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News / Life / Lifestyles

When to stick around or get out of situation

Dating gray area ‘situationships’ on rise

By Kailyn Brown, Los Angeles Times
Published: May 18, 2024, 5:08am

LOS ANGELES — Meagan Culberson, 32, was on a third date with a guy she met on Hinge when she decided it was time to ask him a make-or-break question: What are you looking for?

They’d gone on fun dates and she was interested in getting to know him better, but only if they were on the same page. She wanted a long-term relationship.

When she broached the conversation with him, he told her that he wanted to “go with the flow” — in other words, he wasn’t dating with intention like she was.

“It was kind of like an epiphany,” said Culberson, the founder of Single Girls Club, a Los Angeles-based lifestyle brand that advocates for the empowerment of single women. Now knowing that they each had different goals, she was left with two options: 1) continue dating him and see where things went, or 2) end it before she got hurt.

In her 20s, Culberson had been through situationships — a term for a romantic or intimate connection that mirrors a relationship but lacks commitment — and they caused her a lot of confusion and pain. She had done a lot of self-reflection since then and knew she didn’t want to end up in another one, so she decided to cut things off with the guy.

“It was really hard,” she said, adding that she was starting to like him. “But if I had stepped back into those old patterns, all of that healing that I’d done would’ve just been a waste.”

Although situationships have probably been around since the beginning of time, these undefined entanglements — ones that fall in the murky, gray area between a defined relationship and casual dating — seem to have become more common with the rise of dating apps, hookup culture and the broadening of traditional relationship dynamics (i.e. nonmonogamy, polyamory, etc.), relationships experts say.

A recent YouGov survey, which polled more than 1,000 U.S. adults, found that 39 percent of people had been in a situationship before, and of people between the ages of 18 to 34, that number increases to 50 percent.

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In a 2022 report, Tinder declared “situationships” a top trend and reported a 49 percent 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.” Also, after 34 percent of Hinge users reported falling into a situationship in 2022, the app added a feature called “Dating Intentions” so daters could indicate upfront what they were looking for (i.e. life partner, short-term relationship, figuring out my relationship goals, etc.). Tinder and Bumble offer a similar feature.

So why does it seem like more people are getting into situationships? One answer is exhaustion, said Denise Brady, a marriage and family therapist based in Long Beach. “(Some people) just feel like ‘Man, I’ve been through this so many times, I really don’t want to put myself out there, so at least I have my sexual needs met, maybe not my emotional needs, but this situationship is working for me,’ ” she said.

Though these unclear connections tend to get a bad reputation, relationship experts say they aren’t inherently good or bad. For some people, a situationship can provide exactly what they need at a certain time in their life, and can be mutually fulfilling as long as both parties are on the same page and one person isn’t abandoning their true wants.

“But when it becomes toxic and it’s hurting your mental and possibly physical health, then you have to figure out a way to get out of that situation,” Brady said.

Given that situationships often mirror full-fledged relationships, it can be difficult to break free from them. If you’ve found yourself in one and you want to end it, here’s what relationship experts say you should do.

Be honest with yourself

Whether you were initially OK with not having a title or you’ve been secretly holding out hope that the other person would eventually want a relationship, experts say it’s completely normal — and OK — to change your mind about what you want.

“You’ve got to know how you feel,” said Patrick Yao, a marriage and family therapy trainee at Pelican Cove. “Let’s make sure first and foremost that you’re taking care of yourself, so you can make a comfortable, healthy decision.”

Yao recommends reflecting on these questions:

  • How do you feel when you’re with the person? (I.e. Do you feel safe? Distant? Supported? Respected? A lack of engagement?)
  • What are you like when you’re not with the person?
  • Do you share the same relationship goals? Are you looking for something more?

Speak up

Once you’ve gotten clear about your dating goals, Sara Stanizai, a marriage and family therapist based in Long Beach, suggests having a conversation with the person you’ve been seeing to get clarity on what they want — and then you can decide if that works for you. However, she warns that “you should be prepared to lose the relationship as you know it.”

Start the conversation by explaining what you desire (e.g., a committed relationship), but don’t blame the person or give any ultimatums, Stanizai said.

“That way, not only are you respecting the other person and only speaking for yourself, but it is also harder to dispute or argue your points,” she said. For example, if you tell someone that you aren’t getting what you need out of the situationship, it’s tough to have a rebuttal.

But it’s also fine if you don’t want to have a formal chat about it, Brady said. “Sometimes those conversations make it harder” to walk away.

In that case, she recommends cutting things off with the person and going no contact or slowly decreasing your communication with them over time. (Pro tip: It’s also helpful to have an accountability friend whom you can text when you feel an urge to reach out to the person you’ve been dating, she said.)

Take time to heal

Though situationships lack titles, it doesn’t mean they hurt any less when they come to an end. In fact, some people argue that these entanglements are just as — and sometimes more — painful than an official relationship.

“You don’t have clarity within situationships to start that [healing] process, so that’s why some people feel like they’re stuck in limbo,” Yao saod. “It gets into this prolonged emotional distress.”

Therefore, it’s crucial to give yourself the same amount of time, space and grace to heal from a situationship as you would an official relationship. (Reminder: Friends and family, if you know someone going through this, please don’t belittle their feelings just because they didn’t have a title.)

Be kind to yourself, said Culberson, and remember that “you are worthy of what you desire.”

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