Since the dawn of time (probably), casual relationships have been a thing. As a result, it seems like we're constantly coining new terms to describe undefined ‘ships. First, there was “booty call.” Next: “friends with benefits.” And now: “situationship.” So what, exactly, does the buzzy term mean?
“A situationship is a romantic arrangement that exists before/without a DTR [‘defining the relationship’] conversation,” says Los Angeles-based therapist Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT. Such a dynamic can be temporary, like after you’ve gone on a few dates with someone, but it’s still too early to discuss relationship status. Or, it can be the definition of the relationship, “like if you’re in a city on a short-term assignment and start seeing someone casually,” Lurie says.
“Situationships can be defined as a romantic relationship that lacks commitment and the associated norms and expectations,” adds Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for dating apps Tinder and Bumble. In short, it’s (ironically) a label for an otherwise label-free relationship.
Still confused? Don’t fret. Ahead, relationship experts explain what it means to be in a situationship and what to do if you find yourself in a relationship that has yet to be defined.
What does it mean to be in a situationship?
As mentioned, a situationship is an umbrella term that includes any romantic connection that is undefined or unestablished, says Devyn Simone, a matchmaker and Tinder’s resident relationship expert. The person you’re dating is not your official partner, but they’re not just a friend either. “You are somewhere in the middle, in a more casual relationship with no guardrails, but potentially some questions on where things are heading,” Simone adds.
A part of the reason why situationships are so popular is due to the rise of online dating, argues Christie Tcharkhoutian Kederian, PhD, LMFT, a renowned relationship expert and former celebrity matchmaker at eHarmony. “Dating apps have created this paradox of choice,” she says. “We have so many options, it’s hard to commit to that person in front of us, because when they go to the bathroom, we can just swipe.” (Guilty as charged.)
But while they can be cast in a negative light, situationships aren’t inherently bad: Whether you’re looking to play the field or just aren’t ready to put all your eggs in one basket, having undefined relationships can be fun, sexually satisfying, and even liberating. A situationship “gives you time to get to know somebody without feeling pressured to make a decision,” Kederian says.
The Pros and Cons of Situationships
Before doing a deep dive into whether your ‘ship fits the bill, let’s examine the benefits and drawbacks of situationships, according to Lurie and Carbino.
It’s an opportunity for self-growth. For those wanting to explore dating and relationships generally, situationships can help you learn how to interact with others romantically, says Carbino.
It allows for freedom and flexibility. You have the liberty to make decisions and explore your passions separate from another person. “In a situationship, you may be more free to prioritize your life without necessarily needing to check in or run things by your significant other the way you might in a more defined relationship,” says Lurie. “Because you’re not making a decision to build a life with your situationship partner, the choices you make are yours alone, with a few exceptions regarding choices that could jeopardize someone else’s health.”
There’s intimacy without commitment. “The urge to feel close to and experience intimacy with others is a very human need and, in some instances, it is much healthier for both parties to satisfy that need without feeling like they have to make commitments that aren’t aligned with their needs or wants,” says Lurie.
It may be convenient for certain life chapters. “Individuals may not be capable of a committed relationship at the time,” says Carbino. This could be because you know you’re moving soon, are on the mend after a difficult breakup, or countless other reasons.
It can lack consistent and stable support. “Although we generally have at least one other person in our lives we can confide in or turn to in times of hardship, many of us instinctively feel the need to get that type of support out of our romantic relationships,” explains Lurie. “In a situationship that is already very undefined and lacking clear expectations, it can be hard to feel as though there is space to share those more challenging parts of your life or ask for the type of support you need.”
You’re making yourself emotionally vulnerable. “You may experience some challenging emotions if the situationship is not aligned with your values, or your needs and wants,” cautions Lurie. “Being in an undefined relationship can prompt some individuals to doubt and second guess themselves, and this uncertainty can extend to other areas of life.”
Everything feels so ambiguous. “Situationships can be frustrating because there is ambiguity around what the norms are for the relationship. Therefore, individuals are unable to determine the level of interest or desires of a prospective partner at times,” says Carbino. “Relationships that are not committed may create a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty for those in them.”
There can be lots of conflict. “More often than not, there also are inconsistent views between the individuals in a situationship—both in terms of the relationship and the other person,” says Carbino. “This may lead to a great deal of conflict, resentment, and anxiety for both individuals, but primarily for the individual who is not pleased that the situationship has not progressed.”
How can you tell you’re in a situationship?
Now, that you’ve got the deets, get familiar with all the signs that point to a situationship:
1. There’s no natural evolution or growth.
If you aren’t hitting milestones in your relationship (i.e., meeting each other’s friends, celebrating small anniversaries, doing new activities together, etc.), it’s probably time to reality check your relationship—or, erm, lack thereof.
“One of the cardinal signals of a situationship is that the relationship is compartmentalized and the person is not integrated into other social relationships (i.e., friends and family),” says Carbino, adding that the length of the situationship is also key for evaluating whether it has a chance at blossoming into something more. “Longer situationships are often not very promising because it often signifies a lack of desire of at least one party to move the relationship into a different, more committed state,” she says.
