Dating in the modern age is complicated, to say the least. So complex, in fact, that there’s an entire vocabulary dedicated to our collective experiences when it comes to sex and love, from gaslighting to breadcrumbing.
One relationship type currently having a moment is the situationship. According to Tinder’s 2022 year in review, many people now consider a situationship to be a valid relationship status. This dating term isn’t new — it’s been in circulation since May 2017, when it was coined by Carina Hsieh, who wrote about it for Cosmopolitan.
More recently, a glut of videos on TikTok put into words the lonely state of getting over someone you never dated, bringing a sense of validity to the experience of heartbreak over a relationship that never really got off the ground. The way we think about relationships is also changing. Conversations around consensual non-monogamy and alternative relationship models are also evolving, with dating app Feeld reporting that more people have been exploring non-monogamy in the past two years, with the app reporting a 250 percent rise in monthly active users in the UK between Jan. 2021 to 2022.
Settling on a definition for the situationship can be difficult, as it’s complex by nature. But it’s generally thought to be a sexual and/or romantic relationship that has no formal boundaries or labels, like calling someone your boyfriend or girlfriend. Previously, people might have been embarrassed to be in a situationship and maybe used the word to complain about it.
Situationships definitely do work for some people. According to Dr. Caroline West, Bumble’s sex and relationship expert, people are even seeking them out. “People are increasingly seeing situationships in a more positive way, taking it as an opportunity to test if feelings develop organically, whilst giving individuals time to build deeper connections,” she says. “It allows you to gauge your compatibility and measure if your likes/dislikes match up, or if there are any red flags that appear in the process.”
People are increasingly seeing situationships in a more positive way, taking it as an opportunity to test if feelings develop organically, whilst giving individuals time to build deeper connections.
We all know just how important boundaries are in a relationship, especially when it comes to healthy communication and allowing you to process your emotions properly, which is why situationships have a tendency to end badly. “If you develop feelings with someone without any boundaries and commitment, this can bring up a lot of insecurity,” says Caroline Strawson, a trauma psychologist and relationship coach, adding that: “Boundaries are key in relationships as it shows both your partner and yourself a level of respect.”
If navigating a situationship that lacks boundaries is hard though, ending that relationship and moving on from it might be even more difficult.
How to have a productive conversation about ending a situationship
A situationship might have been working for you at one point, but when it starts to cause more stress and drama than it does happiness and satisfaction, it’s probably time to have a conversation about turning it into something more or ending things. But how do you break up with someone you’re not even in a relationship with? Situationships are usually defined by a lack of communication but continuing that pattern when it comes to moving on from someone isn’t a good idea.
If you don’t end things and simply ‘ghost’ the person, feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and confusion will arise which are unpleasant for anyone to go through.
“Ending a situationship may not feel as straightforward as a relationship simply because no labels are attached to it, leading you to question if a conversation ‘to end it’ is really necessary,” West says. “However, oftentimes if you don’t end things and simply ‘ghost’ the person, feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and confusion will arise which are unpleasant for anyone to go through.”
It’s therefore important to put your ego aside and be honest with the person you’ve been in a situationship with about how you feel, in order to respect your own feelings and theirs, because, let’s be honest, you probably don’t know exactly how they feel.
Even if your situationship has been characterised by late-night texts and drunk phone calls, it’s probably best to have conversations about changing the boundaries of the relationship in person, whether you want to progress the relationship or end it. “If you want to end this kind of situationship, open up in a direct, kind, loving, honest conversation with the person,” recommends couples therapist and relationship expert Dr. Kalanit Ben-Ari. Of course, if you feel hurt by this person’s actions, it’s totally okay to be honest about that with them, but Ben-Ari stresses the importance of approaching these conversations with compassion, as the chances are you both feel as confused as each other by the situationship.
How to deal with heartbreak over a situationship
The idea of heartbreak is usually reserved for people in long-term relationships who have had disastrous breakups. But the slow burn of a situationship coming to an end can be just as painful and it’s important to acknowledge that, rather than minimising your feelings.
It’s really heartbreak over the loss of a fantasy – a wish, a longing, a projection that you had about them, a hope, rather than the person themselves.
