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“Friends With Benefits” and the Power of Non-verbal Messages

Although this blog site is committed to writing about platonic friendships rather than romantic ones, there is a type of friendship that falls in the crack between the two. Some folks choose to get involved in a relationship they describe as a “Friendship with benefits.”  The phrase indicates an explicit agreement that their friendship includes exclusive sex but does not include marriage or plans for the future.  I have worked with a number of clients who described their attempts to make such an agreement work and almost all of these friendships crashed and burned after a time. The reason why such agreements do not usually work is explained by the following psychological principle:

Non-verbal Messages Almost Always Cancel out Verbal Messages

An everyday example of this can be found in the following scenario.  Two friends, Marge and Jeanette, have had an argument and have stopped talking.  Wanting to make up, Marge approaches Jeanette a few days later and asks, “Are you still angry at me?”  Jeanette responds, “No, I’m not,” but the words are uttered in a flat, unfeeling voice and accompanied by a cold, hard facial expression.  She is sending Marge two conflicting messages.  Her actual words (the verbal message) say she is no longer angry, but her non-verbal cues (her look and tone of voice) say the opposite.  Which message will Marge believe to be true?  Based on the above principle, the non-verbal message will be seen as the truth. Thus, Marge will walk away from that exchange knowing in her heart that Jeanette is still angry at her despite the fact that her actual words said otherwise.

Let us now examine a specific “Friends with Benefits” scenario in this same light.  Ellen and Michael have the following conversation which leads to an agreement. 

Michael: I find you to be a fun, attractive woman to spend time with and I would like to have an exclusive, intimate physical relationship with you as well but I don’t want to live together or make any permanent plans for the future. If you can accept this I think we can have a lot of fun together, be great friends and not have to hassle the dating scene.

Ellen: I can live with that.  I find you attractive and I enjoy your company very much. Like you, I am not ready to get married at this time of my life and what you’re describing sounds like a good idea.  Let’s do it.

Six months goes by and the following conversation takes place.

Ellen:  So, Michael, when are we going to find a place and move in together?

Michael: Whoa! I’m confused!  I thought we had a very clear agreement about not living together of making future plans.  Why are you changing our agreement?

Ellen:  I thought the agreement was no longer in place.

Michael: Why would you think that?  I’ve never said anything to give you that idea.

Ellen: It’s not what you said; it’s how you’re acting with me.  It feels like you love me and are ready to go to the next level.

Michael:  I’m absolutely stumped. I absolutely do care about you but I’ve never said anything about the future. When do you remember me saying something like that?

At this point in their conversation Ellen and Michael are deadlocked.  The problem is that Ellen has made a shift and is now looking at the relationship from a different frame of reference, one that has been altered by the effects of Michael’s non-verbal messages during the previous six months. She believes that Michael, by being consistently tender and loving both in and out of bed, has given her a clear message that the original verbal agreement has been replaced by a new, more committed one.  Predictably, in her mind Michael’s non-verbal messages have taken precedence over the original verbal agreement.

Michael believes that since he has never, in words, said anything different, the original agreement is still in place.  He does not realize that six months of loving and tender non-verbal messages have, from her perspective, cancelled out their original verbal agreement.

In this example I chose Ellen to be the one who thought the rules had changed but it could just as easily have been Michael. Although I suspect there may be some basic gender differences as far as the ability to keep to such an agreement, the scenario just described is not meant to examine these differences; rather, it is an illustration of how non-verbal messages can cancel out verbal ones.  

The lesson?  Given that non-verbal messages have such power it is important for friends to try their best to demonstrate congruence between their verbal and non-verbal messages. That is, what they say and the way they say it need to be in tune with each other.   

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