What Is A Situationship? And Are They Healthy?

If you’re on social media or know anybody under 30, then you’ve probably heard of the term “situationship.”

By Meghan Dillon5 min read
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It’s the latest dating term that seemingly applies to the gray areas at the start of a relationship, however, there’s no intention of going further than that. It’s not only confusing for those trying to understand it, but the inherent confusion of being in a situationship can be very unhealthy, especially for women.

What Is a Situationship? And Why Are Some People In Them?

Clinical psychologist Dr. Sabrina Romanoff defines a situationship as “when folks engage in behaviors and act as though they are dating but do not make a commitment to each other.” This can mean several different things. It sounds similar to the early stages of a relationship when you’re trying to figure out if you’re compatible, but situationships often have no goal or intention. The main difference between a situationship and the early stages of a relationship is that there’s a goal to start or end a relationship after getting to know each other, while there’s no such goal in a situationship. A situationship doesn’t have to be a sexual relationship, but the term is often synonymous with hookup culture and casual sex.

Though situationships are popular among Gen Z and young Millennials, even those who promote them acknowledge the cons of being in a situationship. One of the biggest cons is that you don’t get the same emotional support you get from a relationship, as licensed marriage and family therapist Saba Harouni Lurie says, "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.”

A situationship is when people act like they’re dating but don’t make a commitment to each other. 

Harouni Lurie continues, "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."

University of Michigan sociology professor Elizabeth Armstrong believes that situationships are popular among Gen Z because it gives them what they believe to be the best parts of being single and the best parts of a relationship. She says,“Right now, this solves some kind of need for sex, intimacy, companionship – whatever it is – but this does not necessarily have a long-term time horizon.”

Armstrong also notes that another appeal of a situationship is that it goes against norms of traditional relationships embraced by previous generations, saying, “this notion that being with someone where it’s not going anywhere is ‘wasting time,’” is thrown out the window. In short, situationships are about embracing the sexual aspect of a committed relationship and the “freedom” of not being tied to someone else.

Whether someone wants to enter a situationship because they believe it’s a more progressive alternative to a relationship or because they think it’s what’s best for them, it’s impossible to deny that these types of relationships (especially ones that embrace casual sex) often lead to heartbreak.

Situationships Are a Confusing Waste of Time

If you’re confused about how a situationship works, you’re not alone. A situationship is inherently confusing due to the lack of clarity, expectations, and boundaries in the relationship. The vagueness might feel fun or exciting in the beginning, but the lack of intention and direction can lead to heartbreak. Even those who perpetuate hookup culture see the flaws in situationships, including Refinery 29 writer Grace Samuel, who felt that the end of her situationship was more painful than the end of a serious relationship. 

She writes, “After he broke the news, the person I was in a situationship with asked tentatively if I had any questions but I, worried about appearing too bothered (pedantic, crazy even), especially in a public setting, said no. In reality, I had several. He eventually admitted that he had been seeing his ex-girlfriend the whole time he was seeing me. Was I simply a placeholder until she was ready to take him back? Did he ever actually like me? Without warning and without clarification, the dissolution of the situationship fed into my insecurities. Even though he insisted that it was nothing to do with me, I still had a lurking feeling that my actions had caused this.”

If a relationship is based on there being no rules and no labels, then there’s a good chance that there’s little to no communication about how each person feels and no need to make responsible and considerate choices regarding the other person. It’s clear that Grace didn’t communicate her feelings with the guy she was in a situationship with (and vice versa), which ultimately led to her getting her heart broken by his lack of commitment.

To be clear, it’s not her fault that the guy she was in a situationship with was still hooking up with his ex, but it goes to show how a lack of communication and expectations in a situationship can be confusing and stressful. In our current dating culture, why are we settling for situationships that rely on refusing to commit? We even go as far as making the desire to be in a relationship seem weak and frivolous. It all comes down to the glorification of casual sex – another recipe for heartbreak.

How Casual Sex in Situationships Leads to Heartbreak

The most toxic part of the normalization of situationships is how it romanticizes casual sex. Though casual sex is often marketed to young women as empowering, research shows that it’s horrible for women. According to sexologist Tanya M. Bass, women have a more difficult time having casual sex due to producing high levels of oxytocin during sex, which promotes feelings of attachment and closeness.

Bass says, “Oxytocin is known as the feel-good hormone that promotes feelings of love, bonding, and well-being. It can be very common to feel attachment to someone after sex since the brain releases oxytocin during arousal, stimulation of the genitals and nipples, and during intercourse or orgasm. The release of this hormone after being physically intimate may cause a feeling of attachment and closeness.”

While women release higher levels of oxytocin during and after sex, men release higher levels of vasopressin. Like oxytocin, vasopressin produces feelings of attachment and closeness during and after sex, but it takes longer for the attachment to form. This is why women are more likely to develop a sense of attachment towards a sexual partner faster than men. Research also shows that those who have sex early in relationships are "linked to later relationship dissatisfaction," and the hormonal differences between men and women explain why.

Oxytocin aside, research shows that women who engage in casual sex are more likely to develop psychological issues like anxiety and depression. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.,writes, “Researchers examining the mental health associations of hookup sex also report that participants who were not depressed before showed more depressive symptoms and loneliness after engaging in casual sex.”

People who weren’t depressed before showed more depressive symptoms and loneliness after engaging in casual sex.

Another problem is that casual sex will inevitably lead to developing an emotional bond with the other person. Though our culture acts like "catching feelings" should be avoided at all costs, it ignores the fact that it’s nearly impossible to have a close relationship with someone (platonic, romantic, or sexual) without developing a sense of emotional intimacy. Psychologist Dr. Wyatt Fisher defines emotional intimacy as “a sense of closeness developed with another person over time. Usually, it involves a feeling of safety and having your inner thoughts and feelings known and accepted.”

You don’t need to be in a sexual relationship for emotional intimacy (which is why so many of us experience it with friends or in romantic relationships where you haven’t had sex) to manifest, but you will inevitably develop a sense of emotional intimacy in a sexual relationship due to oxytocin being released during sex. This makes heartbreak bound to happen in any situationship where casual sex is involved.

What To Do If You’re in a Situationship

The weirdest thing about situationships is that you can be in one without realizing it. Sometimes the phase of getting to know each other to see if you’re compatible lasts longer than it should (ideally, it shouldn’t last longer than a month, or two at the most) and gets comfortable, so you might not feel the need to define the relationship. 

It’s always a good idea to set a timeline (privately) for when you will decide if you’ll work as a couple or go your separate ways, but one thing that makes this difficult is that you might not want it to end because you like them too much as a friend. The good news is that you can be just friends with a guy if there’s a platonic connection but no romantic connection. If fear of losing the person is holding you back, recognize that being just friends is a valid option.

A key to any healthy relationship (platonic or romantic) is communication, so it’s important to feel comfortable asking about where you stand (it’s also a giant red flag if you don’t feel comfortable communicating with him). The best thing you can do if you discover you're heading toward a situationship (I’ve been guilty of this more than once) is to bite the bullet and have the “what are we” talk. Whether you decide to enter a relationship, remain friends, or go your separate ways entirely, it will be a lot healthier for both of you if you just sit down and have the conversation.

All in all, situationships, while they may seem trendy and exciting on the surface, are not only confusing, but this level of confusion can lead to totally preventable stress and heartache.

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