When is a relationship not a relationship?
February 12, 2007 10:27 PM   Subscribe

When is a relationship not a relationship? A casual-sex question.

Have you ever had an extended (+ 3-month) casual-sex relationship?

If so, how did it evolve and change in the longer term? How did the parties feel about it? Did you feel more conflicted about your status as time passed? How did it end? What would you advise a person who is in a similar situation?

This may seem a bit Chatfiltery, but I'm asking for these anecdotes in order to help sort out my feelings about the situation I find myself in. We've been seeing each other for about 9 months, and I find the prospect of having a one-year anniversary of a casual relationship quite... odd. If I wanted a relationship to develop, would it be doomed by the way it began? Am I in this position because I'm not good enough to be relationship material? Your insight and experience would be useful in figuring out my stance, or whether I should even have a stance.

I'll follow up via the admins if necessary, but questions can also be sent to xnoarchive@gmail.com.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

It becomes more than casual when at least one of the people involved starts to think that it is more than casual. When that happens, then open and honest communication is needed to figure out what to do about it. I have found that it actually can take quite of bit of work communication wise to maintain the casualness of a casual relationship -- frequent check-ins, boundary setting, getting consent around more types of things, etc. When these things start to get taken for granted then it may mean that the relationship is becoming less casual.

It sounds like you want this to become less casual. I think thats totally possible, regardless of how the relationship started. All you need is to communicate (not always easy, I know). You could start by reading the signs, though, to see how casual your casual relationship is. Do you expect to see each other a certain amount of time each week? Do you communicate daily? Do you process relationship issues that aren't sex related? Do you talk about personal issues that aren't necessarily related to your relationship? I take these things as signs of a less casual relationship.

Anyways, don't think that you're a bad person just because you have a casual relationship. I know people who actively seek out only casual relationships. Its a choice, and a perfectly normal and acceptable one. If you are ready to switch to other kinds of relationships, then you are free to make that choice as well. If you have in mind a particular kind of relationship that you want (if you are aware of it or not), then you will attract people looking for the same thing.
posted by cubby at 10:55 PM on February 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

There are still a few questions that need to be cleared up.

What (or who) is causing the situation to not develop into a full fledged relationship? Are you seeing other people? Is one person wanting more whilst the other is reluctant?

In my experience (and I am happy to be told otherwise by some female mefites): a girl would not be in a 9-month long casual sex arrangement (perhaps depending on the 'frequency of meetings') if she didn't think there was a prospect of it becoming something more. Bear this in mind if/when things come to an end

Did you feel more conflicted about your status as time passed?

I personally didn't. But thats not to say that my partner didn't

If I wanted a relationship to develop, would it be doomed by the way it began?

I don't think so. Is it any different than, say, a relationship developing after a one-night stand?

What would you advise a person who is in a similar situation?

Casual Sex (especially over 9 months) is never 'just sex'. there is always a little more. It might be a friendship.. a spiritual connection.. or something more. Just bear this in mind when communicating with your partner and especially when the situation changes. You might lose a lover.. but do you really want to lose a friend too?
posted by TheOtherGuy at 11:04 PM on February 12, 2007

What's the date?

Anyway, nothing is doomed, which is a way of saying everything is doomed. All relationships end one way or another. Thinking that helps you decide when to take risks, like, can I make this casual sex into a real love? That appears to be what you are really asking. Its a good question.

If you want it to be something more, speak up now and loud--well, okay wait until after Wednesday at least. But be ready for it to end right then and there. Or take off ...
posted by Ironmouth at 11:19 PM on February 12, 2007

My marriage started off as a casual-sex thing - he was moving back to Iceland right after we met (while we were both at college in Massachusetts), and we didn't plan on continuing a relationship. Neither of us wanted to be long distance, so we thought we'd just be friends... who, y'know, when on the same continent, had a lot of sex.

It took about seven months (and my second visit to Iceland) for this "friendship" to coalesce into a relationship. Between our mutual attraction and mutual stubbornness to let the other out of our lives and the fact that no one came along in the meantime that either of us were even remotely interested in dating...

So, from my experience, it's certainly more than possible for a real relationship to develop out of a casual fling. One of my coworkers has been seeing the same girl casually for three years and only just recently did their "fling" develop into a relationship.

