Julie Nguyen


February 15, 2023

Julie Nguyen

Relationship Coach

By Julie Nguyen

Relationship Coach

Julie Nguyen is a relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University.

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February 15, 2023

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If you know what it means to be together but not really together with someone, you’ve probably been in a situationship. It’s when you’re sorta talking to someone (inconsistently), making plans (last-minute), and the romantic connection isn’t super defined. 

Although it’s a buzzy term taking over the internet, situationships can mean different things to lots of different people–like dating limbo, to some, or relationship purgatory at its worst.


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If you’re looking to navigate your situationship with as much clarity and care as possible, here are some rules to keep in mind. 

What is a situationship?

A situationship is an undefined romantic relationship that exists somewhere in between a casual hookup and a committed relationship. “A situationship offers flexibility to come and go essentially as you please, in hopes of avoiding stressors of what a typical relationship brings,” relationship coach and counselor Nicole Schafer, LPC, tells mbg.

If there’s some emotional investment but you’re unsure where you stand, chances are you’re in a situationship. The connection may also feel circumstantial, convenient, uncommitted, uncertain, ambivalent, and potentially non-monogamous. Because a situationship typically exists in murky territory, it’s also common to experience apprehension. When you’re not obligated to share much, you may hold everything vulnerable back–which can leave the other person anxious and frustrated about what’s going on. 

To be clear, situationships–and other label-free relationships–are not inherently bad. With honesty, situationships can be a freeing way to explore connections without always needing to turn it into something serious or long-term. It can be empowering to center yourself and take your time getting to know someone. 

What makes a situationship painful is when someone isn’t being super clear about what they’re looking for, whether that’s a possible romantic relationship later down the line or just someone to casually hang out with for the time being. The what-if, what-are-we, how-do-they-really-feel, what-are-we-doing confusion is what can make a situationship go from liberating to toxic. 

Situationship vs. dating.

Dating and situationships can look and feel the same because the parties aren’t labeling their relationship. The difference is, with dating, there’s typically an implicit expectation that you’re exploring some romantic potential, and you’re willing to have the conversation about what it means when feelings deepen. In situationships, you may act like you’re dating, but there are no established conversations about what’s going on. The fragile connection can feel particularly tenuous too–like you can’t even ask the question without threatening the current relationship. 

Notably, there are actually two types of dating: casual dating when you’re having fun without any expectations vs. dating when you’re inspecting the attraction with the hopes of it developing into something more. Situationships usually are a form of casual dating, but with a murkiness caused by a lack of clear communication about what’s happening. 


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Situationships vs. friends with benefits.

When you’re having sex with your friend, there are usually some ground rules set in place to avoid ruining the friendship. Being together is about having fun, staying friends, and reaping all of the benefits of physical intimacy without becoming exclusive. 

Friends-with-benefits is closely similar to a situationship. The one main difference is in a friends-with-benefit scenario, there are usually clear boundaries around not developing feelings for one another, whereas in a situationship, there are rarely boundaries at all,” Schafer says. 

Signs of a situationship:

If you’re wondering if you’re in a situationship, there are consistent traits to look out for. However, it’s important to note that it will vary for many people. Some situationships involve sweeping declarations of love, vacations together, and involving each other in your lives. Some may look more like an ongoing booty call.

The biggest quality to look for is a chronic feeling of instability in the connection and an underlying drive to keep things light and low-pressure. 

Here are some other signs you’re in a situationship: 

  1. There’s been no define-the-relationship (DTR) convo.
  2. You’re doing girlfriend/boyfriend activities, but you’ve both stated it’s casual.
  3. You haven’t integrated into each other’s lives meaningfully–you haven’t met their family, friends, or colleagues.
  4. One or both of you are still dating and hooking up with other people.
  5. You don’t make plans in advance; it’s usually the week or two before, the same day, or just a few hours beforehand.
  6. Sex may be a big or perhaps the biggest part of your relationship.
  7. There’s no regularity with your time together–you could spend the weekend with them and then go days without contact.
  8. You don’t make meaningful promises about the relationship or the future.
  9. There’s been no indication of an intention to commit to each other. 
  10. You’re physically close but not emotionally close.
  11. You talk about a lot of different topics, but you stay vague about emotions. 
  12. You don’t communicate desires and what you want with them; instead, it’s more about keeping things light and making sure not to “ruin” what you have. 
  13. The relationship doesn’t really grow; it remains ambiguous.  
  14. You don’t expect to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or milestones together.
  15. You feel anxious and uncomfortable expressing your true needs around them. 
  16. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells about telling them what you want. 
  17. You don’t really go on dates together; it’s more casual and go-with-the-flow. 
  18. They tell you directly that they don’t want a serious relationship. 

