The terms, Aleya Smith remembers, were hers. They wouldn't be boyfriend and girlfriend. They wouldn't be exclusive. There'd be companionship and even intimacy, but she wouldn't always be accessible. He'd have to understand that she was juggling college with a full-time job, and that whatever it was they were doing came after that.
Her friends would refer to her boo in conversation, and she'd let them know: It was only a situationship.
In a situationship, there are no titles. It's a noncommittal style of dating whose players fall below the rank of partner. Yet the made-up word connotes a longer arrangement than a hookup and more romance than comes with friends with benefits. The phrase, which has gained currency in recent years, particularly in black social media communities, became even more popular last year after Cosmopolitan published an essay, "What is a situationship?" about one woman's nonrelationship relationship.
Though many millennials treat it as a trial period, others treat it like the main event — a mutual understanding that their affection doesn't need to deepen. Situationships cover a broad range, from summer loves that never made it past September to years-long on-and-off-again sagas, each romance never graduating to that next level.
"We're socialized to believe that if you like somebody, that person's supposed to be your girlfriend, that person's supposed to be your boyfriend," said Yusuf "Yuie" Muhammad, 32, who started his events firm, Veteran Freshman, in Philadelphia. "I think it's absolutely incredible that we're dumping traditions and doing what works for ourselves."
Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist at the Kinsey Institute, studies complex relationships. To him, situationship is one word among many that has risen to define in-between phases on the "continuum from a one-night stand to commitment." Many life and love milestones, he said, now happen to people later in life. Women are waiting increasingly until their 30s to become pregnant for the first time. Millennials have been slower to buy homes. Garcia observes a larger trend of "fast sex" but "slow love."
Baker C. Blanding, 30, of North Philadelphia, a manager for Brown-Forman, the wine and spirits firm, flicked through his iPhone contacts to count how many situationships he's had in the city. Dating takes on many gradations, he said, taking some time to think and sort. He wasn't counting the girlfriends who may have started off as situationships but who progressed to something more. He also was skipping the flings and repeat hookups. The final count was 12 in the last five years, though he conceded he was likely missing a few.
There are many reasons the dozen never became girlfriends. There was the doctoral student who didn't find him "mentally stimulating enough." For his part, he says, he wasn't the happiest with the sex.
"We were both getting unfulfilled in certain areas," Blanding said. "When you have that disconnect, that's when that wedge can get in there."
Garcia was careful to note that the trends delaying key milestones shouldn't be taken to mean that young people are delaying passion or attachment.
"The human animal has a deep desire for sex and love, and people will find ways to get it, even if it becomes creative, nontraditional, or atypical," said Garcia. "People aren't saying, 'I'm busy and I'm going to hang up my hat until I figure it out.' They're exploring these different arrangements."
In February, Shesheena A. Bray, a local therapist and owner of Going Inward Wellness, hosted an event with the theme "sex, love, and situationships."
"You're doing all of the things of a relationship, but again, that responsibility, where it's spoken in a relationship, it's unspoken in a situationship," Bray said. Lovers can delineate, she said, but with companionship already in the bag, a situationship can closely resemble something like the real deal. "It's just something else in our reality where we're cutting corners, or making do with what's here. But that's not actually what you want."
Bray suggested the framing may allow situationships to end more easily, to feel more "temporal."
Smith, 34, of West Philadelphia, an administrative assistant for a pharmaceutical company, says she was happy for a while in her last situationship. Things took a turn when she lent him money and he didn't pay her back. After cutting him off, she was surprised by how hurt she was.
"For me to be this upset, there had to be more there," she said. "In the midst of me being really, really pissed off, I still missed him. And that's when I realized I liked him more than I let on that I did."
In theory, a situationship can be liberating. But, many young people said situationships can reach a crucial point when one person's feelings grow deeper than the other's. Alyssa Kalter, 26, of Queen Village, a nutrition educator, said even sensing that imbalance, she didn't want to be too vulnerable; she didn't want to be that person too quickly. So she waited.
"It's naturally anxiety-provoking," she said. "It's a limbo. It's kind of like an unknown."
Before Kalter and her ex were official, they were in a situationship for about eight months, but they didn't call it that. She couldn't take their label-free existence any more. "Looking back," she said, "he reluctantly gave in." That was roughly five years ago. She's had other situationships since but doesn't think she's interested in them anymore. "I've always found it difficult to draw a line between spending time with somebody and picturing what a future could be like with that person. People say that's a female thing, but I don't know about that."
During sex, even in a clearly outlined situationship, there are a number of processes at play, Garcia said. Clinically speaking, sexual encounters elicit dopamine, which makes lovers want to do it again and again, and oxytocin, which can trigger bonding. "If you don't want to catch feelings, don't have sex," Garcia advised.
Muhammad doubts a perfect balance in a situationship is achievable. He attributes the functionality of the arrangements to the fast-paced, work-focused lifestyles of millennials today. And that's how he's been able to bounce back after a situationship ends.
"The career is always going to come first. I don't know how to turn that part off," he said.
Cheikh Athj, 24, of Southwest Philadelphia, is still in "the aftershock" of a situationship. Athj, who is nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them, stopped seeing someone they had cared for in February.
There seemed to be a clear path to relationship-ville. Conversations turned daily. Athj became "babe." But their significant other would misgender them frequently, Athj recalled, and would often explain away the courtship as merely a "connection," rather than a chance to explore partnership. Situationships, Athj said, don't always acknowledge the emotional history behind romantic encounters.