Is Casual Dating Good for Relationships?

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Relationship scientists define casual dating as dating and sexual behavior outside of a long-term romantic relationship, and describe it as a common relationship strategy among teenagers and young adults. In other words, casual dating is dating someone and possibly having sex with them when you are not engaged, married, or otherwise in a long-term commitment.

Casual dating is not the same as hooking up, even though they have many things in common. Casual dating implies a desire to maintain a relationship, even though it is deemed casual. Hooking up, on the other hand, does not necessarily demand an emotional commitment on any level.

Depending on your age and particular upbringing, you might consider casual dating to be a fun way to socialize, a stepping stone toward a more long-term relationship, or an immoral relationship because of its extramarital sex component (if sex is occurring). Many proponents of traditional marriage denounce casual dating as harmful and a precursor of divorce. Is it true that casual dating is harmful in the long term?

Casual Dating and Divorce

Relationship psychologists and sociologists have long believed that casual dating and cohabitation before marriage lead to higher divorce rates. However the connection is difficult to establish on its own (there are lots of possible confounding factors), and many studies show the opposite trend.

How you ask questions and to whom you ask questions about casual dating deeply influence the type of results you get on this topic. If you ask happy couples in both casual and married relationships, they will both show similar patterns in satisfaction and happiness. The same goes for unhappy couples.

In other words, evidence that shows couples as less happy and more likely to divorce could be a result of the specific couple and not the relationship style. Casual dating may or may not lead to more divorce rates in the future, depending on the person you are dating and the likelihood of a long-term relationship. Scientists can't agree.

Are Casual Relationships Less Satisfactory?

Another common effect attributed to casual dating is that these non-committed, casual relationships are less satisfying than more traditional, committed relationships.

Research published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality found that although sexual satisfaction was higher for people in married, engaged, or exclusive relationships, there was still a positive link between casual dating and sexual satisfaction. Casual dating doesn't lead to an unhappy sex life.

What about general satisfaction with the relationship as a whole? The picture gets a little more complicated here.

If you don't expect a future with the person you are dating, your relationship satisfaction will be lower than that of co-habiting, engaged, or married relationships.

If you do hope that your casual dating relationship will turn into something more long-term, then your satisfaction will be the same as that of co-habiting or married couples. It all depends on whether you feel the relationship is coming to an end or is in danger.

Overall, if your expectations and attitudes towards casual dating are positive, it's likely that you'll be happy with your relationship and your sex life.

Does Casual Dating Lead to Poor Mental Health?

Some people also believe that casual dating leads to negative psychological effects such as low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Myths about the negative effects of casual dating and hooking up, especially for women, abound. What does the science say?

On the topic of hooking up, research over one year with undergraduate students in the United States showed that only when people hooked up for non-autonomous ("I didn't choose this") reasons did they exhibit lower self-esteem, higher depression and anxiety, and more physical symptoms.

In other words, when a person hooked up because of peer pressure, or because they couldn't consent (being under the influence of drugs or alcohol), it made them less happy.

However, participants who hooked up because they wanted to (autonomous choice) were just as happy as the students who didn't hook up at all.

Whether hooking up and casual dating hurt people mentally depends on their own personal desires and attitudes toward these relationship styles. If you think that hooking up and casual dating are wrong, engaging in these things will make you feel bad. If you think that they are fun ways to meet people and explore future relationships, you will feel happy. It all depends on your point of view.

Casual Dating in Relationship Progression

If you don't think that casual dating is wrong or immoral, then you are likely to find this kind of relationship satisfying. More interestingly, researchers have begun considering casual dating as a step in a progressive relationship that eventually leads to long-term commitment or marriage.

In a world where traditional marriage is retreating, people use casual dating as a way to test sexual and relationship compatibility with partners.

In other words, casual dating tends to be an early step toward long-term partnerships. These relationships often begin with a meeting or even hooking up. The two people may start going on dates, perhaps not exclusively at first. If there is compatibility, people then tend to become exclusive, move in together, and eventually marry and have children.

The difference between today's casual dating and the dating styles of previous generations is that now, casual dating more openly involves extramarital sex. This may be why older, more conservative groups tend to denounce casual dating as undesirable. However, since non-marital, casual sex is widely accepted in modern societies, this attitude is less influential than it used to be.

Tips for Casual Dating

While there’s no official rules when it comes to casual dating, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind to make the most of this experience for you and your partner:

Be Honest and Open

You need to make sure that both parties understand that the dating is casual—and that you’re both okay with this. Discuss whether you do or don’t want to know about or hear about their other dates and discuss whether it’s even an option (with no pressure) for the relationship to become serious down the road. If casual sex is out of the question for you, you'll need to make this known as well.

Define Your Boundaries

Just because it’s casual, it doesn’t mean there can’t be any boundaries. Define yours. Are there certain types of people you won’t date? Do you have limits in bed, if the relationship becomes sexual? What are your rules for staying safe and protecting yourself from sexually transmitted diseases?

Watch Out for Jealousy

Jealousy and casual dating don’t mix. You need to be okay if you see your dating partner with someone else—either in person or on social media. If you’re having a hard time controlling your jealous tendencies, it might be a sign that you’re better off in a serious relationship. Casual dating can also be tough if you're prone to co-dependence or insecurity.

Have Fun

There are a lot of things you can do together when casual dating—beyond sex.

  • Meet up at a coffee bar
  • See a movie or music concert together
  • Go out to dinner
  • Take your dogs for a walk together
  • Window shop together

That said, don't take them as your plus-one to a wedding or party. Introducing the person to family and friends is going beyond casual dating.

Show Respect

Mutual respect is key in any relationship, casual or otherwise. If you go on a date or two and decide the person just isn't right for you, let the person know in a kind and respectful way.

A Word From Verywell

Casual dating will hurt you only if you are doing it against your will, if you have no hope for a future with the person, or if you think it is immoral. If you enjoy the sense of freedom that comes with developing relationships with a potential partner and testing the waters before making a commitment, casual dating is one step toward finding a person with whom to possibly form a long-term commitment in the future.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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