- Commitment is intrinsic to the very notion and concept of love. Tweet This
- Situationships are one of the fastest growing relationship trends, which underscores the desire of many singles for an obligation-free relationship. Tweet This
- There are risks to situationships that are often overlooked or minimized; unintended consequences that result in greater future pain. Tweet This
“What's Love Got to Do with It”? was Tina Turner's hit song in 1984, and really her only song that went to number one in the Billboard charts. And the reason why, I suspect, is because the lyrics captured an accelerating, popular trend to remove commitment from dating relationships.
Let me give you a quick analysis. Just a few years after her song was published, a Canadian professor and researcher, Beverly Fehr conducted a research study on love and commitment. It was very simple. She had two equivalent groups. One group came up with all of the attributes and characteristics of love, while the other group brainstormed all the attributes and characteristics of commitment. She simply then compared the two lists and found that around two-thirds of the words used for commitment were also used for love. What was her conclusion? Commitment is intrinsic to the very notion and concept of love.
Therefore, when Tina Turner sang, what’s love got to do with it, she was also saying, what’s commitment got to do with it... with “it” referring to sexual involvement. But the real tell to Turner’s song is not the title, it’s the lyric that comes afterwards: “Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken?”
This was Turner’s personal experience of love... it just led to a broken heart. Her logic is this: love is risky because inherent in love is commitment, and commitment involves giving yourself to another. However, when you can have sex without either love or commitment, you can avoid a broken heart. So, go ahead, give sex but deny heart.
In today's dating world, that has been accomplished. TIME magazine did an article on a new relationship status called, "Situationship," definining it as:
Somewhere between great-love and no-strings-attached lies a category of relationship that is emotionally connected but without commitment of future planning. It includes going on dates, having sex, building intimacy, but without a clear objective in mind. Enter situationship.1
Situationships are one of the fastest growing relationship trends, which underscores the desire of many singles for an obligation-free relationship. The 2022 Tinder Year in Swipe Report noticed a “49 percent increase in members adding ‘situationships’ to their bios, with young singles saying they prefer situationships as a way to develop a relationship with less pressure.” Although situationships are touted as “more clearly defined than a hook-up,” they still retain tremendous ambiguity with no clarity of commitment, boundaries, or future togetherness.2
TIME Magazine’s writer, Mysha Battle, a certified clinical sexologist and sex/dating coach, presented a very positive view of situationships. Essentially, she identified three common characteristics of this relational experience.
- First of all, a situationship is an undefined relationship. She explains, “...something has shifted over the last few years. Rather than seeing situationships as a trap to be avoided, daters are now embracing the idea that some relationships don’t need to be rigidly defined.” Earlier, Battle clarified, “The labels ‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’ don’t really apply to situationships.”3
- Second, a situationship is a relationship without any future plans. “Situationships, with all of their gray area,” Battle explains, “might actually be helping people focus less on defining where they’re going and more on fully enjoying the present.” It is a relationship in the here-and-now, intentionally avoiding expectations or any future focus.
- Finally, it's sex without any obligations. “They go out, they have sex, they watch Netflix while they cuddle. But still commitment is an option.” Even though she refers to commitment as optional, once commitment enters into the relationship, it no longer remains a situationship.4
Now what I find interesting is just a few years earlier, the editors of WebMD gave these exact same three characteristics to a different relationship label: commitment phobia. WebMD stated that “people with commitment phobia often hesitate to use the word love or define relationships through such terms as boyfriend or girlfriend.” Commitment phobes are reluctant to make future plans: “getting them to nail down plans is difficult and it's only harder the further out those plans are.” And finally, “if they experience short flings or one night stands, they probably have commitment phobia.”5
The bottom line: situationships appear to just be a positive rebranding of a dysfunctional phobia of commitment.
Myisha Battle and other advocates of situationships would argue that "sometimes people just prefer the looser structure of situationships. It may take the pressure off of having to figure out exactly where things are going according to the traditional expectations of how relationships develop."
However, there are risks to situationships that are often overlooked or minimized; unintended consequences that result in greater future pain than the momentary pleasure.
In one of the only published studies conducted on the topic, Tierica Jemise Gibson concluded that there were only personally painful and regretful outcomes among the women in her study who had experienced one or more situationships. Gibson summarized her findings on women’s dating experiences.
