The Friends with Benefits Epidemic

It's not just in the movies. How have we convinced ourselves to bend the rules of intimacy?

BY RELEVANT RELATIONSHIPS / LIFE July 21, 2011

Friendships and sex have been around since the beginning of time, but it’s our generation that puts them into the same phrase—and the same bedroom. From high school hallways to movie theater screens, “friends with benefits” is sold to us as a new combination as simple, acceptable and wonderful as mac-and-cheese.  

No one wakes up and decides sex is just sex, or making out is just making out. No one wakes up and announces over coffee, "Today, I’m going to fall head over heels in love with someone I’d never marry." I didn’t.

I remember being a freshman in high school, believing heart and soul that I would wait for marriage to have sex. I’d never kissed a boy, and I didn’t plan on it until I was engaged. Fast-forward four or five years, and I’ve made out for fun, for comfort, for love and for revenge. Fast-forward another two or three years, and I’m sleeping with someone I’m not even dating.

Why does it happen? Because we are broken people. And because God created sex and physical affection as a phenomenal part of what is meant to heal us: intimate, committed love with another human being. But when we don’t know how our body and heart work, we tend to do long-term damage to ourselves instead of long-term good.

Bending the Rules

Your desire for sex is proof that God loves you. Your physical draw to another human being is proof that God created you to want to experience unparalleled intimacy in a way that reflects His desire for intimacy with us. God designed sex and the acts and attitudes preceding it to access aspects of your heart, soul, body and mind that could not be accessed any other way.

The problem is that we forget (or ignore) the passion-filled, healing, love-reflecting, life-giving purpose for intimacy. All we know are the rules. Maybe there are some rules you won’t violate; maybe you’ve committed to abstaining from sex outside of marriage. But there are still a number of other “benefits” you may convince yourself it’s OK to relinquish. When we don’t recognize the purpose for something, the rules sometimes aren’t enough.

"Your first perfect boyfriend broke your heart. You weren’t supposed to take your physical relationship that far, but you did; now you might as well take it that far again. You deserve to have some innocent fun. Cuddling as ‘friends’ isn’t wrong; it won’t go anywhere. You didn’t go all the way. Everyone has sex before marriage, and everyone ends up married and happy in the end. You need to experience everything before you settle down."

This is what I took myself through. This is how I convinced myself it was fine to "just have fun," and how I got addicted to men I could neither commit to nor leave. There are a number of other reasons that people will justify casual intimacy, physical or otherwise; none of them are an excuse.

Our bodies are created to start bonding within 20 seconds. Your body can’t tell the difference between cuddling with your boyfriend and cuddling with a friend while watching a movie. Your heart can’t tell the difference between sharing intimate secrets with the sexy new friend or your spouse. Trust, attachment and intimacy build with or without our permission. This is why it’s so incredibly important to set physical and emotional boundaries before we get into something it hurts to get out of.

Create your own specific rules to help yourself keep the big rules: Do you get lonely at night? Safeguard your heart by having a plan that keeps you from opening up emotionally or physically when you’re “at risk.” Give people permission to ask you the personal questions and keep you accountable to yourself. Sit down with yourself and write out what’s OK for you (not what’s OK or acceptable to your peers). Don’t dwell on your mistakes, but use what you learn from them in the future. And don’t be afraid to communicate what’s permissible and what’s not with any potential love interest—real friends protect you, not compromise your standards.

The Ties that Bind

Your entire life is the story of God’s plan to show you His definition of crazy, unconditional love. Those who marry will find marriage is one of God’s primary tools for this. God knew it was not good for man to be alone. God knew we needed a physical way to experience the heartbeat of Himself. So He gave us each other—another human being to commit to and love no matter what. An image of God’s passion for His children, an expression of Jesus’ love for His bride.

Sex is some of the greatest glue for marriage—and the enemy has every
intention of attacking your marriage before it even starts. If he can twist, harm or destroy your marriage, he knows he does the same for your picture of God’s unconditional love and commitment to you. Furthermore, friends with benefits also deteriorates the value of your other relationships. Single or married, God intends for you to have trustworthy, iron-sharpens-iron friendships untainted by cheap affection or half-hearted romance.

Not only is sex the perfect image of intimacy, passion and desire, it triggers the release of chemicals that train your body to remember what feels good, and how to get it again. Dopamine is a natural drug that gets you high. This is what keeps you going back again. Drugs like methamphetamine access dopamine to achieve the same effect. Your body begins such a bond just with cuddling, kissing, and everything between there and “real” sex. Oxytocin is dopamine’s partner, the emotional binding agent that teaches you to trust and reduces fear.

However, dopamine and oxytocin don’t play fair. They don’t care if it’s just for fun, if it’s "just this one night" or if the person you’re going home with is going to be around next week. They don’t care if it’s make-up sex, breakup sex or all-the-way sex. They don’t care if you just “mess around,” or if you go all the way. They’re going to feed your addiction, commitment or not.

Love Is Sacrificial, not Selfish

Consider the repercussions of programming your body to trust someone you shouldn’t—to be vulnerable with someone you know will cause pain in the withdrawal phase.

You were created for hot, passionate sex. You were created to be connected to one person, without ever going through withdrawal. You were created for whole, healthy friendships—unscarred by broken or inappropriate intimacy.

But more than that, you were created to experience unconditional, committed love. When we compromise emotional and physical intimacy before commitment (whether or not we intend to), we sabotage ourselves. And it hurts. Badly. Either now, later or both.

The myth of friends with benefits programs us to believe intimacy doesn’t last, love is selfish, desire exists for you and only matters in the right now. But God’s definition of love is always sacrificial—and will always be around.


Lauren Lankford is founder and editor of Good Women Project. She also writes on sex, relationships, dealing with pain and following Jesus on her personal blog. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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