Commitment isn’t for everyone. Sometimes what you want is something a bit more low key, a more casual relationship instead of something long-term.
Maybe you’ve just gotten out of a relationship and the last thing you want is to jump on that particular horse again. Or maybe you’ve been a devoted reader of this site and now that you’re having some success, you’re feeling like a kid in the candy store and want to explore your options for a while.
Or maybe you’re just a serial dater; you’re in it for the rush, that new relationship energy, the passion and the thrill of sexual novelty. Or maybe you’ve decided that you’d rather have a few people you see on a semi-regular basis instead of just one monogamous partner.
Whatever the reason, many people are more interested in a casual relationship than they are in something committed or long-term. The problem is that they often forget that casual relationships require maintenance and effort, the same as a relationship leading towards commitment. Just because there are no strings attached doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for-all. It’s easy for lines to get blurred and feelings to be hurt. If you want a successful casual hook-up, then you want to understand how to keep things straight forward and appealing to everybody involved.
Casual Relationships Have Rules
The commonly accepted definition of a casual relationship is one without expectations of monogamy or a long-term commitment.1 As a general rule of thumb, casual relationships are more relaxed; there’s usually less emotional investment and less involvement. Some relationships are strictly sexual while others are more companionable, but still without the expectation that they’re leading somewhere. Because of the lower levels of investment, they tend to be short-lived and generally easier to walk away from than a more standard relationship. But while a casual relationship doesn’t necessarily conform to the same social rules or expectations as a committed one, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.
The first and most important rule is that everybody has to be on the exact same page. Just because the relationship is casual doesn’t mean it’s OK to play with somebody’s expectations or treat their emotions like your personal chew toy. Not having any strings isn’t a license to be an asshole or a player or to coast along past any misunderstandings or miscommunications. You’re still dealing with a person, not a sex toy. It’s important to establish from the outset that this is a casual arrangement and that neither of you are expecting more out of it. Depending on the personalities involved, this may be something as simple as saying “you know this isn’t serious, right?” or a carefully negotiated contract stipulating what is and isn’t permissible.
Regardless of how it’s done, you should establish some ground rules and expectations. The clearer everybody is on where they stand, the less chance there is for confusion, hurt and resentment.
When you’re still establishing the rules for your casual relationship, it is vitally important that you are scrupulously honest and up front. Do not agree to things in hopes that you can change his or her mind in the future or under the assumption that casual is just a stepping stone to “boyfriend/girlfriend” status. Similarly, do not suggest, hint or even vaguely insinuate that you might be up for something more in hopes of getting a casual commitment now. This is a dick move that I’ve seen far too many people pull and a violation of the other person’s trust. The people who do this are pustules on the collective ass of humanity who make it harder for the good-faith horndogs of the world and who deserve the wank-storm of karma that comes their way.
Don’t be that asshole.
Keep It Light
The point of a casual relationship is that it’s supposed to be fun and easy-going. It’s about the thrill of the new coupled with the ability to seek out what the world has to offer without being tied down by obligations or expectations to any one person. But most of us come from a background where what’s considered acceptable “dating” behavior has a heavy tilt towards romance and monogamy. It’s surprisingly easy to slip into the relationship frame without meaning to. For example, a lot of “date spots” are designed to be as romantic as possible – low lights, soft music, etc. Sounds great, right? Except those romantic areas aren’t designed to be a prelude for steamy, bed-rocking, don’t-come-knocking sex later on. They’re designed to inspire feelings of love and affection. This doesn’t mean that panty-ripping, throw-each-other-against-the-wall sex isn’t going to follow (or is incompatible with romance, for that matter)… but it does subconsciously set the mood towards the “relationship” side of “casual relationship”.
This is why you want to avoid romance. Not because there’s something wrong with it, but because being romantic or going on romantic, candle-lit dates implies commitment… which is something you’re presumably not looking for. Even little things like buying flowers or celebrating special occasions can reframe the interaction from “two people enjoying each other’s company without expectations” to “two people dating.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re not supposed to have fun, go on dates or do anything aside from meeting up and wrecking hotel rooms like a couple of coked-out rock stars.
It just means that you need to be aware of the unspoken implication of your actions. If you’re in a casual relationship, you should consider keeping more towards activity dates, especially ones that get you charged up – going dancing, for example, or playing pool.
Similarly, you should keep the conversation light as well. More personal intimacy tends to imply greater interest in emotional commitment. It’s easier to keep a certain amount of distance when you’re keeping the conversational topics to surface level engagement, talking about TV, books, movies, travel and the like. Think of it as though you were having a conversation during a night out with friends – you generally don’t get deeply personal when you’re out on the town with your buddies. That is about the same level you want to maintain with your date. Personal topics aren’t forbidden – you’re not trying to shut them out- but the more you both share about yourselves, the more likely one or both of you are going to feel yourselves crossing emotional lines. Not an inherently bad thing, but decidedly not a result you want if your goal is to keep to a no-strings relationship.
It’s also generally a good idea to keep things in the now. Focusing on the present rather than the future helps keep things about being in the moment. Unless you’re being especially callous and pointedly excluding them from the picture, talking about the future implies that you’re expecting them to be part of it. This in turn, raises the suggestion that you’re seeing them as a long-term prospect. Again: not a bad thing, but presumably not what one is looking for if you’re trying to maintain a casual relationship. Try to avoid making plans beyond the level of “hey, I’ve got tickets to see Los Lonely Boys at Stubbs on Friday, want to go?” if possible.