Getting over a situationship can actually be even more complicated than dealing with heartbreak from a traditional relationship, as you process what happened, what went wrong and all the difficult feelings that this situation inevitably brought up. “If you’re experiencing heartbreak from someone you weren’t in a relationship with, it’s really heartbreak over the loss of a fantasy – a wish, a longing, a projection that you had about them, a hope, rather than the person themselves,” Dr Ben-Ari says. It’s important to reflect on this and figure out what you actually miss about this person compared to what you miss about the situation and the things you associated with it. Journaling can be a useful tool to help you reflect on your thoughts and feelings.
It’s also crucial to avoid looking at the end of a situationship as a loss or a waste of time. Just because a relationship of any kind didn’t work out, that doesn’t mean it didn’t add value to your life. Although it is natural to feel down after the end of a situationship because you’ve been vulnerable with someone and emotionally invested in them, West recommends thinking about the more positive aspects of this breakup: “Try and reframe your thinking to see what you had in a more positive light. Situationships can be a way to help you to see if that connection is there, or if you are on the same wavelength about what you want from an eventual established relationship.”
If you are looking for a serious relationship, your situationship might not have been that but West stresses that, “dating is a process of filtering out other people that aren’t the right match for us” and ending a situationship is a necessary part of finding a healthy, satisfying relationship.
How to move on after a situationship ends
You might not feel ready to date again right after a situationship ends and this is probably a good thing, especially if you ended up in a situationship unintentionally. It’s important to know what your priorities are when dating, so you can find someone who is a good match for you and this is a great opportunity to reevaluate what you want from romantic partners.
“If you find yourself continually being in situationships with a lack of boundaries and your partners not wanting to commit, maybe it is time to stop looking for the perfect person and get to the root cause of why you are tracking partners like this,” Strawson says. Seeking out therapy is a useful first step to help you deal with these feelings and habits, as well as talking to your friends and family. However it’s important to find friends and family who won’t minimise the relationship because it wasn’t official and will empathise with your feelings: “Choose wisely who you are looking to seek sympathy and advice from […] as they do not react in a way that feels soothing, it can make you feel worse and activate core emotional trauma,” Strawson explains.
Crucially, when moving on from a situationship, avoid blaming yourself or putting yourself down. “Grieving a relationship if they never fully committed to you can bring up old feelings of not being good enough,” Strawson says, explaining that relationships or situationships coming to an end is rarely a reflection on your self-worth so try to avoid looking at it as such – this is something you can also work on with a therapist or counsellor.
When it comes to the practical elements of getting over your situationship, you might be wondering whether it’s best to stay in touch with them or totally cut contact. Given the varied nature of situationships, this is totally dependent on the relationship and how it ended and there are benefits to both options.
Grieving a relationship if they never fully committed to you can bring up old feelings of not being good enough.
If the boundaries are still blurry when the situationship comes to an end (aka they’re still sending “you up?” texts at 3am), cutting contact could be a good idea, according to West: “It’s not fair to lead someone on if you’re not serious about taking things further. It’s also much easier to get over a breakup if they aren’t accessible to you and you aren’t immersed in their social media,” she says.
However, Ben-Ari says that, for many couples, staying in touch does have its benefits, if you’re doing so for the right reasons. “It can be helpful to share honestly, without manipulation, how the relationship has hurt you,” she says. “Share what your expectations were, and how it made you feel when those expectations weren’t met. Acknowledge the pain and difficulty you feel as a result of the relationship, and be open about the choice you’re making to protect yourself by ending the relationship.”
You might not be ready to speak about these feelings at the point of ending the situationship, so in some cases, doing so at a later stage can be helpful: “Communicating this before you lose contact can bring a healthy completion to the relationship,” Ben-Ari says.
With any relationship, dealing with the fallout of its ending can take an emotional toll, so make sure to look after yourself, doing things that make you feel good and protecting your mental health. If you are struggling with your mental health and don’t know where to turn, speak to your GP or a medical professional.
If your heartbreak is impacting your mental health or if you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, please talk to somebody. You can reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988; the Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. Text “START” to Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. ET, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re based in the UK, contact the Samaritans (116 123). If you don’t like the phone, consider using the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Chat at crisischat.org. Here is a list of international resources.