits

Gender differences in short-term hookup and long-term commitment motivations.

Key points

  • Getting stuck as just friends or as friends with benefits may result from a mismatch in short-term or long-term mate standards.
  • This can happen in opposite-sex interactions because men tend to lower their standards for short-term flings, whereas women keep them higher.
  • Being stuck as "just friends" may result from not meeting the short-term sexual partner criteria of a desired friend (especially for men).

There are both practical and emotional desires in romantic relationships. In mutually satisfying relationships, those desires match between partners. When one person's sexual motivations or readiness for commitment do not match with a partner, however, they often get stuck in the "friend-zone" as just friends or as friends-with-benefits.

Thus, we are left with the question of explaining why these mismatches happen. Specifically, what dynamics of picking a partner, or developing a relationship with them, results in someone getting stuck as just friends or friends-with-benefits? Also, given the gender differences in motivations for opposite-sex friendships, do men and women have different considerations when deciding on an uncommitted fling or a committed relationship too? As usual, the social science research provides answers.

Research on Long- and Short-Term Mate Standards

Csajbók and Berkics (2017) asked participants to rate their ideal long-term partner, ideal short-term partner, current partner, and their own self on 63 traits. Those ratings fell within seven general categories: warmth, stability, physical appearance, passion, status, intellect, and dominance. Further analyses on those categories revealed that participants evaluated long-term and short-term partners differently. Specifically, when considering long-term partners, participants looked more carefully for warmth, stability, and status. In contrast, participants assessed short-term partners more fully with regard to their physical appearance and passion.

Gender differences in long-term and short-term preferences were also noted. A larger percentage of male participants (42%) than female participants (25%) were interested in short-term mating. Also, males had lower standards for a short-term mate than females, especially regarding warmth, stability, status, intellect, and dominance. In contrast, when considering short-term mates, female participants actually raised their standards more than males for physical attractiveness and passion. Thus, whereas males tended to generally lower their standards for a hookup or friend-with-benefits, females tended to keep their standards higher.

Csajbók and Berkics (2017) further reviewed the self-ratings of participants and the assessments of their actual partners. When considering their own mate value, participants focused on their physical appearance, passion, and dominance. In contrast, when evaluating their partners, participants placed more emphasis on warmth, stability, and intellect. Thus, participants tended to evaluate their own mate value in terms of short-term sexiness, but judged actual partners more in terms of long-term compatibility.

Earlier research by Kenrick, Groth, Trost, and Sadalla (1993) also showed that females generally held higher overall standards for a mate. This was largely due to the fact that male participants looking for short-term sex without commitment were more likely to settle for partners who were lower in emotional stability, agreeableness, and intelligence. Thus, male participants had the lowest mate standards when considering a one-night stand. Those standards increased with the commitment required (sexual relations, then steady dating), until they were about equal with female requirements for a marriage partner.

Understanding Just Friends and Friends With Benefits

Given those results, we can begin to see why some individuals may end up just friends and others might get stuck as friends with benefits (especially in male-female interactions). As noted above, females often have higher standards and they are even more selective when considering uncommitted sexual interactions. Males, however, may lower their standards for a hookup or friends-with-benefits instead. Therefore, especially in opposite-sex friendships, the male friend may be more likely to want sex (i.e., "benefits") because, generally, his standards for a fling will be lower. Nevertheless, he may not meet his female friend's criteria for sex in return. In fact, regardless of gender, being labeled as "just friends" may result from not quite meeting the short-term sexual criteria of a sexually desired friend (especially with regard to physical appearance and passion).

Nevertheless, females (and anyone with higher short-term standards) face their own challenges too. First, they have to deal with unwanted sexual interest from friends. Second, they also have the temptation of "just hooking up" with rare acquaintances who meet their high short-term standards for physical appearance and passion. When they do hook up, however, females particularly may find male friends-with-benefits less interested in a committed relationship with them. This is because, as noted above, males more often lower their standards for uncommitted sex. Given that, a female short-term lover may be less likely to meet his higher long-term partner requirements than he is to meet her long-term requirements—keeping her stuck in a short-term and uncommitted situation. Thus, getting stuck as friends with benefits may result from not quite meeting the long-term commitment requirements of a current short-term sexual partner (especially with regard to warmth, stability, and intelligence).

Overall then, in both situations, a difference in mate standards leads to a mismatch in practical expectations and emotions within the relationship. Put simply, we are talking about imbalances with desire and liking. With regard to just friends, a difference in short-term mate standards between two people causes a disparity in their passion and desire for each other. With regard to friends-with-benefits, a discrepancy in long-term mate standards between two people results in a dissimilarity in how much they like and are willing to commit to each other.

Overall, this is why dating and courtship processes often increase sexual intimacy and commitment together, step-by-step, especially in more traditional structures. Those structured approaches help to match long-term and short-term standards between partners (especially between women and men). That way, everyone is less likely to feel led on, cheated, or used—and more likely to find a compatible partner. Therefore, unless you want a hookup without commitment or a non-sexual friendship, you might be better off increasing the level of sexual intimacy and commitment with a partner together, step by step, at the same time. That way, you can better avoid getting stuck in unsatisfying situations in the future, too.

© 2021 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Csajbók, Z., & Berkics, M. (2017). Factor, factor, on the whole, who's the best fitting of all?: Factors of mate preferences in a large sample. Personality and Individual Differences, 114, 92-102.

Kenrick, D. T., Groth, G. E., Trost, M. R., & Sadalla, E. K. (1993). Integrating evolutionary and social exchange perspectives on relationships: Effects of gender, self-appraisal, and involvement level on mate selection criteria. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(6), 951-969.

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