‘Tis the season to curl up next to a fire with a good book or — if you’re into cuffing season — curl up with your crush. But should you really start a relationship right before the holidays? Or should you wait it out until winter blows over? What’s really at stake during cuffing season anyway? And if you find yourself in a relationship that doesn’t suit your needs, how do you break it off gently?
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Before the weather outside becomes frightful, psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, explains just what to expect from cuffing season while offering helpful tips for those seeking a relationship.
When is cuffing season?
Cuffing season is that magical time of year during the colder, winter months when people are more compelled to start relationships. It usually runs from late fall, through winter and up until the warmer days of spring and early summer.
What is cuffing season?
Cuffing season is a social phenomenon that carries some negative connotations because it suggests people “handcuff” themselves to a partner out of necessity or desperation. But there’s no shame in wanting a relationship when the days are dark and cold. In fact, there are some very real biological reasons for wanting to hold someone close during this time.
The science behind cuffing season
“When the temperature drops and it gets cold earlier, there is often a change of mood connected with the two chemicals of melatonin and serotonin in your body,” says Dr. Albers. “Dark, cold nights can trigger an intense feeling of loneliness and a drop in serotonin, and there may even be a significant link between cuffing season and seasonal affective disorder.”
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s triggered by a change in seasons and environmental stress. “The winter blues” is a milder version of the same condition, but usually SAD affects your day-to-day life so you experience this depression nearly all day, almost every day, during specific seasons. If you have SAD, you tend to lose motivation in activities you love, feel lonelier and more fatigued and are more withdrawn. And though it can also be triggered by the onset of summer, it’s most often associated with winter because of holiday stress and harsh weather conditions.
“SAD intensifies feelings of being alone or blue,” says Dr. Albers. “And dating is often a healthier strategy of coping than pulling the covers over your head.”
Since cuffing season only lasts as long as the fall and winter months, relationships that begin during cuffing season are often short-term or temporary and tend to last as long as the season itself. In some cases, those short-term relationships could blossom into something long-term if both parties are enjoying themselves. But be warned: the downside to dating during cuffing season is that sometimes, you might intentionally or unintentionally lock yourself into a relationship you don’t really want to be in.
“The downside is that needing to be in a relationship right now often makes people lower their standards or expectations in a relationship,” says Dr. Albers. “They are willing to be with people who are convenient and available versus those who truly match them.”
Dating and relationships are different for everyone, and that’s especially true during cuffing season when all eyes are on couples. We see loving relationships plastered in every Hallmark holiday movie. We’re often fielding questions of our relationship status from friends and family while mingling around the dinner table. And if we’re feeling lonely, we may consider dating if only to fulfill our short-term need for companionship and intimacy.
“Many of us desire relationships and human connection, particularly when we’re feeling down,” says Dr. Albers. “Being with someone makes us feel cozy and creates a natural boost in serotonin, that feel-good chemical in your brain, and having someone to bring with you to a holiday event or family gathering can alleviate a lot of dread and anxiety.”
Whether you’re looking for a quick fling, short-term companionship, a potential long-term partner or you’re just looking for a reason this holiday season to keep your nudging family members off your back about when you’re going to get married, dating during cuffing season can work for you. You just have to be willing to follow some rules, implement healthy boundaries and embrace healthy coping mechanisms along the way.
What are the rules of cuffing season?
Honesty, self-awareness, setting expectations and following through are all at the center of each of the following strategies for dating during cuffing season:
1. Be mindful of your desire for a relationship
Start by being honest with yourself: did your desire for having a relationship come up out of the blue, or is a relationship something you’ve wanted for a while? Are you looking to bring a platonic companion to a holiday event, or are you looking to be swept off your feet? Check in with yourself and ask, ‘What am I looking for?’ This will help you confront your feelings before you get into the thick of things with someone else. It’ll also help you see clearly without looking through a rose-tinted lens.
“Be mindful and know what you’re looking for,” says Dr. Albers. “Think about your past relationships and what worked and what didn’t work, and how that has shaped what you’re seeking in the future. Your past can really inform your present and your future.”
2. Be clear about what you’re seeking in the long and short term
If you’re meeting people out in the world, have a conversation early on about what you’re looking for. If you’re using a dating app, make your expectations clear on your profile. Do you want a quick fling? Or a short-term partner to show off at holiday parties? And if you’re looking for a serious relationship and you’re just dipping your toe in the proverbial dating pool, that’s OK, too.
Setting expectations from the beginning allows your potential partners to react accordingly to your needs. This will minimize the chances of anyone getting hurt in this process and it will also weed out all the people you don’t want to match with.
“Along the way, check in with yourself to see how your relationship feels, how it resonates with your values and where you want to be in the next five or 10 years,” says Dr. Albers. “Be honest about what you’re seeking and define that to the other person, but also be open to change as you get to know them.”
