Romance yields to ‘friendship with benefits’?

An interesting article in today’s Times (which I can’t link to because of the paywall) about the growth of ‘friendship with benefits’. It reports findings of research in the US which suggests that such relationships are becoming a lot more demographically varied (rather than being the preserve of university students) and that “unexpectedly … both men and women reported being more committed to the friendship than to the sexual aspect of the relationship”.

This is an interesting assumption to explore. Why is it “unexpected” that the friendship will be a more important part of the relationship than the sex? Largely because of the (often unacknowledged) hierarchies of intimacy through which we make sense of human relationships. First comes a committed sexual relationship, then an uncommited sexual relationship, then sex outside the context of a relationship until, eventually, we get to friendship. Now I’m not for a second suggesting that people don’t conceive of friendship as emotionally or morally important. Only that the way in which many of us habitually think of human relationships accords it a lesser status, in terms of intimacy, then sexual relationships.

This is something that many of the asexual people I’ve spoken to in my research report finding: it’s difficult for those around them to take the notion of an ‘asexual relationship’ seriously because, without the sex, it’s difficult to differentiate it from a friendship. Often, we see sex as a precondition (indeed an explanation) of intimacy within a relationship between two people. So relationships which diverge from this particular conception (dyadic, exclusive, intimate, sexual) pose conceptual problems which are rarely addressed. In a very literal sense their participants meet the limits of language, as a relatively limited range of relational concepts (friend, sexual partner, romantic partner, life partner – there’s a variety of descriptions for these concepts but obvious convergence upon the underlying ideas) fail to do justice to their emotional experience.

Being in a relationship leaves both individuals needing to articulate and present that relationship: to themselves, to each other and to the wider world. There’s more to our experience and understanding of relationships than the terms in which we describe them. In fact it’s the interaction between the former and the latter which leads to growth and change, as we try to put it words what we feel and reciprocal understandings & expectations begin to flow from that dialogue, producing transformation which in turn poses new descriptive challenges.

Many asexuals I’ve spoken to report the sense that boundaries between these categories are blurred for them. With this blurring comes a need for creative redescription, personalizing and rearticulating these concepts before ultimately, perhaps, moving beyond them. In a very real way, relationships which push at the boundaries of our languages for talking about them represent experiments in human relationality. It’s through the emotional agency of people involved in them that relational culture changes at the macro level. If enough people have established a certain way of relating to each other then it opens up that possibility in language.

I suspect, though am by no means certain, that the concept of ‘friendship with benefits’ is experienced as inadequate by many/most of those being studied. It’s an attempt to understand and describe what they’re doing through the modification of existing concept and, as such, remains provisional. Or perhaps it’s an imposition of the researchers and/or journalists. Such considerations should be at the forefront of research into human relationships. Our relationships aren’t reducible to the ways in which we talk about them but nor are they ultimately separable.