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What are the rules of a situationship? 

A situationship is like the wild, wild west. Everyone’s making up their own rules as they go, which can make the dynamic feel unpredictable. As a result of the inconsistency, it can be hard to feel grounded. 

Generally speaking though, here are some of the typical, unspoken ground rules of a situationship: 


Situationships are usually a temporary situation. 

Situationships tend to be fleeting in nature, unless partners agree to intentionally keep things ambiguous in an ongoing way. Otherwise they either turn into a relationship eventually, or they fade out. 

Since situationships can be obscure, get into the habit of clarifying your emotions and boundaries at different stages so you both have the opportunity to opt in or opt out as the situationship evolves. 


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It’s not exclusive until you’ve discussed it. 

Don’t assume exclusivity until you’ve clearly discussed it. You could intuit what’s going on, but you won’t know with certainty unless you have the conversation. Being truthful about what you both expect helps you manage your emotions better. Plus, it allows you to get clear about your needs and wants.


Normal “relationship” expectations don’t apply automatically, unless discussed.

According to Cooper, the availability and transparency that exists in a typical relationship is usually not present in a situationship. For example, she says, when you’re in a relationship with someone, it might be totally fine to show up at the other person’s home or place of work without notice, or to call at any point in the day or night with the expectation that they’ll answer. In a situationship, though, those same expectations may not apply because you’re not technically “together.”

Regular communication, meeting friends and family, and talking about a future together are all other fair expectations in a relationship but aren’t typical features of situationships, according to Cooper. That said, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want!


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Caring about each other is still expected.

Because you’re not planning a life with them (just yet, or at all), you may feel like you don’t have to tend to their emotions. Sure, situationships are about autonomy and independence, but there’s a certain responsibility that always comes when you choose to be intimate with someone. Closing yourself off and not letting the other person into your thoughts can lead to painful outcomes–especially when they can be impacted. You may not be technically dating, but you can still exhibit care toward them. 

Can a situationship turn into a relationship? 

According to Jameca Woody Cooper, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Brown Girl’s Guide To Radical Healing, a situationship can absolutely lead to a relationship. “It depends on the needs of both individuals and if the compatibility grows over time,” she advises.

If you want to progress the situationship, it’s essential you speak up for yourself. They might not reciprocate your feelings, but at least you know with conviction where you both stand. You could let the other person know you’re developing real feelings for them and that you would like to get to know them better to see where things can go. This can look like revisiting expectations, going on dates, and communicating your new desires together. 


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When a situationship works: 

I’ve had a successful situationship before. After ending a serious relationship, I wasn’t interested in settling down with this new person when I still felt so unsettled myself. On his end, he wasn’t interested in dating someone who didn’t live in his area. Although we had a lot in common, we were both on the same page about the ephemeral nature of our attraction. A situationship was exactly what we were looking for. 

Turns out, being in a state of situational uncertainty with your life creates the perfect breeding grounds for a situationship. If you’re traveling, recently single, moving soon, or interested in playing things loose and flexible because you’re going through a transition, a situationship might be right for you. 

Cooper shares other life situations where a situationship can make sense:

  • You want to casually date other people without committing to anyone.
  • Only certain traits about the other individual appeal to you. 
  • You have trust issues.
  • You want to figure out what you want in a relationship above all else. 
  • There are other life obligations that prevent you from being fully engaged in a committed relationship.

When a situationship becomes toxic: 

“A situationship can turn toxic if the roles and expectations are not outlined initially. In other words, if one of the individuals decides that they want more, although both parties have already agreed to the parameters of the situationship,” Cooper says. 