This study found that situationships operate within a liminal space, a place of in-betweenness, in which Black women attempt to gain the “girlfriend” identity by progressing into committed relationships. Situationships appear to be deviations of traditional committed relationships while simultaneously providing a false sense of progression into committed relationships for Black women. I also found that through exhibiting behaviors of emphasized femininity and hegemonic masculinity, situationships appear to be oppressive to Black women’s sexual agency and beneficial to men, ultimately seeming to affect how they view themselves and the culture of dating within the black community.
Although Gibson addresses the black community specifically, her findings are clearly applicable to all who engage in situationships. Gibson defines a situationship as “becoming stuck in the liminal space of a relationship.” This is a key to understanding why situationships feel good at first, but in time, create anxiety, depression, and feelings of “oppression” for women.
Liminal space, in architecture, is the transition between one environment and another—a staircase connecting one floor to the next; a hallway connecting one room to another; or a bridge connecting one land mass to another. Similarly, in psychology, liminal space is the transition between one stage of life with another: a graduation, a wedding, a funeral, or a divorce are all examples of transitions between two seasons of life. Transitions are timeouts to just “be,” to reset and adjust, and prepare for what comes next.
However, the danger of all transitions is becoming stuck: stuck in grief after a death; stuck in recovery after a divorce; or stuck in celebration after graduation (and procrastinating on getting a job).
What Gibson accurately articulated is that romantic relationships develop in stages and transitions, and an early stage is to just enjoy the moment with an undefined commitment and an unclear future of the relationship. This stage leads to a transition of uncertainty, wondering if the relationship is heading toward any deeper level of involvement and commitment. Typically, feelings of ambiguity, anxiety, and tension increase, which serve the purpose of prompting a conversation to define the relationship (DTR), ushering in the next stage.
A situationship is this transition, however, with no end point—as if the transition is not a part of the relational process but the whole. The entire relationship exists in this liminal space that is actually not connecting anything before or after... like an endless hallway that goes nowhere. Gibson’s qualitative research provided quotes from women about their situationships:
I kept thinking “d***, I’m in a situationship.” Like I’m breaking up and getting back together with a man I’m not even in a relationship with. But I kept trying because getting to the finish line was so important to me. Looking back, it was crazy as h***.
Gibson’s study found that all of the women who participated in situationships experienced serious emotional harm—increased anxiety, inequity, uncertainty, depression, and feeling used.
I was like, really suffering on both ends. I was stuck between the ultimatums of either ‘stop dealing with this person completely’ or, ‘take what they give you in order for them to just be in your life’…It became very draining after a while.
Notice the last three words, “after a while”—the experience feels fine at first, and this is because the time of no-commitment and just feeling-out the relationship is an expected early stage of a romantic involvement. But when it goes on indefinitely, when someone becomes stuck in that liminal space, then the normal experience of anxiety and uncertainty rise to levels of oppression and psychological harm.
John Van Epp, Ph.D., formerly a therapist for 25 years, adjunct professor, and a contracting trainer for two decades with the military, is currently the President/Founder of Love Thinks, LCC, where he developed evidenced-based relationship courses that have been taught by more than ten thousand instructors to over a million participants internationally.
1. Battle, Myisha. "Situationships Are the Future of Dating. That’s Not a Bad Thing." TIME magazine. March 18, 2023. Battle, This is Supposed to Be Fun: How to Find Joy in Hooking Up, Settling Down, and Everything in Between.
4. Battle attributes the coining of the term, situationships, to Carina Hsieh in 2017 who “described situationships as “a hookup with emotional benefits,” as opposed to the equally amorphous “friends with benefits,” which starts platonically but develops a sexual component. What the two do have in common, though, is a lack of commitment and clearly defined roles. And that lack of commitment in situationships could actually have more freeing effects than one might think.”
*Regarding the origin of the term, Tierica Jemise Gibson in her Master’s Thesis, "If You Want the Milk, Buy the Cow: A Study of Young Black Women's Experiences in Situationships," explains that in 2009, relationship and lifestyle blogger Demetria Lucas utilized the term “situationships” in response to her blog subscriber’s plea for relationship advice. When a blog subscriber found herself in a “situation” instead of a “relation” with a partner, the term a “situationship” was coined. This term came to be used to describe casual dating relationships among black couples involving casual sex that led to confusion and emotional distress. In the past decade, the term has gained popularity among mainstream dating culture, being generalized to describe a sexual relationship without any need for definition.
5. Commitment Phobia: Symptoms and Signs. Medically reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on December 03, 2022. Written by WebMD Editorial Contributors.