Stuck in a Situationship? Here's How to Define the Relationship

Stuck in a situationship and aren't sure how to make it into a relationship? In this episode, Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains why defining your relationship is important for your mental health and how to have that risky conversation.

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #29
The Quick And Dirty

Getting stuck in a situationship isn't the best thing for our mental health. While it isn’t guaranteed that defining the relationship will lead to the relationship we want, it is the only way to reduce our uncertainty about the relationship we have.

In the early stages of a relationship, there usually comes a natural point when both partners feel a desire to have the "what are we?" discussion.

Picture this: you’ve been talking for a while, and you feel like you're compatible. There's chemistry! But maybe you're worried that they're seeing other people, and you want to make sure they know that you want to be exclusive. You feel compelled to "DTR"—define the relationship.

But what happens if the "what are we?" conversation doesn’t happen? Instead of dealing with your feelings, you ignore them and pretend like everything’s fine with this undefined relationship status. You aren’t officially dating, so there might be reciprocated feelings, but you aren’t sure. Eventually, this in-between relationship goes on for so long that the "what are we?" conversation feels risky. 

This undefined relationship is called a situationship, and it is becoming increasingly more common today. According to research from the dating app Hinge, even though 75% of their user base wants to enter a serious relationship, 1 in 3 of their users has found themselves in a situationship in the last year. 

Why are situationships problematic?

Being in an undefined relationship comes with a lot of psychological difficulties, mostly because you're feeling anxious or uncertain about where you stand with your partner.

Research has found that increased uncertainty in a relationship can be associated with feelings of stress, increased instances of conflict, more negative perceptions of the other person's behaviors, increased feelings of jealousy, and an increased likelihood that the other person will violate the expectations you have for the relationship. All of this together is likely to lead to more negative emotions and a higher likelihood that your relationship will end.

Part of what complicates a situationship is that you aren’t able to express your concerns about the relationship to your partner because you aren't truly held to the rules of a committed dating relationship. In a committed relationship, you can work together to deal with challenges you face.

Without that commitment, your partner may not feel it necessary to maintain the relationship in the way you’d like them to, and they quite frankly don’t have an obligation to.

Why do people avoid defining the relationship, and why they shouldn’t

One relationship expert outlined three reasons that people avoid the relationship talk.

First, people feel like it is too soon in the relationship to ask "what are we?" Partners may be worried about scaring the other person off before they are ready to commit.

Second, it takes guts and skills to navigate the "what are we?" conversation, which can be intimidating to some. Participants in one research study indicated that they didn’t know how to bring up the conversation, or they were worried about their partner’s response to asking about the relationship.

Third, some people have commitment issues and aren’t willing to step into a more serious, future-oriented relationship.

It takes guts and skills to navigate the "what are we?" conversation.

Defining the relationship can have a lot of benefits to your personal and relational health. Couples who define the relationship reporth having longer, more serious, and exclusive relationships. Plus, having these conversations usually lead to healthier and safer sexual relationships.

How to define the relationship 

Although having the "what are we?" conversation can be anxiety-producing, it’s incredibly important to have. Here are five questions that can help guide that conversation:

1. Are we, or would we like to be, exclusive?

Typically, the standard for an exclusive relationship is being monogamous, or only having emotional or physical experiences with one another. However, we should avoid assuming that this is the case when you enter a new relationship. For some relationships, consensual non-monogamy is a totally appropriate relationship decision that comes in a lot of different flavors. For other relationships, monogamy is the only acceptable option. When you define your relationship, this is an important piece of the relational contract you’ll want to discuss and come to a mutual agreement on.

2. Is this a casual or serious relationship?

Are we friends with benefits or are we in a serious dating relationship? It’s important to sort out the role of feelings and emotions in your relationship. 

3. Where do you see this relationship going?

Although we would like to be able to assume that our partner sees our relationship as having an extended future, it isn’t always the case. At certain phases of our lives, such as when we’re in high school or college, our living situation may be fairly temporary and we may not plan to stay in the location where our relationships form. Other times, we or our partners may not be looking for something long-term for other reasons. Either way, mutually understanding how we view the relationship can allow for increased certainty about the relationship.

4. For long-term relationship commitments, what are your big life goals?

Do you and your partner want to get married, have kids, climb the corporate ladder, or travel extensively? Figuring out if your basic life goals are compatible may answer whether this relationship can be successful in the long term.

5. Is there anything I need to know about your past?

Defining your relationship provides the opportunity to set the foundation for a healthy relationship. Many of us have emotional baggage, whether it’s from our parent’s relationships or our own past relationships. Providing a space to be upfront about your baggage can help set the stage for open communication moving forward.

It isn’t guaranteed that having the "what are we?" talk will lead to the relationship we want, but it is the only way to reduce uncertainty about the relationship we have. Defining the relationship is important to setting a healthy relational foundation and making sure that both partners are on the same page. Be bold and ask, “what are we?"

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

Do you have a question for the Relationship Doctor podcast? You can leave a voice message for the show by calling (813) 397-8165 or send an email to relationshipdoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You might hear your question on a future episode.