The pros and cons of casual relationships
- Published: 13 February 2010
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Casual constellations can be comfortable for all parties involved: a quick booty call with some fun to follow. If both parties are looking for the same thing, mere sex, and both get what they want, so why not? Anya Weimann looks at pros and cons of the growing Friends with Benefits phenomenon.
Having just a ‘little sex’ between friends is not entirely tied to fiction. Facts and figures prove that casual relationships are not an exclusive on-screen practice performed by Carrie Bradshaw and her notorious SATC gang as more and more singletons seek casual sex in the city.
While Carrie and co are diving into dating ventures “purely for sex, with no strings attached,” the phenomenon of having a little fun with a friend is on the rise, replacing the traditional relationship-constellation of long-term commitment for each other.
In contrast to committed relationships, these casual relationships focus on sexual satisfaction rather than on the fulfilment of romantic or emotional needs. Also referred to as Friends with Benefits (FWB), this constellation means less chains, commitment and compromise, giving the ‘friends’ involved an outlet for their sexual adventures.
On a global scale, social trends show that the numbers of casual relationships are growing. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the popularity of promiscuous relationships is based on the fact that in the United States, Australia and a wide array of European countries young people tend to delay serious partnering to a later stage in life. Additionally, the recently released ABS Australian Social Trends 2009 confirm that more and more Australians between 18-34 postpone marriage, preferring to be “not in a couple relationship.”
For many, a part-time lover can be the alternative to an ever demanding life-style as many are too preoccupied with friends, getting an education and climbing the corporate ladder. According to John Aiken, psychologist and author of Accidentally Single - The 15 Mistakes that ruin Romance, this preference for casual, non-committed relationships is a natural consequence of “over the years developments in contraception, changing attitudes to casual sex, and the arrival of internet dating that gives people more options for casual fun non-committed relationships.”
“Roles, careers and opportunities have changed over time and there are now huge options for individuals that didn't exist before. This sees younger people tending to have more long-term goals that they prioritise over serious relationships,” Aiken adds.
In regards to the benefits, casual relationships consume a minimal amount of cash, emotion and time compared to a monogamous relationship. “One benefit of these casual relationships is that I feel comfortable amongst other ‘casuals.’ This presents a feeling of belonging which people might not have otherwise,” explains Chris Borowy, sociologist and social researcher at the Faculty of Inequality and Gender Studies at the University Bochum. “Casual relationships are convenient and fulfil their purpose. According to the social role and my needs I can ‘get’ me a suitable friend.”
Although the existence of a genuine friendship between FWB is rare, in some cases “casual friends” includes affection and a general concern about each other apart from just having sex, adding substance to the mere sexual attraction through varying degrees of emotional intimacy.
While the FWB concept operates according to the ‘friends by day, sex partners by night’ principle, both partners are generally free to date and engage in flings with other friends. Being engaged in a casual relationship also means to enjoy the company and the intimacy of several lovers without carrying the burden of responsibility. Both lovers without commitment benefit from the mere physical aspect without having to endure daunting dates, relationship-boredom and the eventual break-up-catastrophe.
“Casual relationships allow you to experience sex with different people, giving you more understanding of dating different personality types,” explains Aiken. “And you learn about dealing with the ups and downs of short-term liaisons. It can also clarify what you like and dislike in a partner, and the warning signs of the wrong types.
Despite the temptation of a sexual adventure, FWB remains a risky business, bearing emotional and physical consequences along the way. With the prevalence of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), safer sex practice is a must and should be high priority when hooking up with a friend, also protecting against unwanted pregnancy.
Another negative aspect of FWB is the lack of emotional depth and real feelings. While the main purpose of these occasional ‘hook-ups’ is to serve the physical needs of the friends involved, FWB does often not serve for the emotional needs catered for in a committed relationship.
“A disadvantage of these casual relationships might be the longing for depth. When crisis strikes, some of these casual, superficial relationships might not be so precious and valuable anymore as they don’t function in tough times,” explains Borowy. “Many superficial relationships are like getting too many free drinks at once: at some point the champagne just doesn’t taste as good anymore. Once one casual friend realizes that something essential is missing, the initial ‘thrill’ is gone.”
The jealousy factor presents another potential threat to the huckleberry friend project. As emotions ruin the whole purpose of the commitment-free philosophy, both bed buddies have to question whether having a ‘little sex’ is worth the risk of ruining a friendship and losing that friend.
Despite the growing popularity of casual relationship constellations, severe scepticism prevails as breathtaking benefits and bad bargains keep the balance. “In general, I believe there is a longing for deep, lasting relationships. This is similar to the concept of marriage, an ideal that just won’t go away only because the divorce rate is high,” declares Borowy. “Everyone would like to have a ‘real’ loyal partner. And everyone wants to feel loved and wanted in an intimate, lasting relationship.”
Although the FWB concept offers casualty and convenience, the benefits can turn from fun to frustration and from sex to sorrow within seconds. Casual relationships can only be ‘beneficial’ if both parties are clear upfront that it's only about the exchange of having a little sex between friends and not about serious partnering. Once feelings are getting in the way, the bed buddy business presents a dangerous proposition as someone might get hurt in the end.
Relationship-expert John Aiken confirms that the ‘day-time friend, night-time lover’ remains a tricky relationship constellation. “Casual relationships can be shallow and based only on physical fulfilment, they typically avoid dealing with emotions and therefore you can't open up and be honest and vulnerable with someone,” he explains. “And they are time limited and have no chance of growing into something more significant. They can also make you feel lonely and used, unsure of where you stand, and kept at arm’s length.”
While there are pros and cons in every relationship constellation, FWB is no exception. In real life, everyone has to judge whether he/she is friend or foe of such a casual constellation. On screen, Carrie ends up choosing Mr Big over casual sex in the city, eventually coming to the conclusion that “a f*** buddy is a guy you probably dated once or twice, but it didn’t really go anywhere...”
Anya Weimann is a freelance writer.