By Emily DiNuzzo

Updated: Jul. 15, 2021

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Here’s what it means to be in a situationship and what experts recommend you do about these often confusing relationships.

What is a situationship?

Situationships are confusing to define and open to interpretation.

The catch-all definition of a situationship is an undefined romantic relationship, according to sex and relationship therapist Joe Kort.

“It isn’t given the same value or credit that a romantic love relationship would be if one is dating and looking for a permanent or long-term partner,” he says.

Situationships may involve sex and romance, but they don’t have the trajectory to move forward to a mature, loving relationship. Think of it essentially as short-term dating without an agenda.

Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City, adds that situationships don’t have any goals, terms, or purpose.

“A primary reason situationships are formed in the first place is because of the uncertainty that comes along with hookup culture,” Hafeez says.

In some cases, people may be nervous about defining the relationship too early. So, they end up waiting around in the situationship gray area.

Paul Hokemeyer, a clinical and consulting psychotherapist in New York and author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough, thinks situationships are simply another word for hookups.

He says the primary objective is sexual gratification rather than emotional enrichment. These non-relationship relationships form because of a biological need for a sexual release with just enough human connection with a partner, says Hokemeyer.

We spoke with experts about the ins and outs of situationships—and how they could impact your emotional and mental health.

How to tell if you are in a situationship

Hafeez says a simple way to know if you’re in a situationship is if the relationship is undefined.

“Hookup culture has made defining relationships very confusing and stressful,” she says.

“If you have been seeing a person for a while, but haven’t had the ‘what are we doing’ conversation, then you most likely are in a situationship.”

Kort adds that people don’t talk about it and just let it flow and assume it is a situationship. Or they talk about it from time to time without defining it too much or at all.

Another red flag or sign of a situationship is inconsistency.

If you’ve been either hooking up with or seeing someone for a long time, but you never know the next time you’ll see them again, you probably are in a situationship, according to Hafeez.

There’s no agenda on when or if you will see each other again, and time together is purely situational. There’s no counting on each other, expectations, or meeting of friends or family necessarily.

“There is no talk about the future because there may or may not be one,” Kort says. “And it will organically go in the direction it was meant to be.”

Even though they may text or call, it’s sporadic. And it’s one way people in situationships are breadcrumbing.

Marriage and family therapist Jane Greer, author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship, says this usually works for one person and not the other.

“It works for the person who wants no commitment and no accountability and no real involvement,” she says.

The bottom line is you’re not that important to the person you’re in the situationship with, according to Greer. People in situationships don’t want to be held to anything.

“To have no expectations of another person is a get out of jail free card,” Greer says.

(Here are the signs you’re in a toxic relationship.)

Are labels really that important?

If a situationship is an umbrella term, is it even a label worth using?

Hokemeyer personally likes the name.

“It suits, and I like having a label to put on things,” he says. “Labels enable us to clearly identify what’s going on and give us power to walk toward or away from that which we’ve labeled.”

Kort agrees saying that he thinks it matters what we call things because it provides a framework.

For example, if you think you’re in a “friends with benefits” situation, but the other person thinks it’s a situationship, lots can go wrong.

What the difference? Generally, both people in a friends-with-benefits situation know that the relationship is mostly platonic and not destined to become a long-term relationship, even if they occasionally have sex.

That’s not true with a situationship, where the expectations may not match.

“You need to be on the same page, even if both of you agree to be vague about what is going on, like in a situationship,” Kort says.

Hafeez says that if you’re knowingly in a situationship, it doesn’t really matter whether you actually call it that or not.

“The bottom line is, you are in a relationship with no boundaries, goals, or consistency,” she says.

Greer says it’s less about the label itself and more about awareness of the situation and reality.

“It’s important to know you’re on a roller coaster because if you’re afraid of heights, you won’t get on,” she says.

What’s the difference between early dating and a situationship?

The main distinction between a situationship and early dating is forward motion and expansion, according to Greer.

For example, over time, you might start spending more time together, share intimate details of your life, or meet friends if you are getting to know someone to develop a relationship.

“There’s a growth component that’s involved in dating that moves it forward,” Greer says. In a situationship, it doesn’t go anywhere.

“You take whatever the person is prepared to give you,” she says. Again, people in a situationship lack accountability and may break plans or not follow through.

(Here are the characteristics of a healthy relationship.)