Is Your Situationship Working?

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Is Your Situationship Working?” To listen to this episode, click here.


Welcome back to the blog! Today I am going to talk with you about situationships. A situationship is a relatively new term in common parlance and is used in a multitude of ways—that is, there’s no “official” definition of what does and doesn’t qualify as a situationship. With that said, based on my observations over the years, people typically use this term to capture a relationship status that involves:

  • Sexual intimacy
  • Maybe sexual exclusivity
  • Maybe emotional intimacy
  • But without a commitment or promise.

The goal of today’s show is to offer you:

  1. Context for thinking about situationships.
  2. A framework for assessing how well your situationship is working for you.
  3. Guidance on next steps you might want to take based on your assessment.

I am going to use the tools of Relational Self-Awareness to help you understand how YOU feel about a situationship.

My Location and My Bias

My location: As you know, I am someone who has spent very little of my life in the dating world, but a LOT of my life being an ally to and cheerleader for those who are—including as a clinician educator who trains therapists to work thoughtfully and respectfully with folks who are single, dating, and single again. I am here to celebrate whatever relationship architecture allows you to thrive. I know that every choice has consequences and I am devoted to looking with you at the risks and benefits that accompany whatever choice you make. 

I have been socialized in this culture that elevates marriage as the most recognized and accepted relationship status. I have been socialized by my experience of having been married for almost 25 years and have been reaping the social and legal benefits as a member of that institution. I have been socialized by my experience of being happy in my marriage. I feel secure and cared for. I feel like I have freedom to ask for what I need and pursue what matters to me. And I developed as a clinician within a field that to this day is called “Marriage and Family Therapy,” not even “Couple and Family Therapy,” much less “Intimate Partnership and Family Therapy.”

I also want to own my bias as someone who has spent many years working as a therapist and educator with people, especially young people. My experiences have been that situationships tend to be more stressful than they are beneficial, more a liability than an asset. This certainly isn’t the case in every situation, but I want to name it right at the start of this article because I suspect you will hear my bias, maybe in clear ways, but maybe also in sneaky or unconscious ways, as I talk to you about situationships. 

Maybe I’ve seen so many people suffer in a situationship because situationships tend to be stressful precisely because we have all been socialized that clear and monogamous commitment has been defined as good/right/normal. Therefore, because a situationship deviates from that standard, anxiety inevitably results—the suffering is built in because of social conditioning. Maybe situationships tend to be stressful simply because their structure is inherently unstable. Boundaries, definitions, and structure tend to reduce anxiety; ambiguity and uncertainty tend to increase anxiety. Obviously, high structure in and of itself does not prevent suffering (Exhibit A: The many many unhappy marriages in the world!). But the ability to thrive in a low-structure, high-ambiguity situation is a particular superpower indeed!

As we often do with these blog posts, there is an accompanying worksheet that will help you integrate this content. Head to dralexandrasolomon.com/situationship to grab your copy.

Modern Dating Landscape

The modern dating landscape is really complicated. There are seismic shifts in when and how we create intimate partnerships fueled by changing gender norms, changing economic factors, and shifting expectations of what people need and want in their intimate relationships. This is a whole article in and of itself, but here are three data points that highlight the current dating landscape:

  1. Data from the Pew Research in 2021 found that in the US nearly 40% of men 25-29 live with older relatives, usually their parents. But only about 25% of women live with older relatives. This is a significant demographic shift. In fact, between 1971-2021, the number of people living in multigenerational family households quadrupled.
  2. Although there are cultural factors like religion, ethnicity, and geography that shape the age of entry, what’s clear is that overall the age of entry into marriage is much older than it was even one generation ago. Like early twenties to late twenties in one generation!
  3. And the proportion of the population in the US that is married is lower than ever before. Between 1978 and 2018, the share of adults between 18 and 34 who were married plummeted from 59% to 29%.

If you are 35 and under, this means that you very likely will have (or did have) more time between sexual maturity and saying “I do” than your parents and your grandparents had. You are more likely than your parents and your grandparents to have more than one love story. And you need and deserve a set of skills that can help you navigate beginnings and endings, and that these are skills that your elders may not have needed in the same way.

