Sarah Williams: I'm in my forties and I'm doing 'friends with benefits'

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Young couple feeding each other biscuits in garden
Young couple feeding each other biscuits in garden

Apologies to the "glass half full" people but if you are currently single then it's fair to say that all your previous intimate relationships haven't exactly worked out.

As I plough through my forties I can't help but notice that amongst my social circle we've cumulatively racked up a fairly decent number of "failed" relationships.

Could there perhaps be a message here? Maybe our idea of what constitutes a successful relationship is so ingrained by convention and social norms that we are just setting ourselves up to fail. And fail we do, with Statistics NZ showing a yearly total of roughly 10,000 divorces.

Admittedly there is around twice this number of marriages each year but it's still not exactly "til death do us part". There's also a pretty decent wodge of the population single with the latest census at around 37 per cent for those 15 years and over. Could it be that the standard issue long term monogamous relationship is merely a convenient social construct?

It seems that dissatisfied singletons remain hopeful however, with a predictable boost to the January revenue of online dating sites as they prepare to "get back on the horse" and partner up. One local site just reported a whopping increase of over 200 per cent in sign ups.

Despite the fact that it's likely to be a rough ride in a slippery saddle, culminating with a kick to the head, there's nothing like a new year to renew flagging optimism in the search for love. The pursuit of happiness is the guilty party here - everyone's Holy Grail. Popular culture (most notably the Hollywood rom-com) has us believe that ultimate happiness may only be accessed via a romantic partner.

Despite my cynical view on romance, I do believe that friendships are generally quite successful as far as human relationships go. A good friendship endures time, hardship, and all manner of personal drama and disgraceful behaviour.

Friends enhance and enrich our lives but are not our "other halves". A friend is not someone we look to for completion of our own selves or to affirm our worth and desirability. Perhaps therein lies the secret to the success of friendship versus traditional intimate relationships.

We don't tend to take too seriously our friends' many personal deficits or interpret these as a reflection on ourselves. Friends just are, and we usually choose to keep these wonderfully imperfect people in our lives without undue drama or angst.

Enter the "Friends with Benefits" (FWB) concept. The idea is pretty simple; combine our basic human need for intimacy with a robust friendship, where the emphasis remains on the friendship and neither party is under the illusion of a fairy tale romance or happily ever after.

Personally I would add exclusivity to the arrangement, but each to their own.

Road testing Friends with Benefits

Having amassed an extensive list of unsuccessful relationships myself, culminating in a short but spectacularly disastrous marriage, I decided to road test the FWB idea.

I had just the right candidate in mind; a former boyfriend of some years back whom I remain friends with. We share a similar sense of humour and a lot of attraction. Our relationship had gone downhill when he started reading my text messages and became convinced I was having an affair with a friend I affectionately called "poobum". Apparently a pet name of this nature is irrefutable proof of a torrid affair and he could not be convinced otherwise.

Although the poobum fiasco marked the end of our relationship, after a cooling off period the friendship resumed.

So began FWB, and it went rather well for a few months causing me to become quite smug - rather like one must feel when on the brink of a major discovery or scientific breakthrough.

I really thought I'd cracked this relationship stuff. I will admit however, I did overlook one small fact. I broke up with this person as he was untrusting, controlling and manipulative, or in simple terms; a bit of an arse.

After exactly three months, which incidentally was the duration of our first proper attempt at a relationship, it all fell over in a pile of angry words (his) with heated references to his unappreciated and tireless efforts of once replacing a light bulb and reattaching a wonky curtain rail.

Undeterred, I decided to create some parameters for what constitutes a more robust FWB arrangement and came up with the following road map to beneficial bliss.

A Friend with Benefits is not:

• A former boyfriend who is an arse
• A drunken or impulsive shag with a friend
• A sex buddy
• Someone you hope to cultivate a romantic relationship with
• A married or attached person - that's called an affair
• Your very best friend - it's just not worth the risk

A Friend with Benefits is:

• A real friend that you actually like
• Someone you can trust and be open and honest with
• A person you are attracted to physically
• On board with the FWB concept
• A FWB, in my opinion, should be exclusive

So, take two on the great FWB experiment. This person I met through work and despite being polar opposites there is a rather compelling attraction on a number of levels. Logistics prevents it becoming more than FWB which provides a handy safety net in case either of us inadvertently falls in love.

There is a closeness borne of friendship, but it's different to the more proprietal kind with a partner. It is close but not suffocating and for now it suits me well. We love each other but are not in love. There is a craving but not a need. Romantic dinners and weekend minibreaks are off the table. I do sometimes want these things. He doesn't. We circle each other in public and don't hold hands. Inevitably it will end.

Will you be judged?

A side effect for those of us at the frontier of the FWB concept can be the judgement of others. Some people will find the idea morally reprehensible and call you a dirty slapper. Your great Aunty Edna and her crew are not likely to pat you on the back with approval. Social norms are being challenged and that's a hard sell. It is of course up to you whether you even try.

FWB is not for everyone. And not all relationships fail. The "smug married's" as Bridget Jones refers to them will certainly take issue with my suggestions and from their position so would I.

For the rest of us however, I think it is worth consideration while we ponder possibilities apart from undying love to run down that winged unicorn of happiness. Perhaps it will even free us up from thoughts of partner pleasing just long enough to find something approximating peace and love within ourselves.

Friends, family, acquaintances and intimate partners all contribute something to the social repast that nourishes our souls. A FWB takes the traditional focus off a partner or spouse in terms of how we meet some of these needs. In share market terms it is essentially a low risk investment in an otherwise varied portfolio. Keep in mind that "friends with benefits" is exactly that however, so be wary of arsing over into a stinking pile of unrequited love - it's unlikely to have a movie style ending.

Although you may not risk your heart when partaking in a FWB situation there is the potential for much worse; the loss of a meaningful friendship. For this reason it seems wise to avoid enlisting your best friend in the world. FWB's can certainly fill a void without giving away too much of ourselves, and may even last a few years. Like any other relationship however, most of us are just passing through.

- nzherald.co.nz

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