When you’re not on the same page with them, you can start to feel lonely in the relationship. Over time, this can increase game-playing and toxic behaviors as you look for some reaction. This could look like withholding information or being passive-aggressive. Because you don’t feel like you’re your best self or being valued the way you would want, you may start feeling stressed around them which may start harming your mental health. 

What to do if you’re in a situationship:

If you want to navigate a situationship in the healthiest way possible, here are a few tips to help:


Prioritize honest and open communication.

If you’re looking to have a mutually beneficial situationship, honesty is the most crucial rule. You don’t have to share everything, but you do have to give them some insight into how you feel about them–yes, even if you don’t see it going anywhere, and even if you don’t know what you’re feeling or what you want. 

“Being on the same page at all times requires vulnerability alongside communication, but it will be beneficial in the long run,” Schafer says. “You both need to know what you want and where you’d like the situationship to head, if anywhere at all.”

An example is telling them that you just want to have fun without any pressure, but promising to let them know if anything changes. Or, you might let them know that you are interested in them romantically and only want to proceed if they’re open to exploring the possibility of something more serious.


Be realistic about your motives. 

It’s important to be honest with yourself about your motivations for being in the situationship, says Cooper. “Don’t accept a situationship with someone because you’d rather have a piece of them than none of them.”

If you’re in the situationship with the hopes that it’ll turn into something more meaningful without telling them, this could be a recipe for disaster and end in disappointment. Likewise, if you know the other person is hoping for more–but you’re not interested in them that way–make that clear to them so they can make an informed decision as to whether they want to stay in the situationship. 


Respect each other’s boundaries.

Boundaries tell people how you can care for them, while you’re still caring for yourself. When you’re in a situationship, being direct about your preferences and comfort levels will keep your values in check. You know what works best for you more than anyone else, so advocate for yourself. 

Schafer recommends being clear about what you want in the situationship. “What do boundaries look like to you and your partner? Do you both agree to a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy? Or do you want to know what they’ve got going on in their intimate life? Maybe you agree on a no-sleepover rule or to never meet one another’s families,” she says. “There are so many boundaries that can be put in place to make sure you both get the most out of the situationship.” 


Think about why you want the situationship in the first place.

“Are you afraid of the trust and risk involved in a more committed relationship? Do you feel unworthy of a committed relationship? Asking yourself these questions can help determine if you are using a situationship as a crutch to deal with deep-seated feelings. These feelings might be worth exploring in a therapeutic setting,” Cooper says. 

Kindness can look like being upfront in your time together. Even if they aren’t a long-term match, you can still treat them as a person worthy of respect, affection, and honesty.

Vulnerability begets authenticity. Being a kind dater invites generosity into the relationship, resulting in more beautiful moments and memories together. 


Leave when it’s no longer serving you.

If you’re beginning to feel consistently unhappy and dissatisfied in your situationship, it may be time to consider ending things. Maybe it didn’t work out the way you wanted, but it’s useful to frame the situation as a learning experience. What did you get out of it? What did you learn about yourself? How did it help inform what you want in your next relationship? 

Red flags that your situationship isn’t going anywhere: 

Situationships can work for some people exactly as they are. Others see situationships as a period that should lead to a committed relationship. If you’re in the latter camp, watch out for these red flags that signal your situationship isn’t going anywhere: 

You don’t have to talk or prioritize each other every day when you’re still in a situationship stage. But if both parties authentically want the relationship to progress to a relationship, there shouldn’t be random periods of radio silence for no reason.

“One of the big red flags of a situationship is that all communication is inconsistent. You may get a text or a call from the other individual but without any normal pattern,” Cooper says. Unless it’s within the established expectations that your communications may ebb and flow, irregular communication habits–and the lack of respect it often signals–might be a sign to break it off. 


You feel like a secret. 

Cooper notes another red flag is when you haven’t been involved in other aspects of the other person’s life. “For instance, you have not met their friends, you have not met their family, if they have children, you have not met their children,” she says. It’s one thing to be private; it’s another thing to feel like you are being hidden.