• Ideas
  • Dating

Situationships Are the Future of Dating. That’s Not a Bad Thing

7 minute read
Battle is a certified clinical sexologist and sex and dating coach, educator, and speaker. She is the author of This is Supposed to Be Fun: How to Find Joy in Hooking Up, Settling Down, and Everything in Between

Somewhere between great love and no strings attached lies a category of relationship that needs a bit more defining. It’s emotionally connected, but without commitment or future planning. The labels “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” don’t really apply, but it’s way beyond a casual hookup. It includes going on dates, having sex, and building intimacy without a clear objective in mind. Enter “situationship.”

Coined by Carina Hsieh in 2017, when the use of dating apps was on the rise, it makes sense that as more and more people embarked on dating through swiping and matching that relationship statuses had to change as well. Hsieh described situationships as “a hookup with emotional benefits,” as opposed to the equally amorphous “friends with benefits,” which starts platonically but develops a sexual component. What the two do have in common, though, is a lack of commitment and clearly defined roles. And that lack of commitment in situationships could actually have more freeing effects than one might think.

For those who are dubious of undefined entanglements, don’t be fooled: Situationships are relationships. In fact, in Tinder’s most recent Year In Swipe report, the number one trend was that “Young singles are owning the situationship as a valid relationship status.” This has led to the creation of “relationship goals” on Tinder, a space where eager daters can select from six options including: Long-term partner; long-Term, open to short; short-term, open to long; short-term fun; new friends; or still figuring it out. Daters can choose an option that suits their needs best and are prompted to confirm or change their choice each week.

Many daters still view situationships as deterrents from their dating goals and are uncomfortable not knowing where a relationship is going or what role they play in the lives of the people they’re dating. But something has shifted over the last few years. Rather than seeing situationships as a trap to be avoided, daters are now embracing the idea that some relationships don’t need to be rigidly defined. For some, the need for flexibility and openness points to a trend that might be here to stay. Situationships, with all of their gray area, might actually be helping people focus less on defining where they’re going and more on fully enjoying the present.

Read More: The Hazards of Searching for ‘Marriage Material’

As a sex and dating coach, many of my dating clients work with me because they want long-term partnership, whatever that means to them. They’re usually open to exploring possibilities in the process, and I encourage them to do so. Staying open to people who may not be exactly aligned with your initial dating goal makes things a little easier, and way more fun. It removes the urgency of immediately finding what you’re looking for, allowing you to stay open to enriching connections while you search. Rather than berating yourself for exploring someone that catches your eye, you can embrace that experience for what it is. This also keeps you from staying in untenable situations, because you’re less likely to force a relationship when it isn’t really ideal for you. In this way, situationships actually provide a structure or framework for understanding relationships that don’t fit neatly into a box. Maybe it wasn’t a “waste of time.” Maybe it was just a situationship.

Over the years I’ve seen clients in a variety of situationships that serve a purpose in their lives for a time. Some of my clients find themselves in long-distance situationships, and these relationships can be quite powerful, with the parties involved staying in touch for years. They may know each other’s families, keep tabs on the other’s well being, and accompany each other to friends’ weddings. When they find themselves in each other’s city, they go out, have sex, and watch Netflix while they cuddle. Still, commitment may not be an option for either of them. The distance can make it too hard. However, these long-distance situationships provide some of the stability that long-term partnerships do without the “what’s next?” conversation.

More from TIME

Sometimes daters find themselves not having the awkward “defining the relationship” conversation because they know that they don’t feel the same way about their partner as their partner feels about them. Maybe the situationship works because there isn’t a need to move things forward; everyone involved is getting their needs met for the time being.

This is slightly different from dating specifically to find a partner, because when the focus is on building something long-term you have to have clarifying conversations along the way about where things are going. Situationships can be the result of doing the exact opposite: Moving from moment to moment and date to date without the expectation that there is anything beyond that.

It may sound pessimistic, but all relationships end. When you focus more on how you feel now and less on where things are going, you give yourself space to take in all that your partner has to offer. You worry less and enjoy more.

Sometimes people just prefer the looser structure of situationships. It may take the pressure off of having to figure out exactly where things are going according to the traditional expectations of how relationships develop. For instance, some people don’t feel the need to spend more and more time with their partnerto cohabitate or take other typical steps towards commitment. The fact that situationships have grown in demand points to a trend toward ambiguity. But that gray area isn’t without its merit. The Tinder Year in Swipe Report for 2022 noted a “49% increase in members adding the phrase to their bios with young singles saying they prefer situationships as a way to develop a relationship with less pressure.”

Since situationships are a form of relationship, if you are trying to avoid becoming emotionally invested, this may not be for you. If it were possible to be emotionally detached in situationships, there wouldn’t be so much talk about how to get out of or get over a situationship. My clients feel the sting of ending a situationship the same way they feel it after a breakup. They may even experience the joys of starting to fall in love, or the pangs of jealousy throughout. This is all part of dating.

So what do you do if you find yourself in undefined territory? First, consider if that works for you or if it causes more anxiety than comfort. If you feel good about your situationship, you can have a conversation with your partner and let them know that you like what you’re doing and don’t need anything to change, but want to make sure they’re okay too. If you’re feeling unfulfilled or confused, you can let them know that you’d like more clarity on what they’re looking for.

Situationships aren’t for everyone, but they can be a way to give yourself more grace when searching for what you are looking for or provide some consistency when your life is in flux. Being in the gray area with someone can be beneficial. While you both enjoy spending time together, learning more about each other, and continuing to define what you both want, you can experience intimacy that doesn’t need a reason.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.