- Modern stories give the impression that people simply hookup, have sex for awhile, and then just "slide" into a long-term relationship.
- Research results contrast the modern fairytale, however, showing only 15% of friends-with-benefits lead to a committed long-term relationship.
- A relationship doesn't just happen spontaneously, especially after sex—it takes dating and communicating in the right way to get there.
One look at modern media gives the impression that society has thrown out the step-by-step approach to dating altogether. Instead, it seems to suggest that people simply hook up, have sex, and then somehow mysteriously "slide" into a long-term relationship. Nevertheless, many people find hooking up unpleasant. Others end up stuck as friends-with-benefits, unable to get the long-term romantic commitment they desire. Clearly then, uncommitted sex does not always lead to the "happily ever after" that television and movies suggest. The question, however, is why?
Research on Friends-with-Benefits
Those outcomes were explored in a year-long study of uncommitted, friends-with-benefits situations by Machia, Proulx, Ioerger, and Lehmiller (2020). Their results showed a low likelihood of such uncommitted sexual arrangements ending up in a committed relationship. In fact, during the course of that study, only 15 percent of friends-with-benefits relationships transitioned into committed, long-term relationships. The rest either stayed as friends-with-benefits (26 percent), ended up as just friends (28 percent), or had no interaction of any kind anymore (31 percent). Put simply, only 1.5 of every 10 "friends" ended up in a relationship with each other—not good odds.
Looking deeper, the researchers found that the friends-with-benefits who did transition into a relationship communicated more about their expectations for a relationship and commitment in the future. In other words, they talked about working toward a relationship with each other before having sex, rather than just hooking up and hoping for something to spontaneously happen. In contrast, other individuals looking for a long-term relationship did not discuss their desires for commitment before sharing "benefits" with each other. Those individuals were often disappointed when that interaction did not effortlessly grow into a monogamous commitment later on. Put simply, couples who didn't at least talk about moving toward a relationship before having sex had little to no chance of having their interaction lead to a relationship after having sex.
Why Goals and Communication Matter
Although the media does not seem to discuss it much, the truth is that everyone does not date or mate the same way. Particularly, we humans tend to adopt one of two different strategies, known as "Sociosexual Orientations" (Simpson & Gangestad, 1991), which influence our behaviors, attitudes, and desires related to sex and relationships (Penke & Asendorpf, 2008). On one hand, individuals with a "Restricted Orientation" (long-term strategy) tend to have a low number of historical sex partners, require love and commitment before having sex, and desire long-term and committed relationships. In contrast, those with an "Unrestricted Orientation" (short-term strategy) tend to have a larger number of sex partners which generally come from short-term relationships (e.g., hookups, flings, and friends-with-benefits). That is why some people may enjoy flings or friends-with-benefits with an uncommitted partner (unrestricted) while other people definitely do not (restricted).
Furthermore, sociosexuality appears to have a biological and genetic component (Bailey, Kirk, Zhu, Dunne, & Martin, 2000). Thus, individuals are likely born with an orientation toward being restricted or unrestricted. Therefore, it is important to know your orientation and be honest with yourself about it, because following a dating strategy that does not fit with your orientation can make you miserable. It's important to share your orientation with a partner, to ensure that they are motivated in the same way, and that you are both working toward the same type of relationship.
Dating Right for You
Since sociosexuality appears to have a biological and genetic component (Bailey, Kirk, Zhu, Dunne, & Martin, 2000), individuals are likely born with an orientation toward being restricted or unrestricted. Therefore, it is important to know your orientation and be honest with yourself about it because following a dating strategy that does not fit with your orientation can make you miserable.
Given all that, to have the kind of relationship outcomes you want it is essential to identify your own sociosexual orientation and mating strategy—especially with regard to your relationship goals and motivations for having sex. This is necessary because how you date, interact, and communicate with a partner will determine the type of relationship you get at the end with them. For example, how you flirt will make a difference in whom you attract because flirting styles tend to differ for those seeking a committed relationship versus a hookup. Even the topics you choose for conversation with someone can lead to either long-term plans or one-night stands.
Ultimately though, the biggest dating difference is that individuals with a restricted orientation tend to focus on finding positive long-term characteristics in a partner in order to build a long-term and committed relationship with them. Therefore, if you have a restricted orientation, it may help to focus on finding a partner who is willing to commit and establishing a committed, monogamous relationship with them. Ideally (and historically) that monogamous commitment comes before sharing "benefits" with them as well, or, at least, getting their agreement on moving toward a commitment happens before getting physically intimate. That way, by following your orientation, defining the relationship ahead of time, and finding a similarly restricted/long-term oriented partner, you can better maximize the likelihood of getting the "happily ever after" relationship you desire.
In contrast, however, if you are unrestricted, then you might simply enjoy hooking up. You have a better chance (26 percent) of staying as uncommitted friends-with-benefits with a partner for a while anyway. Just be sure that you are okay with the fact that your current partner may not be the same as your future partner.
© 2022 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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Bailey, J. M., Kirk, K. M., Zhu, G., Dunne, M. P., & Martin, N. G. (2000). Do individual differences in sociosexuality represent genetic or environmentally contingent strategies? Evidence from the Australian twin registry. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(3), 537–545. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997
Machia, L. V., Proulx, M. L., Ioerger, M., & Lehmiller, J. J. (2020). A longitudinal study of friends with benefits relationships. Personal Relationships, 27(1), 47-60. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12307
Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2008). Beyond global sociosexual orientations: A more differentiated look at sociosexuality and its effects on courtship and romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1113–1135. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.523
Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1991). Individual differences in sociosexuality: Evidence for convergent and discriminant validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(6), 870–883. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.2060