Are Single-Serving Relationships the New F*ck Buddies?

“I love sex, but I’m tired of feeling like I should have left a stack of twenties on someone’s nightstand.”

About a year ago I was hooking up with a man who, by all intents and overblown “hookup culture” paranoia purposes, was nothing more than a friend with truly excellent benefits; a scratcher of an itch at best, despite being generally lovely and in no way displeasurable. Neither of us had any desire to date each other, yet our relationship had somehow transcended the purely transactional: when he’d come over, we’d cook together, we’d cuddle, he’d hold my hand as we basked in the emotional afterglow that can only come from intimacy, real or perceived, and just like that, he was gone.

He rarely stayed the night. He’d kiss my forehead in bed, we’d discuss exploring certain sexual proclivities based on mutual trust, but the second he crossed the threshold of my bedroom door, it was as if the relationship-like spell was broken; he was back to just being the kid with the backpack who hated making small talk with my roommate, that I never talked to about my day to day life.

Were my recently evolving fuck buddies not actually fuck buddies, but single-serving relationships instead?

“Are you sure you’re not just trying to pretend you guys aren’t catching feelings?” friends would always ask, especially because anyone who knew me was wholly aware of the fact that my heart lived in my vagina. “I’m not catching feelings,” I’d always push back. “It’s just a single-serving relationship.”

Back in the days when Fight Club was the movie you quoted ad infinitum if you were the type of girl who wanted men to know you were a cool girl, one Edward Norton quote always used to stick out: “The people I meet on a plane, they’re single-serving friends. Between takeoff and landing we have our time together; that’s all we get.”

In the days since I’ve grown up from watching the types of movies post-grads used to stick posters of onto their bedroom walls with Scotch tape, that quote has kept winding its way back into my bedroom. If single-serving friends are people you share a bit of magnified intensity with in small doses, were my recently evolving fuck buddies not actually fuck buddies, but single-serving relationships instead?

A single-serving relationship differs from a traditional fuck buddy in a multitude of ways. Unlike fuck buddies of yore, most of who employed a hit it and quit mentality for the majority of my early twenties, these hookups are far less transactional. Single-serving relationships mirror many of the same beats of a relationship — hair ruffling, hand holding, mutual masturbation — yet they maintain the same lack of commitment that traditional FWBs dictate. Most are fleeting — some only days long, others a few weeks — because after a few months, you’re really just in a ‘real’ relationship. They’re generally private, though I’ve had a few, especially of the vacation hookup variety, spill into the public arena with casual dinners here, an arm around the shoulder on a walk home from the bar there. It’s not a romantic relationship masquerading as two people who refuse to acknowledge their burgeoning feelings, but rather an evolved no strings attached hookup — all the intimacy of a good relationship, without any of the commitment or pressure that can often tank a traditional pairing.

“I’m pushing 30,” my friend Brady, a serial single-serving dater explained. “I look great, and I don’t need or want to settle down right now, but I also want to go to the farmer’s market on Sunday with a girl under my arm every now and then.”

“I’d also like to cook dinner and argue about ‘Game of Thrones’ with you, but I’m not looking for a girlfriend, either.”

Age, as Brady mentioned, plays a big part of it. With dating apps and social norms snoozing our biological clocks further and further, settling down young is far less common. But that willingness to forgo commitment for longer doesn’t translate into a prolonged adolescence for many single-servers. Though Brady acknowledges that in his “shittier days” he admittedly has entrapped women by pretending to be boyfriend material before disappearing when she caught feelings, his single-serving behavior is entirely different.

“People complain about singledom being difficult, but they forget that being single can be hard even when you do it by choice,” Brady explains. “So now I’m upfront with hookups that I enjoy hanging with; ‘Yes I’d like to fuck you, yes I’d also like to cook dinner and argue about Game of Thrones with you, but I’m not looking for a girlfriend, either.’ I’ve been lucky that everyone I’ve hooked up with since has taken that at face value instead of using it as a foot in the door to change my mind, because I enjoy a little intimacy with the women I sleep with now that I’m not living in a fraternity house.”