3. Define your relationship
You can’t DIY everything, and when it comes to cuffing season, it’s important that you work with your partner to DYR: define your relationship. You want to define your relationship with your partner by sitting down, facing each other and defining your relationship together. And much like setting expectations from the beginning, you’ll want to check in with your partner as your feelings change.
“The terminology in this situation becomes very important,” says Dr. Albers. “How you frame the relationship can really prevent hurt feelings or allow you to exit a relationship on good terms.”
4. Don’t make plans too far in advance
If you’re in a short-term relationship, you don’t want to plan too far ahead. Doing so implies you’re expecting them to stick around for the long haul — and if your partner is trying to get concert tickets for a date out in May or June, chances are, they’re thinking about your relationship for the long-term.
“Take it a few weeks at a time,” says Dr. Albers. “This can keep you from being hooked into a relationship that may not work for you in the long run.”
5. Prepare for the holidays
When you’re bringing someone to a holiday party, you’ll want to set expectations for other people, too, by telling them ahead of time who you’re bringing so they know what to expect and how to respond in real time. Being mindful of how you introduce your partner. What label you give them will give an impression of whether you think your relationship is long-term or short-term.
“Bringing someone home for the holidays may reduce some of those awkward questions from family members about your relationship status, but make it clear who you’re bringing home,” says Dr. Albers.
You’ll also want to be very clear about your gift-giving expectations. One easy way to do this is to keep gifts simple or focus on experiences you can do together instead of physical gifts, like going to the movies or ice skating.
“You may feel unsure as to what kind of gift to give someone if they may or may not be in your life in the future,” says Dr. Albers. “To make this easier, you could agree on what kind of gift to get if you’re going to exchange gifts, how much money you’re each investing or maybe even forego gifts altogether.”
6. Set healthy emotional and physical boundaries
Healthy boundaries are different from person-to-person. If you’re not sure where to start, make a list of what you’re comfortable with and what crosses a line. Do you want to see your partner multiple times a week, or do you want to only see them on the weekends? Are you comfortable spending the night at your partner’s house, or do you want to strictly keep your relationship reserved for public places and holiday get-togethers?
“Healthy boundaries in short-term relationships are similar to healthy boundaries in long-term relationships in that they have to be clear and communicated from the beginning,” says Dr. Albers. “If someone is no longer meeting your needs or you find you’re more annoyed with this other person, or you’re uncomfortable and they’re crossing boundaries — if you don’t feel listened to or respected — take those as significant signs that the relationship may not be right for you.”
7. Don’t ghost the relationship
Nothing feels worse than a relationship that’s ghosted. Instead of fading away or disappearing without a trace, try and have an honest conversation about why your relationship isn’t working and end things amicably. If you’re worried about how to break up with someone you care about, we’ve got that covered, too.
“If it doesn’t work, it’s OK to move along,” says Dr. Albers. “Clearly end the relationship and explain how you’re feeling.”
8. Recognize that it’s OK if you’re single
Relationships ebb and flow. And with relationships comes a lot of social pressures to perform and make every relationship count. If there’s one thing you should recognize though, it’s that it’s OK to be single. Don’t push yourself to be in a relationship to suit others’ expectations for your lifestyle. And don’t feel the need to force a relationship that doesn’t match your own personal values. If you spot red flags, let that person go.
“Dating takes a lot of work and a lot of energy,” says Dr. Albers. “You may not just have the energy during wintertime to get to know someone. You may want to wait until the spring when you’re feeling more energetic, the sun is out and you’re feeling a lot happier.”
And if someone ends the relationship with you and you’re left wondering what went wrong, it’s OK to be hurt and disappointed. But don’t lose sight of the positives.
“The short-term hurt will be worth the longer-term gain of being in a relationship that truly matches you,” says Dr. Albers. “You don’t want to be stuck in a relationship that you’re putting too much work into or a relationship that isn’t working.”
How will you know if your relationship will last past cuffing season?
We can’t predict what will happen in the future, but there are some telling signs that your relationship with your partner might last longer than cuffing season if:
- Someone consistently sets plans for future dates.
- You talk about your relationship in future tense.
- Communication becomes more frequent during the day.
- Your weekends are reserved for your partner.
- Either of you makes the other person a priority.
- You have conversations about your family and family history.
- You spend more time with your partner around friends and family.
- You start to imagine what future commitment with your partner looks like.
However cuffing season shapes up, it’s important to continue to check in with yourself, your partner and potential suitors along the way to make sure everyone is on the same page. At the end of the day, if you don’t want to be alone, you don’t have to be.
“It’s nice to have someone in your life, even if they’re not going to be with you forever,” says Dr. Albers.