Are we in a relationship? No, a situation

‘Um, what do we have now? Is it a relationship? And are we so exclusive?’ It used to be simple, then life was still like a romantic comedy. My grandfather boasted that he knew as soon as he saw my future grandmother standing behind the counter of his cafe. He didn’t even care. “I will marry you,” he said before ordering his lemonade. There were still some misunderstandings about how and where dating took place, but all in all, it was a straight line from first sight to death do us part.

These days, you’re not in a relationship until you’ve had the conversation. The conversation where you decide what you are about each other, if you are each other’s meaningful other, if the world needs to know it too, and if you expect each other to be monogamous. If no one has the courage to open the conversation, but you hang out often, do fun things, have sex, and who knows, maybe even fall in love, you probably have a Situation rather than a Relationship.

Alarm signals?

The term ‘situationship’ is not new – it already appeared in the Urban Dictionary in 2006. But there is something interesting about it. For years the situation has been presented as a problem. A situation was absolutely to be avoided, and articles about it often contained ‘red flags’. Genre: You’ve been dating for six months and still haven’t seen their family and friends? Or even: You only see each other at last-minute appointments, and often somewhere where you can have sex? This was followed by the advice to get out of the situation as quickly as possible. Underlying reasoning: the other person does not respect you, does not take you seriously, may be ashamed of you, this cannot possibly be love. Even more rationale: if there is sex and/or infatuation between two people, there is only one way forward, the one to a full-time, exclusive, romantic relationship and a life together. As if the only love affair that matters is the classic pairing. (But: just because I don’t bring my best friends to a family party doesn’t mean I don’t respect and like them? like watching?)

With Gen Z, the negative connotation surrounding the situation has faded, the BBC recently noted. It becomes a positive choice, one that is more flexible than the classic relationship, which is full of expectations and obligations of all kinds. One where each of the parties involved can keep their own life (study, job, friends, hobbies), and still have a companion and an intimate and sexual life. A combination of connection and freedom that you can invent yourself. One where you don’t know each other for granted takes, and keeps the rut out of the door. More than that very non-committal friends with benefitsbecause with romantic feelings but without the oppression of being a couple.

I recently learned a good word for this uncomplicated kind of love at my kitchen table. ‘Take care’. Which means something like: you know, you like each other, you hang out a lot, but you don’t call yourselves a couple (and you don’t claim each other). It’s the nicest thing there is, that’s what it said at the kitchen table.

I doubt it’s a generational thing. After all, love has been around for centuries. And how many no longer want to align their own lives entirely with someone else after marriage and divorce, but still want good and intimate company on a regular basis? Which is perhaps a generational thing: that it can be called that, that it is good as it is. And it is not necessarily an easy choice. It requires knowing what you want, with each other and with your own life. It takes a lot of honesty to be able to talk about it. You have to figure it out a little, all the time, and the risk is that you don’t keep up – that both parties want to define it more strictly, or see it as more commitment and a more classic relationship. But is anyone still under the illusion that a decades-long marriage does not involve difficulties and risks?


One of the best things I’ve read in the paper in recent weeks was the interview in which the writer Eric de Kuyper talked about his open relationship, without using that term. He told with great warmth how he and his life partner once wanted to separate, but did not succeed – thanks to their shared bookcase. How they found a way to stay together and also make room for other love stories. Isn’t that the most loving thing you can do together, shape your love yourself, apart from rules and the expectations of the wider world? How much more understanding, trust, openness and generosity can you muster for each other?

What do you think? Are you in a relationship or in a situation? And does it make you happy? All your experiences are welcome at Eva Berghmans. Email us!

The things we chat about on a terrace, over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. Life and what concerns us. I would like to make room for this. Every day in the Uit Het Hart blog, on the De Standaard site and in the app.

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