And it’s not just about growing up. Explains David, a former fuck buddy of mine who always spooned me for (as he puts it) “at least 10, but always sub 20 minutes,” the transactional nature of commitment free hookups are as much a turn off as the idea of being forced into settling down sooner than he’d like to.

“I love sex, preferably with as many women as possible, but I’m tired of feeling like I should have left a stack of twenties on someone’s nightstand before squirreling away,” says David. “Plus, this experience should be awesome for both of us, and my mother always told me it’s nice to be nice.”

It’s hard not to wonder if the push for single-serving hookups is just sleight of hand from a slightly older demographic, or a new trend entirely, born out of the last four years of lusty, app-filled boomtown days of Bumble, Tinder, Hinge, OKCupid, Grindr, HowAboutWe, and everything in between making it easier than ever to find someone to bang on short notice, and disposing of them for a better model just as quickly, should something go awry.

Single-serving relationships are more humanizing than friends with benefit relationships. They’re also not for everyone.

As Brady puts it, “Before those apps came around, yeah, I wanted to fuck everything that moved. But I also had to work for it, because getting people to fuck you took real world, person-to-person effort. The barrier to literal entry is now mutually lower than ever, but so is my humanity. I don’t mirror a relationship to be a dick; I do it because shouldn’t I feel something more than tempered glass under my thumb?”

Single-serving relationships, as it turns out, are far more humanizing than friends with benefit relationships, which can often raise more questions than they answer. They’re also not for everyone.

Take Jessica, who accidentally ended up in a single-serving relationship in her early twenties without realizing it. “The summer after I graduated college, I broke up with my much-older uptight boyfriend and started sleeping with this guy that I was acquaintances with. It felt really good to have wild, no-strings-attached sex with someone who was the opposite of my ex but also someone that I would never actually seriously date. Then one night he came over my apartment after I got off work and we cooked dinner together. Mid-fettucine-bite, I realized that we had spent the last 10 nights together and he was basically living at my apartment. I freaked the fuck out and stopped seeing him shortly thereafter.”

It’s not just being caught in a single-serving hookup that daters have to watch out for, it’s also — as Brady mentioned when talking about the “shittier days” of his youth — the idea that someone might openly ape ‘real relationship’ behavior, with no mention of their actual lack of desire to commit.

“Fuck thaaaaaat,” complained another friend, Rachel, who has been burned on the receiving of a single-serve more than once. “Show me a guy who wants to be in an ‘uncomplicated hookup situation,’ and I’ll show you a guy who just wants to ghost without consequence.”

“It’s like cutting and pasting the nice things about a relationship—the comfort, the cute activities, the public hand holding and kissing—into a weekend, or a string of a few days,”

Before writing off single-serving dating as a mere abatement of guilty consciences for men who like getting their dick wet, consider that mature single-serving relationships — ones that are openly discussed with all parties clear on the arrangement —  are generally more affirming than they are dastardly manipulative.

“It’s like cutting and pasting the nice things about a relationship—the comfort, the cute activities, the public hand holding and kissing—into a weekend, or a string of a few days,” explains my good friend Marian, currently flitting between a few single-serving relationships of her own. “One of my flings is coming to town for New Year’s Eve and I’m so excited because I know we’re going to have good sex and give each other affection, but it’s uncomplicated.”

In the last year, friends have opened up more and more about their own experiences with relationships that mirrored single-serving fuck buddies — many coming around with age, others with, as Brady mentioned, a desire to not be a dick, and some that were merely relationships that hadn’t fully metastasized yet. I’ve been in more of my own than I can count, somehow having grown out of my days of catching feelings easier than I catch colds. They’re often uplifting, they’re sexually satisfying, and yes, sometimes, they’re intensely maddening to the point where I wonder if it’s even worth the effort. But more than anything, they’re often just nice.

And in a time where sex has never been more black and white — you’re either dating or you’re just fucking — maybe Edward Norton and Brad Pitt had a point. Between fucking and not fucking another person, you only have that time together, and that’s all you get.

Photos by Getty Images