Are We A Couple, Or Are We Just Friends With Benefits?

Are We A Couple, Or Are We Just Friends With Benefits?

Estimated reading time: 11 minutes

Dear Dr. NerdLove:

I’m a 20 year old female and he’s 21. He’s an international student and been in the states for 3 years now. We are both in college. (Different race but we do have the same religion).

It’s been more than a year since we started talking. We were in the talking stage at first he cooked for me and gave me flowers on our first date and we had sex. It was unexpected cause we weren’t planning to do it but it’s just happened. We talked for 2 weeks and then he ended up ghosting me. Also he does get depressed often cause he misses his family and only have few friends here and not really mature.

After ghosting me for 3 weeks he apologized sent me a huge essay and tried to make it up to me. I didn’t really care. I’m not a sensitive person and I try to stay unbothered. So when he asked for a second chance I was like “okay” and it turned it into a fwb and he made it clear he is not in a place to date anyone.

I’m guessing he just doesn’t wanna date (me).

We would ghost each other for no reason sometimes we would get into fights and stop talking but he would come back every time.

Also we are really good friends too if we are not having sex. We would still talk about our families, friends and about our life for hours. We have a few great memories together and we would both talk about it sometimes. He was talking to this one girl 5 months ago he told me about it and we stopped talking too cause he does stay loyal when he’s talking to someone. They didn’t even last a month and we started having sex again.

But why did he try to date other girls when he is not ready for a relationship? I didn’t ask him any questions about it cause I know if me and him get into a relationship it won’t work out for a lot of reasons but I do like him a lot but that doesn’t mean I think of him 24/7 or trying to have something serious. I also got into a relationship last year and it only lasted 2 months I ghosted him too when I was with my ex. But we are both single now and two days ago we were talking on the phone and he started saying stuff like “I still remember our first date it was like a movie. I would like to do it again. I will give you flowers again too” which made me wonder: does he still like me? I know he used to like me a lot when we first started talking but it’s been more than a year now. If he doesn’t wanna date (me) specifically, why didn’t he ever give me a reason? I never really asked tho. Also he does tell me things like “I do think about you”. Sex is great and we both crave each other a lot. I think my attachment to him is more of a sexual nature.

I don’t really have romantic thoughts about him but I know if he ever asks me to give us a try. I might.

So what are we?

Friends With Benefits Package

Far be it from me to question how people define their relationships (actually that’s a lie, I do that professionally) but I’m going to be honest: saying “we’re good friends if we’re not having sex” made me cock a skeptical eyebrow. That seems to conflict with the way the two of you behave – both when you’re having sex and when you’re not.

To be sure, I don’t think every friendship needs to be a constant connection, and there’re many friendships that work well even with long periods of radio silence before picking up where things left off like no time had passed. But the way the two of you seem to ghost each other at the drop of a hat is concerning at the very least. It seems difficult at best to build the sort of connection and trust that’s a core of a strong friendship when the other person seems to drop off the face of the planet at random intervals, followed by elaborate apologies. At best that strikes me as being dysfunctional and more than a little exhausting.

This is a case where the two of you are both young and inexperienced and sort of fumbling forward with good intentions, if not with good grace. I don’t, for example, think that your sometime FWB is trying to keep you on the hook or backburner you so that he always has something to come back to. I think he’s being honest in saying he’s not really in a place to date – and I agree with him.

The problem is that while he’s right about not being ready to date, I think it’s for the wrong reasons.

I realize that sounds a bit absurd – who cares what the reasons are if the outcome is the same? It matters because of how it affects his behavior, and how his behavior affects others.

Case in point: his relationship with you. For someone who theoretically doesn’t want to be in a committed relationship, he comes on very strong and conveys an entirely different message. His first date with you – flowers, cooking dinner, etc. – is the sort of thing I would not only expect on maybe a third date but also from someone who’s looking for something more committed. As I’ve said many times before: being in a casual relationship doesn’t mean that you can treat your partner casually, but that’s the sort of date that gives a strong impression of wanting romance and long-term commitment.

The same applies to his flowery apologies and declarations of how he can remember your date and wants to do it all again but moreso. Those are the sorts of things I would expect to hear from someone who is looking for a serious girlfriend, not an FWB. This conflict between what he says and what he does is almost custom made to create a lot of confusion and frustration.

It’s also really not fair for the people on the receiving end of these mixed signals. This sort of behavior – especially for someone who may not have a lot of experience themselves – can end up creating situations that ultimately waste people’s time. This is especially true for an on-again/off-again relationship like yours; it leaves one or both people on the hook as the other vanishes only to come back later and restart the whole messy saga – making it that much harder for either partner to find a relationship that might better meet their needs.  

