What Does Casual Dating Really Mean? A Guide For Making It Work
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Like many relationship labels people use these days, the term "casual dating" often gets thrown around a little...well, casually. So let's get the facts straight here for a second. What exactly does it mean to be casually dating someone?
What is casual dating?
Casual dating is a type of relationship between people who go on dates and spend time together in an ongoing way without the expectation of entering into a long-term, committed relationship. Casually dating someone usually means you like them enough to want to hang out with them regularly but are either not ready for a serious relationship or just don't want one, whether that's in general or just with this person in particular.
"There is no commitment and possibly a lack of interest in establishing a serious, meaningful relationship," couples' therapist Racine Henry, Ph.D., LMFT, tells mbg. "The bottom line is a hard-and-fast boundary around the depth of emotional intimacy and attachment."
People might be casually dating each other exclusively, meaning they are not dating other people, though usually the term "casual dating" implies that it isn't exclusive.
What is the point of casual dating?
Casual dating can sometimes lead to a serious relationship and can be one of the early stages of a relationship. But in other situations, people choose to keep things casual because they specifically don't want further emotional attachment with the other person.
"There are a lot of reasons people date casually, ranging from wanting to gain more interpersonal experience with people to whom you're attracted, to avoiding the emotional attachment that comes with deeper levels of commitment, to just wanting to have fun," sex and dating coach Myisha Battle, M.S., tells mbg. "A lot of my clients are casually dating until someone presents themselves as a viable long-term partner, so sometimes it's a stopgap between relationships."
Casual dating vs. hooking up vs. friends with benefits.
Casual dating, hooking up, and friends with benefits are all related concepts but distinct in certain ways. Casual dating may or may not involve having sex, Battle notes, though some people use the terms "casual dating" and "casual sex" interchangeably. But "hooking up" and "friends with benefits" both definitively involve some form of physical intimacy.
Being friends with benefits usually involves hanging out regularly in a nonromantic way with sex as a main feature of your get-togethers, whereas "hooking up" is a more general term to describe any two people who are engaging in any form of physical intimacy.
Benefits of casual dating:
- You get to have romance and touch in your life without the commitments of a serious or long-term relationship.
- You have someone to hang out with in your downtime.
- You have someone to do "couple" and "relationship" things with, without the commitment.
- You can get to know someone in a laid-back, pressure-free way.
- You can potentially date multiple people at the same time.
- You can have sex with a regular partner.
- You get to spend time with someone you like who likes you back.
- You can get to know someone in a casual way while deciding whether you want to pursue a serious relationship with them.
- You can determine if someone isn't a good fit for a long-term relationship with you before actually entering into a long-term relationship with them.
- You can enjoy spending time with someone you like even though you know you two wouldn't make a great couple in the long. term.
- You can enjoy dating someone without having to share your whole life with them.
- You can enjoy the fun parts of dating without a lot of the more mundane or difficult parts of maintaining a long-term partnership.
- Things aren't purely sexual usually—you and the other person genuinely like spending time with each other, even when you're not having sex.
- You have more independence and flexibility since you don't need to totally sync your life up with the other person's life.
- You don't need to find the "perfect" partner—you can enjoy spending time with anyone whom you find fun to be around, even if they're not the "perfect" fit for you.
- You might find out you really like each other and decide to enter into a more serious relationship.
Risks of casual dating:
- One person may start to form real romantic feelings or emotional attachment to the other person, and the other person may not feel the same way.
- If you develop feelings for the other person and they don't feel the same, you can end up getting hurt.
- If the other person develops feelings for you and you don't feel the same way, you may end up feeling guilty about hurting that person.
- Some people may not communicate clearly about what they want from casual dating, causing misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
- Some people may use casual dating as an excuse to avoid communicating about needs and boundaries.
- Some people may use casual dating as an excuse to be careless, selfish, or dismissive of the other person's needs.
- Some people may use casual dating as an excuse to lie to the other person.
- Some people may say they want to casually date, when in reality they are hoping for a serious relationship.
