While being single and being in a relationship are clearly defined states, it is possible to end up somewhere between the two.
In fact, it’s not just possible, it’s probably increasingly common—and a word has cropped up to describe the concept: being in a “situationship.”
That’s what happened to Genevieve, 30, who works for a watchmaker in New York, with a guy she dated—sort of—during her 20s.
“We met at a concert when I was visiting NYC for a weekend,” she said. “He made the first move, we danced and kissed, but surprisingly I didn’t go home with him. I played hard-to-get for a few months after that, until I moved to the city. He didn’t know that I didn’t live there at the time we met.”
While for some people, that would be the start of a burgeoning romance for Genevieve and her new guy…beau…whatever you want to call him, it wasn’t exactly love.
“Then we just started hanging out,” she said. “And that lasted for years.”
Of course, people have just been “hanging out” without real commitment for decades—you might have heard things like “seeing each other,” “dating,” “friends with benefits” and “no strings attached” in the past—but a situationship describes a new relationship dynamic that’s increasingly common in the online-dating era.
What is a situationship?
So what is a situationship, exactly?
“A situationship is an in-between stage—an open-ended, undefined agreement,” according to Dr. Janet Brito, a sex and relationship therapist based in Honolulu. “Some would call it a limbo stage, a yo-yo, a seesaw. Both individuals know they like each other more than friends, but are not ready to commit to each other emotionally or sexually.”
What sets a situationship apart from past kinds of flexible hookups—what gives a situationship meaning, that is—is how incredibly close it can be and feel to a real relationship. The big difference being, no labels have been placed on it just yet—and in fact, none may ever appear.
“If both parties enthusiastically consent” to that kind of an arrangement, “it can be a fun and casual agreement where each individual gets their needs met,” Dr. Brito said.
But if it’s a lop-sided thing where one person wants one thing and the other wants something different altogether, she said, “it can be a disaster.”
You might lay the blame for the popularity of situationships at the feet of online dating apps—or the deep digital connectedness of the modern era—but either way, it’s easy to feel like a better person might always be around the corner.
That sensation can make full-on commitment a tougher sell for lots of people today, even when many of them still crave the relationship-like trappings of someone you can sleep with, hang out with and talk to all the time.
Situationship pros and cons
Depending on your take on relationships—and how likely it is that you feel you’d end up being the person on the “losing” end of the situationship—you might see them as either a great idea or a horrible one.
To Brito, there are both positives and negatives when it comes to situationships. For instance, “when a relationship is undefined, it can create a sense of freedom that a defined relationship can’t.”
“By removing labels, individuals […] can design their own agreement, on their terms, and do not have to be constrained to fit into a mold where they feel restricted,” she noted.
However, since the unspoken nature of the arrangement is an important part of a situationship, that makes it tricky for both people’s desires, expectations and understandings to line up.
“When both parties do not enthusiastically consent” to the parameters of a romantic entanglement, that’s when things get tricky, Brito said. “This increases the chances for emotional wounding, since one individual is over-compromising on their true desires, while the other party may feel guilty about not having mutual feelings.”
In Genevieve’s case, for instance, “always having that plus-one and companionship” was nice.
“One time I locked myself out of my apartment and my roommate wasn’t home, and I knew I could stay at his place,” she noted. “That was good, too.”
“It was always really nice [until it wasn’t],” she admitted, “and definitely felt like an actual relationship a majority of the time.”
However, the arrangement wasn’t exactly a dream setup. For one, she hated the uncertainty; for two, it was frustrating to dance around the question of exclusivity—and how to reckon with her feelings for her male companion.
Signs you’re in a situationship
It’s not always easy to realize you’re in a situationship, since the very nature of the concept is that it’s undefined.
It’s sort of like being lost—you start out seeming like you’re en route to your destination, but then at some point, a very different sensation overtakes you. Were you actually lost before you started? There weren’t any signs until the feeling itself set in.
That’s why, for Brito, one of the major tells of a situationship isn’t something concrete, but rather your emotions.
“If you find yourself feeling resentful about not getting your needs met, and over-compromising on your desires,” she noted, you might be in a situationship.
A fear of (or resistance to) full-relationship commitment can also play themselves out in your motivations, so it’s useful to consider why exactly you’re acting in certain ways.
“If you find yourself only seeking the person for sexual purposes, and not interested in deepening your bond,” that might constitute a situationship, Brito noted. Or “you find yourself avoiding future talk, and prefer to keep the conversation fun, casual, and light”—and you might notice yourself being on the receiving end of the same issues.
Perhaps the single greatest tell, however, might be vagueness around what, exactly, you’re in the midst of.
“If you find yourself stumbling on how to introduce each other to others,” Brito said, that’s a clear sign of a situationship, and Genevieve’s experience lined up with it—though she didn’t know the word.
“‘Situationship’ has surfaced more recently, but looking back, had I known the word existed, it would’ve 100% been that,” she said. “At times I’d call him my companion, but most of the people I’d talk to about him would know him by his name, and knew the ‘situation.’ My mom called him my ‘plus-one,’ because we were always doing things together.”
In short, if you act like a couple but the word “relationship,” “boyfriend,” “girlfriend” or “partner” never get used? Well, you’re probably in a situationship.
What to do if you’re unhappy with your situationship
If all this sounds like you, you might wonder how easy it is to perform a situationship to relationship conversion—if it’s possible at all.
While there are no guarantees it’ll be easy—or even possible in every case, there is a right way to go about it, according to Brito. Essentially, you need to have a ‘DTR conversation’—short for “define the relationship”—where you mutually decide on what exactly the two of you are.
“It is best to start the conversation as soon as you experience deeper feelings, yearn to make plans, desire to define the relationship, or feel uncomfortable with being in limbo,” she noted.
To give yourself the best shot at a favorable outcome, you shouldn’t lie or try to manipulate the other person, Brito added. And before taking such a leap, it never hurts to run an online people search on your potential new partner—it may reveal things you wish you’d known about them before making a big commitment.
“Be honest, and share your raw feelings and desires,” she said. “Ask questions. Validate what the other is saying, and then, state your preference in a respectful way.”
One strong tactic for remaining respectful? Using “I” statements, according to Dr. Brito. That’s a term for statements where you express what you did, how you feel and what you want, instead of ascribing actions, feelings or desires to the other person.
So, for instance, rather than saying, “You hurt me,” you’d say, “I felt hurt when you did that.” This simple switch in framing can go a long way towards making difficult conversations like a DTR convo go more smoothly by helping the other person understand your feelings without feeling accused or attacked.
From situationship to relationship
So yes, it is possible to turn a vague, no-labels situationship into a relationship. In fact, it’s possible that your fellow situation-shipper wants commitment just as badly as you do—but is afraid of scaring you off by making requests.
However, it’s also possible they’re uncomfortable with getting serious, period, or are just waiting for something better to come along—in which case you might feel like it’s time to jump ship—situation-ship, that is.
That’s what Genevieve did after a few years of undefined intimacy with her guy friend.
“Ultimately, I knew we were going to keep living in limbo if someone didn’t pull the plug, so one day I just told him I couldn’t keep going on like we had been,” she said.
“It was hard at first, and lonely, because he was always my go-to whenever I had news to share or somewhere to go and wanted a buddy. We both missed each other afterward, but it was definitely a mature and conscious uncoupling—or at least I think Gwyneth would agree.”