“Friends with Benefits”: What Relationships “Count” for a Domestic Violence Restraining Order

by | Feb 8, 2024 | Divorce, Restraining Orders

The Court of Appeals recently released an opinion that may affect who qualifies to request a domestic violence restraining order. The case, M.A. v. B.F., addressed the question many people avoid, what is the relationship status of “friends with benefits”? This question is important because only certain types of relationships qualify to have legal standing to request a domestic violence restraining order in California Court.

To qualify to request a domestic violence restraining order, there must be a “intimate” relationship between the parties. This standard is governed by Family code 6211 which states:

“Domestic violence” is abuse perpetrated against any of the following persons:

(a) A spouse or former spouse.

(b) A cohabitant or former cohabitant, as defined in Section 6209.

(c) A person with whom the respondent is having or has had a dating or engagement relationship.

(d) A person with whom the respondent has had a child, where the presumption applies that the male parent is the father of the child of the female parent under the Uniform Parentage Act (Part 3 (commencing with Section 7600) of Division 12).

(e) A child of a party or a child who is the subject of an action under the Uniform Parentage Act, where the presumption applies that the male parent is the father of the child to be protected.

(f) Any other person related by consanguinity or affinity within the second degree.

“Friends with benefits” would generally fall under item (c) as a “dating relationship”. However, recent case law muddies the waters on this term, and appears to make the term “dating” a very narrowly tailored definition. Under the Domestic Violence Prevention Act, a “‘dating relationship’” consists of “frequent, intimate associations primarily characterized by the expectation of affection or sexual involvement independent of financial considerations.” (Fam. Code, § 6210.)

In M.A. v. B.F., the Court found that “friends with benefits” is a complicated relationship that cannot be easily identified as one that qualifies, nor one that doesn’t. Specifically, the Court held that, “. Whether such a dating relationship exists is inherently a fact-intensive inquiry, not susceptible to resolution based on shorthand labels or descriptors. We therefore do not hold a “friends with benefits” relationship is necessarily a dating relationship or that it can never be one.” In that case however, the parties had been friends for over a year, communicated often via text, and had sex several times. M.A. would go to B.F.’s sporting events and B.F. even met M.A.’s mother. Despite this, the Court found there was not a dating relationship between the parties such that M.A. could file a request for a domestic violence restraining order. It appears the Court found it relevant that during the time the parties were “together”, they never went out on a date, had title labels for the status of their relationship, had only been together about 8 times in their 18 months, and M.A. had sex with another person once during this period.

The Court leaned heavily on another case, Oriola v. Thaler (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 397 (Oriola) when conducting its analysis. “In that case, the appellate court considered statutes addressing domestic violence from other states and held a “‘dating relationship,’” as that term is used in California’s DVPA (Fam. Code, § 6210) “refers to serious courtship. It is a social relationship between two individuals who have or have had a reciprocally amorous and increasingly exclusive interest in one another, and shared expectation of the growth of that mutual interest, that has endured for such a length of time and stimulated such 11 frequent interactions that the relationship cannot be deemed to have been casual.””

The cynic in me believes M.A.’s sexual encounter with another person during this time was more of an important factor to the Court than the opinion lets on due to the system we must judge each other on these types of relationships. The Court, however, simply states the question is a complicated one that different people could draw different conclusions for.

Importantly, the Court does say this is not an end all be all ruling. “Our holding does not mean another trier of fact could not find that parties in a “friends with benefits” relationship were in a dating relationship for purposes of the domestic violence statutes.  Given our society’s evolving understanding of personal relationships, it is virtually impossible to craft a bright-line test to definitively identify a relationship that is — or is not — a dating relationship under Family Code section 6210. The obvious exceptions are on the margins: A true one-night stand or a long-term business relationship with no indicia of a personal, intimate nature, on the one hand, and a relationship of many months in which the parties regularly go out in public together, engage in intimate activities, but do not refer to themselves as boyfriend and girlfriend, on the other. Family Code section 6210 requires the relationship consist of “frequent, intimate associations primarily characterized by the expectation of affection or sexual involvement independent of financial considerations.””

What if your relationship with the person you need protection from does not qualify for a domestic violence restraining order? You may have other avenues to request protection from the California Court through the civil system. Discussing the matter with a qualified attorney can help you navigate these difficult situations.