feature image photo by Mahrael Boutros
Seminal heterosexual publication Cosmopolitan defines situationships as “…the catch-all term for those relationships sitting at the intersection of “hooking up” and “in a relationship.” It’s a scary precipice, teeter-tottering between “more than hooking up” and “very much dating,” where a simple “what are we” can throw the entire system out of balance.” This is, like many heterosexual relationships concepts, kind of simplistic — it’s based on a very linear and rigid model of dating and relationships. It assumes that there’s a singular set of discrete steps to dating that move in only one direction, and that anything off that prescribed track means things are going wrong.
Gay dating does not necessarily look like straight dating; there are many outcomes which are totally normal to us, if not advisable (moving in together after two months! dating your ex-girlfriend’s roommate and all having breakfast together! starting a boutique suiting company with the rest of your polyfidelitous triad!) that would be fully Twilight Zone episodes for straight people, and so our situationships look a little different. That doesn’t mean, however, that even within the psychedelic Willy Wonka candyland that is gay dating, situationships don’t exist — interpersonal scenarios involving strong feelings that are opaque, ill-communicated or unclear to the people involved in them and could be meaningfully clarified by a “what are we” conversation. Usually, you can identify them by the fact that the people in them would rather do literally anything than have a “what are we” conversation. Here are some greatest hits of this family of experiences.
A Brief Taxonomy of Gay Situationships
One of You Is Straight (“Straight”)
A classic! She’s definitely totally straight, like she toootally wishes she were gay because boys suck, but she’s just not, but you’re such a good friend! And she sleeps in your bed every night and holds your hand and maybe you’re also having sex all the time BUT she’s straight, so. Seriously, this is a really difficult situation that will probably be incredibly painful for one or both of you. Will the straight-identified person involved ever come out? It’s possible, but it won’t necessarily be soon, or a smooth process, or mean that she’s going to be involved with you for real. My condolences, friend.
You’re Having Sex but Are You Dating?
If you have engaged with each other primarily in a sexual/casual dating context, you see each other occasionally and mostly have sex when you do, and talking or hanging out between incidents of having sex are intermittent and light, you are probably not in a situationship. You are probably just hooking up and/or casually dating, both of which are totally normal and don’t need to escalate into anything more complicated or a be a big deal unless one of you takes things there. If you want to confirm this, you definitely can by verbally saying something like “Hey, just wanted to check in — it seems like we’ve been doing a casual thing for a while now, and it’s been great for me, just checking that it’s working for you. Ok great! We’ll agree to let the other know if anything changes?”
If you were close friends previous to hooking up, or have since become emotionally close and do a lot of emotional processing or nonsexual romantic and intimate things, things may be slightly more complicated or require clarification, because for a lot of people the emotional intimacy of being close friends plus having sex is what a relationship is. At the same time, we often have different expectations of people we’re dating than of friends, and so it can cause trouble if it’s unclear whether you are dating each other however casually or if you’re friends who have sex.
You Act Like You’re Dating but Aren’t Having Sex
You do everything together; you clear every decision with each other; you have the same bickering patterns and weird shared language of people who have been married 20 years; people assume inviting one of you to an event is tantamount to inviting the other. You’re constantly referring to yourselves to other people as a collective “we” without thinking about it. You share clothes, food, library memberships, American Girl Dolls, pets, everything. It’s not like you don’t have other good friends, but it’s not like with her. You aren’t a couple, but you’re definitely… a pair.
This is maybe fine! Maybe you’re just very close friends. Certainly many of us have had an inseparably close friendship at some point in our lives! The thing is that when you look back on those friendships, usually if we’re being honest with ourselves we admit it was because we were gay. We were experiencing gay emotions and making gay interpersonal decisions, because that was an unacknowledged gay situation. Are either of you jealous when you have other close friends, or actually date someone else? Do people who first meet the two of you assume you’re together, or sometimes even people who know you well? Does it secretly please you when that happens? Are you getting a weird, nameless anxiety reading this paragraph? Okay! God help you.
You’re Exes but Act Exactly as if You’re Still Together
A tale as old as time — you broke up, ostensibly, but you still talk on the phone every night, or live together without any meaningful changes from when you were actually together, or have had sex again once or fifteen times. You wanted to stay friends, but staying friends looks suspiciously identical to your relationship! You don’t really give dating again a real chance, or if you start to you either sabotage it for your ex’s sake or let her sabotage it, or if you don’t you have to keep the women in your life from being aware of the other one’s place in it because you aren’t dumb and this situation is obviously unsustainable! Maybe you’re still not over each other; maybe you’re just comforted by the familiar, or maybe you feel guilty or responsible for each other, or maybe you’re both the kind of codependent that can’t let go until there’s another codependent situation to leap into, like a flying squirrel from tree to tree. Familiar key phrases may be things like “It’s not the right time, but we still really care about each other;” “I really love her, even if I’m not IN love with her;” or “I mean we’re still like, best friends.” Again, those sentiments themselves are not bad things at all! They are only potentially problematic when they’re actually pretexts for maintaining the outer scaffolding of a relationship that wasn’t working, and that’s taking up emotional space in your life you could be using on something actually healthy and growing.
Seriously Though What Are We
Regardless of the specifics your gay situationship and its mystifying details, the steps toward clarity are usually the same: initiating a conversation about what’s going on (or sometimes what you’d like to have going on, or what you need to stop from going on). The thing is, if you’ve been going on this long in a limbo of a vague, confusing situation and haven’t had this conversation already, you probably have reasons for wanting to avoid it. It’s always awkward and uncomfortable to pull a ‘what are we,’ but in the delicate ecosystem of gay situationships, there’s often an added layer.
Situationships defined by hooking up but not being sure whether it means anything more might be about just the anxiety of a difficult conversation; in a lot of cases, though, a refusal to have the conversation is often because our situationship is rooted in denial or plausible deniability of what’s going on, and we’re worried a ‘what are we?’ will collapse that for good. Maybe one of you isn’t out; maybe one of you is in an actual relationship with someone else; maybe there are other extenuating circumstances for why you shouldn’t have feelings for each other or it would be very complicated to do so, and you’ve only been able to ignore those looming problems by pretending you aren’t even doing anything in the first place. Maybe you know in your heart the thing you’re pretending you’re not doing is a bad idea, and having a conversation that names what happening would also in good conscience require ending the thing that’s happening.
That kind of bargaining is real, and if that’s where you’re at nothing you read on the internet is going to change your mind. A gentle counterpoint, though, to your studious gay denial on these points: there are reasons why we as humans do frequently create, utilize and value labels on our important relationships; language is how we communicate meaning, and it honors and makes visible the meaning of something in our life when we can name it as such. Our relationships can be so important, and it’s hard to talk honestly to ourselves or others about what they mean to us and the space they take up for us when we won’t name what’s really going on. To break the fourth wall somewhat, the premise for this piece came about through a conversation with a friend when they referred to an “ex” and I didn’t know who they meant until they clarified: someone they had a situationship with a few months ago. Maybe not an ex, we both said; “but what do you even call that person?” we both wondered, because what had even been going on? You can say “my girlfriend and I broke up, and I’m really heartbroken” and have your feelings be legible and easily acknowledged, both for others and for yourself. When you won’t admit what you really feel, it’s much harder to deal with those feelings!
We’ve been telling each other to communicate more and be honest about our feelings, wants and needs since the Bronze Age, and of course gay situationships aren’t going anywhere. All we can do is do our best by ourselves and each other, and try to be direct but also kind. And also seriously, have some boundaries with your ex.