I understand your worry that you're not "relationship material," but try not to stress out about it too much. If your lover didn't want to be with you at all, s/he probably wouldn't be. Perhaps the reason that your casual situation is still casual is simply because it never occurred to your lover to change a good thing. Or perhaps the timing never seemed right. The question you should be asking yourself is how do YOU feel about it? If YOU want a relationship, you should go for it.

Really, being with someone should be about being happy, regardless of the level of "commitment." If you're happy in a casual relationship, that's totally awesome. Don't let yourself get into the trap that your relationship isn't whatever enough for some imaginary audience.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:26 PM on February 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've had a few, actually, and they've gone completely different directions. It's not in any way odd to have a one year casual relationship, but if you're starting to ask questions like this, then I have to think that it's not for you, or at least not in this situation.

The most important thing is just to be totally honest and open about your feelings with your partner, because changing how you feel and possibly even changing your expectations or actions without telling your partner is very unfair (and confusing to deal with on the receiving end).

Why, exactly, are you in a casual relationship? I think that's the most important question to ask yourself and a good place to start. If you wanted a casual relationship and you went into this on purpose, then you have to expect that there's a chance that talking about making it more "serious" might scare off your partner. On the other hand, though, maybe your relationship has evolved and you both feel this way. There's only one way to find out.

As far as not being "relationship material," I find that hard to believe. If somebody's willing to have a 9-month relationship with you of any sort, even just casual, there's something there and you're bound to be able to find a serious, committed relationship, even if it's not with this person.

Maybe it's because you aren't going into it looking for serious relationships, even if you really think you want one. In general you almost have to try to have a casual relationship, especially a 9-month one, so even if it's just subconscious, it's probably something related to how you're interacting with potential/current partners.
posted by atomly at 12:16 AM on February 13, 2007

I had one long term "casual" relationship turn into a serious relationship (that ultimately crashed and died), and another long term casual relationship that eventually turned into a "just friends" friendship after about 14 months. There's nothing weird about having a one-year-plus casual thing, but if you want it to change then that's not weird either.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:08 AM on February 13, 2007

My current relationship (8+ years) started out as a casual sex thing. We spent 6 months in this mode until I "wanted more" and he dumped me. A few months later he realized I was right, there was more to our relationship that sex, and we've been together ever since.

I had a friend once who had been in a casual relationship with a friend of his for years and years. However, it was a case of her wanting marriage and him putting her off repeatedly, while they still had sex a few times a week. So not really a true casual relationship, in my opinion.

So yea, in both cases it was like TheOtherGuy suggested...the women wanted more, the men weren't really interested. In my case it developed into something else, in my friend's case I think they finally stopped seeing each other. (Not that I like the stereotype that all women want relationships.)
posted by cabingirl at 4:57 AM on February 13, 2007

I have had one long-term (1.5 y) casual relationship. We lived in cities 4 hours apart from each other so neither of us was into anything exclusive. As cubby says, it can be quite an effort keeping it casual. In our case, we each went through phases where we wanted it to be more than it was, but never at the same time as each other. We saw other people throughout. Those times were tough, and we each did our share of drunk dialing and putting each other through some shit.

It broke up when we each found someone (within a couple of weeks of each other) with whom we wished to be exclusive. We remained very good friends, and in fact, 8 years later he flew halfway around the world to attend my wedding.

I have two other sets of friends that are now in long term "real" relationships that evolved out of casual ones, so it definitely happens, although I suspect it's not the norm.
posted by gaspode at 6:27 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you are ready for a bit of a read, you can get a nearly day by day account of how a casual relationship turned into something much more serious over the course of a year and a half at this blog, starting about here. Definitely has to be mutual, and there has to be lots of communication.

And no, you are NOT in this position because you are not relationship material. Everybody fits together in different ways. Things may or may not work out with this person, but don't think it's some sign for how things will be with others. I've found it astonishing how disparate relationships can be. I mean, since I am the same person I would have expected every relationship I'm in to have a certain constant feel, but because personalities mix in different ways they have been so weirdly different. I think the best relationships are those where your personalities bring out the best in one another.

You may not be able to figure out whether there is potential in this relationship without asking a few direct questions, but don't be afraid of them. If you want a relationship and this person isn't open to one with you, just move on, there is a light at the end of this tunnel.

Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 6:32 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Before the SO, I had a number of casual relationships, some of them very short-term, some of them long-term, more often on-and-off. They mostly had some aspect of convenience (lived close-by, regular bartender, etc.) that caused them to eventually gently fizzle out when the relationship required more effort to sustain than we were willing to expend.

