July 24, 2023

Situationships: What They Are and 5 Signs You’re in One

Communication and honesty are key to all relationships, even in ‘gray zone’ situationships

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Friendship. Courtship. Partnership. Kinship. Companionship.

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The word “relationship” has never really been enough for us, has it? We need a whole fleet of “ships” to understand our associations with other people. Those definitions help us create expectations, construct boundaries and set goals.

But sometimes, things just sort of … happen. You become romantically or sexually involved with someone without any labels or formalities.

Luckily, there’s a “ship” for that now, too! It’s called a “situationship.”

We talked to psychologist Susan Albers, PsyD, about this relatively new term. She explains what a situationship is, whether it’s a healthy way to connect with another person, how to know you’re in one and what to do if it ends.

What is a situationship?

“Situationship” isn’t a word you’ll find in the dictionary, but it’s hard to avoid in popular culture. So, what is it exactly?

According to Dr. Albers, a situationship is a romantic or sexual relationship that hasn’t been formalized.

“Situationships are characterized by a lack of obligation or exclusivity, but the real hallmark is a lack of clear boundaries or labels,” she explains. “There are elements of friendship and romance, but they exist without defining the relationship. So, essentially, you have many of the benefits of a traditional relationship without having to make a commitment.”

As you can imagine, this kind of attachment has upsides and downsides.

One the one hand, situationships may allow you to feel the sense of connection you’d experience in a standard-issue relationship and the independence that comes with being single. On the other hand, if you’re not clear on the nature of your involvement, it can’t progress.

And the ambiguity of situationships can take a toll on your mental health.

“Our brains really like clarity,” Dr. Albers notes. “They gravitate to black and white, so this gray area can be very hard to process and may even create anxiety.”

The other pitfall of a situationship: It’s difficult to maintain, emotionally.

Dr. Albers explains, “It’s very hard to stay unattached. It can feel like you’re skimming the surface of a relationship. And the ambiguity can consume a lot of energy.”

That difficulty is a byproduct of how our brains work. “We’re human. And when we’re intimate with someone, our brains release a hormone called oxytocin,” she adds.

Oxytocin is powerful stuff. It stimulates sexual arousal, ejaculation, contractions during pregnancy, parent-infant recognition and bonding — even lactation! Oxytocin also facilitates behaviors you might not expect, like trust.

This stuff is no joke. And it doesn’t really care if love’s on your agenda or not.

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“It’s hard to override hormones like oxytocin with the logic that we’re not attached to someone,” Dr. Albers notes.

Examples of situationships

Because they’re undefined by definition (see what we did there?), situationships can vary a lot from person to person and relationship to relationship. Some situationships are healthy and some … not so much.

Here are just a few examples of scenarios you might describe as “situationships”:

  • That one person you meet up with whenever they happen to be in town for work.
  • The post-break up rebound that you’ve been seeing for two months, but can’t imagine committing to … at least, not right now.
  • The special someone you’re having a passionate love affair with over spring break (and will never speak to again once school starts).
  • That one devastatingly attractive individual you call every once a while for sex.
  • Your go-to “plus one” for couple-y events … whom you’d never dream of introducing to your parents. Probably.
  • The gaming partner from Scarsdale that you’ve never met in person but talk to for hours every week (and occasionally exchange racy texts with).

Maybe your current … whatever it is … doesn’t sound like any of these scenarios. That doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t a situationship.

5 signs you’re in a situationship

According to Dr. Albers, most situationships have most or all of these five characteristics:

  1. No labels or exclusivity. You’ve never had a “DTR” (define-the-relationship) conversation and one or both of you may be seeing other people.
  2. No clear boundaries. Expectations — big and small, reasonable and unreasonable — help give our relationships definition. Are you splitting the bill? Do they get to spend the night? Is it OK to meet their kids? If neither of you are asking these kinds of questions, it’s hard to know the nature of your companionship.
  3. Irregular or superficial contact. Maybe you only talk once in a blue moon. Maybe you talk several times a week but avoid intimate conversations. Maybe you had deep, soulful conversations … for the three and a half weeks you spent together in Cuzco. Communication in situationships tends to be sporadic, shallow or both.
  4. Lack of integration into each other’s lives. You’ve never met their parents. They’ve never met your friends. And neither of you can find each other’s houses without the aid of a smartphone. If your connection seems to exist in a vacuum, it could be a situationship.
  5. The relationship doesn’t grow or end. Simply put: You aren’t talking about the future or what either of you want long term. All you really know is that the relationship (whatever it is) is working well enough right now.

Being in a situationship isn’t inherently good or bad. It all comes down to the people involved and the way they interact. Situationships can be fulfilling, frustrating or downright toxic. And like any other romantic attachments, Dr. Albers says communication and honesty are key.

Situationship red flags

Situationships can be deeply rewarding when they’re what you and your pseudo-partner really want. But the ambiguous nature of these pairings can also open the door for miscommunication, dishonesty and, in some cases, even abuse.

