If you close your eyes and picture a couple, what are they doing? Are they out and about in the sun, or are they snuggled up on the couch watching their favorite show instead? If it’s the latter, it might be due to cuffing season.
But what is cuffing season? If you thought it had something to do with BDSM culture and handcuffs, you’re way off. But first, let’s unpack some of the ways we think about relationships in contemporary culture.
In our collective imagination, we tend to contrast singles and couples via lifestyle choices: Single people like to go out and party, while couples are more content to be homebodies.
Of course, some singles are introverts who’d rather never leave the house, and some couples are hyper energetic and love going for day-long bike rides all year. But over time, many couples tend toward staying in and taking it easy as opposed to staying out late and being the last ones to leave a party.
The truth is, we associate a relationship’s seriousness—and stability—with a desire to stay in and nest together. And that’s especially important during the winter, when it’s cold outside and no one wants to go out. Band playing a concert? Maybe next tour. Cousin across town having a little get-together? Oops, got the sniffles. Old friend wants to get coffee? But you really wanted to stay in and watch a movie tonight…
It’s in that spirit that “cuffing” starts to make a little more sense. The difference, however, is the stability aspect.
What is cuffing?
“Cuffing is essentially when people attach to one another,” said New York-based dating expert Marisa T. Cohen. It’s a process of moving along a relationship’s seriousness, perhaps in a somewhat unrealistic or even slightly dishonest manner, where you spend a lot of cuddly couple-time indoors with someone. Essentially, you’re play-acting as a more serious, established couple without the usual foundation.
Karen, 26, a New York-based designer, cuffed someone several winters ago and was willing to open up about the experience. Her partner was “someone I met at a house party he and his roommates were throwing in the dead of a bleak Boston/Cambridge winter,” she said.
“I didn’t want to walk home that night, and also he was attractive at the time,” she added. “We essentially nested, watching “House of Cards” all winter, then broke up when I was willing to walk to farther places to hook up with someone in the spring. This cuffing had an extra element of convenience in terms of location, which added to its appeal.”
OK, so what is cuffing season?
Simply put, cuffing season is when cuffing happens. But when is cuffing season? That’s another story.
“Cuffing season is the period of time during the cold months (end of fall and throughout the winter) in which people are driven to be in a serious relationship,” Cohen said.
Depending on where you live, cuffing season might be from October to March, or it might be from December to January. Or, if you live in the southern hemisphere, you might have a totally inverted cuffing season. The main thing to keep in mind is that it correlates with the temperature and weather outside being markedly less pleasant than the rest of the year—whatever that means in your area.
“Basically, as the weather gets cold, people would rather spend their time indoors, and as such, the chance of meeting potential mates is greatly diminished,” Cohen added. “Finding a partner to spend time indoors, and in the warmth with, becomes of utmost importance. This relationship helps the person get through the cold winter months.”
Is there a cuffing season schedule?
Does this happen like clockwork, according to some weird, preprogrammed cuffing season schedule? It’s hard to say exactly.
Obviously, cuffing season doesn’t affect people who are already in serious relationships when it begins—though it’s possible the desire for a partner might persuade someone to defer a potential breakup until it’s warmer out—but whether you’re likely to cuff or not seems like it varies from person to person.
“While academic studies in this area are lacking, there is certainly something to it,” Cohen opined. “Testosterone peaks during October/November, which may lead to greater sexual activity. There may also be social pressure around the holidays (i.e., wanting to bring someone home to the family, or seeing so many couples depicted in the media).”
It’s not exactly an academic study, but several years ago, Facebook ran the numbers and they backed this up—Americans set their relationship status to “In a Relationship” much more during the colder months than during the warmer ones.
Signs your relationship is just a cuff
Of course, just because things got more serious between you and your partner in the fall doesn’t mean you’re automatically a victim of cuffing season. (It’s also possible for a relationship that initially got more serious for temperature-related reasons to turn into a legitimate and lasting relationship as the seasons change, if the two people are right for each other.)
But the very existence of cuffing season raises the question: How can you tell the difference between a cuffing that’ll melt away with the winter ice and a relationship that might stand the test of time?
Karen said that “settling for someone who isn’t your ideal in more ways than usual” is a sign of cuffing—at least, for the person who initiates the cuffing. But what signs should you watch for?
“All relationships go through stages, so it’s important not to rule out a relationship that seems more superficial around this time as something that may just be due to cuffing season,” Cohen said. “I have heard people say that if during this time, you aren’t in an intimate relationship (I mean this in terms of a deep relationship, not sex), you must be in a relationship that is not likely to last.”
“Sure, that may be one possibility. But the other is that you are just at the early stages of the relationship. However, if you notice that you are investing more in your relationship than your partner over time, it may be time to move on (cuffing season or not).”
“I also believe there is an emotional investment imbalance in cuffing,” Karen said. “Someone cares more and is usually the one who is uncuffed, as they’re kind of willing to take what they can get. Yikes, that sounds horrible spelled out.”
In short, if your newly “serious” relationship is just someone else asking you to come over in the dead of winter all the time to keep them warm—whether sexually or just via cuddling—you might be on the wrong end of a cuffing situation.
What does cuffing season mean? That depends
So what does cuffing season mean for us, as a culture? What do we make of cuffing?
Is it a bad thing, another artifact of a shallow and self-interested dating culture that sees human beings as disposable? Or is it just a reflection of the fact that the winter is a harsh and difficult thing to get through alone, and it’s only natural to seek comfort during it?
The truth may be somewhere in between, according to Cohen.
“The way we tend to think about it, and portray it on social media, seems to be in a negative light,” she said. “This is because it almost seems as if we are entering the relationship solely because we don’t want to go out in the cold, and come warmer weather, we will explore other options. However, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stay close to home with a loved one during the cold winter months.”
She also added that nonhuman animals often have specific mating seasons. Unlike humans, wild animals can’t just turn up the thermostat when it gets chilly, so their lives are impacted to a much greater degree than ours are by changing seasons. As a result, the idea that our mating patterns—even if there’s no procreation involved—might also change with the seasons does make some sense.
“I feel negatively about it if (as in any scenario) the parties aren’t on the same page,” Karen said, of the practice of cuffing. “The person I cuffed thought we would be together forever, and I was there, thinking about how he was my winter boyfriend and I didn’t want to see him in shorts.”