The concept of Friends With Benefits is an ideal that's clearly dreamed up by men. Our leading lady has everything: she's beautiful, she's sexual, she has her own life and she imposes no emotional needs on the man. And that's male nirvana. Jamie seems free, she has this masculine quality where she gets what she wants, she's aggressive and confident and loves to work. She's even got a semi-masculine name: Jamie. It's androgynous. She's this double seducer: professionally, she presents him an offer he can't refuse—and friends with benefits is an offer you can't resist, either. Jamie is like a darker Something About Mary. She's a perfect 10. I read in the Huffington Post that Mila Kunis had a butt double and I can't imagine they would have done that for anything other than modesty purposes—I'm sure her butt is perfectly nice. And the clincher is she's down to have sex with no strings attached and she's really good at it—she knows how to get her O on.
But fantasies always burst. When Jamie says "Don't give me emotional support," it's coming from a wounded place. It's coming from, "Don't make me like you and then let me down," which would relate to the boyfriend who dumps her in the beginning and before then, the mom. Because for her, love is capricious. Love comes in whenever it wants to, like her mom did. Love is conditional. She's desperately seeking the safety to be emotional, to be exactly who she is but she has no idea how to do that.
Despite his avoidant tendencies, I think Justin Timberlake's character Dylan believes in love. At first blush, it's hard to blame him for jumping on the FWB conceit. If somebody drives up to your house in a brand new Mercedes and says, "No insurance, no car payments, no gas—take it." Of course you're going to say yes, but then it will dawn on you: "I didn't earn this, this isn't really mine and I don't know when it's going to get taken away from me." And that creates insecurity. When he brings her home, she sees his inner world, who he really is. What she sees, too, is how much pain and sadness and fear is there. And that's when you see her start to really like him. Not when she sees how flashy his ride is, but when he lets her in on his vulnerabilities.
You can't not like Justin Timberlake, but in reality, a guy like this would probably be someone who was really hard to like. He would be texting under the table to other options, other girls he was dating. He would always have her feeling second in line, thereby controlling her. If I were to look at a clinical study of this—I'm extrapolating—but a guy like this in real life is a narcissist. He experienced rejection by mom, and there were probably smaller abandonments by her earlier in life. So he had to develop a narcissistic personality to protect his wounded, rejected self. You can see that in the website job he leaves so suddenly: it's all about him. I think Woody Allen said this about narcissism, "You're the piece of s--t at the center of the universe." You have to not care about other people to move through the world as a narcissist because if they're important, then you cease to be important.
I'm troubled by Jamie's mom. The movie takes a stab at getting to how damaging her behaviors is, but mostly it treats her as an affable free-spirit. Jamie's mom is likely a sex addict with totally poor boundaries. She is negligent, doesn't follow through with what she says she's going to do, and makes her daughter feel insignificant. She doesn't even know who Jamie's dad is and she's so cavalier about it—that's really hurtful. I wonder how Jamie is able to tolerate it. It's her only parent, so I guess she has to be very forgiving. Not having a father figure makes the need for a man in her life much more desperate. It's not just having a partner or someone to be with, it's filling that massive hole that her father left: the need to be validated by a male and to have an escape from mom. I think she's setting herself up not to have needs. Her needs were never met, so she's funneling this considerable sexual and emotional energy into a safe place, which is work. But interestingly, her job is to seduce: she's a head-hunter. She has so much love to give and receive, but it's misappropriated. She leaves him a gift basket of like 20 sheets when he moves in. No guy needs 20 sheets.
But Jamie is healthier than the movie seems to think she is. Like the romance with the doctor: she kind of takes it slow, doesn't sleep with him for five dates. Of course, five dates isn't that much. Telling the doctor that he has to wait five dates, it becomes very goal-oriented versus organic, two people coming together and learning about each other and seeing if there's something there. But at least she has boundaries. And while he's waiting, is he just shutting out what's happening between them, because they seem to get along? And what if she doesn't feel like it after five dates? What if she wants to wait and see or meet his friends? Modern courtship can be so twisted.
Friends with benefits, as I understand it is: you have an emotional connection, you care about each other, you have fun together. Maybe you go see a movie together. And then you add sex. So essentially you have a romantic relationship, except the thing that you're cutting out is exclusivity, commitment, and therefore, pressure. The thing is, you need pressure, you need anxiety to get close to someone. Anxiety forces change. It makes you question how you're doing things, it creates conflict and you have to resolve that conflict. But without pressure, you could go on to infinity without changing. As human beings, we want to change, we want to grow, we want to develop. When things don't change, the mind gets bored and everything atrophies.
