What is a situationship—and are they toxic?

The term has been flying around but exactly what is a situationship? And what should you do if you find yourself in one?

Woman leaning on elbow looking sad, man reading on sofa in background - what is a situationship
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Non-committal relationships are so common these days that they're now considered the new normal in modern romantic relationships. One such arrangement is situational relationships, a.k.a. situationships. But what exactly is a situationship? 

According to Abby Medcalf, Ph.D., a relationship expert, speaker, and author, a situationship is essentially just "shared activities; hanging out here and there and generally feels directionless."

Unlike casual, no-strings-attached relationships—which have clearly defined boundaries, and both parties agree not to avoid developing feelings—situationships are ambiguous and involve emotion. You date someone and do all the things in regular relationship stuff with them, but you can't call them your boyfriend or girlfriend. 

You’re in a romantic relationship that's undefined and uncommitted. Common phrases surrounding a situationship include "going with the flow," "taking it slow," or the dreaded "it's complicated." In situationships, there's an expectation of exclusivity regarding attention, time, and sex, yet no official commitment has been made. 

While most situationships may be based on convenience or short-term circumstances, in the beginning, more often than not, at least one party develops feelings. The "defining the relationship" talk doesn't come up because no one wants to rock the boat, and as time passes, it gets even harder to have that conversation since you're already building a connection with them and are afraid of not getting the answer you want. 

Relationship expert Susan Winter says people in situationships avoid talking about the future at all costs: "Though it may not be spoken in words, you instinctively know not to ask. There are boundaries around the discussion of your 'relationship.' You feel as though you don't have the right to ask, 'where is this going?"

Now that you know what a situationship is, the next question is what to do if you find yourself in one of these relationships. 

Signs That You're in a Situationship

  1. Absence of long-term plans: You only make last-minute or short-term plans, and attempts to make long-term plans are met with an ambiguous response. 
  2. Lack of consistency: You only see this person sporadically, and you go for days or weeks without hearing from them.
  3. Superficial and dirty conversations: Situationships are characterized by surface-level conversations that are sexual. You can be in a situationship for years without getting to know each other. 
  4. You don't know each other's friends or family: Introducing each other to your friends signifies the relationship is getting serious. Situationships utterly lack this. 

Why Situationships Can Be Toxic

One of the greatest benefits of a situationship, at least in the beginning, is the lack of labels. Having an undefined relationship can be fun, liberating, and sexually satisfying. You get a chance to get to know someone without feeling pressured to make a decision. Situationships alleviate the pressures associated with starting a new relationship and allow you to be more mindful about what you're feeling, which can help you become closer. 

But it's human nature to want to define and put labels on things. That's why situationships aren't good for the long-term. At some point, one party will ask, "what are we doing?" When one party wants more, it throws the situationship out of sync and into dangerous territory. 

Anger and resentment start to develop, and "you start to feel rejected because the person you want doesn't want you fully," says Medcalf. This can manifest in toxic behaviors like anger outbursts, toxic communication, and passive-aggressive actions.

Here are some more reasons why situationships can be damaging and outright toxic:

1. It Keeps You From meeting the Right Person

A situationship is a confusing arrangement where one or both parties don't want to claim the other but also don't want anyone else to have them. It keeps you on a hook and leaves you hanging, not knowing whether it will end or not, so you don't know what to do during this period.

Even if you meet someone you can build a future with, your situationship holds you back since you have feelings for this person and hope that the relationship will become serious. Situationships also take up most of your time and keep you far away from the one you're supposed to be with. You end up spending more time with someone who doesn't see a future with you. 

Instead of living in perpetual hope that something will change and maybe your situationship partner will want a future with you, Medcalf suggests opening your eyes and seeing your partner for who they are, not what you hope they'll be. She says: "People will show you through their actions what they think of you."

2. It Isn't Worth the Investment

The biggest problem with situationships is that you continuously hope that things will get better. It takes up a crucial phase of your life. You invest a great deal of time—sometimes years—emotions, and even money in a situationship, only for it to end without ever amounting to any commitment. 

According to Carla Manly, a psychologist and relationship expert, "many people lament having invested a great deal of time, effort, and even money in situationships that proved fruitless." The time you waste on a situationship could have been used to better your life or find a potential lifelong partner.

3. It Changes You as a Person

Situationships are incredibly disappointing. You can't rely on your partner for anything significant, and you're frequently anxious due to the uncertainty, ambivalence, and ambiguity brought on by a lack of clear direction. Since the relationship isn't defined, your kind-of-significant other might be seeing other people, resulting in feelings of betrayal and hurt.

Your situationship partner has probably not introduced you to family or friends or involved you in their lives. This shows a glaring lack of trust. Medcalf notes that "without trust, there's no vulnerability, and without vulnerability, there's no emotional closeness."

While this may not be an issue at first, after a while, feelings of loneliness and being left out will start to creep in, and your self-esteem will take a beating. All these emotions will pile up, and even when you finally get out of the situationship, they might spill over to your next relationship. It's also difficult to process a situationship breakup since there's nothing to break off technically. 

Situationships aren't necessarily a bad thing. But both partners need to be aware that they're in a situationship, establish clear boundaries, and agree that they aren't, indeed, a couple. It can be ideal if you aren't settled in your personal life and still figuring things out. 

If you find yourself in an unwanted situationship or want more from the person you're seeing, but they aren't on the same page, the situationship is getting toxic. It's time to end it and move on!

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