In the not-so-distant past, dating was seen as a necessary stepping stone to finding a soulmate and establishing a monogamous marriage. But with the popularization of dating apps and shifting attitudes about relationships, more people are choosing to date casually rather than settling down immediately. (I highly recommend the book Labor of Love by Moira Weigel, if you’re interested in learning more about the historical shifts in dating.)
One of the needs that has emerged is education on how to maintain respectful casual relationships. We often mistake ‘casual’ as synonymous with ‘easy’ but that’s far from true! Expectations that aren’t discussed have a tendency to quickly become misaligned, often leading to hurt feelings. If you’re on straight TikTok, you’re probably familiar with #WestElmCaleb, a shit-show example of undefined expectations and boundaries. We’re all human, emotions can grow and convolute original intentions, so it’s important to know how to be transparent when we’re in relationships regardless of the level of commitment. Those of us who are deliberately casual must also resist the lingering pressure to jump on the relationship escalator. Basically, casual dating can get messy if you don’t know what you’re doing!
In my polyamorous practice, I’ve mostly maintained one committed platonic nesting relationship, and have casually dated multiple secondary partners. For me, ‘casual dating’ means having pals I see anywhere from a couple of times a week to a couple of times a month for usually less than a year. I love this arrangement because it gives me the opportunity to get to know folks who I wouldn’t necessarily want to build a life with but still enjoy. I also don’t like messy breakups. So this allows me to not get hung up on the end, realizing that we will eventually drift apart, but can do so rather amicably. By far, my favorite part of having casual pals is that we exert very little control over each other’s lives outside of our direct time together. I don’t need to check with them about what they’re doing throughout the day; I don’t necessarily factor them into any life plans I make; they usually remain pretty peripheral to my friend group and home life. Basically, casual dating is fun and flirty without so much emotional labor.
Here are the three principles I apply across the board:
1 Mutual respect
Being casual doesn’t mean that we disregard each other’s wellbeing. Callousness or shittiness (ghosting, not being clear about safer sex practices, sending unsolicited dick pics, omitting the truth or straight-up lying, etc.) isn’t fair play. I go into all relationships genuinely wanting my pals to be happy and autonomous, even if I don’t want to be a central attachment figure for them. I respect their right to see other people (as long as I’m informed about ways that they might impact my life), to set their own boundaries, and to prioritize their social lives outside of our relationship. It’s important that even if we have very little emotional investment or life entanglement, we still recognize each other’s humanity. I don’t need casual pals to be happy all the time – I make room for them to bring baggage and make reasonable accommodations (for example, many ex-pals have also been sexual violence survivors, so it’s important to take time to establish trigger/care plans). Just because a relationship won’t develop into a long-term partnership doesn’t mean that we don’t care about the other person, it just means being clear to what degree we get involved with offering care. My boundary: ‘I will only remain in relationships with folks who I respect and who reciprocate.
2 Transparent boundaries
One of the biggest myths I hope to dispel is that discussing boundaries and agreements is reserved for long-term ‘serious’ relationships. Bullshit. Whether we’re explicit or not, boundaries and agreements exist between every person you come into contact with. Having a ‘what are we’ conversation is just as necessary when the answer is ‘fuck buddies’ as when the answer is ‘monogamous life partners’. We cannot move through relationships solely on assumptions. It’s careless to assume that because something is casual, it doesn’t need to be explicit. I find that being abundantly clear about what I can and can’t offer, what other commitments I have, and what my expectations are has reduced the bulk of misunderstandings. Having a conversation where you clarify how often you see each other, if you have plans to escalate or not, and what ways you want people to be included in your life isn’t as daunting as it seems. Worst case scenario: you’ll find out you’re not on the same page. Good thing you brought it up!!
3 Remaining interested but not invested
I love the saying ‘interested but not invested’ to describe my casual relationships. It means that I’m open to having fun times with the person, I’m interested to see where things go, but I’m not creating life-planning scenarios or getting attached to outcomes. I know I’m interested when I’m able to easily tap into my curiosity about my pals. I feel happy and light-hearted when I see them. When plans have to change or the relationship comes to an end, I can be disappointed but I’m certainly not devastated. Of course, sometimes we become invested without realizing it. For me, recognizing limerence, the consuming anxious feeling of needing to know what happens next, is a good way of gauging if I’m becoming too invested. When I start over-committing or over-investing, it’s good to go back into my journal and list out what I value about being casual, and the reasons I don’t want to escalate the relationship. Being clear about this motto with casual pals allows us to have fun without hurting one another.
Casual relationships can be just as meaningful as serious monogamous partnerships. Knowing how to maintain successful relationships without becoming too invested takes some deliberate planning. Just because a relationship is casual, doesn’t mean it should be vague. If you value your freedom, you’ll find that being explicit helps balance out your needs and the people who come into your life, even if it’s temporary.