I think FWB is often a way to hide wounds by setting up such low expectations that you can't be disappointed. Like, "Pick me up at 7....or whenever, whatever's good for you." If you take a stand and ask for what you want, you might not get it. But if you just sort of say, "I'm cool with whatever," then people aren't going to see you get hurt. Casual sex in the movies isn't new. It's just in the '80s, a stewardess would bang the guy and then leave—there wasn't pressure to be friends afterward. But I do see intimacy between them in a way, because they're opening up and talking about what they want and what they need. There are clear boundaries, which is important in intimacy. Intimacy is about two individuals who are solid in themselves opening up and inviting the other one in. It's not about devouring each other—that's not intimacy, that's enmeshment. Intimacy is about being vulnerable and saying, "Here's the soft part of my throat—I'm going to trust you. And you might hurt me, that's a reality that I'm aware of." It's not, "I'm showing you my throat and you better not hurt me—or else!"
There's a stereotype that girls enter friends with benefits arrangements to make a guy realize he can't live without her. It's a manipulation. Except what usually happens is the girl's feelings overwhelm her and she breaks away or pleads with him or says something like, "I'm in love with you, can't you see it?!" and that's the pressure to change. And he either leaves or he comes back and if he comes back, that's her fantasy—most romantic comedies are fantasies. And in reality, both parties frequently enter the relationship hoping to change the other...or hoping they'll never change beyond the fantasy. I don't think the movie is helpful because you don't see them working on the relationship. All you see is him coming to the realization that he wants to be with her and then he comes running and does a flash mob with her. Their second flash mob, because one wasn't enough.
Usually in relationships, it's clearer who is the avoidant and who is the pursuer. The pursuer or love addict moves forward, the distancer steps back, the pursuer moves forward again. And they're very happy to run in that hamster wheel. But Jamie and Dylan are both kind of ambivalent. They could definitely be drawn together in real life: when one is open, the other is a bit more shut off. You see them chasing each other, but they're never quite synced up. That's the intimacy disorder: you can't open up until the other person will reject you because you couldn't possibly tolerate them accepting you because then you'd actually have to deal with them and yourself. In the end, notice that he doesn't open up to her until she stops taking his calls. That's an old dynamic. It's not until the chick moves on that the guy realizes what he's been missing. And if you carry on past the credits, that happens over and over and over again every time they hit a hurdle. Should they move in together? Should they get married? Have a baby? It's the same pattern, unless they get a good therapist.
There's a moment where they're watching a romantic comedy together and one of them says, "You never see what happens after the big kiss." I think Friends With Benefits is trying to be an inversion of that, but you still don't see what happens after the big ending. I am much more interested in seeing the negotiation of this relationship. How do two people who bring their own wounds into the relationship negotiate loving each other in spite of their differences? So many of us are children of divorce and didn't see our parents working things out and expressing their needs. Even people whose parents stayed together but never saw them fight about stuff. I think that they will continue to have a great sexual life, but it's going to be a struggle to be emotionally close. Sex is the dominant way they interact.
Suppose they came to me for therapy sometime after the big kiss and said, "We don't want to screw this up, what do we do?" I would want to know, if therapy worked out perfectly for them, what would be different in their relationship? What are their objectives? Their fears of abandonment are going to be the big one. Tolerating the fear of abandonment and staying present and not going into the old ways of dealing with feelings through escapism, workaholism, or disassociated sex. I would talk a lot about family of origin: I'd explain why it makes perfect sense that they deal with their feelings the way that they do, given a mom who abandoned dad because he had Alzheimers, or a mother who has her own intimacy problems and wasn't nourishing, wasn't able to be constant or stable for her daughter. And I'm guessing there are generations behind them that set things up to play out the way that they do.
Couples do what they do even before you ask them explicitly what the problem is. They act out, as if on a stage, exactly what brings them to therapy. I can imagine with this couple, she might reach for her wallet to pay and he'll be like, "You're always trying to unman me by paying for the session! Why don't you let me pay for once?" And she'll say, "I make three times as much as you—why wouldn't you let me pay for it?" And then we could talk about how she tries to control him by emasculating him because she can't bear the thought of him leaving her. But they're young and elastic. They probably won't end up together, but they'll learn new things for the next round.
Caroline Frost, MFT, is a licensed Marriage Family Therapist and specializes in intimacy disorders like sex and love addiction and relationship dysfunction. She sees individuals and couples in private practice in the Beverly Hills/West Hollywood area. She also specializes in treating creative populations.
For a free phone consultation, call 323-839-3707, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, visit www.carolinefrost.com or follow @LoveWellTherapy on Twitter.