Hello and welcome to the thick of cuffing season. If you’re single, there’s a good chance you might be feeling the pressure rn to lock down a relationship before your heart totally freezes over for the winter or whatever. Thanks to several centuries or so of mononormative dating standards that pretty much demand we all couple up and mate for life, it’s only natural to feel like you need someone to keep you warm and watch the 4 p.m. sunsets with. (It’s fine, I'm fine, I actually like seasonal depression, okay?) But what are you supposed to do if you, say, don’t actually want to commit to a long-term relationship rn (or like, ever)? Allow us to make a suggestion: casual dating. Maybe you’ve heard of her?
If you’re currently braving the dating app trenches, then it may seem like everyone on Bumble or Hinge is looking for either a one-night stand or a lifelong partner to cling to till death do them part, The Notebook-style. While this may lead you to believe everyone is bringing an all-or-nothing energy to dating these days, more people are interested in going on casual dates than you might think. A 2019 Pew Research survey found that 36 percent of adults in the U.S. were either open to finding casual dates or solely wanted to date casually. So if you’re looking to keep things chill without totally pressing pause on your love life, you’re not alone, babe.
Despite the potential negative connotations of the word “casual,” (hi, casual does not equal careless) experts say that dating casually can def have its perks, and works beautifully for plenty of people who may be looking to mingle, but aren’t interested in full-blown commitment.
Of course, keeping things low-key isn’t for everyone, and can get complicated for some folks who go into a situationship planning to keep it cool and end up realizing they want something more out of a connection. But despite what literally every FWB rom-com may have led you to believe, casual dating is a real and totally valid approach to your love life, and not just a gateway to the monogamous bliss you must secretly want (🙄). To help you navigate this vague-by-design dating territory, we asked the experts for all the deets on what exactly casual dating is and how to do it right. Your no-stress, no-strings dating life awaits.
Okay, So What Is Casual Dating?
While the name sounds pretty self-explanatory, there’s a wide variety of ways you can potentially go about dating casually. Despite the stigma that somehow still seems to exist around dating without the intention of “settling down,” experts say that casual dating can actually be very intentional—the intentions are just different.
“‘Casual dating’ means that you are not in the mindset of wanting a long-term relationship. It can mean anything else—e.g. ‘friends with benefits,’ looking for sexual encounters only, wanting to experiment sexually, or just wanting to connect with partners emotionally,” says dating coach Amy Nobile. Even if you aren’t looking for an end-game partner, you can still seek some other kind of fulfillment from your connections—whether that be emotional, sexual, intellectual, or just good old-fashioned fun.
Another thing about casual dating: there aren’t set standards or expectations for whatever casual relationships you happen to find yourself in.
“Casual dating is seeing people (it could be one or multiple) without any expectations of commitment or deep emotional involvement,” says Erika Kaplan, matchmaker and VP of membership at Three Day Rule Matchmaking.
While dating with the intention of becoming long-term partners tends to involve some pressure to check off certain boxes or follow a standard script—e.g. monogamy, allotting a certain amount of time or attention for each other, meeting a partner’s friends and families, etc.—going on casual dates, especially with multiple people, usually involves looser strings and less obligation.
Pros of Casual Dating
There are tons of reasons people may want to give casual dating a whirl. For one thing, there’s way less pressure. Certified relationship coach and matchmaker Dr. Casandra Henriquez explains that dating outside the confines of a defined relationship can give people a chance to figure out first-hand what they actually like (and don’t like) in a prospective mate.
This can be a particularly healthy exercise for someone who just got out of a relationship. (Serial monogamists, take note.) You may have thought your ex checked all your boxes, but as you meet more people, you might start to realize that you actually, say, don’t want to spend every Sunday watching your partner scream at the TV about football for weeks at a time. When you’re dating without the pressure of finding your perfect partner, you have more space to figure out what that perfect partner might actually look like, rather than trying to force someone to fit that mold (or convince yourself that they do).
TL;DR, dating sans commitment is one of the best ways to learn more about yourself and the kind of partner you want and want to be, and it can also teach you plenty about the kind of relationship you might eventually want. Do you want to spend your weekends at the farmers market making elaborate dinners with your S.O.? Do you want to travel the world and have new adventures together? Would you prefer an open or non-monogamous relationship style?
“The biggest pro of casual dating is that you can really learn about what you want from a connection, whether it’s emotionally, physically or spiritually. You can date many people at once, try different things, and see what feels right to you,” says Nobile.
Not to mention, choosing to go on casual dates can also save you loads of precious time and energy. “Casual dating allows for connection without commitment,” Kaplan says, which means you can spend less time scrutinizing your Hinge matches looking for someone who checks every single box on your soulmate checklist and more time, uh, actually going on dates and having fun.
Cons of Casual Dating
While less pressure and more fun may sound like an obvious win-win, there are some potential downsides to casual dating that you’re gonna want to weigh before you buy a ticket to No Strings City.
If you’ve met someone who has agreed to keep things casual with you, awesome! Chances are you’re both in for a lot of fun and some quality, low-commitment companionship for however long you’re both down. That’s the thing, though—unless you specify things like how long you plan to see each other, whether you’re dating/sleeping with other people, or how much time you plan to invest in each other, feelings can get hurt and lines can get crossed.
“Casual dating can be emotionally dangerous if both people aren't fully on the same page about expectations,” says Kaplan. “For casual dating to truly be the right option, both parties really need to be honest (mostly with themselves!) about their short- and long-term goals.”
While one of the perks of casual dating is far fewer rules and less rigid boundaries, that doesn’t mean there are no rules or boundaries. As is true of any kind of relationship—yes, even the most casual of FWB situationships—communication is key. Meeting someone amazing and spending time with them casually can enhance your love life in all kinds of ways. But without being honest with yourself and whoever you’re dating about what you really want and establishing clear boundaries around those desires, you run the risk of getting hurt—or hurting someone else. Remember, no one wants to be a fuckboy!
Is Casual Dating Right for You?
Understanding what you want out of dating in general is the first step to deciding if you should date casually. If you meet someone you’re interested in but you aren’t ready for a partner, or if you want something more serious and they aren’t willing to date more than casually, Kaplan says using radical honesty and checking in with yourself about what you actually want needs to happen first and foremost.
“A good exercise is playing devil's advocate with yourself, or the ‘what if’ game,” says Kaplan. “What if the person you're casually dating was also casually seeing other people? Alternatively, what if the person you're casually seeing decided they actually do want a serious relationship? Thinking about how either of those scenarios would make you feel could give you clarity.”
If you find that picturing someone else hooking up or grabbing drinks with the person you’re seeing casually gives you hives, maybe you want something more serious with them. That might mean broaching the possibility of turning your fling into a capital-R relationship, or it might mean cutting ties with them so you can find someone better equipped to provide what you’re looking for.
Either way, this means not only being honest with yourself, but also being fully transparent with the person you’re dating about your intentions and expectations. This way, there aren’t ambiguities surrounding what you’re both hoping to get out of the connection, or where it’s going.
“As long as you’re honest from the start with whoever you’re dating, you’re in the clear,” says Nobile. “Casual dating can be a great way to see what core values matter to you, and who you best align with. Be genuine, be safe, and have fun!”
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