I remember the on-and-off relationships with particular fondness, one in particular in my mid-twenties: we could slip into and out of a sexual relationship, sometimes out of a need for comfort, sometimes out of a need for excitement. At the time, we were feeling nonchalantly pragmatic. Looking back, I realize that we enjoyed feeling bohemian, as we were well aware that jealousy often prohibits such arrangements. (Also, we didn't openly publicize that we had a sexual relationhip, mostly because secrets are hot.)

There is a sort of intimacy that developed in any casual relationship. It depends on the temperment of the those involved whether this is a source of weirdness or not. It generally was not for me. (And I'm a girl.)

Am I in this position because I'm not good enough to be relationship material?

No, no, no. No need to go there.
posted by desuetude at 7:03 AM on February 13, 2007

To really be a relationship, both people should theoretically have feelings for each other. Sex creates a bond that can lead to a relationship but if both parties are only attracted sexually then it could lead to a dysfunctional relationship. Of course, if both people agree with keeping it FWB only (friends with benefits), then it should be mutually agreed upon.

If all you are doing after 9 months is poking away then I would have to say it probably isn't going to lead anywhere. You didn't really specify where you two are at now so I would have to guess it is only at this point. Keep it going if it makes you happy and for a one year anniversary buy a dildo or get a love suite or something.
posted by JJ86 at 7:23 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, and my SO and I started out as a casual relationship. After about four months, it turned out that we liked each other more than we liked anyone else. We're all for-keeps now and buying a house.
posted by desuetude at 7:28 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

In my experience (and I am happy to be told otherwise by some female mefites): a girl would not be in a 9-month long casual sex arrangement (perhaps depending on the 'frequency of meetings') if she didn't think there was a prospect of it becoming something more.

I don't doubt the probability is lower, but you can't lump every female into one category. I have usually been the commitmentphobe in my flings if there has been disparity in expectations, and I know plenty of women who've had long term casual arrangements (sometimes with an ex during a dry spell or whatever, but sometimes just a new person who is fun but not "long term material").

As to the poster's question, like everyone has said, it means whatever you want it to mean. If you're not happy with the state of things, then communicate that and see how this person feels. Maybe they have been thinking the same thing, maybe they were just not really thinking about it, or maybe they don't feel they would want this to be serious. None of these outcomes is a definitve judgment about you; they're just the preferences of one individual at this point in time.

There are no absolute rules about how things have to start, except insofar as both parties believe there are rules, ie, if you both believe this could never be serious because it started casual, then you've answered your own quesiton. But recognize that that's a choice.
posted by mdn at 7:30 AM on February 13, 2007

In my experience (and I am happy to be told otherwise by some female mefites): a girl would not be in a 9-month long casual sex arrangement (perhaps depending on the 'frequency of meetings') if she didn't think there was a prospect of it becoming something more.

Not true at all. I've been in one for about 8 months. It works because we live conveniently close, but aren't at all compatible and both know we could do better. We regularly put things on hold to pursue other interests, and end up calling each other when those don't pan out. It's changed in that we're more comfortable with each other (possibly because we know this isn't a romantic thing--in the beginning we were very worried about leading each other on).

Be careful not to confuse intimacy--which will almost certainly develop in this situation--with romantic interest. Ask yourself if you really are interested in this person, or if you just feel like you should be because you're so comfortable with them already. What has this person said to you in the past? Have they been interested in other people? Have you?

My advice to the poster, if s/he would like to take things further, is to try to move it beyond the bedroom. Go to a bar or something--see if you have chemistry outside of the casual sex environment. If you want more and think it will work, go for it. It's better to figure it out now than to keep up the charade and let your feelings grow and fester. If they say no thanks, then you have an excuse to move on and find someone who suits you better.
posted by almostmanda at 9:09 AM on February 13, 2007 [3 favorites]

If I wanted a relationship to develop, would it be doomed by the way it began?
Nope! As someone who is coming up on the six-month mark in a relationship that started casually, I can say that a sketchy beginning to a relationship doesn't mean it can't be / develop into a "real" relationship. (I sometimes joke that we're "the one-night-stand that never ended.")

I think the real question is DO you want a relationship to develop? And second, what does your partner want? If you both just want to keep it casual, great. If you both want to try for something more, great. If you have different expectations, then you might have some problems. Communication is key.
posted by Zephyrial at 10:29 AM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Have you ever had an extended (+ 3-month) casual-sex relationship?

yes, more than once. that is possible but it sucks when one person is looking for more. it's disappointing to them and a hassle for the other one involved.

