People have lots of different words for it, all with slightly different implications. “Situationship,” “seeing each other” and “hanging out” are just a few. Ultimately though, they refer to the same vague thing: two people who like each other enough to act like a couple, but who, for some reason or other, won’t commit. Though there is some overlap in terminology, I’ve found these pseudo-relationships aren’t quite a part of “hookup culture,” really. Instead, they exist in a strange gray area somewhere between “friends with benefits” and an official relationship.
This all creates an emotional limbo in which both parties invest themselves enough to spend hours and hours together, while simultaneously holding back enough to (hopefully) not get their feelings hurt if (and usually when) things go south. It’s a tightrope walk — one with a very, very skinny rope.
Somehow, this type of relationship became my go-to way of dating in college. Maybe it was the appeal of a surface-level familiarity, a kind of superficial trust that made me comfortable enough to be intimate with someone but not so comfortable that I actually had to be emotionally vulnerable. Or it could’ve been the idea of keeping my options open, knowing that while I was enjoying something in the moment, I could always choose to go enjoy something else if things became difficult or inconvenient.
Motivations aside, the thing I find most interesting about these pseudo-relationships in retrospect is their duality.
It seems as though they were always one of two polar opposites: either they were a pleasant, no-pressure way to get to know someone and explore my options, or they were an absolutely out of control raging dumpster fire of manipulation, confusion and resentment. There’s really been no in-between.
The two best examples of this dichotomy happened within just a few months of each other. My sophomore year, I had a crush on someone who I soon became friends with. One night after a concert, we shared a first kiss.
The next afternoon, we had a talk. He declared that he wasn’t ready for a relationship right now, but he liked me and wanted to continue to explore things between us. I nodded along far too vigorously and agreed that obviously a serious relationship at this point in our lives was a bad call. This is usually how most of the negative versions of these relationships start: a line gets crossed, and immediately afterward both people scramble to appear as though they’re the one who cares the least.
This was an act that I couldn’t keep up for long. We spent all of our time together, becoming a sort of item without ever openly acknowledging it, and I found myself developing feelings for him that I hadn’t planned or wanted. Eventually, I expressed this to him in the hopes that we could address the issue together.
His response was ambiguous. After we talked about it, I had essentially no clue how I should act or how he felt about me. All I could really glean from the whole thing was that he didn’t want to be “official,” but he also didn’t want things to end.
What followed were a couple months of consistent manipulation and gaslighting. Confused by both his and my own feelings, I would often ask him for clarity or to lay down specific boundaries. But he had no interest in either unless the clarity and the boundaries got him laid or served his bizarre possessiveness. Any request for respect resulted in the gently patronizing insistence that I was overreacting to being treated badly, citing our unofficial, non-exclusive status as cause for his behavior.
He did what a lot of people do, which is to equate respect with being in an official relationship. Without the label, it seemed he felt no obligation to treat me fairly or kindly. When it was all over, I felt embarrassed and used.
This is a pretty common experience, from what I’ve heard from friends and peers. Plenty of people disavow these kinds of relationships because of these stories.
But there’s another side to “situationships.” After my terrible experience, I wanted to disengage from romantic emotional attachment entirely, moving onto just hooking up with people briefly and leaving before things got messy. Then, the Saturday before Easter, I went to a frat party. I usually wasn’t a huge fan of them, but my friends wanted to go, and I figured I’d easily be able to avoid my ex, since he was a typical hipster softboy that likely wouldn’t be caught dead in a frat house.
That night, I exchanged numbers with a sweet frat brother from Long Island. We bonded over our common East Coast roots and poked fun at each other’s favorite football teams. I didn’t expect much to come of it — he’d be graduating soon — but we ended up in our own sort of relationship.
And it was lovely. Without the pressure of labels and expectations, I felt comfortable getting to know him at a natural pace, enjoying his company without sacrificing my independence. He was respectful and seemed to genuinely care how I felt. Even though he soon moved away and we never crossed into boyfriend-girlfriend territory, he restored a bit of my hope in casual relationships.
I see now that it wasn’t about the structure of the relationship itself that had been wrong before — it was the person. When someone only respects their partner when they slap a title on them, they’ll make anyone who they unofficially date miserable.
No relationship can function in a healthy way if one or both parties don’t care about the emotional state of the other.
But if there’s communication, understood boundaries and respect, almost any kind of relationship can be a positive one — yes, even a “situationship.”