Friends with Benefits
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD www.arlenetaylor.org
Successful living requires bravery. It requires that you take your brain and your heart and look them both in the face on a regular basis—no matter how difficult that may be.
The phone rang and the caller launched into a rehearsal of his “exhausting and unfulfilling” life. He specifically mentioned how he was finding “friends with benefits” less rewarding than he had hoped. Interestingly, half a dozen previous communications had been along the same line. About to board the plane, I asked the voice to send me a detailed email, promising to write a reply on the flight home.
Later, as I read the email, my brain considered nicknaming the author "Achilles," because it seemed his heel—i.e., a poor sense of self-worth, a seeming low level of emotional intelligence, and a habit (if not an outright addiction) of settling for short-term rewards—was giving him difficulty. This is how his email read.
I’m not sure it’s even worth writing to you. I mean, every brain is different and you can’t know every brain.... Anyway, I see several “friends with benefits” on a semi-regular basis. Juggling them, you know. Initially, the variety kept things interesting, but even that doesn’t seem to last. To be honest, I am not in love with any of them. I’m pretty sure they’d move on if the next person offered a bigger perceived “prize.” I’d not want to marry any of them. (I’ve been married twice and have doubts about doing that again.) It costs money to wine and dine them, but it’s not like I’m handing cash to a prostitute. I mean we both get something out of this, right? Immediately after an encounter I feel better briefly because I scored and beat out the competition and was envied due to my arm candy. But, to be perfectly honest, at the end of the day the main connection was just sex to feel better. I’d like something deeper, a really good friend. I mean, an intelligent and witty conversationalist, someone to share laughter and ideas with, a sense that the individual cares about me and wants to spend time with me—ME—without “taking” all the time, without sex being on the table—figuratively speaking. And if push came to shove the person would have my back—at least emotionally. I feel helpless and trapped. Part of me says that something is better than nothing. Part of me says I’d like to get off this treadmill, but there’s no good way to extract myself and nothing I can do. This stinks. I’m angry. Might possibly be a little sad or depressed, as well. Any ideas?
My letter to Achilles began as such:
Thank you for laying it out so clearly. You are not alone in this dilemma. I’ve received similar comments and concerns recently. Ultimately you will decide if it was “worth writing” to me. Nevertheless, I am willing to give you my brain’s opinion—based on your own words. I suggest you consider them as another option by which to process your life and make choices that work for your brain.
First, you said, “Every brain is different, and you can’t know every brain.”
Correct! Every brain on the planet is different. There are some commonalities, however. For example, the brain naturally wants to feel good. Some even think that the brain is hard-wired for joy. Unfortunately, it often gets side-tracked with false (pseudo) joy. The kicker is whether the actions one takes to “feel better” result in positive outcomes and desirable consequences in the long term.
This is also correct. “Initially the variety kept things interesting, but even that doesn’t seem to last.”
When the brain perceives it is sexually attracted to another person and becomes involved as in “friends-with-benefits,” a powerful substance--both a neurotransmitter and a hormone--is released. Known as Phenylethylamine (or PEA for short), the neurotransmitter action impacts every neuron or thinking cell in your brain and body and the hormone action hits all the rest. Because PEA is so powerful, it is easy to become addicted. Think neurochemical tsunami. It can literally turn you into a pea brain—pun intended! Studies have shown that the intensity of this tsunami tends to fall off in about 18 months and isn’t likely rebooted with the same individual. Your brain may become accustomed, if not addicted, to the neurochemical tsunami and as it falls may move on to another new relationship to “keep things interesting” (as you put it)--in terms of intensity. This, of course, doesn’t bode particularly well if you choose down the line to develop a committed long-term relationship (such as marriage) with one person.
So why do you continue this pattern? In your words, “After an encounter I feel better briefly because I scored and beat out the competition and was envied due to my arm candy.”
Many juggle friends-with-benefits simply to feel better, to get an immediate chemical reward. Sex, as a physical activity, provides a short-term reward but may become messy, time and money consuming, addictive, and often unrewarding in the long term. This short term fix and the elation typically don’t, so you will need another before long. “But it’s just sex,” you may say. Yes, you’re right. That’s all it is. Just sex. And every time you have sex with another human being, cellular memory for that encounter is built and filed away on the protein strands in every cell with a nucleus in your body. This gradual collection of memories can create problems if and when you meet someone whom you really could love and who could love you in return. Remember that “arm candy” is for sale—and the higher the bidder, the better. Staggering, the number of prominent individuals around the world who have been tarnished--if not outright toppled--by arm candy.
