The last time I fell in love, it was with a man who only rolled into my driveway between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight once or twice a week. He was my “friend with benefits,” my no-strings-attached sex partner.
If my life were a movie, maybe we would have dated and lived happily ever after like the couples in “Love and Other Drugs” and “Friends With Benefits.” Since life isn’t like the movies, my friends advised me to avoid inevitable heartbreak and end the relationship.
But I didn’t. I just wanted to have casual sex with my friend, whom I happened to love. And so I did, and it happened to be the most amazing and healthy casual sex of my life.
Studies show that millennials’ ideas about relationships are changing, hopefully for the better. We are more likely to identify as queer. We’re also learning more about consensual non-monogamy, such as polyamorous and open relationships. Asexual and aromantic people, who are slowly being represented more in mainstream media, are challenging the idea that sex and romantic love is something everyone wants and needs.
But for those of us who were raised on Disney, it’s hard to shake the idea that we won’t be happy until we find and marry The One. So developing feelings for a friend — including friends you’re casually sleeping with — can seem like a waste of time and energy, and potentially a recipe for heartbreak.
Love isn’t required to have great sex, but I’ve found it difficult to enjoy sleeping with someone when I’m terrified of liking them too much. In my second year at college, I slept with a boy who wouldn’t look me in the eyes during sex because, according to him, it was too close to love. Our relationship would be unsustainable for myriad reasons, he said, and loving me would be like adopting an old dog and waiting for it to die.
He spent so much energy averting his gaze that it took the fun out of the time we spent together. I never needed him to love me, but his fear meant every action was stifled. His fear of vulnerability meant he became more callous. He stopped talking to me about anything other than sex. Our friendship dried up, and so did the pleasure.
This made sense to me at the time. I even adopted his warped line of thinking — You don’t want to adopt an old dog — as I feigned disinterest in the casual relationships I had after him. Many of these arrangements grew unhealthy because we feared falling in love, or we ended it when we started becoming too familiar, too close, too affectionate. This pattern continued for quite some time.
But then, something changed. By the time this man started becoming a regular feature in my life, I had already loved myself too much to let unrequited love bother me. I realized that I could love someone without needing them to commit to me. He was a true friend whom I could rely on for emotional support. He was generous and considerate toward me. He was worthy of my love, but I didn’t want to date him. He was too young, too conservative and too unfocused for it to work long-term.
When I realized that I loved him, I told him. I told him that I didn’t feel entitled to his love or his time. He never said he loved me back, but he promised that he wouldn’t break my heart. He also said things wouldn’t change, but everything did change … for the better. We communicated more honestly. Our friendship bloomed. I was less guarded. The sexual pleasure went from being amazing to off-the-charts. Now that I had fallen in love, there was nothing to fear.
When he started seeing someone else, our relationship came to a halt. This was an understandable boundary. Going from seeing him once or twice a week to not seeing him at all was difficult, and it hurt much like every friendship breakup. But our relationship still ended with me knowing that falling in love with him was worth it.
I realized that I don’t need to be in love to have good sex, but being truthful with myself and my sexual partners is important. Sometimes, that includes letting myself feel something rather than shutting it down.