2. There’s someone else (or multiple others) involved.
Here’s a telling giveaway: “If you discover that your significant other is romantically/sexually involved with one or more other people, you may be in a situationship,” says Lurie. “Even within a couple that actively practices ethical non-monogamy, ideally there would be clear and defined boundaries in place so that all parties stay informed and can consent to the boundaries of the relationship.”
3. You only make short-term or last-minute plans.
People in serious, committed relationships make plans weeks, months, sometimes years in advance. But those in situationships may operate on a more hourly and daily timeline. Many times, in undefined relationships, you may see your partner out of the blue or during odd hours, says Simone. If you play your dates by ear, and it’s not a given that you’re going to get together on the weekend or a holiday, that’s also a telltale sign you’re in situationship, says relationship expert Abby Medcalf, PhD.
4. There’s no consistency.
One major appeal of a committed, clearly defined relationship is that you can often count on seeing and talking to your person regularly. Situationships lack that. “They’re not asking you to hang out three times a week,” Tcharkhoutian says. Or, even if they are one week, don’t expect that to happen the next one.
5. They often make excuses to not hang out.
“Work’s really busy.” “I need to hit the gym.” “I’m traveling.” Sound familiar?
When you’re in a relationship, you make time for your partner, no matter what other life events are going on, Tcharkhoutian says. But in a situationship, she adds, there’s no urge to problem-solve, since that would require more effort than the other person is probably willing to make.
6. You mostly small (and dirty) talk.
Sure, you know where they live and work, and maybe a few general deets like where they grew up or if they’re a cat or dog person. But let’s be real: You’re more comfortable talking dirty than talking about your fears, insecurities, or lessons from past relationships.
“Without trust, there’s no vulnerability, and without vulnerability, there’s no emotional closeness,” Medcalf says. If your conversations are largely surface level, that’s a key sign that you’re likely in a situationship.
7. You don’t talk about the future.
Likewise, conversations in situationships pretty much only involve the present (“What do you want to watch?” “Pizza or Thai?”). The logic here’s pretty simple: If you’re not in it for the long haul, why talk about it?
If you haven’t had a discussion about the future and what you’re looking for, that could be a sign, says Medcalf. A situationship is basically “just shared activities—hanging out here and there,” which can feel pretty directionless, she notes.
8. They tell you that they don’t want to get serious.
The easiest way to know you’re in a situationship: The person tells you that you’re in one. “Believe what they say,” Medcalf explains. “[People] are not complicated creatures.” (And, hey, at least they told you.)
9. They show you they don’t want to get serious.
Actions speak louder than words, so when in doubt: Take note of their behavior. “People will show you through their actions what they think of you,” Medcalf says. “If they’re not calling, they’re just not that into you.”
10. You’re frequently anxious.
Just because situationships are expectation-free (Want to cancel plans? NBD. Don’t feel like bringing soup when they’re sick? No need!) doesn’t mean they’re stress-free. “You know you’re in a situationship when you feel anxious because there’s uncertainty, ambiguity, and ambivalence,” Medcalf says.
11. You’re getting bored.
Any relationship expert will tell you that keeping a relationship alive means continuously having novel experiences with your partner. But in a situationship, you probably do the same thing over and over. (Ahem, Netflix and chill—and yes, even that can get old.) “If it’s vague, doesn’t have direction, and doesn’t have any structure, it’s going to be stale, and it’s not going to be fun anymore,” says Tcharkhoutian.
Okay, so you’re definitely in a situationship. What now?
If you’re cool with what you have and want to keep it that way, that’s totally valid! Again, some people want a non-committal, casual relationship because they’re wanting to explore their options or aren’t in a place in their life where they can fully commit to a serious relationship. But, ask yourself: “Is this what I really want?”
“In some ways, we might be okay with a casual situation, but we might also be thinking, ‘If this is what they need, that’s fine; I can accommodate that,’” Tcharkhoutian says. Make sure you’re not pushing your own needs and wants aside just because you want to satisfy someone else’s or because you think their feelings might change if you follow their lead.
If you’re truly down with the sitch, set some boundaries. Are you going to talk about who else you’re both sleeping with? Are you going to do weekday overnights? Are hangouts restricted to just the two of you or can you invite each other into your friend groups, too? “Be clear you’re both on the exact same page with the same expectations,” advises Medcalf.
When it comes to dating, especially online dating, it’s important to have the “What are you looking for?” conversation early on to get a sense of where you’re both at, says Los Angeles-based relationship therapist Sarah Breen, LCSW. (Erm, not to mention it’ll save you some heartache if you know you’re both looking for different things.) It’s all about communicating your wants and needs, and speaking up if your feelings change.
“I think there’s an assumption that you don’t have to talk about the serious things when you’re not in a committed, exclusive relationship and your lives don’t overlap,” says Breen. “But for it to be healthy, you [need] to have conversations to make sure you’re on the same page.”
