Are you in a 'situationship'? What it is and how to get out of it

The undefined romantic relationship isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it's important to know when it's no longer healthy.
Illustration of two people in separate Polaroid photos holding handles over the photos.
Unlike being friends with benefits or in an official relationship, a situationship lacks clear boundaries.Joan Alturo / for NBC News

On this season of "Married at First Sight," 30-year-old Deonna McNeill explains to her 10-year relationship gap to her new husband, Gregory Okotie, by using a term you may not be familiar with.

"I haven't been in relationships, but I've been in situationships," she says.

Less than a relationship, but more than a casual encounter or booty call, a situationship refers to a romantic relationship that is, and remains, undefined.

"A situationship is that space between a committed relationship and something that is more than a friendship," explains psychotherapist and author Jonathan Alpert. "Unlike a friends with benefits or relationship, there isn't consensus on what it is."

Why is this becoming a trend now? "Culturally, our expectations of relationships has changed; people are getting married later in life, and many people are eager to explore relationships in a less structured way without pressure to commit, as they prioritize self-knowledge and developing as individuals," says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist practicing in California.

A situationship is that space between a committed relationship and something that is more than a friendship.

On the one hand, removing the pressure of putting parameters on what the relationship is and isn't can be freeing – as long as both parties are okay with leaving things open. On the flip side, not knowing where you stand can be detrimental, especially if one party wants more of a commitment. "This vagueness often leads one person to feel uncertainty, anxiety, frustration, resentment, helpless and sometimes even depressed," Alpert says.

The pros and cons of situationships

You've met someone new, and things seem to be going well. But even though you're only a few dates in, wondering where this is all going is keeping you up at night. It's a common problem — one that Travis McNulty, a therapist practicing in Florida, says a situationship can actually help alleviate. "The majority of my clients (and people in general) become fixated on a new relationship as the focal point of their lives," he explains. "This raises the stakes leading to many sleepless nights and undue pressure."

Taking that looming question off the table can help you be more mindful about how you're actually feeling. "Situationships alleviate the traditional pressures associated with starting a relationship," says McNulty. "This alleviation of anxiety and expectations can help a couple grow closer without the guessing of where each partner is at."

While experts say situationships can have their temporary benefits, they can quickly move into harmful territory if one partner starts to want more. "When both people are not in sync on the nature of the situationship, anger and resentment can arise over time," says Carla Manly, a psychologist practicing in California. "This can manifest in toxic behaviors, such as passive-aggressive actions, anger outbursts and toxic communication."

Not to mention, moving on from a situationship can result in unresolved feelings, since there's nothing to technically break off. And depending on how long this situationship lasted, having it end without it ever amounting to any kind of commitment can be hard to process. "A deep sense of regret can come from spending your time — sometimes months or years — in a relationship that is stagnant," says Manly. "Many people lament having invested a great deal of time, effort and even money is situationships that proved to be fruitless."

Are you in a situationship? Look for the signs

In a friends with benefits scenario, sporadic meetups are part of the landscape. But because of the lack of established parameters, Manly says situationships will generally feel inconsistent and unstable. A few other signs include:

  • An absence of plans. Attempts to make plans in advance are usually met with an ambiguous response due to lack of commitment. Connections are often impromptu and based on having sex or “hanging out.” There may be a sense that dates are opportunistic and due to one or both partners not having anything else to do.
  • Conversations that tend to be superficial and often sexual in nature. Partners can exist in situationships for years without getting to really know each other beyond surface level conversations that pertain to their immediate gratification.
  • You haven't met their friends or family members. The relationship never evolves past the two of you spending time together sporadically and as such, you're not factored into your partner's plans with friends or family.
  • There's no talk about what's next. Future plans are not discussed because you may not be a part of the other person's life long term. Attempts to gain clarity on where this might be going are met with ambiguity.

What to do if you're in a situationship

Oftentimes, situationships start because one or both parties aren't sure whether or not they want anything more serious — or due to lack of better options. "In some cases, it’s simply the pursuit, feeling lonely, or otherwise 'filling a void' that stimulates an interest in the relationship," says Manly. So before you do anything else, ask yourself honestly: Is this person someone you would really want to be in a committed relationship with if it were an option?

If the person is truly someone you believe would be a wonderful romantic partner, Manly suggests having a serious, honest talk with the person about your desire for a commitment. "Set aside time to talk in a quiet place that is free of distractions," she says. "When you talk with the person, speak simply and directly about how you feel and what you want. For example, 'I’ve been feeling confused about where things stand with us. I definitely have strong feelings for you and want to deepen our relationship. It’s important to me to know how you feel. I hope we can move forward together.'"

And if the person isn't receptive to moving into more serious territory? Manly says to find opportunities to look at this situationship as a learning experience. "It's important to process the up sides and down sides of the situationship without blame or judgment," she says. Were there red flags you ignored? Did you tend to settle throughout the situationship for less than you wanted or needed? Digging into these questions can help inform what you want out of your next relationship — which will help you avoid falling into another situationship that isn't serving you.

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