I recently met someone who shared her frustration over the ambiguity of her relationship with her partner, who labels it as a ‘situation-ship’ even after many years of being together. This term amused me and piqued my curiosity about relationships and why people like putting them in a box and needing a label. The title of marriage is at the top of this hierarchy of relationships and is considered an achievement that places an individual in a higher place in society.
Relationships in our culture are most frowned upon, whereas the tolerance for friendships, especially with the opposite gender, is increasing and less judged and criticised. So where does a situation-ship fit in all of this? I understand it as a space that transitions between a friendship that is perceived as a black-and-white, platonic dynamic and a relationship that is an intimate affair that promises the possibility of marriage. I think a situation-ship falls in the middle of a friendship and relationship, a bridge where the people involved stand and decide if they want more and delve into an intimate space or should they stay where they are and friend zone each other.
I am not surprised at the frustration that my friend is experiencing. Ambiguity in relationships is an exhausting place to be in. All human relations, regardless of their category, are attachment-based, and when attachments deepen, and both parties are not on the same page, that is a recipe for disaster. It means there is great potential for individuals’ old wounds to get triggered, and those emotional wounds are primarily rooted in primary relations. For example, a girl whose father left the family as a child will be terrified in an adult situation-ship where she does not know If the other person is committed.
Our primary need is for belonging and emotional connection, and it makes us feel safe and grounded as human beings. If that space is under threat, it is triggering for the parties involved; ad their other attachment-based traumas will get badly activated.
So, what do you do if you are in a situation-ship? Although challenging, the best way forward is to introspect your history. If you grew up in a safe environment where you experienced stability with your family relations, you have a greater capacity to explore the situation-ship and see where it goes, but if you have experienced non-committal parent or sibling relations, then be compassionate to yourself and remember that you will not have the resilience and strength to deal with a relationship space that has no label which means it’s not defined clearly and no expectations or boundaries established. The hot and cold dynamic will add more emotional pain to unprocessed traumas.
Sometimes we unthinkingly fall into relationships that hurt as we were hurt before as children. Freud called it repetition compulsion, which involves unconsciously repeating painful situations that occurred in the past.
So, if you find yourself in such a situation, see how familiar it is in terms of the emotions it evokes in you. It’s not that your adult partner will be similar in personality traits to your father or mother. Still, you will probably notice how you experience similar and overwhelming emotions in the present relationship as you did in the past.
If it’s similar, be honest with yourself and don’t ignore any red flags if there are any to feel attached to another being, and most liked, you want the adult person to compensate for parental failure and love deficit. And if the present relationship is different, then self-evaluate and see what you are bringing to the dynamic that makes the other person feel unsafe and hesitates to commit.
The best thing is to speak to a therapist or a confidant and look at your relationship from a third-person perspective to understand what’s happening. A situation-ship is an excellent opportunity to resolve the unseen and unexplored past; if you can work through that, your present relationships will become safe and secure.

The writer is a BACP (British Association For Counselling and Psychotherapy) accredited individual and couple psychotherapist based in Islamabad. She can be reached at or her official website.

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