You write, “It’s not like I’m handing cash to a prostitute.”
The definition of prostitution is pretty simple: the practice of engaging in sexual activity with another human being for some type of payment. The payment can be “wining and dining” or “scoring” or “beating out the competition” or showing off arm candy, or having an orgasm, just to name a few. Or it might be the illusion that you are valuable because someone wants to have sex with you--an illusion because someone willing to have sex with you does not make you valuable. Almost anyone can find another person to have sex with relatively quickly depending on what they’re willing to settle for.
Are you sure it really is “fair”? “We both get something out of this, so it’s fair.”
Obviously you both do get something out of it or neither of you would collude to continue the “friends-with-benefits” game. It take two who are willing to play, you know. Fair?That depends on your definition of fair. Each person is using the other for personal gratification and/or self-medication in ways that meet their own needs. It can be easy to get addicted to the Phenylethylamine, Norepinephrine, and Dopamine these types of hook-ups release, only to feel quite empty and unfulfilled afterwards. Those who settle for this do so for a reason and likely are not interested in the work a genuine in-love, committed relationship requires to be successful and grow deeply rewarding in the long-term.
Studies have shown that during ejaculation, the intensity of the male response is comparable to that induced by heroin. In other words, pretty intense, albeit for only a few seconds. Conversely, PET scans have shown that much of the female brain went “silent” at orgasm without any emotional feelings, suggesting a release of tension and inhibition, and a reduction in moral reasoning, vigilance, social judgment, reflection, and so on. Assuming she has one, that is. (Not a brain, an orgasm.) Fear and anxiety need to be avoided at all costs if a woman wishes to have an orgasm. And if sex is in the context of a friends-with-benefits situation, and she is at all anxious about where the relationship is going and if it is or is not to continue—or a host of other concerns—she may not achieve an orgasm. Many women pretend, however. (If in doubt, remember or watch the restaurant scene in the movie When Harry Met Sally.) Pretending may be used to make her partner feel successful in the encounter and continue the relationship--whether or not he really is a good performer. Just because someone has the equipment doesn’t mean he or she is skilled at knowing how to use it for more than personal self-gratification. Or because she likes being wined and dined, or fanaticizes her partner loves her; or to make herself feel valuable because he was willing to have sex with her, or...
You seem to realize that there are other options. “I’d like something deeper, a really good friend. I mean, an intelligent and witty conversationalist, someone to share laughter and ideas with, a sense that the individual cares about me and wants to spend time with me—ME—without ‘taking’ all the time, without sex being on the table—figuratively speaking. And if push came to shove the person would have my back—at least emotionally.
“Something deeper.” Really? The something deeper type of individual likely would not be described as “arm candy.” Where are you looking for this person? You may be looking in all the wrong places. Water seeks its own level; so do quality relationships. You might find a person such as you’ve describedwho is willing to settle for a friends-with-benefits association, but I have my doubts. That type of individual would likely think enough of themselves to never be part of that treadmill trade-off. If you must always be “doing” something (wining and dining, sex, buying gifts, etc.) you likely will not attract a person who cares about you just for who you are, rather for what you can give. Always paying for everything is one way of feeling momentarily good about yourself, but it also deprives the other person of the opportunity of giving. It is also a form of control. In the long term, isn’t that pretty selfish? Paying for everything may be appropriate when your children (if you have any) are minors, although that does nothing to teach them the value of money or even how to spend it wisely. It does teach them to regard you as their personal on-demand banker, and they will likely learn to be manipulative and use you for what they can get. That is an unfortunate role-model for when the time comes for them to partner and have a family. Remember, you teach people how to treat you.
My empathy kicked in when I read this: “I feel helpless and trapped.”
Your brain obviously has thought about your situation, and an emotion has arisen that your brain interprets into a feeling. Ultimately only you can decide how long you want to feel “helpless and trapped.” To change the feeling you must change the way you think. The words helpless and trapped indicate a sense of powerlessness and that, again, represents your thought patterns. Your own thoughts are keeping you powerless. And only you are able to change your thoughts from powerless to powerful—but it’s a choice.
My brain’s opinion is that you, along with most people, might want to take another look at: “Something is better than nothing.”