- If your relationship isn't exclusive, there may be a higher risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections.
- There's a possibility for jealousy if one or both parties is also dating other people.
Tips for successful casual dating:
1. Know what you want and why you want it.
"It's a good idea to think about what you want from your dating experiences so you can communicate that with casual partners," Battle says. "Not everyone you meet will be down with your vision, so if you are clear, you will save everyone some time and energy. Plus, putting what you're really looking for out there first is the best way to attract people who are on a similar path."
2. Tell your partners exactly what you want from the relationship.
Just because you're keeping things casual doesn't mean you don't need to define the relationship. On the contrary, both Battle and Henry stress the importance of communicating very clearly about what you want from your casual relationships.
"Be as explicit in your communication as possible," Henry recommends. "What are the boundaries? What actions or expectations would be crossing the line? What kind of veto power is allowed?"
3. Be honest with yourself.
People sometimes like the idea of a casual relationship but don't actually enjoy it once they're in it. Or you might agree to casually dating someone just because you like them, they used the term, and you just went along with it. To avoid getting hurt or any other kinds of misunderstandings, it's important to be real with yourself about whether casual dating really meets your needs. It's OK if the answer is no.
"Be honest with yourself about why you're pursuing this kind of relationship, especially if you're a serial monogamist or serious dater," Henry says. "Check in with yourself often about whether this relationship is meeting your needs. If not, speak up and let your partner know."
4. Check in often.
After you establish a casual dating relationship with someone, it's helpful to periodically check in and make sure everyone's feeling good about the dynamic. It can be as simple as asking over dinner or in bed while cuddling: Hey, how are you feeling about the time we're spending together? I'm enjoying it, and I like keeping things casual. How about you?
Give each other space to voice any needs, any discomfort, or any suggested changes to the dynamic. Just because things are casual doesn't mean you shouldn't care about each other's feelings and needs.
5. Communicate if things aren't going as planned.
If you realize you're not getting what you want from a casual dating experience, you can say something. Maybe you've actually developed more serious romantic feelings, or maybe you just feel like your casual partner is being a little too flaky and disrespectful of your time. Or perhaps your casual partner is asking for too much of your time and attention than you're able to give.
"Initiate a conversation about what you're feeling and where you stand," Henry says. "It doesn't have to mean you want something serious, but just because the relationship is casual doesn't mean you should be unsatisfied."
6. Stay true to yourself.
"There is still a stigma against casual dating, so be prepared for that," Battle warns. "Whatever your reasons for keeping it casual, you may run across people who judge you for not wanting to take things to the next level. That's why being super clear on your 'why' and communicating it can be really helpful."
Not everyone may align with your definition of casual dating, and that's OK. Find the people who are down to have the type of casual relationship you're looking for, and be OK with saying goodbye to the people who aren't on the same page.
Is a casual relationship worth it?
"Any relationship experience is 'worth it' as long as it reflects what a person really wants and is a comfortable and safe space. Dating doesn't have to lead to a long-term relationship or marriage," Henry says. "A person can be a serial casual dater in a very healthy and positive way."
A casual relationship is totally worth it if what you want is something noncommittal and short-term. It may not be worth it for someone who really is holding out hope for something more serious or for someone who tends to want a lot of commitment and exclusivity in a relationship.
How to know if casual dating is right for you.
If the benefits described above sound worth the risks, casual dating might be a good fit for you. In general, casual dating requires someone who can enjoy an open-ended, nonexclusive relationship.
"You have to be really honest with yourself about what you want and what your motivation for a particular kind of relationship is," Henry says. "If you truly believe you can handle the lack of commitment and openness of casual dating, it might be for you."
Henry recommends exercising caution around casual dating if you:
- have been hurt in past relationships and are just trying something different to protect yourself.
- have to keep convincing yourself that it's "fine."
- feel bothered or hurt by the idea of your casual partner being casual with someone else.
In such cases, Henry says, "You probably want a more serious, committed arrangement, and you deserve that. Just be patient enough to find it with the right person who wants the same thing."