Am I in this position because I'm not good enough to be relationship material?

speaking from personal experience, I'd say there is a 50:50 chance of that. it could be that the one you are involved with doesn't desire to spend that much more time than currently the case with you. that's life, either people like each other or they don't. being in love is the most sincere of all possible options. you know people you like but don't love yourself. hey, they're fun, they are cute, they are nice, they might be great to make out with but you don't think you'd want them forever and ever and ever... does that make them lesser people? I think not. they are just for someone else.

it could also be that this person just doesn't know. hey, we've all been there. you could give him or her a little more time. just see what happens.

or he/she just isn't looking for a committed relationship at this point. that certainly has happened to me. you're in college, at your first job, about to move, who knows what it is, you might have gone through a nasty breakup and just not be in the mood for that right again, so you say to yourself you're going into social hibernation for a while. only your body and heart are way less disciplined than your mind would like them to be, so you end up seeing someone who's just terribly cute again.

there are many options. we don't know the person in question, we don't know you. we can't really know the answer. you could approach him/her and ask "hey, what's up?" but you better be prepared to hear an answer you don't like all that much.
posted by krautland at 11:07 AM on February 13, 2007

I had one of those 'casual' relationships for about 4 months before we officially started dating. At first it was her who wanted the real relationship. Then soon after she gave up I found myself wanting it. We dated for less than a year before evolving into friends. Now she's my best friend. We've lived together for over 5 years. Last night her new boyfriend spent the night in our house for the first time. I couldn't be happier for her.

As has been said, communication is key. We frequently wanted what the other wasn't ready or able to give. There were plenty of hard times and several opportunities for both of us to go our separate ways. Every time there was trouble it was caused by a lack of open and honest communication. We talked about it and both agreed that our friendship was the most important thing and we were both willing to work for it.

Your relationship is not doomed because of the way it began. You're in this position because at some point in time it is either what you wanted or what you allowed to happen. If what you want has changed then the time to start talking is now. You can't know where the relationship is going. Maybe she won't feel the same way and it will end. Maybe 5 years from now you'll be happily attending her wedding. Maybe you'll have 8 kids and grow old together. You should ask for what you want then be as ready to receive it as you are ready to let it go.
posted by J-Garr at 11:56 AM on February 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

Follow-up from the OP:

I didn't really want to make this thread all about my specific situation, because I know there's really no answer outside of the two of us who are involved. Maybe in a small way I also don't really want to hear things that might make me feel bad about my choices. But yes, we got into this thing last May as casual sex, with no discussion of even a second meeting. We had a lot of hot and heavy emails but only met up every couple of weeks due to our schedules. The first time I met him I was a little devastated because I liked him a lot more than I was expecting to. Over the first three months or so I developed a wicked crush on him. In October I jokingly confessed by email that I liked him. He didn't return the sentiment but said he liked the email and we made plans to meet up again as usual.

As of christmas I felt like I had to give it up because if something was going to happen it would've by now, and I don't want to be hoping for something and getting hurt, but then after the holidays we hung out again and I finally accepted that I was totally falling for him in a bad way. I must've been bad at hiding it because at some point he replied to an email I wrote and told me that he is interested but that he's not in a place emotionally to be anything more to me. (He is suffering from depression and anxiety and has been through the psychiatry wringer.) At that point I felt logic dictated I would have to stop seeing him, but since then I have developed this kind of teeter-totter opinion, like that I don't want to lose our friendship, which is intimate, or the sexual relationship, which is really, really hott, that I still enjoy his company and feel excited about him, that I don't wish to make any ultimatums, that this isn't keeping me from seeing other people (although neither of us have), that I understand where he's at because I was there at one point as well... and finally that I'm alright waiting and keeping what we have and just seeing if it becomes more or less likely with time.

This is where I wait for someone to splash me with a bucket of cold water.

I don't really need much more from him than we already have... I just wish for the recognition, I guess.

Not to guiltily justify, but I think we are a good match for some very good reasons. Also, I think that he warrants falling in love with, because he is fantastic.

If y'all could just tell him to be mine this would all be so much easier.
posted by jessamyn at 11:57 AM on February 13, 2007

I have had one of these types of things, and we started and ended as friends. Both of us felt really great about it and I know that we both (still friends) think very fondly about that time together. We never really felt like it should be more, and it ended because it was no longer convenient and also because we had the (bad?) luck of not being simultaneously single for an extended period of time.

