The Pleasures and Perils of ‘Situationships’


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

Dear Elizabeth,

I have been in a on and off unconventional situationship with a woman for the last 11 years.   We met when she was with a partner, and were just friends, but ended up nearly hooking up while she was with him.  They ended up breaking up a few months later (unrelated to what nearly happened between us), and we have been on and off ever since, more off when she has a partner, but not always.  She claims to be a believer in the concept of an open relationship but then there will always be situations she doesn’t tell me about and I find out later.  I am also not entirely sure she is honest with her other partners that I exist.  Am I being foolish for trying to keep an unconventional situation going or should I move on?

Unconventionally Confused

Dear UC,

Thanks for your letter. It sounds like a confusing and frustrating situation for you. People use the term situationship to describe something that has characteristics of a traditional relationship but somehow defies social norms. Situationships are generally non-committed or undefined erotic friendships that involve intimacy at some level. Think of “friends with benefits” but possibly less casual. One challenge of situationships is they often lack clear communication about what’s really happening. This can leave partners unclear about what else is going on outside of the partnership. It sounds like that may be one of your main concerns.

In an open relationship, people decide on certain terms. Typically, they are sexual and romantic partners who choose to continue having intimacy with other people outside of the relationship. They may agree to discuss these partners, or they may agree to mutual privacy, a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. Whatever works for the relationship is fine, provided both partners feel safe and supported and know where they stand. Hence your problem: you don’t know where you stand, and it sounds like your partner has had very wiggly boundaries about intimacy for quite some time. If you haven’t already done so, a clear conversation about what you want would be a good first step.

Transparent communication is the hallmark of a healthy relationship. Without it, you lack trust, and the foundation of a relationship isn’t there. What is your communication policy with her? If you’re finding out things later, is it because you agreed to not disclose, but it’s coming out anyway? If you had a DADT policy and she’s violating it by sharing, that can cause you to hurt about things you didn’t want to know. On the other hand, if you’ve agreed to be in an open relationship with honest discussion about your other activities, both of you should be upfront about what you’re doing. If that’s the case, she’s lying by omission which is a red flag. In her defense: if you’ve never had an upfront conversation about what you want, you can’t be angry at someone for not giving it to you.

The bigger question here is to decide what you want and pursue what makes you happy. Before you can be honest with your partner about your needs, you first must be clear with yourself about what those needs are. Only then can you assess whether the benefit of the relationship (or in this case situationship) is meeting those needs well enough to continue. What are you getting out of the partnership? Situationships can be fun and fulfilling. As I discussed in a prior column, not every relationship needs to be serious in a structured way in order to make people happy. But if you are finding more frustration than fulfillment, it may be time to move forward, particularly if the base of trust isn’t there.

The other red flag you mentioned in your letter was the notion that her other partners may not know you exist either. You obviously can’t control what she does when she isn’t with you, but if she’s not being honest with you, it’s unlikely she’s being honest with anyone else. This has a big impact on the risk level of sexual behavior. Only you can decide if staying in this unconventional situation is checking enough of the boxes for you, but at minimum I’d make sure to exercise safer sex precautions and testing to keep yourself protected. It’s possible that requesting firmer boundaries with her will clear the air. Otherwise, it’s time for an honest check-in with yourself about how effectively this situation is meeting your needs.


Elizabeth R. Busbee earned a doctorate at Yale and specializes in issues of gender, sexuality, and communication. She has been helping people explore and enjoy intimacy for over 20 years. Her private relationship and intimacy coaching practice can be reached at

Have a question you’d like answered? Write to Elizabeth at