Here are five common red flags to be on the lookout for:

  • One-sidedness. “A situationship can become toxic if you have different expectations for the relationship, or if the power dynamic between the participants is unequal” Dr. Albers cautions. Here’s a good question to ask yourself: If your situationship ended tomorrow, how would you feel? Do you think they’d feel the same way?
  • Feeling undervalued. Do you feel like you’re being used for sex? Does it seem like they only call you when their other plans fall through, or they have “nothing better to do”? Are you starting to wonder if they even like you as a person? “If you feel like the other person doesn’t show you much care, it can be a sign your situationship is spiraling into abuse,” Dr. Albers says.
  • Dishonesty. You’ve never been to their house. They got upset when you tagged them on your social media page. They insist on driving everywhere separately. If you feel like your situationship’s a secret — or like your special someone’s keeping a secret from you — that’s a bad sign.
  • Fear of communication/vulnerability. It’s OK to keep things light in a situationship, but it needs to actually be a choice. “If your conversations remain on the surface level because you feel afraid or hesitant to tell them what you really want, that’s a red flag,” Dr. Albers states.
  • Game-playing, testing or passive-aggressive behavior. It’s not unusual for unhealthy situationships to become exploitative or manipulative. “Breadcrumbing” is a classic example of a toxic situationship behavior. It involves doing just enough to string a person along and keep them interested, but never following through on anything. That person who sends you a romantic text and then doesn’t respond to your messages for a month? Yeah: They’re breadcrumbing you.

Realizing your situationship is heading in a toxic direction is a big deal. But how do you sever a connection that was never really defined to begin with?

How to end a situationship

According to Dr. Albers, most situationships end via “ghosting”: Another relationship buzzword you may or not be familiar with.

“Basically, the end is unclear as the beginning,” Dr. Albers explains. “Often, people just stop communicating. In fact, that’s a big red flag: Communication coming to a screeching halt.”

In other cases, the situationship slowly fades away. Which can make an already ambiguous romance downright confusing.

When a situationship ends — spookily or otherwise — the experience can be upsetting, especially if you feel a lack of closure. That’s why Dr. Albers recommends being direct.

“It’s helpful to communicate really clearly that it’s over, instead of ghosting the other person,” she advises.

And don’t hesitate to cut the cord if it’s lingering. It can help you avoid the random texts and late-night phone calls that keep you from moving on.

Ending a situationship often has added layers of complexity. “It can be different than mourning the end of a traditional relationship because the breakup conventions might not apply,” Dr. Albers further explains.

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For example, when a conventional relationship ends, we talk to our friends, who can relate to our situation and comfort us. When it comes to situationships, they may not even be aware of what’s been happening. And even if they are, they might not be as empathetic.

If you aren’t getting the support you need from other people, Dr. Albers suggests turning inward. Remind yourself that situationships end for a lot of the same reasons more formal romantic partnerships end: Somebody’s needs aren’t being met. Hanging on to a situationship that’s no longer serving you can prevent you from finding a romance that will.

“Take the time to pause,” Dr. Albers recommends. “Maybe do some journaling reflecting on the pros and cons of your situationship. Think about what you learned, what you gained and what you’d want to avoid in the future.”

Mindset is key. “Really look at the situationship as a learning experience and not a mistake or failure,” she continues. “Understand it instead as just one aspect of your relationship history.”

If situationships are becoming a pattern

Most of us have experienced a situationship or two (or 10) at some point in our lives. In fact, some argue that they’re the modern form of courtship. They make sense for a lot of us and can be a lot of fun during certain chapters of our lives.

But that’s not true for everybody. And — depending on what you’re looking to get out of your romantic relationships — finding yourself in situationships over and over again might be a source of concern.

Do all of your relationships seem to be situationships? How does your answer to that question make you feel?

If situationships are becoming a pattern, Dr. Albers says it might be worth working through why with the help of a therapist.

“Situationships are often connected with having an avoidant attachment style,” she explains. “People with avoidant attachment styles are often reluctant to get close to others. They like being independent and may feel smothered or confined in committed relationships.”

If you have an anxious attachment style, the opposite is true. And you probably aren’t enjoying all these ambiguous relationships. According to Dr. Albers, people with an anxious attachment style look for reassurance and clarity in their relationships.

So, why would a person with an anxious attachment style end up in a situationship? The short answer: trauma. Usually trauma related to divorce, abuse or some other situation that makes being vulnerable with other people feel threatening. Situationships can be a way of keeping a distance from other people.

When you’ve experienced trauma, it’s common to engage in hypervigilant behavior. You’re always trying to read the situation. You’re extra alert because you’re constantly assessing the potential threat around you. As a result, you’re used to experiencing confusing or mixed signals.

If you find yourself in romantic relationships that don’t align with your goals or meet your needs, whether or not they qualify as “situationships” isn’t important. What is important is that you get the support you need to build attachments that make you happy.

Shades of gray

Situationships are romantic or sexual entanglements where the participants haven’t established the nature of their relationship. What they look like — and how healthy they are — can vary widely.

Situationships can be a fun and low-pressure way to explore your connection with another person, but they can also be petri dishes for abuse. Clear, honest communication is the hallmark of a successful situationship. It’s also the best way to end a situationship that’s no longer meeting your needs.

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