I would tell someone in a similar situation to enjoy it. I imagine that had we both wanted to be in a relationship (other than "friends with benefits" or what-have-you) it would have been very exciting but not nearly as exciting as the casual times.
posted by nekton at 12:18 PM on February 13, 2007

your follow-up left no doubt you were very clear that you are falling for someone who has not fallen for you.

there are two things you can do: exit and suck it up for a couple of weeks or even months until you find someone else to crush on (and that's what it will most likely take - another crush) or continue to see him and hope you will get over the butterflies part.

there is nothing wrong with valuing awesome sex greatly and when you can keep your feelings in check, you can have grand moments - but that's about it.

as great as an orgasm is, it can only help you with the cravings. it doesn't last and it doesn't give you long-term satisfaction. an hour or a day later, you'll be hungry again. accept that and enjoy it or walk away.
posted by krautland at 3:22 PM on February 13, 2007

he is interested but that he's not in a place emotionally to be anything more to me.

Ice water: "I'm interested, but..." usually means "I'm not really interested." If he wanted to be with you, he would, right now.

I think it's time to cut your losses and find someone better.
posted by almostmanda at 3:25 PM on February 13, 2007

OP: I hate to say it, but at this point, you have lost the friendship. You want him as a boyfriend, and he doesn't want to be a boyfriend. (And ah, if he's going through depression issues, you're probably better off not hopping on his particular train right now.) If you keep going on as you have, you'll only just get more attached and want him as a boyfriend even more, and it's not working the same way for him.

*splash* *brr!*

Did that work for you?

Honestly, I think it's time for you to tell him that you need to take a break from the friendship until your feelings cool down. Maybe six months to a year? Yeah, I know you don't want to, but cold turkey really is the best way to get over these things.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:36 PM on February 13, 2007

Here's a different temperature of water for you:

You feel like you would be a good match and you think you're falling for him based on your experiences and relationship with him as it currently stands. The nice thing about casual relationships is that it provides a means to have a continual level of infatuation due to the uncertainty.

However, If you two were to really give it a go, you might come to feel differently, even quite "meh," relatively quickly. He might be different in a relationship than he is in a hook-up. You might feel differently about him, too. The starry-eyes might wear off if you don't feel the excitement of suspense over what "could be."
posted by desuetude at 3:39 PM on February 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Then there's the whole "why buy the cow?' thing.

From what you've said, it sounds like he's got a pretty sweet deal-- he gets intimate friendship and awesome nookie, but shoulders absolutely no responsibility. I'm not saying he's a bad person, but really, what incentive does he have to change things?

It may be that he needs to see that you're prepared to walk away. I've known people in similar situations who managed to get a guy (it was always a guy) to pull his head out and see what he was losing that way. Thing is, it can't just be a gambit. If you're going to go that route, you need to be absolutely prepared for the possiblity that if you leave, he won't run after you.

I don't mean to be cold about this. I've been there. I know it's miserable and painful and weirdly euphoric too, because it for all the agony it always seems like heaven may be just over the next rise. Don't feel this is happening because you're not good enough for a real relationship. That's not it at all. It may be about him, or it may be bad timing, or it may be a combination of the two. But it has absolutely nothing to do wth your worth as a girlfriend or as a person.

Good luck.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:03 AM on February 14, 2007

Then there's the whole "why buy the cow?' thing.

The only reason someone should "buy the cow" is because he wants the cow. If all he wants is milk, don't try to trick him into buying a cow he doesn't want. To let go of silly metaphors: using sex as a bargaining tool to create a relationship is going to end up in a fucked up relationship.

From what you've said, it sounds like he's got a pretty sweet deal-- he gets intimate friendship and awesome nookie, but shoulders absolutely no responsibility. I'm not saying he's a bad person, but really, what incentive does he have to change things?

The same incentive she has - she has exactly the same "sweet deal". Boys often want more out of a partnership, too. A casual relationship is perfectly acceptable if neither one is looking for something more or feeling something more with this person, but once a line is crossed, life gets complicated.

In this case, she has fallen for him, and he hasn't had the same level of feelings, though he enjoys what they have. Sometimes the less enamored partner can grow into love, but often the disparity is long lasting, & even if the beloved agrees to some arrangement, the difference in need can still be a major factor in drama level.
posted by mdn at 4:27 PM on February 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

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