There is an old saying that in life you get not what you deserve but what you expect. The flavor of your communication suggests that you expect, believe, that this type of friends-with-benefits relationship is likely all you will get and so you better hang onto it. Is ‘something’ the right choice just because you are afraid of ‘nothing?’ From my perspective, sometimes ‘nothing’ at the moment is far better than ‘something.’ The quality people I know have a different mantra: “I’d rather be with myself than badly accompanied.” As long as you are alive, there is never “nothing.” There is always something. When you choose to close one door (or someone else closes it for you), there is always another open door—you just need to stop banging your head against the closed door and look for the one that is open.
This shows me that your brain is considering another option as in: “I’d like to get off this treadmill.”
Truth is, I know only one way to get off a treadmill safely: Shut off the power source and step off. Until you do that, nothing will change. You might begin by saying: “Achilles, you are off the treadmill.” If you tell your brain what you want to do as though it’s a done deal, it is more likely to get the mental picture that you are serious and put its considerable talents to work helping you achieve exiting the treadmill.
It is simple although it might not be easy, as you have stated: “There’s no good way to extract myself.”
Clearly, your brain knows that you can extract yourself from this situation, but it would prefer doing so without pain, discomfort, or anxiety. Nice thought, but highly unlikely. There are degrees of undesirable or desirable, however. You likely already understand this at some level because you used the adjective good--a word that implies that, while something else might be more desirable, it is better than other options. So, while an ideal, painless solution may not exist, you nevertheless can extract yourself. (Preventing the situation in the first place might have been more ideal. Just saying. Smile.)
In almost every situation, choices exist, which nullifies this thought: “There’s nothing I can do.”
You always have the choice to say: (1) There’s nothing I can do, or (2) There is something I can do. If you choose #2, there is a way to do it! (Remember that doing nothing is still a choice. If you choose that option, however, you will continue to get what you are currently getting—which apparently you do not like since you contacted me.) Problem solve—or give up. If you problem solve, only survey two options at a time because you only have two cerebral hemispheres. Decide which is even the slightest better than the other. Then, select that one. You may want to compare that one with a third option, and select the best one, and so on.
Sometimes your nose knows.... “This stinks.”
This is a subjective personal opinion that you and your brain have crafted. The situation will continue to “stink” in your brain’s opinion until you tell your brain something different. Try this: “Achilles, you are looking at this as an opportunity. You are working on yourself and becoming the type of person you would like to attract as a long-term friend. You are making progress. It smells good. Success smells wonderful.”
And then your emotions try to get your attention. “I’m angry. Might possibly be a little sad or depressed, as well.”
Your four core emotions are invaluable assistants. They are designed to get your attention, connect your subconscious with your conscious mind, and give you valuable information. Anger is the emotion designed to alert you that your boundaries are being invaded. Perhaps, in your case, because your brain perceives that it is always giving and not getting much back in return. However, you are colluding in this equation. When you stop wining and dining for sex, your brain will develop a different perception. Many men exhibit sadness as anger because society rewards males for anger—but rarely for sadness. It’s encouraging to note that you are at least considering the possibility that you are sad—the emotion that signals you are or have experienced a loss. What might that loss be? The absence of the relationship you most desire? Or the sense that a short term reward isn’t satisfying in the long term? Remember that prolonged sadness can lead to depression, something I encourage you to identify, address, and seek help for before it becomes chronic and debilitating.
Here are seven things to consider:
- Based on your communication, you have identified that what you have been doing is unrewarding in the long term. Choose to change. My definition of insanity is continuing the same behavior while hoping against hope that it will give you a different result. If you keep making the same choices you will get what you have always gotten. Take a deep breath. Take a break. Work on developing a sense of balanced self-esteem. You are valuable simply because you exist. Your time is valuable. You are the only person who will be with you for your entire life. You cannot change the past; you can craft a healthier and more fulfilling future for yourself.
- Contact each person in your friends-with-benefits circle. No doubt you know which communication method would work best for your own brain: in person, by telephone, by text, or email. You may want to do this at least by telephone if face-to-face is too daunting, text or email being a bit impersonal considering the activities you have shared. Let’s say you choose telephone communication. Call each friend-with-benefits and say that you are re-evaluating your life and you are no longer available for sexual activity. You make clear that this is not about them, has nothing to do with them, and has everything to do with you and where you want to go the rest of your life. You wish them well and hang up. Delete their contact information from your phone, computer, and wherever else it exists.
