Not quite sure if you’re in an “official” relationship or just a situationship? The dating world is already complicated as it is, and it doesn’t help that every couple of months there’s a new term added to the dating jargon.
According to Google Trends, the term “situationship” hit another all-time peak in 2023, with Gen Z being at the forefront of searches. Meanwhile, Tinder even reported it as one of the biggest trends among young people over the last number of years.
But what is a situationship? Lyndsey Murray, a relationship and sex therapist at Relationship Matters Therapy, explains how to tell if you’ve found yourself in a situationship, how to leave this type of relationship, and what the outcomes of this situational relationship can be.
A situationship is a type of undefined relationship that can come off the back of casual dating or even a friends-with-benefits situation. There’s normally no formal agreement (i.e. a serious chat) between you and your partner, it’s the middle ground between just a hook-up and a serious committed relationship — which can sometimes get a bit messy.
“A situationship is when there is an emotional and physical/sexual relationship without the element of full commitment. When they are together, it can feel like a relationship but there's an element of freedom to see other people when they aren't together,” explains Murray.
Situationships can feel like a serious relationship, especially when you’re doing things that established couples normally do, however, there will be telltale signs that either one of you or both aren’t in a fully committed relationship.
For example, there is usually a lack of consistency surrounding the relationship, as well as more of a surface-level approach to your dynamic. (Even though that may not be apparent at first!)
While romantic relationships have an apparent structure and usually have rules around monogamy, situationships are missing these guideposts — making them all the more confusing!
Due to the lack of boundaries or clear rules in situationships, it can be more difficult to bring up any constructive conversations around the relationship dynamic. This is due to the more precarious nature of situationships, as you fear missteping or scaring the person away.
Therefore, as a kind of undefined romantic relationship, there are no set rules for a situationship — unless they are discussed with your partner.
For anyone who doesn’t want to commit to a long-term relationship being in a situationship gives them the best of both worlds — several benefits of a real relationship, but the independence of still being single.
The relationship, Murray says, gives the “fulfillment of connection and great sex, yet also no pressure on commitment and the freedom to explore with other people.”
“In the beginning, not having the pressure to define the relationship or move it forward can create a space where both parties can truly relax and enjoy each other's company. It's worth being curious if you notice that your typical relationship patterns aren't showing up, as this may be because those patterns tend to arise when we feel anxiety, pressure, shame, or insecurities,” Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.
“People often feel carefree in these types of relationships, and I've heard in therapy sessions that they finally feel like they can just relax with someone, which is something they've been craving.”
However, despite their intentions, situationships can be very difficult to navigate, and even though they’re trying to sidestep romantic feelings… This doesn’t mean they can’t end in heartbreak.
It can be hard to tell if you’re in a situationship, but Murray says one of the telltale signs is when you feel like you’re in a committed relationship, but there’s no clarification.
Even though you feel inextricably involved in this person’s life, you never actually know where you stand. Without any labels or clear communication, it’s pretty easy to end up in a sort of relationship limbo — unsure whether you’re even in a situationship in the first place!
“You'll know you are in a situationship if the person you are involved with is someone you're not only having sex with but also can confide in and find emotional support, yet there is no definition of what the relationship is; there is typically a lack of conversation around ‘What is this?’ or ‘What are we doing?’”
Other red flags could be that the person you’re seeing is still on dating apps, they keep their relationship status as single on social media and they’re not keen on celebrating milestones or romantic celebrations such as Valentine’s Day with you.
They also completely avoid the DTR (define the relationship) conversation, and prefer to ignore the fact that you’re in a situationship altogether!
Already feel confused? Well, there’s more to come, as like most casual relationships there are different types of situationships — from a convenience relationship to a one-sided situationship. If you recognize any of these types of relationships it could also be classed as a situational relationship.
There’s no set time to be in a situationship — and they could last from a few weeks to a few months. However, regular check-ins with yourself about whether the relationship is still working for you and not affecting your mental health is a healthy way to look at a situationship.
“If it’s a situationship that is out of convenience and doesn't feel passionate in terms of the emotional connection, it could go on for quite some time without being problematic,” explains Murray.
However, once one of you starts to catch feelings or want more than a casual relationship that could be a bad thing.
“Most situationships aren’t great in the long term because it's easy to feel like you've fallen in love, start having feelings of jealousy when they are with other people, or start to become frustrated without a lack of definition of what this relationship actually is. Once some negative emotions start showing up for either person, the situationship either needs to move forward, be redefined, or end altogether.”
Some situationships can feel as though they are in limbo, especially when one person wants more than the other.
“It can be really toxic, even if the people involved don't intend it to turn out this way,” adds Murray.
Staying in a situationship when you want something serious might work for you in the short term, but in the long run, it could affect not only your mental health but the health of any type of relationship going forward.
“Two people who are in such conflict about what they want but continue to connect emotionally and physically can become a recipe for disaster,” explains Murray.
"By answering these questions, you can better understand what is working and what you are learning about yourself," she says.
Being in a situationship, especially for young singles, means less pressure at the start of a relationship, according to a survey by Tinder. This could be why, last year the dating app saw a 49% increase in singletons adding this relationship preference to their profiles.
With this in mind, a situationship, if you are looking to tiptoe into the world of relationships, could be a great way to develop a longer-term relationship, especially if you both decide you want to fully commit after a period of time.
However, most couples end up going their own ways after a situationship — especially when it was originally born out or both or one of them wants a casual relationship with no ties. Due to the undefined nature of this relationship, it can often lead to two heartbroken and confused people — with a lack of communication often having catastrophic results.
Situationships aren’t for everybody, they can portray a false sense of reality, especially when you either decide you don’t have feelings for that person or you want more from a committed relationship. So, how do you go about it? Murray said honesty is the best way.
“Show up honestly and authentically, both with yourself and with the other person involved. With this, those hard but necessary conversations can happen to understand each other better and decide what is best for you, whether that means turning this into a relationship or deciding to end the situationship altogether.”
It’s important to try and structure these conversations in person, and not hide behind your screen so that both parties have the opportunity to show up authentically. This may go against the whole carefree nature of the situationship, to begin with, but at least you can hope to walk away with clear answers!
Even though situationships come with a lot of confusion, they don’t have to be all bad. In fact, starting things without the pressure of structure can really help some people with commitment issues, or who aren’t sure what they want yet from the world of dating.
“Transitioning from a casual relationship to a committed one, or ending it altogether, can be challenging when the relationship is undefined. If you feel the urge to have that conversation with your situationship person, it may be a sign that it's time to end things,” says Seeger DeGeare.
“However, healthy relationships can also stem from casual friendships. They may also be nervous about changing the relationship dynamic. If they express that they don't want more commitment, it's important to believe them and move on. It will be easier to move on now rather than later when the connection is stronger.”
If you’ve reached the end of this article and you still feel that situationships are a bit of a minefield — that’s okay! Relationship dynamics are eternally complicated, and the beauty of love can often be found in its messiness. Even with all these obstacles in place, when the fog clears on these issues, it could turn out to be better than you ever imagined.
Never lose hope!