Not a couple, not friends and not fuck buddies: What is a ‘situationship,’ the non-relationships that plague those who hook up in the 21st century?

While couples involved in casual, no-strings-attached love stories are not new, the term that now gives them their name and the frequency with which they appear, especially on dating apps, are novel. We talked to experts on the subject

Una pareja comparte espacio en la cama.
A couple shares space in bed.Maria Korneeva (Getty Images)

A warning for romantics and fans of Disney love stories: this topic may cause anxiety, cold sweats and trembling, because what we are dealing with today are relationships of those who no longer believe in happy endings. In 2005, when Facebook allowed users to disclose that their relationship status was “it’s complicated,” few imagined that such couples would not be an exception but become commonplace over time. Tinder’s 2022 Year in Swype report indicated that young singles were already talking about situationships — a casual bond that is agreed upon by both parties — as a valid relationship status. A year later the Oxford Dictionary re-emphasized that such relationships are more popular than ever, noting that the term was the second best at capturing the trends that defined 2023.

What is a ‘situationship’ and what is the foundation of it?

“The term combines the words relationship and situation...It is a relationship in which there is both something and nothing. There is sex, but not a relationship. We meet up, but it is not a date. A situationship is a yes, but no,” explains Eva Gutiérrez, the author of Si es tóxico no es amor [If It Is Toxic, It Is Not Love]. Those who dislike ambiguity will be disappointed because the expression is not very concise and lends itself to maybes and the subjunctive tense: “In this type of relationship there is no room for labels like couple or courtship, because there is no commitment. They are relationships based on immediacy, the same immediacy we experience in our society. Let’s not forget that we are in an era of instant gratification, what you want right here, right now. We live in the right now, this second, and if you don’t like it, you throw it away with a single click. We are [living] in an impatient culture, so why should our way of relating to others be any different?”

Tinder recorded a 49% increase among members who added this new relationship intention to their profiles, and over one in 10 of the young singles surveyed said they preferred situationships as a less-pressure way to bond. Embracing relationships that separate friendships from romantic love stories was immortalized on the big screen in 500 Days of Summer, way back in 2009. The film’s main characters have a non-relationship in which he wants a stable partner, while she always makes it clear that she prefers the type of partner that would fit perfectly with today’s definition of situationship. However, back then there was not yet a term that defined the type of relationship she was seeking. There is a scene that illustrates today’s subject and the relationship it describes quite well. In the car, on the way to the movies, he asks her one of those scary questions: “What are we?” She responds with an elusive “What difference does it make?” and then tickles him and laughs, creating a space of intimacy in which he feels safe despite the fact that her answer was not at all what he expected. In fact, his friends later try to force him to ask Summer point blank if they are boyfriend and girlfriend (which is what he wants and thinks they are), but he says that they don’t believe in labels. That moment best demonstrates that he doesn’t want to raise such a question because he knows perfectly well that her answer would mean the end of their situationship.

“It is crucial to know if the two are pursuing the same goal and if they are in the same place, because if one of the parties falls in love and wants something more and the other does not, it is time to stop and ask yourself if this type of relationship [fulfills] you. To me, the most important thing in any kind of relationship is to ask yourself how it makes you feel. Does it make me feel good, comfortable? Or maybe I start to feel uneasy, worried, unseen, insecure... It is very important that you take time to review how the relationship you are in is making you feel, so that, if you see that this type of relationship can hurt you, you can end it as soon as possible and thus avoid suffering,” says Gutiérrez.

But are these types of relationships really an excuse to flee from commitment? Eva Gutiérrez explains that what defines these couples is precisely the lack of commitment; unlike traditional relationships, situationships are not formal and do not have an official title. “The common denominator is the lack of clear labels and commitment. There is no clear definition of the relationship, so you may not know if the other person is seeing other people at the same time, or if they only call you at specific times, like when they are bored at home, for example.” For her part, Flavia dos Santos, a sexologist who works with Gleeden, a platform for extramarital encounters, does not necessarily believe that this type of relationship is a way to avoid commitment. “Even in situationships you need to [commit]: you have to arrange a time, choose a place to meet, be available... It means not being pigeonholed into a single way of experiencing romantic encounters [and] fleeing from a single possibility.”

The advantages of non-relationships and how to know if you’re in one

When it comes to assessing the positives of this type of relationship, it is common for the figure of the “fuck buddy” to come up, which Dos Santos considers a less positive interaction. “The situationship is better than a fuck buddy, because it gives you the opportunity to find commonalities with the other person, to exchange and share moments that can be enriching for both parties. Although it may seem too superficial, I think it can be the bridge to a stable relationship. When you have a fuck buddy, there is nothing but sex,” she explains. Psychologist and sexologist Ana Lombardía believes that this type of relationship can be useful and interesting for a while, such as when a couple has just met and is seeing if the pairing works. “In that way, it allows us not to rush into a relationship that may not suit us or for which we are not ready. It’s important that this situation doesn’t drag on for too long, and that we don’t have one situationship after another after another forever, but rather that it [serves as] a natural step when starting to get to know someone,” she advises.

The dating specialists at the AdoptaUnTio app [Adopt a Guy app], where the use of the term situationship skyrocketed last summer to 15%, have prepared a description of four signs to help you determine if you are in one.

Close, but not too close

“Those involved may become exclusive with each other, but they don’t often think about a future together. It’s more of a system without the obligations of a partner,” they explain.

Plans on short notice

“Situationships are quite casual, and you have to go with the flow. That’s why if the two parties plan to do something together, it won’t go beyond the next few days or weeks at most. The situation is so ephemeral that it would be risky to buy tickets for a festival six months in advance,” they say.

Introducing friends

“People who have a situationship agree that it’s not the best thing to do, and they’re also not sure if it will ever turn into something more. Introducing them to friends would mean defining the other person as a friend or boyfriend/girlfriend,” they warn.

Date type

“It’s true that couples in this type of relationship do date and make plans, but not romantic dates. They are more about meeting up to watch a movie on the couch or whatever comes up. Neither of them specify the regularity of such encounters,” they say.

To conclude, we must remember the importance of not ignoring affective responsibility. That means recognizing and assuming that our actions cause emotions in the people with whom we interact. “We must be aware of the implications of the bonds we establish with other people. The million-dollar question is what your goal is in a relationship without labels and whether it is the same as the other person’s goal. If you have different objectives, things can get very complicated,” says Eva Gutiérrez.

Psychologist and sexologist Ana Lombardía offers an important final clarification: “We must also remember that the fact that we like someone, or even love them, does not mean that we have to (or can) be with that person. Liking someone is the foundation, a given, but everything else we build around it is essential. Love and attraction are not enough.” And just as Summer was not a malevolent woman nor a robot (as the protagonist of the film comments in one scene), those who do not want a relationship are not being cruel, as long as they let the other person know what they want, need and are seeking.

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