Note: I am not suggesting you will never engage in sexual activity again. (smile) I am saying that when you add it to an acquaintance, especially when you are keeping a stable of available friends-with-benefits, the potential cognitive and relational depth of genuine friendship tends to become sidelined in exchange for the “heroin.” The growth of comradery, emotional depth, genuine affection, and caring tend to derail in exchange for the brief burst of intensity. Basically, it’s the difference between the comfortable warmth of a slow burn over time versus the sudden firecracker—especially as you are getting acquainted and deciding if this is the type of relationship you want and if it appears worth working on long-term.
- Take very good care of yourself, especially if you have not being doing a good job at this. Give your brain the sleep it needs, drink sufficient amounts of water, and eat quality nutritious food. Get regular physical exercise and stay in shape. These health benefits make it much easier to be happy and cheerful. Join a gym or a bicycling or walking group. If you like sports, join a local sports group. Laugh and have fun with life. Be serious about it but don’t take anything too seriously. Humans are hysterical creatures. So much so that monkeys in a zoo evidenced some depression on days the zoo was closed to the public. If you are emotionally healthy enough to laugh at yourself—if you aren’t then start raising your levels of EQ or emotional intelligence—you carry an immediate and inexhaustible supply of humor with you. Use it to trigger laughter.
- Be the person you would like for your best friend. That way you are more likely to be attracted to and attract the type of person you say you are looking for. Work on yourself. Again, water seeks its own level. Build a balanced sense of self-worth, raise your level of emotional intelligence, create a fulfilling life, and stop settling for friends-with-benefits, especially since you have found that less than deeply fulfilling. In other words, get a life. Quality people find that very attractive and energizing.
- Live in gratitude. Gratitude is the antidote for fear; they cannot simultaneously exist in the brain. When you are thankful you are less likely to ‘settle for’ as in “something is better than nothing.” Give thanks every day for who you are and what you have. Do random acts of kindness. Find a way to give back. Get involved in community activities. Etc. … (Be creative). As Oprah Winfrey put it: “Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”
- Select a hobby you love and do it regularly to give your brain a reward. For example, if you are musical, make time to listen to music, join a community choir,. Better yet, play an instrument. If you don’t already do so, select one and start learning to play. A study by Dr. Bernhard Ross and colleagues has shown that learning to play a musical instrument changes the brain’s ‘wiring’ after just one session and can help protect against cognitive decline. This may be the first study to demonstrate that learning the fine movement needed to reproduce a sound on an instrument changes the brain’s perception of sound in a way that is not seen when listening to music. That can be a reward in and of itself! And if music is not your genre, try attending stage plays or take short road trip, and so on
- Put yourself in healthy quality situations, i.e., places where you are more likely to meet quality people who have a “life,” know who they are, live out their giftedness, and find life satisfying and rewarding. And who, by the way, may be very open to a relationship such as you described even if they haven’t been looking for that themselves and have high levels of life satisfaction already. As one person put it: “If you do not want to get involved with someone who already has a relationship with ‘alcohol,’ stay out of bars.”
If you already know someone you’d like to develop a quality friendship with, call him/her up and share openly that you’re cleaning up your sexual life (e.g., no longer pimping yourself out sexually for a short-term reward) and would like to explore how to develop a genuine friendship without sex as part of the package at this point in time. (Some have found this to be quite a quick and relatively reliable way to determine whether or not the person really cares about you or primarily what you can "give or do for them."
Then ask, “Would you be interested?” If yes, go for it. If no, keep your eyes searching for the open door and walk through it. The universe may completely surprise you by dropped into your path someone who is quite wonderful. Celebrate this even if the person is very different from those you selected in the past. Especially if the individual is very different! Celebrate that! Be open for considering someone who cares about you as a person, for who you are, and enjoys being with you without sex being part of the barter. It might turn into something you want permanently in your life as a committed best friend if not a committed life-partner. That would require you to offer genuine friendship, as well, which means commitment, ongoing communication, and reciprocity. That type of person would likely want to “go Dutch” when doing things together, at least some of the time, rather than have you always pay for everything. Or even pay for you once in a while. Is your level of emotional intelligence high enough to risk that? Is your sense of self-esteem balanced enough to avoid grasping at the illusion of "control" by always giving and not graciously accepting?
There you have it, Achilles. Your mission at this time in life—should you choose to accept it. A healthier philosophy might be (quoting Seneca), “Friendship always benefits!” I believe you and your brain—when “push comes to shove”—can do this together. I wish you well!