Can a situationship lead to a committed relationship?
Like other dating terms that have entered the lexicon in recent years, the definition of situationship is changing. What was once considered a synonym for “friends with benefits” is now seen as a legitimate relationship step and status, according to Tinder’s 2022 Dating Trends Report.
Last year, “Tinder saw a 49-percent increase in members adding the phrase to their bios with young singles saying they prefer situationships as a way to develop a relationship with less pressure,” per the report.
But what if you want something more? Can an undefined relationship evolve into something committed and exclusive? Short answer: Yes.
While a situationship can give you time to determine what you want out of a relationship with this person, there’s usually a tipping point where one or both parties want more than an ambiguous status, says Breen.
More often than not, at least one partner “catches feelings,” adds Medcalf. There’s an actual physiological reaction that happens when you’re intimate with someone. More specifically, your body releases the bonding hormone oxytocin when you have sex, cuddle, or even just hug, and you can’t override it, she explains. (Dang biology.)
Once emotions build, being in a situationship can totally blow. “You start to feel rejected [if] the person doesn’t want you fully,” Medcalf says. When it comes to that point, “it’s important to be honest with yourself and the other person about where you’re at, otherwise you’re doing a disservice to yourself,” says Breen.
From there, the dreaded “What are we?” talk is unavoidable, says Simone. She suggests having this discussion in a private space, free of distractions, to set the tone and express your feelings.
Be clear about what you want. Try saying: “I’ve enjoyed spending time with you,” suggests Tcharkhoutian. Then tell them what you like or appreciate about them, and finally ask for their thoughts on where things might go.
If they come up with an excuse for the casual scenario without an end date (i.e., “Work is crazy” instead of, “After my real estate exam, I should be able to commit more”) don’t expect things to change.
Either way, “go in with a really clear boundary of what you will and won’t accept,” Medcalf says. “You call the shots.”
If you find it challenging to communicate your needs, working with a therapist could be beneficial, says Evelyn Pechous, AMFT, a staff therapist at The Expansive Group.
What are some situationship red flags?
If your situationship isn’t headed in the direction you want it to or is starting to become unhealthy, there are a few signs (read: red flags) that it might be time to exit the ‘ship.
Obviously there’s the lack of follow through and being cagey around bringing you around their friends, but a main cause of concern to watch out for is inconsistent communication. That’s the common theme in situationships that are less likely to lead to a more defined or committed relationship, says Pechous. If you were previously texting every single day, and now they only hit you up once a month, that’s a clear sign that they probably don’t want to continue.
If they’re not curious about your day-to-day, learning more about who you are, and you’re putting in all the work to maintain the connection, that’s another telltale sign, per Pechous. Some other major flags to look out for include: They’re minimizing your needs and you don’t feel comfortable asking for what you truly want. In both cases, do yourself a favor and get out immediately.
How do I end a situationship?
After a while, your situationship will likely hit its expiration date—either because you move the relationship forward, you both realized you want different things and split amicably, or you deem the whole thing unhealthy.
To officially end a situationship that’s no longer serving you, it’s all a matter of having a conversation—simple as that. Depending on your preference and what feels safe, you might schedule a phone call, meet one-on-one in person, or even send them a text explaining why it’s no longer working for you. The important thing is that you don’t ghost, affirms Pechous. (No Caspers allowed—sorry, not sorry.)
When having the conversation, Pechous recommends utilizing a tool commonly taught in marriage and family therapy called a “soft startup.” It’s essentially offering some validation or an affirmation before setting a boundary. This might look like saying something along the lines of: “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you and the time we spent together, but I can tell we want different things, so I don’t think we should continue seeing each other.” It’s important to keep your message neutral and stick to the facts, says Breen.
After all is said and done, take some time for you. You might enjoy a long bath, move your body, and/or lean on your community, says Pechous. The time right after a breakup is the perfect moment to pour that energy back into yourself and focus on self-care.
Dating is really hard right now, Pechous admits. With all the challenges that exist around finding someone who you enjoy being around, makes you feel good, and wants the same things as you, it’s important to have self-compassion. And never, ever settle for less. When it comes to your love life, you’re in control. Remember that.
Meet the Experts: Saba Harouni Lurie, LMFT, is a licensed relationship therapist and board-certified art therapist based in Los Angeles. Jess Carbino, PhD, is an online dating expert and former sociologist for Tinder and Bumble. Devyn Simone is an internationally renowned matchmaker and Tinder’s resident relationship expert. Christie Tcharkhoutian Kederian, PhD, LMFT, is a renowned relationship expert and former celebrity matchmaker at eHarmony. Abby Medcalf, PhD, is a relationship expert, author, and speaker based in Berkeley, California. Sarah Breen, LCSW, is a licensed therapist based in Los Angeles, California. Evelyn Pechous, AMFT, is a sex therapist and staff therapist at The Expansive Group.
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