For those who missed No Strings Attached some months back, Friends With Benefits, which arrives in theaters this Friday, has a similar theme. The new comedy from Easy A director Will Gluck stars Mila Kunis as a recently dumped job-placement agent who secures a dream job—photo editor at GQ magazine—for one of her clients, played by Justin Timberlake (also recently dumped). The two attractive, outgoing, and motivated young professionals soon form a friendship. Swamped with work, they eventually agree to add sex to the equation, formally swearing to engage in a “friends with benefits” relationship—sex and friendship, sans romantic feelings. Naturally, this doesn’t go over so well.
The “friends with benefits” relationship isn’t just a big-screen occurrence, however, but is rather common among college students and postgrads. The Daily Beast spoke with renowned relationship expert Dr. Drew Pinsky, host of the radio show Loveline, VH1’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew, the HLN talk show Dr. Drew, and the upcoming daytime talk show Dr. Drew's Lifechangers, to chat about the dangers of entering into a “friends with benefits” relationship, and to break down what the Timberlake and Kunis characters go through in the film.
Friends With Benefits opens with both Justin Timberlake’s character and Mila Kunis’ character getting dumped by their respective mates, despite the fact that they seem like a much better “get” than the person dumping them. What effect can being dumped by someone you perceive as not worthy of you have?
The person that goes for someone whose number doesn’t match theirs often does so because of a low self-esteem. They don’t feel worthy of much else. The other issue of this film’s characters, as they’re painted, if someone is raised with an unavailable parent of the opposite sex—either truly unavailable, abusive emotionally, or was abandoning in some way—the young adult is trying to fix the unfinished business of childhood, and will long for and be very attracted to the very type of person who was so traumatizing in their childhood. So they’ll repeatedly go for the wrong type of person. And the flip side of that exact same deficiency of intimacy is swearing off relationships altogether and just going for “friends with benefits.” They’re both flip sides of the exact same phenomenon.
The two central characters also suffer from parent issues, having both been raised by single parents whose spouses left them. Mila Kunis’ mother is a flighty party girl who is basically raised by Mila, and Timberlake’s dad suffers from dementia.
So they have the abandoning parent of the opposite sex, so that’s what they’re longing for, since all they know of love of the opposite sex is someone who’s not available, and the same-sex parent parentalizes them, doesn’t give them what they need to be children or grow an emotional landscape, and they end up narcissistic and looking for a solution to their emotional emptiness in things like career, drugs, alcohol, extreme sports, or something. They start looking for ways to solve that problem because they were never given the opportunity to grow an emotional landscape from a nurturing, available parent. They were just quickly parentalized and became a caretaker. And the caretaking is all part of the “going for a broken person” and trying to fix them. It’s a perfect storm for creating somebody that doesn’t know how to have a real relationship.
Then Mila Kunis’ character, who works at a job-placement agency, helps Justin Timberlake’s character land his dream job as photo editor of GQ magazine. The two soon become friends, but eventually enter into a “friends with benefits” situation, where they say they’ll treat sex “like playing tennis.” What are the dangers of said situation?
I was giving a lecture at the University of Maryland eight or 10 years ago, and I was describing “friends with benefits,” and I said, “You know, on paper it looks great.” And some kid yelled out, “Yeah, so does communism!” Which is very much the point: that just because something looks good on paper and sounds good intellectually doesn’t mean it’s good for the human experience. Humans don’t operate like that. Inevitably, an attachment occurs, a bond occurs, and feelings develop. Even though people swear off it, somebody develops some kind of feelings. The only scenario where I see it work is when very young screwballs are just kind of messing around, or in two sex addicts acting out together. That can go on for a while. If people are really in trouble emotionally and they’re just mutually exploitative for sex addiction, that kind of works. But, just like every other addiction, it eventually goes down in flames. So it only works for a while.
How does engaging in a “friends with benefits” relationship affect your future attitude toward sex and relationships?
Obviously, it takes the wind out of your sails and the eye out of the tiger, so you’re not motivated to pursue relationships. And it’s very easy for these people, because they are indeed friends, to start hanging out and doing other things as well because their interpersonal landscape is so vacant, and they’re afraid of it, so they wouldn’t dare enter into a real relationship, because this person fits into a box nicely for them and they try to control that. But again, inevitably, this bleeds out into something as well.
Timberlake’s character is also a transplant from Los Angeles, and doesn’t have any friends or roots in New York, which also propels him into this scenario. She’s the only person he can really depend on for companionship.
