Navigating the friends-with-benefits minefield
Inside the pop-tent, Mr. Machu Picchu and I formed a coil of skin and sweat. Our bathing suits shed. Our minds lost. We moved as silent and serious as snakes.
Outside the tent, waves massaged the bare shoulders of the beach. It was the hottest day of summer so far. The sun’s scorch was practically audible. Throngs crowded the beach seeking refuge in or near the water. Shash-shash-shash. People’s feet punctuated the sand as they trekked to or from the water. Chatter and laughter mingled.
Meanwhaile, the “just friends” status between me and Mr. MP had completely collapsed. I blame the record-breaking heat. It had to be that, because we’d successfully managed being just friends for the last several months. We went backpacking, camping, cooked dinners and enjoyed a tipsy night out dancing – all without incident.
So what if temptation weighted every encounter, relentless as gravity? We’d withstood that pull with the enduring discipline of Entrada sandstone. At the beach, sealed off from view in the tent, intermittently chatting and napping, a few flirtatious caresses exposed us as frauds. Our platonic agreement crumbled faster than Mancos shale.
Some time ago, Mr. MP and I met through a dating app. Our fiery attraction was instant and mutual. We proved capable of cultivating more than just carnal delights. Intellectual exchanges. Intimate conversations. Mutual support. By golly, we harvested an orchard of good outcomes. I was so satisfied with all the fruits of our interactions that I was actually contemplating being a stepmom for the second time in my life. A divorcee, Mr. MP was raising a young child.
“I want to have more children,” he confessed one day.
I gulped back my devastation and mustered nonchalance, “Oh. OK. Yes, of course. That makes sense.” By which, I meant: That’s ridiculous! You’re in your forties! What are you planning to do, draft a fecund 25-year-old into baby-making service??
He certainly had the wherewithal to do so with his South American flair, silky Spanish accent, thick hair blacker than coffee grounds, chiseled cheeks and eyes so dark you could dive in with a floodlight and never find the bottom.
I had no choice but to bow out. My tubes had been firmly tied two decades ago. I could never aspire to be Mama Machu Picchu.
“Could we be friends with benefits?” he asked.
I balked. Back in my day, the cultural messaging from movies or magazines deemed the friends-with-benefits relationship (FWBR) as a sham. It was a farce that opportunistic people used to get lucky with naive, goodhearted humans. I could not expect anything but disappointment. In a 2020 study, social scientists found that the outcome of the FWBR clashed with people’s initial expectations 83% of the time.
In other words, if you wanted the FWBR to retain an established friendship while enjoying some casual sex on the side, you were strolling Disappointment Lane. If you wanted the FWBR to ultimately result in a committed, romantic, long-term relationship, you were doomed. FWBRs resulted in a conventional relationship less than 15% of the time.
Facing such odds, I insisted we enter a strictly friends-only treaty. No more sharing the nuclear codes. Besides, what good were “benefits” if I was destined to be shunted aside the minute Lil Miss Babymaker turned up? But then, the plate tectonics in the pop-tent shifted our platonic foundation. We needed to renegotiate the terms of our treaty. If, perhaps, we were forthright in our communication, we could successfully manage an FWBR.
The study from 2020, plus others in 2014 and 2023, found that the most rewarding and enjoyable FWBRs grew out of excellent communication. Partners who established ground rules and checked in regularly seemed most able to establish long-term arrangements and/or maintain solid friendships once benefits ran out. People in a high-functioning FWBR also reported feeling more adventurous and more desired than they’d felt in prior conventional relationships. Their sex lives were spicier because they felt safe exploring and experimenting with their B Double F Triple X.
Perhaps my biases concerning FWBRs were unfounded. Maybe it wasn’t the forbidden fruit of the relationship world. Maybe it got a bad rap only because its red, juicy deliciousness exposed the bland flavors and flat textures of all conventional relationships. One bite wouldn’t hurt, would it?
For several months, my FWBR with Mr. MP has correlated with the positive study data. On a scientist’s Likert Scale, my overall satisfaction levels are: Likert. Lovert. Want some more of ert!
The scores, however, are not watertight. Whenever MP travels for work, I wonder if he goes out hunting for Lil Miss Babymaker. Or, when he doesn’t message for many days, I worry that his ideal Womber Woman has usurped me.
“It bums me out,” I said to MP one night while wrapped in his arms, my cheek on his bare chest. “We are so compatible, so intimate and so supportive of each other and yet…you still want to find someone else. The only thing I don’t give you is the one thing I can’t give you – a child. Everything else I do give you just isn’t enough.”
Sadness sagged his features as he listened. He held me tighter. “I have real feelings for you,” he whispered between kisses to my forehead. “Maybe they aren’t totally what you want them to be, but they are real. I am here giving you everything.”
And there it was: the bald truth. We were both giving each other everything we could. In a bid to beat bad odds, Mr. Machu Picchu and I have targeted our arrows at honesty, kindness and respect. We both care deeply for each other and our bond as friends, even though we fundamentally disagree about apples. He believes the fruits of our partnership are best employed serving the FWBR, whereas I think they make for a solid, committed relationship. To my thinking, it is the difference between using apples as paperweights versus ingredients in pie. Apples can do both jobs; they do one of them much better. Only time will tell if indulging in forbidden fruits or forbidding a fruit from exuding its quintessence is the greater sin. ?