In some cultures, dating is highly regimented and scripted, sometimes directed and managed by older relatives. However, in the US, in 2023, the path from first swipe to commitment is far from linear. There’s a lot of possibilities. And with possibility comes the opportunity for ambiguity. So it’s no surprise that we’ve seen a rise in relationship architectures or relationship statuses that reflect and reinforce ambiguity. These ambiguous relationship statuses have many names:

  • Friends with benefits
  • “Talking”
  • Fuck buddies
  • Situationships
  • Zip Code Dating (meaning that it’s not cheating if you hook up with someone else when you are in different zip codes)

These ambiguous relationship statuses arise in a particular cultural context: your grandma couldn’t have had a situationship not only because it wasn’t culturally accepted, but because she could not reliably and safely control her fertility or get a credit card on her own. She needed marriage as a highly sturdy relationship status because it was her access point to the things she needed. 

Side note: In a post-Roe world, women are losing the ability to reliably and safely control their fertility and the full impact of the recent Supreme Court decision remains to be seen. However, we know there cannot be sexual liberation without reproductive freedom and we know that people with uteruses do not have the same risk profile when it comes to dating that people without uteruses have. And how people make decisions of what works and what doesn’t work for their lives is shaped by how steep the consequences are. My point is that situationships are a new relationship formation which is part of why it can feel inherently unhealthy or abnormal. It can work, but doesn’t necessarily work. But same with marriage!

We are talking about situationships and I want to be clear about something. When you are beginning to get to know someone, let’s just call that, “dating.” I’ll use that term to convey the act of spending time with another person romantically, whether you’re getting coffee/drinks/dinner, going over to each other’s homes, or other ways of convening. It becomes a situationship when there is an overt or covert, accidental or overt, effort to avoid transitioning from casual dating to defining yourselves as a couple. Perhaps one or both of you are thinking about having a DTR (defining the relationship) conversation but neither of you is bringing it up. Perhaps one of you has asked, “What are we doing? What is this?” and the other has shut it down. Perhaps you have talked about it and you have decided together that this is, in fact, a mutually-agreed upon situationship. But built into the name, and the form, is a sense of impermanence. A situationship is not a forever thing, neither by design, nor by desire. Embedded within the design is a sense that we’re on our way to something else—either clearer commitment or a break up. 

Why a Situationship May be Feeling Like it Works

We live with these brains that crave certainty and clarity, so how could anyone ever thrive in something as ambiguous as a situationship? Let’s look at a few scenarios in which a situationship might feel like it works:

#1 Your Stage of Development

If you are in a transitional or temporary phase of life, a committed relationship may not feel like it makes sense or is feasible for you, but you may still be interested in getting to know people romantically and/or sexually. Some examples of transitional phases in which a situationship might feel right to someone could include:

  • The months directly following a breakup with a serious partner.
  • The summer between college graduation and moving to a new city for your first job.
  • The fixed time you are spending in a specific location for graduate school or a work assignment.

Someone could also be in a transitional phase in a more philosophical sense. Maybe they’re in a phase of life where they are more interested in connecting with lots of people and exploring their sexuality, rather than committing to one person. This is especially common for young people but could happen at any age. Maybe they are traveling the world and prioritize moving around over staying in one place to be with a partner.

#2 The Current State of Your Wounds

If you are early in a journey of Relational Self-Awareness, a situationship might feel like all you can handle or all you can ask for. I don’t say that in a condescending way at all. Our relationship dynamics highlight and tell us something about how we feel about ourselves and what we believe about ourselves. A situationship might feel like it “works” because it lines up with or aligns with beliefs that you have about yourself and about relationships.

If you are struggling on the inside, it might feel like it is enough for you to just tend to yourself. An intimate relationship, with its expectations for caretaking, acts of service, making and sticking to plans, coordinating schedules, etc. might just feel like more than you can or want to take on right now. A situationship might feel like the right amount of relationship so to speak.

If you are moving through the world with unhealed stuff inside of you, a situationship might feel like all you deserve. Unpredictability and lack of commitment might feel familiar because of your Family of Origin wounds. So feeling like this situationship “works” reflects your relationship patterns and your attachment strategies. I have had lots of clients and students who had a chapter with one, or many, situationships. Then through therapy and Relational Self-Awareness work, they shifted their insides such that ambiguity and inconsistency felt more disturbing than comforting. They learned how to practice self-compassion which allowed them to listen to their inner voice that was saying, “This isn’t working, I need more clarity and consistency.” So they can look back on their situationships not as mistakes or things to feel ashamed of, but rather as reflections of what they believed about themselves at that particular moment.

