When I turned 30, I became obsessed with time.
I saw the rest of my life as one thick calendar, with each sheet representing another year left on earth.
And that calendar, although already far smaller than I’d like, gets even smaller when I substitute “total years left” for “total healthy years left”.
Once that idea truly took hold, I couldn’t push it out of my mind.
I was shaken immediately out of any blasé idea that I could simply sit back and wait before I dived into all the creative work, travel, friendship and romance that I wanted to suck the marrow out of before the reaper inevitably arrives to escort me out of the party.
I don’t think it’s healthy to become too neurotic about time. But we squander our healthy peak years at our peril. Especially when it comes to love.
So with all that preamble about mortality out of the way, let’s ask the question: is casual dating a waste of your precious remaining time on this earth?
Well, as many a Facebook status likes to say: It’s complicated…
Being In A Not-Quite-Relationship
There is no longer just one type of relationship.
We now have polyamory, monogamy, friends-with-benefits, hook-ups, and everything in between.
But what is the “in-between”? What is the limbo between being in a relationship and also not being in one? Recently it has been called a “situationship”: the moment when you’re in something more than a friendship but less than a relationship.
Maybe you both hang out at the weekends. Or you hook up after work occasionally. Or you flirt at the desk every day and make out when you’re both drunk at parties and sleep off your hangover together cuddling in the same bed.
There is often a bias that causes us to view a situationship as undesirable: a sad place to be, a second-best option, a rejection.
But there are upsides and obvious reasons one would choose this not-quite-a-relationship state of affairs for themselves. It’s flexible. It doesn’t ask you to give up huge chunks of your time. It lets both of you decide to get together only when you need physical intimacy, or casual sex, or just a person to hang out with at the weekend
All well and good…in theory.
The hard part is keeping things that way.
Soon enough one of you is likely to catch feelings. If you’re not careful, a situationship can slip all to easily into dreaded “relationship limbo”, when one party wants casual no-strings fun as well as some benefits of companionship, while the other secretly harbours desires for a committed relationship, or even marriage and a family, living in the fantasy of possibility and not-so-subtly attempting to nudge things in that direction.
So…if you find yourself still stuck and don’t know whether to stay or go, here are three of the big questions to ask yourself:
Question 1 – Is this hurting other important priorities in my life?
You might feel like you’re getting a free lunch.
Now you have someone to call when you feel lonely. It’s not necessarily going somewhere, but at least it makes the weekends more fun when you have someone in bed to eat sushi with, right?
But everything is taking attention from you.
Attention is focus. Attention is opportunity cost. Attention is what you sacrifice and then wonder three years later why you haven’t pushed ahead with any of your other big goals.
And the highest price should always be on our time.
Travel. Saving the world. Doing your best work. Eating at Taiwanese night markets. These are all worthy endeavours you need energy to complete. If a situation with someone, no matter how occasionally gratifying (sexually or otherwise) begins to eat into precious time you want to spend on other important things, you need to cut loose.
But don’t relationships take up time as well??
Yes, but at least with that you know there is a long-term investment in something you both want to grow.
With a casual relationship, you can end up doubling the waste: you may sacrifice time that could be spent on other parts of your life AND stime that might be better spent on actually meeting the person with whom you can build a real relationship .
When we’re healthy and young and able, there are precious windows to do the things we really want to. And they are always slipping away.
If you feel yourself suddenly sliding in your career. Or spending hours you could have enjoyed with friends endlessly dealing with drama, or wondering aloud what he really feels, or you find yourself compromising in other pursuits even though you have no idea where this is going, then you are inflicting self-damage.
You are allowing this to make life harder; romantic situations, long-term or short-term, should make life brighter.
Don’t give in to the temptation to coast with what’s comfortable. Deferring to short-term comfort is the enemy of pursuing what will really make you fulfilled and happy long-term.
Question 2 – Is this demanding emotional attention without emotional investment in return?
Perhaps it’s late-night phone calls where he makes you play therapist and talks about his problems. Or he relies on you to help him out and take care of little things. Or you drive to pick him up, spend the night at your place, and then feel used when he leaves the next morning.
What’s more, you’re not getting any real investment back.
You might be having great sex. Romantic evenings. Deep conversations and laughing until your stomach hurts.
But you’re not moving forward.
You’re on a rollercoaster, and eventually it will come back to where it started. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t confuse a temporary ride with a partner on your journey.
Question 3 – Is someone going to be in pain if this ends?
Pain is another way your attention gets robbed.
If you don’t protect it, someone can easily steal your emotional well-being. And it can take weeks or months to get back.
This is the warning most people will never heed: even if it feels good now, but you know it’s going to hurt later…stop.
If you know you’re going to feel huge emotional withdrawal, agony at wondering what could have been, and months of healing before you’re ready to meet someone new, consider that this whole situation may not be worth the trade-off.
Again, it’s up to you: some people decide it totally is worth it even if it will end.
But know that there’s an emotional price to be paid as well as time. Emotional connection when severed is always going to leave a few cuts and bruises after it gets broken.
If you’re the type of person whose heart needs months of intensive care after separating (or if you KNOW he is), then you owe it to them and yourself to call time before you end up in a haze of depressed tv-watching and junk food to medicate your feelings and an eventual recovery to get back to normal again.
Question 4 – Is the situation vague because I want it to be, or because otherwise I’ll lose this person?
This is where you have to be incredibly honest.
Because the honest 100% no-bullshit truth is that most situationships are not the choice of two people.
Some situationships may be logistical: he lives in another state/country, you’re both career maniacs, you have family requirements that make a relationship inconvenient right now etc.
But most of them (let’s say many) are borne out of necessity. It when someone says to themselves, “If I can’t get everything I need from this person, I’d rather have something than nothing.”
It becomes a form of accepting table scraps. A second-best compromise, one at its worst that is based on the false hope that the other person will eventually and magically change their mind.
This is why our reason matters so much when it comes to doing things that could potentially harm us emotionally, like hook-ups, dating multiple people, or casual one-night stands.
In the right time, with the right clarity of intent and honesty, these things can just be another fun part of the dating experience.
But if accepting a “situationship” amounts to merely a barely hidden hope that it’s just a bump on the road and will blossom into a full-on relationship, despite your would-be partner expressing their explicit sentiment that they don’t intend for that to be the case, then you are setting your self-esteem up like a row bowling pins waiting to be toppled by the crushing bowling ball of reality as it inexorably smashes you with its full force upon realizing the truth.
At the very dark end, this situation can be incredibly damaging to your self-worth. The more time you find yourself wanting someone who keeps you at arms length whilst also being physically intimate, the more you’ll internalise the belief that some part of you isn’t inherently desirable.
When the truth is much more obvious: you just need someone who wants the same thing you do.
And at it’s core, that’s the only question: “What do I want, and is this person going to give it to me?”
If what you want is casual, then go nuts. Again, no judgment. There are times and places where having the fast food version of a relationship makes sense. It might be short-term, but that’s not to say it can’t be fun and gratifying and precisely what you need in a particular moment.
But if casual dating turns out to be junk food for your soul, that slowly wears away at your sense of worth, leaves you emotionally lost, confused and drained of resources to pursue the pleasures of the time you have left, this is your alarm call.
The calendar won’t wait.
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