Avoid “Relationship” Milestones
Speaking of avoiding the relationship frame: there are a number of moments that define a traditional relationship rather than a casual one. Meeting each other’s friends, for example, is a classic one. It’s a way of not just integrating your partner into your day to day life but letting her see another side of you by meeting the people who help shape you and make you who you are.
This is a significant milestone in a traditional relationship – it says that you consider her presence important enough that you want to see whether she fits in with your existing social circle. But in a casual relationship, you have her and you have your friends. You don’t want to cross the streams unless you’re both especially good at compartmentalization. Bringing her into your social circle is a sign that you expect this relationship to get at least slightly more serious. You may not be ready to move in together, but it says you see her as a more established part of your life. Ideally, you want to keep your relationship strictly about you and her. You have your fun times together, but you also have entirely separate lives by design. Bringing them together runs the risk of boundaries getting blurred and expectations getting confused. And when that happens, people get hurt.
Other relationship events like observing anniversaries, calling her your girlfriend (or her calling you her boyfriend), giving her space at your home for her things and the like should similarly be avoided. These imply a level of commitment and interest that presumably you don’t actually share and lead to conversations about how one or the other of you thought that maybe things had been changing.
Another key part to keeping things casual and avoiding greater emotional investment on either part is to not see each other more than once a week.
One of the signs that a relationship is heating up and starting to become more serious is that you’re spending more and more time together. The more you are exposed to something – food, music, television shows… damn near everything, really – the more you come to like it. This also includes people. In fact, studies have found that repeated exposure is an intensifier in relationships; the more times you see somebody, the more you reinforce the dominant emotional association you feel with that person.
Now before the Nice GuysTM pump their fists and yell “YES”, this doesn’t create attraction, it only reinforces what’s already there. But when you’re in a casual relationship with someone, there is presumably a sense of feeling and affection. Thus, the more often you see them, the more you’re reinforcing that affection… and running the risk of increasing the level of emotional investment to a point where you risk blurring lines of communication.
Part of being in a casual relationship is that you’re not spending all of your time together. Even people in friends-with-benefits arrangements – who presumably are friends even without the sexual side of their relationship – only see each other occasionally. More often than once or twice a week and you start to veer into “actual relationship” territory. You also should consider limiting communication outside of seeing each other in person as well. You don’t want complete radio silence – again, you’re not strangers who occasionally bang, you have a relationship – but long daily phone calls and all-day chat sessions on Instant Message are the province of greater levels of emotional connection. Spending all your free time going back and forth on Facebook and phone calls “just to say hi” aren’t casual relationship behavior.
Respect The Boundaries
One of the most important parts of making a casual relationship work is establishing and maintaining strong boundaries. Not only does this help weed out the users and manipulators, it also helps keep the lines of acceptable behavior clear. It reduces the chance of sending mixed messages – especially by accident – and thus reducing the potential for heartbreak and hurt feelings.
It also helps you identify the people who’ve gotten into a casual relationship under false pretenses. Even when I made it abundantly clear to the women I was dating that I was only interested in a casual thing, there would always be one or two who would agree and then start pushing for a relationship. Men will do this all the time as well – they enter into a no-strings-attached affair with the intention of trying to wear the woman down until she agrees to a committed relationship. In both cases, it’s profoundly unfair to everybody involved and leaves everyone feeling angry and resentful. Casual relationships are supposed to be light, fun affairs, not a cause for bitterness and and rancor. It’s important that if you want a casual relationship and your partner doesn’t that you don’t passively accept a change of parameters because you’re conflict averse and don’t want to risk a break-up by defending your boundaries. It’s one thing to be willing to re-negotiate the circumstances of your relationship; it’s another to have those changes forced upon you (or forcing them upon someone else) unilaterally.
It’s also important to remember that those boundaries include discussions of other partners. Simply put: you don’t ask. If she volunteers, great. But unless you’ve already established that talking about other sex partners is fair game, then it’s simply none of your business. Part of the point of a casual relationship is the lack of commitment and that goes both ways. This is an affair, not a deposition and she’s not obligated to disclose anything about sexual activities that don’t involve you… just as you’re not obligated to share more than you feel comfortable with. Sometimes the best hedge against jealousy is pointed ignorance. Assume they’re seeing someone else – especially if you are – and remember: condoms, condoms, regular STI screening and also: condoms.
(The obvious exception here is in the case of sexually-transmitted infections – positive exposure is a mandatory “disclose immediately.” )
It’s worth noting: the point of having and maintaining strong boundaries isn’t because people are going to try to trick you if you let you guard down. It’s about avoiding unnecessary heartache and tragedy. Strong boundaries and clear communication make for strong relationships – even casual ones. And a strong relationship can maintain its core affection even through the rough times. Casual relationships by their nature are short-lived and ephemeral… but that doesn’t mean that ending them needs to be about heartbreak and bad feelings. In fact, a casual sexual relationship can end up being the basis for an incredible and intimate friendship. But whether you end up as friends or something more, careful relationship maintenance can keep things light, happy and enjoyable for everybody.
- Worth noting: there’s a difference between a casual relationship and non-monogamy. A casual relationship by definition implies that you’re not looking for attachments, emotionally or relationship-wise. Non-monogamy, on the other hand, only refers to sexual non-exclusivity, not the level of emotional commitment. [↩]