Most of the time casual relationships are a poor decision. They’re generally ill-considered, begun recklessly (and/or via alcohol), are frequently unsafe, can be deeply hurtful to one or both participants. They tend to be a bad idea in part due to similarities to open relationships and can actively damage the chances of the kind of connection, relationship, and real connection most people actually long for.
As with most rules though, one can’t say “never”. There are times when a casual relationship makes sense. Times when it might be a conscious, caring, healthy possibility.
This is often true particularly in instances of life transitions (e.g. moving long distances) or major romantic changes (e.g. divorce). In these cases a rational person might decide that they just don’t have the emotional bandwidth, space, or possibility for something long-term, but still want to be open to a romantic/physical connection.
Whether this is wise is of course still debatable, I go back and forth myself on when this is a good choice or not, but if you decide to engage it’s worth at least doing it right.
So here are a few guidelines for ensure the relationship is a healthy one, a positive influence on all participants, and satisfying.
1. Be Honest
The primary rule of all relationships doesn’t change here; be honest and open. If you’re not open to something long-term, say that. Talk about where you are and why. It doesn’t have to be hard.
If you’re dating via the internet put it in your profile; something as simple as “I’m looking for a real emotional connection, but I’m also moving in X months so I can’t promise forever at this time; just authenticity.”
You might be scared you’re killing your chances in doing so, and this will filter some people out, but lots of people have such moments in life and are looking for an authentic connection that isn’t forever. Be open about what you’re seeking and you may well be surprised at how many people are still interested and appreciate you for your honesty.
2. Sex only with each other – talk with one another before this changes
In the few instances when I’ve had a relationship like this I tell my partner beforehand: “I only have sex with one person at a time, and I’d like you to tell me first before you sleep with anyone else.”
This is where this casual relationship is different from hookups or one night stands (I plan to have a future article on why those are a dumb idea). For the kind of connection we’re talking about here it’s important to be clear – this means you talk about this and agree on it before sex!
Why do we do this? Here are the quick reasons:
- Safety – STI/STD risk is a real concern, and setting this line is your best protection. You should still obviously practice safe sex safe with your partner, but this means neither of you is having regular new risk introduced by the other partner.
- This sets clear boundaries about what you can and can’t do. Partner going on a date? Kisses someone? Flirts with a stranger? You have to be okay with these; this isn’t a relationship after all. And more so, it’s easier to be okay with these because you know that your partner will talk to you before they have sex. If you’re not okay with these things discuss that first and set the line where you need it.
Why this is essential
This kind of relationship can be a tricky situation. You’re not really in a relationship, but you’re still looking to build trust and connection enough for the sex to get good (which takes time and practice); how do you tell where the line is? Will something make you jealous? Should it? How do you react?
The above rule is the best approach I’ve found to make things cleaner and easier. It doesn’t place bindings on anyone, it allows participants the freedom to explore if they need and to not feel tied down (often important after a divorce), but it gives you basic emotional security and physical safety at the essential level. It helps everyone have a clear sense of what the limits are.
So what if they call me and plan to have sex?
This all begs the question, what happens if someone decides to sleep with someone else?
Most of the time this means it’s smart to end things. If they’re sleeping with lots of people then trusting your emotional and physical safety to them is likely a bad choice anyway. If they’ve met someone else and that connection is moving towards a real relationship then it’s probably better for you both if you end things. This gives them space to move toward a relationship with their new connection, and you the warning to detach emotionally as that happens do you don’t get hurt.
In one casual relationship I had, my partner called to say she was going on a week-long beach vacation with someone she’d been going on dates with and they’d probably sleep together. She asked if I’d be okay with that. I told her that I’d have been happy to continue, but if she wanted this it meant we should end things physically and be only friends instead. I wished her success with the new relationship. She’s now happily married with a family, and we’re still on good terms.
Perhaps there are cases where this isn’t true. If someone has an old flame come through town or a weekend trip it might not have to end things. It is, however, essential that these be discussed on a case-by-case basis. Everyone needs the chance to see what they feel and talk about it. It can be surprising what emotions arise, and this rule gives everyone the chance to discover what they feel and deal with it before anything becomes truly hurtful.
What if I start to like them more?
It is quite possible that a relationship like this grows into something deeper and more meaningful. In fact, in some cases I’ve used this as a first step to a relationship; if I and my partner aren’t ready to commit long-term but are interested in exploring in that direction this rule is still a good one to set. It gives us the minimum level of commitment to explore safely without requiring more.
And if stronger emotions form, it’s time for another discussion. Talk to your partner; say you’d like to make this a real relationship, without dating others and with all the commitment that implies. See if they’re in the same place.
This is of course scary to do, but whether they are or not, it’s necessary to have the discussion.