#3 Relational Constraints

Fear of loss. You may be trying to avoid the messiness of a break up. This is understandable and noble. You don’t want to hurt someone and you don’t want to get hurt. A situationship is an attempted solution to a potentially painful problem, but grief is inevitable. Emotions play by their own logic and will not care what you have been calling each other.

Lack of certainty that this is “my person.” Ambivalence and investment live in a recursive tension. They aren’t your person. You’re going to keep needing lots of people in your life.

A difference that feels insurmountable, like a cultural difference or a values difference or a family systems difference. You don’t want to let them go but you also can’t get over the hurdle, at least right now. Thus, situationship!

Assessing the Quality of Your Situationship

Let’s move on to assessing the quality of your situationship. If you know me by now, you know that I’m not here to tell you what is right or wrong for you and give you prescriptive or cookie cutter advice about your life, but rather to give you tools to help you listen to yourself into a deeper understanding about what will make you feel whole. While I’m not sitting with you in real time right now, I can provide some questions for you to meditate on about your situationship that can help you assess whether this arrangement is working well for you and your partner, or not. I am going to talk you through some Relational Self-Awareness questions you can use to assess the degree to which your situationship is working or not working. Remember that there is an accompanying worksheet for this article that will help you integrate this content. Head to dralexandrasolomon.com/situationship to get your copy.

RECOMMENDATION: GO TO THE WORKSHEET AND READ ALONG!!!

In summary, the key variables we are looking for here are communication and respect!

Communication

Communication is the hallmark of any relationship, no matter how casual or fleeting. Do you feel comfortable setting and bringing up the terms of engagement with this person you’re seeing? Can you envision yourself letting them know when you’re not comfortable with something? Would you feel safe enough to share vulnerable emotions with them or romantic feelings towards them, if those ever developed? How is the sexual communication between the two of you?

Casual arrangements can also involve great communication. If your situationship is full of guessing games, mixed signals, and anxiety-provoking ambiguity for one or both people, it’s probably not passing the communication test.

Respect

Is there respect for each other’s time and space? This is related to my previous point about communication. Does this person respect the boundaries of the relationship and treat you as a full human being? Do you do the same for them? Or, do one or both of you assume the other will appear to hang out whenever they’re in your city/coming home from a night out? In other words, does the connection feel relational or transactional? Do you treat each other with kindness and respect? 

Even if the situationship is casual and doesn’t involve deeper emotional conversations, basic respect and kindness should be your standard for any romantic/sexual connection. Actually, those should be the standard for pretty much all interactions with all humans in all contexts!

Where to Go From Here

I want to talk a little about where to go from here. I wrote a post on Instagram a while back that said, “Insight without behavior change lacks agency. Behavior change without insight lacks anchoring.” This article has been an insight expander. I want you to use your insight to shift your behavior.

  • If exploring these questions illuminated that your situationship IS, in fact, working, then, as my mom says, “have at it!” Enjoy! if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. 
  • If exploring these questions illuminated that your situationship is NOT working for you (or is no longer working for you), then I hope this is the nudge you needed to validate this feeling for yourself and take some action.
  • If exploring these questions illuminate that your situationship works for you but it is likely not working for the other person, then I hope you will do the gracious thing and shut it down. As Todd says, “It’s so challenging when the hard thing and the right thing are the same thing,” and this might just be one of those times.

I want to remind you that ending a situationship is ending a relationship. Was it informal? Yes. Was it undefined? Yes. But whatever feelings you have, if and when it ends, are real. Keep an eye out for ways that you may be at risk of invalidating yourself in the face of your grief if and when your situationship ends. Invalidation sounds like, “But we were never a real couple.” “This should not be such a big deal for me.” “I’m overreacting to this ending.” Letting yourself feel what you feel at the exact length, width, and depth at which you feel it is going to help you heal and move forward more quickly and with more integrity than if you minimize your emotions. As therapists say, “The way out is through.” By the way, I am saying that I don’t want you to minimize your loss. I also don’t want anyone in your realm to minimize your loss by saying to you something like, “it was just a situationship!” Stay tuned for more on relationship endings in some upcoming blog posts and podcast episodes.

Conclusion

Thank you for joining me for an exploration of how we can bring Relational Self-Awareness to situationships—this liminal relationship status with sexual intimacy and regular contact but without commitment or a couple-based label. These relationships are real and common, and you deserve to have the tools and insights you need to make thoughtful choices that care for you and for the other person.

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