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Does being 'friends with benefits' lead to serious relationships?

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Don't dismiss that 'friend with benefits' just yet - he could be your next boyfriend.

In a legendary episode of “Seinfeld,” Jerry and Elaine hammer out a deal that allows them to have “this” (their friendship), “that” (sex together) but not “the other” (a typical romantic relationship with all of the commitment and expectations they entail).

They think they’ve beaten the system and will be the first couple to make the situation work, but George sets them straight. “Where do you get the ego?” he says. “No one can do it. It can’t be done.”

Or can it?

This Valentine's Day, you may not have to look far to find your soulmate — you may already know him as your "friend with benefits." According to findings in dating site Match.com’s latest “Singles in America” study of dating habits and sexual practices, “friends with benefits” arrangements are increasingly becoming long-term relationships.

The study – based on U.S. Census data including a representative sample of races, genders, regions and ages from 21 to 71 – shows that 40 percent of women and 53 percent of men have had a friends with benefits relationship in the past. In a huge leap from the last survey, 44 percent said these arrangements are evolving into relationships, up from 20 percent in 2011.

“This appears to me to be a new trend, something that’s popping up,” said Helen Fisher, chief scientific adviser at Match.com and a biological anthropologist. “I think it’s actually indicative of a much larger notion in courtship in America and across the world.”

Respondents reported that many courtships begin with people going out as a group of friends first before the relationship turns physical. “It’s not a socially visible relationship to the people around you, except if you talk about it,” Fisher said. “It rather consists of having sex together without any commitment, without any agreement of partnership, without any social sanctions.”

Part of the explanation could be that people are marrying later and therefore checking out, well, everything, before deciding to commit to someone. “There’s that extended interviewing of someone, not only socially, economically but sexually as well,” Fisher said. 

Logan Levkoff, a sexologist and author of books including “How to Get Your Wife to Have Sex With You,” said today’s young singles are accustomed to communicating through technology rather than in-person – or even phone – conversations.

“Everything is perceived as temporary and not serious,” Levkoff said, adding, “We’re afraid to put ourselves out there, and the digital modes of communication seem safer because it’s not face to face. Friends with benefits makes sense, I think, before moving on to a relationship because ideally at some point you do start engaging in more meaningful conversation.”

The concept of having your cake and eating it too is hardly a new one, even if its social acceptability is.

“I think the fact that we even have coined this term ‘friends with benefits’ speaks to how commonplace the notion is,” Levkoff said, adding, “At the end of the day, it’s still a relationship. It may not be committed, it may not be monogamous, but having sex with a friend is still a relationship.”

Obviously, there are hazards and a huge risk of getting hurt if both parties don’t feel the same way about the situation. “It’s a very interesting phase,” Fisher said. “You’ve got one foot in bed and one foot out of bed and you’re playing with a brain that’s like a bomb -- romantic love can be triggered in a millisecond, and then you’re off to the races.”

Levkoff said alhough “there are healthier ways of having a relationship,” she also is “a big believer in anything that consenting adults do is OK.”

“I think it doesn’t really make a difference what type of relationship it is as long as you feel like you have a voice in this relationship, whether the voice is to say, ‘It’s just about sex’ or whether the voice is to say it’s something that’s going to evolve, as long as you have a voice to speak up if for some reason your feelings change.”

That has been the experience of Thatcher Shultz, a single 29-year-old who lives in New York, where he moved a year ago from Seattle. After a dating scene there that was “very relationship-oriented,” he found that “here, it’s like you’re weird if you are in a relationship.”

He has “done the friends with benefits thing” and said it ultimately has to go one way or another. “You just can’t sustain it very well,” he said.

Hollywood certainly thinks it’s the path to a lasting relationship. In both 2011 films “Friends with Benefits” and “No Strings Attached,” the couples who tried to keep emotions at bay ultimately ended up falling in love.

But Shultz said he actually has ended up with more friends than girlfriends from the experience. “It’s tricky,” he said. “You’ve got to be really careful, and it’s not going to last. Before you dive into that you need to think about what’s more important: hooking up with this person or sustaining a friendship. It can’t keep going like it is.”

Most of his friends – especially women – are “obsessed” with a newly-launched iPhone app called Tinder, where members post photos of themselves, “like” photos of other local members, and -- if there’s a mutual like -- the app provides both parties with contact information.

“That shows that dating in general is getting more casual,” Shultz said. “If someone’s willing to meet up with someone based on a simple app like that, based on one photo, that’s shows you it’s changing.”

Even as dating becomes as easy as a click on a picture, the same rules ultimately apply. “The bottom line is, there’s two ways to win a lover,” Fisher said. “Either you spend a lot of time getting to know them or try to get them in bed tonight.”

And if love wins out in the end, so be it. “Long-term, committed relationships are healthy for you,” Fisher said. “However you get there, that’s your business.”

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