When the first lockdown was announced, Sarah* discovered that the committed relationship she thought she’d been in for the previous year-and-a-half was actually a “situationship”.
“We casually dated about two or three months before getting serious. I’ve met all of his friends, he sleeps over at mine most nights and we joked around about us living together in the not too distant future. So when lockdown was announced, I suggested that he could just stay at mine and we’d treat it as a kind of trial run,” says 24-year-old Sarah.
“He didn’t want to move, which is fair, but after a bit of an awkward phone call, he said that we weren’t officially together. Basically, he was like, ‘You’re not my actual girlfriend.’”
Millennials are well known for their aversion to commitment. Sarah, like many others, was a victim of this: her relationship wasn’t as serious as she thought it was. Some bad news: if you’ve been seeing someone for a while and assumed that, because they kiss you in front of their friends, you’re now “together”, you might be in a situationship too.
Researchers believe that dating apps are to blame for a “sex recession” and a lack of intimacy among millennials, giving users so much choice that they never want to settle down. So it’s no surprise that situationships – which sit somewhere between a friendship and a relationship – leave those who find themselves tangled in one confused.
“I’m really embarrassed about it, but I wasn’t being crazy,” Sarah explains. “We were exclusive, he told me that he loved me, and his mum invited me to spend Christmas with them all. He would introduce me to his friends if we bumped into them when we were out. I met his colleagues, and if it wasn’t for COVID we’d have been on a holiday together for two weeks. I just didn’t expect to have to ask anyone over [the age of] 15 whether I’m their girlfriend or not, you know?”
For Elle, 22, situationships are where she feels most comfortable. At the beginning of lockdown, when she was faced with being cooped up with her parents for the foreseeable future or moving in with a man she’d met on Tinder a year ago, she chose the guy.
“It’s been like living with my best friend,” she says. “We get on really well and the sex is great. I feel like us living together just made our connection so much better. I don’t really know how to explain it. I love him, he’s like my favourite guy.”
When I ask whether this is simply a friendship, Elle says it’s not: “We’ve had this sort of set up for a year now. I think it’s too intense to be a friendship. We sleep together, and are each other’s best friends. It’s teaching me a lot about what I want when I’m ready to settle down. It’s not a proper relationship, and I wouldn’t say we’re exclusively dating or anything, either. We’re kind of just seeing where life takes us. We both go on other dates, but nothing is really the same as us.”
A few hours after our initial conversation Elle, sends me a DM to say she talked to the man she’s in a situationship with – who we’ll call J – about their friendship status. “[J] just got back from a date, and I asked him whether we were just friends, and he said we’re probably gonna get married. I’ll update you in a few years lol.”
Others, like 25-year-old Alex* – who’s in a “situationship” with his ex-colleague – are clear cut on why they want to be in that type of relationship, and actively pursued one.
“I’ve been seeing them for about two years, and they’re really great,” Alex explains. “They’d probably make a great partner, but I don’t want to properly settle down. It’s nice to have someone who cares about you, though, for sure. We don’t really talk about our dynamic, it just happens. I know there’s so many other people I’m going to explore in life, so I’m not settling down anytime soon, and neither are they.
“I think ‘situationship’ has bad connotations, like you guys are just holding onto each other until the right person comes along. Although, it’s not that bad. Isn’t that basically just what dating is?”
Kate Moyle is a psychosexual and relationship therapist, and host of The Sexual Wellness Sessions podcast. She’s familiar with the term situationships, and says, “We often see them with flatmates and things like that. For some people, when it’s easy and it’s working, they don’t feel under pressure to define it. A lot of the time, we feel the pressure to define relationships because that’s what we’re told we should do.
“For some people, [situationships are a] convenience that works. There may be a fear of commitment, or a fear of the rules changing by making it an official relationship or giving it a different status. It might change how both partners feel, or it might infer something more serious.”
Regardless of the reasoning it, Moyle says communication is the key to sustaining or gaining clarity on your situationship: “The most important thing is the rules the people in that relationship are setting for themselves. Is it friends with benefits, fuck buddies, or whatever you want to call it? Or are they also seeing other people and that’s the agreement?”
For people like Sarah, who have found themselves in situationships without fully realising it, Moyle recommends re-examining the people you date.
“People often talk about having a type, or finding themselves in a relationship with someone where there isn’t much commitment,” she says. “If you keep falling into a pattern time and time again, then it probably says something about the type of people you’re falling into relationships with. Our attachment style can often help us identify why we’re falling into certain patterns a lot of the time too.”
Although Sarah says she has sworn off dating for a while, and come to terms with the breakdown of her relationship, she still hasn’t told her family about it.
“It’s pretty daunting. Most of my friends have been in that place before, but even so, when I told them, they were surprised because of how tight we seemed. I can’t really tell my sister or my mum that we broke up, because, like, we didn't really, if we weren’t together in the first place,” she laughs. “It just means having to tell them that I still have never had a boyfriend.”