That’s the perfect scenario for that—particularly in someone that’s fearful of real intimacy. Those people don’t know how to develop real friendships, and they’re afraid of relationships for fear of being left. Anybody can relate to that feeling of just wanting to have someone around, and this kind of person would easily justify sex as a surrogate for closeness, because they don’t know anything different. It’s a perfect way to say, “Now I’m OK. I’ve got somebody.” Even though this person is just using the other for sex.
The characters regularly decry romantic comedies’ “Prince Charming shit,” which also fuels their desire to enter into this situation, almost as an act of rebellion. How have romantic comedies affected the attitudes of 20-somethings toward relationships?
Most of the “Prince Charming” stuff is painted very, very unrealistically—this film seems to be painted very accurately. But the other thing about romantic comedies, per se, is usually they're built around love addiction. Romeo and Juliet is two love addicts acting out, and look how that ended. If one of them were one of my patients, it would have ended in a lawsuit! That was not a good outcome. So love addiction ending in “happily ever after” is not a great message.
Another complication that arises is that Kunis’ salary is tied to Timberlake’s, in that she gets a hefty bonus with her placement agency if he stays on the job for a year.
This is why you have to have boundaries in the workplace. When those boundaries are violated, lots of liabilities occur. People feel angry, people feel let down. I’m sure a real Mila Kunis in that job would have had very distinct prohibitions against engaging in these kinds of relationships for the very reasons that are portrayed here. Of course in real life it would’ve again ended up in a lawsuit.
In the similarly themed No Strings Attached, Kunis’s Black Swan co-star Natalie Portman was the more emotionally distant one, and Ashton Kutcher’s character developed feelings for her. Here, the power dynamic between the sexes has shifted, so Justin Timberlake plays the emotionally unavailable character, while Mila Kunis’ develops feelings for him. Is this often the case—the woman can’t handle a “friends with benefits” situation?
Men develop feelings in these situations a surprising amount of the time. Women are biologically set up for bonding and having feelings evoked by a sexual relationship, but interestingly, the kind of woman that gets into these “friends with benefits” things is already so emotionally disconnected that she denies and dissociates from those sorts of feelings, so she’s able to pull it up. Women, in my experience, do tend to be the ones to develop feelings more than men, and they rationalize it. Women talk to me on the radio all the time, like, “We decided this. We decided that.” They never take into account their own feelings, they’re just trying to rationalize it from the standpoint of what looks good on paper, even though it feels so bad for them. If you’re not accustomed to feeling feelings, this can be a very evocative and confusing experience. But men do develop feelings a large percent of the time, but I think women a little more so than men.
They are friends, so they have dinners and watch movies with one another. But things get serious when they’re introduced to each other’s parents, and the issues they have with them. They feel vulnerable and exposed.
It cuts two ways: For someone who is already aversive to emotions, to see a lot of emotional needs coming out of a family system that’s broken, they become aversive. They pull away and go, “Oh, I don’t need all that. That’s more than I bargained for.” The person who is emotionally disconnected and looks into the emotional needs of another person doesn’t feel good about that. They didn’t want to experience that other person’s pain, or their miseries. The other side of the coin is they can go, “Wow. I can identify very strongly with that because I went through something similar.”
Would you usually advise two people like these, with similar sets of problems, to get together? Or is that a very worrisome scenario?
It’s worrisome because they’re both suffering from the same problems, but that’s how life is. If people fit together, they fit for a reason. It’s usually the sickest part of one person fitting into the attraction of the sickest part of another. So, usually it’s the case of the unfinished business of childhood and the broken family system that creates the fit in the first place.
Do you have anything else to add about engaging in a “friends with benefits” relationship?
It looks great on paper, but it’s a very treacherous road. Particularly women need to pay attention to what is unique to their own personal biology and emotional systems, and not deny it. Go ahead and get what you really want. Just because Dad wasn’t available or Mom wasn’t available doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good people out there. But you have to be very careful yourself in your own attraction. If you have a history of being attracted to people who have failed you in relationships, find people that aren’t so exciting and aren’t quite so attractive. Try that on for size and see if you can tolerate that. The other thing is, “friends with benefits” is the flip side of repeated failed relationships. It’s the exact same phenomenon. So don’t think that you’re outsmarting relationships by doing that. You’re going down the same path, just the other side of the coin.