These days, it’s hard to keep track of all the available words to define one’s relationship status. People aren’t just “single” or “in a relationship” anymore—they have friends with benefits, polycules, monogamous partners, swinging sweethearts, booty calls, and situational relationships, a.k.a. “situationships.”
What’s the difference between “situationships” and other arrangements? And are these situations sustainable? Let’s get into it.
What is a situationship?
According to psychologist Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, people are in a situationship when they “act as though they are dating but do not commit to each other. ” The main draw is that situationships “allow people to experience the benefits of both being in a relationship and being single.”
Unlike FWBs or casual, no-strings-attached relationships, which are mostly about sex, situationships usually involve some emotional investment, even if they don’t include default Saturday dates and “goodnight” texts. In situationships, some emotional connection and responsibility are established, but the course and nature of the relationship is ambiguous.
Note that people in a situationship don’t proudly boast that they’re in a situationship. Ironically, the term is label-less label, but that’s the entire point: in situationships, you can ethically revel in the unspoken, gray area of your connection.
“People who tend to gravitate towards situationships are those who want the emotional connection and intimacy with a partner in a compartmentalized way,” Romanoff explains. “They may have emotional presence and connection in person, but when apart, they also have freedom outside of a committed relationship.”
Most of the time, people in situationships have a tacit agreement that they are somewhat dating, or at least “seeing” each other in some capacity. But by not having that “What are we?” talk, there’s no pressure to commit. Additionally, those in a situationship can keep dating and having sex with other people, but they don’t always share their escapades with each other—usually, they have a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy. That’s why these label-less pairings can be confusing, says Raffi Bilek, a couples counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center.
“It starts when an individual doesn’t want to bring [a designation to their relationship] up because they don’t want to put pressure on the relationship,” he says. But “it’s human nature to want something more defined. These relationships without a label are not good for the long term. I think people will do this for weeks or months.” At some point, “people will ask: What are we doing?”
While ambiguity might seem like the greatest benefit of situationships, it’s also a design flaw.
How do situationships happen?
Marianne Dainton, PhD, a professor specializing in interpersonal communication at La Salle University in Philadelphia, says she first heard the term “situationship” in 2017 while holding focus groups of undergrads about their relationships and terminology.
“Situationships are fairly new, and I think hookup culture is part of it,” she says. Both terms—situationships and hookups—have an ambiguity that is useful to a young, social media-hooked generation.
By publicly having a partner publicly, a person creates a set of expectations they can fail to meet, Dainton explains. A breakup is seen as a loss of social status (for the dumped) or a personal failing (for both). However, if one is not in a relationship but a “situationship,” there is no situation at risk—because a situationship doesn’t have an endgame.
According to Dainton, undergrads have multiple terms for arrangements that can lead to a situationship. A “hookup” can mean any physically intimate act, ranging from kissing to sexual intercourse. A “one-night stand” is a near-stranger someone brings to bed with no plans of intentionally seeing them again. A “booty call” is an acquaintance one contacts for sex sporadically. Surprisingly, the term persists two decades after it was popularized on a 1993 Def Comedy Jam special. “Booty call” has outlasted the actual practice of talking on the phone.
There are also “friend with benefits (FWB)” arrangements, which are misunderstood to mean sex partners who don’t share any intimacy or connection, Dainton explains. “There is a ‘friend’ part to them,” she says. “People understand that ‘they care for me in ways.’ There is some level of emotional risk.”
FWB pairings often become situationships, with opacity over the level of commitment and intimacy expected. At this point, ambiguity becomes harmful, Dainton says. A telltale sign that a situationship is unsustainable is when a partner becomes jealous when their FWB interacts with someone else who could be a romantic interest.
What are potential problems with situationships?
For a few years, “hookup culture” created a moral panic that the college-age set had become a generation of horndogs, always DTF, and emulating the vapid sexuality they’d seen in internet porn. But once researchers looked into actual sexual norms, they found that young people today are having less sex than young people from decades past. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the percentage of high schoolers who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40% from 1991 to 2017. A 2021 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior found that American teens and adults have seen a decrease in sexual activity between 2009 and 2018.
Researchers are still speculating why this decrease is happening—more social time spent on devices, more anxiety and fear around intimacy, greater availability of porn and sex toys to satisfy oneself alone—but one thing is clear: “Hookup culture” might mean sex without commitment for some, but it does not equate to a syphilis-spreading frenzy.
Nicole Prause, PhD, who used to work at the Sexual Psychophysiology and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, says that worries about less serious relationships are a “sex panic.”
“I think society is shifting a little bit to be a little bit more European,” Prause says. “Europeans are less likely to marry, tend to be less interested in status, and don’t need the label. Maybe it’s a more progressive form [of coupling].”
Dainton says new terms and evasive labels, like hookups and situationships, are the result of “a new generation taking on a new paradigm,” but her greatest concern is young people’s obsession with maintaining appearances. “People underestimate how much saving face is an essential part of young adults’ behavior patterns and that it interferes with their expectations,” she says.
According to Romanoff, situationships might provide some freedom, but they also create internal conflict. “Situationships typically go against the way humans connect and attach to each other,” she says. “There is cognitive dissonance where the actions and beliefs people have towards one another are in constant tension.”
How can you turn it into a relationship?
The whole purpose of a situationship is to avoid the pressure of a relationship. Some people enjoy them for that reason, and their situationships run their course without any disappointment.
Other situationships conflict with a slow-brewing need for clarity, resulting in an outburst, which, according to Dainton, is not the best way to resolve conflicting feelings.
“The ideal way is to make sure it’s a setting where you can have an honest conversation and no one is in an altered state,” she says. Also, avoid bringing up the “what are we?” talk before or after sex, and don’t compound it into another argument.
Bilek agrees that an open and frank conversation is the only productive transition from a situationship into something more. “Tell them, ‘This is a good partnership for me,’ and make sure to ask them how they feel.”
Even if the conversation is hard, the resulting clarity will be worth the stress, Romanoff says. “Either they feel the same and want to pursue a more serious relationship with you, or they don’t, and you can move on and find someone who does value you.”
If you don’t feel comfortable initiating this talk, your relationship is probably a poor candidate for an upgrade. Bilek says: “If you are confused or if the other person is clearly putting you off, you should question if the whole arrangement is right for you.”