And here’s the especially frustrating thing: I don’t think the issue is that he doesn’t want to date you, per se. From the way the two of you keep ending up back in bed together, I feel safe in saying that the two of you clearly have an emotional connection and no small amount of physical chemistry, considering how frequently the two of you end up falling back in bed after weeks or months of not talking. If I were to guess, I think the issue is more banal. I’d wager cash money that the real issue is down to his being in his early twenties, at college in a new country. I suspect that he worries that maybe things moved too fast or he’s afraid that if he starts to see you exclusively he’ll end up feeling like he’s missing out on other opportunities… even if it means giving up what might otherwise be a good thing. It’s FOMO to an absurd degree: giving up what he has that he clearly likes for the vague possibility that something more is out there.

And therein lies the problem. I think the real reason he’s not boyfriend material right now is that he doesn’t know what he wants, he’s afraid of making a “mistake” and he doesn’t know how to communicate this. So instead of being able to be up front about it, having the wherewithal to stop keeping you on the hook or talking things through so that you and he could figure out if it’s worth trying to make this work he just… bounces. And then comes back. And bounces again.  

And  if I’m being honest, it doesn’t seem like you’re handling it much better than he is. You’re not exactly covering yourself in glory here either. You say that you’re pretty sure you wouldn’t want to date him if it were an option… but you’re still doing this dance with him. You seem as prone as he to just dropping off the face of the planet as he, and just as unwilling to either put the brakes on this or to call the question. So instead you find yourselves in this position of bouncing off each other constantly, rebounding towards one another and then bouncing away again.

If that was something that you both discussed and both agreed you were ok with it, that would be one thing. But right now it seems to me like neither of you are willing to so much as call the question, never mind actually commit to something. So instead, you’re in this quasi-relationship that’s neither fish nor fowl and doesn’t seem to actually satisfy either of you. I keep wondering if the sex is enough to make up for the rest of the frustration and the way it keeps either of you from ever moving on.

This is why emotional intelligence and self-awareness are important parts of dating successfully. Part of it is recognizing a bad or problematic situation, even if aspects of it are acceptable or even enjoyable. Right now, it doesn’t seem like either of you are doing a great job of communicating or advocating for your own needs, nor at balancing having a friendship with one person with having a romantic or sexual relationship with another. None of that bodes well for anything long term– either with each other or with other people.

One or both of you need to shit or get off the pot. While I’m a firm believer that friendship and sex aren’t mutually exclusive, that requires more maturity and stronger communication than either of you are exhibiting right now. That’s something that can be improved over time… but it’s progress that neither of you can really make until you both can actually break this cycle and make it stick.

My advice would be to drop the sexual side of things and commit to being friends until you both get better at both knowing what you want and being able to communicate those needs. Yes, this runs the risk of one or both of you ending up with someone else… but right now it certainly doesn’t seem like you’re in a place where you’d be right for each other. In the future you may well be, and you may get there in time. But for now? I think the two of you are hindering each other’s growth more than helping.

Good luck.

Hey Doc!

I know you like success stories, so I figured now was a great time for me to send you my update. I was “Lizard Brain Sabotage” in your August 11, 2017 column.

After your column, I tried to take your advice and treated it as just being shy. I dated more and asked some friends for some advice too. I took a possibly-unexpected direction, as I had a friend who was into kink. This friend is someone who has consistently done a very good job of pushing me out of my comfort zone while being encouraging instead of pushing in a way where I’d be super uncomfortable. So I began to explore that a bit, going with them to some munches to just chat with people who had more and different relationship types than I’m used to, in order to broaden my horizons, and I guess, also see to what extent people who were “into shy men” could be into, in a situation where everyone is more open and communicative. It was a bit strange for me, but considering that discussion about my “relationship experience” was already difficult for me, a situation where EVERYONE was openly communicating about likes/dislikes/experience ended up being something very good for me. And I found someone who did seem to like me for me, even with all my embarrassment over topics they found normal that I needed to push myself to discuss a bit. That did eventually turn into losing my virginity with them. That relationship didn’t last, but it did give me the confidence to be less shy in “regular” dating.

So I kept up with that, and on future dates, I found myself being more assertive and confident on those first or second dates, keeping conversations going, and understanding when and how to be “bold” for me, even while still being myself and being shy about some pieces of myself. And it didn’t push them away. In fact, one of those successful first dates turned into more than that, and she and I are getting married in about a month!

This is obviously a much shortened description of my journey, including a detour that I never would have expected when I originally wrote you! But it has been quite a nearly-7-year journey, and I’d like to thank you for your advice, because that small nudge as well as words of encouragement really helped things I already knew but couldn’t actually DO on my own solidify into advice I could use day-to-day.

No More Sabotage

Hey, it’s great hearing from you! I’m glad to see how you far you’ve come and how those small steps have brought you so far. Congratulations on your progress and your impending marriage and I hope everything continues to go well for you!

Thanks for writing back to let us know how you were doing!