What to Expect With Casual Dating

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Casual dating is dating outside of a committed romantic relationship. In other words, casual dating is dating someone (and possibly engaging in physical intimacy or sex) when you are not engaged, married, or otherwise in a long-term commitment with them.

Casual dating is not the same as hooking up. 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 a person's beliefs and values, casual dating might be considered a fun way to socialize or a stepping stone toward a more long-term committed relationship. On the other hand, some people view casual dating as immoral, especially if there is extramarital sex involved.

This article covers what it's like to casually date, the mental health effects of casual dating, and tips for casually dating if you choose to try it out.

The Experience of Casual Dating

There are many reasons people choose to date casually. These may include:

  • You are practicing dating and getting to know what you like.
  • You are taking things slowly before you decide if you want commitment.
  • You just got out of a serious relationship and don't want a commitment.
  • You want to have fun without the pressure of a committed relationship.
  • You want to keep emotional attachment to a minimum.

There are many benefits of casual dating. You get to spend time with someone who likes you and who you like back, but you don't have to worry about labeling the relationship or making any life decisions that revolve around the other person.

Casual dating can be a learning experience, too. Down the line, you may learn that you want to enter into a serious relationship with this person, or you may not. But either way, you'll learn more about what your needs are in a relationship and what you're looking for in future partners.

You don't have to have casual sex to casually date, and it's important that you and the person you're dating respect each other's boundaries surrounding sex and physical intimacy. If you do want to establish physical intimacy with a partner, casual dating can offer consistency in this respect as well (i.e., having sex with the same partner).

You get to decide your own experience when it comes to casual dating. You choose how many people you date at a time, whether you want to engage in physical intimacy, and how often you wish to see the person or people you're dating.

The Effects of Casual Dating on Mental Health

Casual dating comes with potential positive and negative effects on mental health. On the positive side, casual dating can increase your sense of freedom and independence. It may relieve any feeling of urgency to find a partner and allow you to focus on yourself, which can boost your confidence and self-esteem.

But research on the mental health effects of casual dating is mixed—mostly because people's experiences with dating vary so widely. In fact, a lot of research actually focuses on the mental health effects of "hooking up," or having casual sex without having a relationship at all.

Casual Sex vs. Casual Dating

It's important to distinguish between casual sex (also called hooking up) and casual dating. You can have casual sex with someone without dating them, and you can casually date someone without having casual sex.

It's possible that overall, casual sex without any other type of relationship (friendship, dating, or committed relationship) may increase the risk of negative health effects like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

However, the mental health effects of any kind of dating or sexual encounter depend upon the people and the circumstances. As long as you are respecting your own boundaries, belief systems, and values and respecting those of others, you can decide whether you wish to proceed with casual dating or whether you'd prefer another dating style or level of comittment.

Attachment and Expectations

Casual dating may be more challenging if you experience a strong emotional attachment to someone you're dating and they don't feel the same way. For instance, you may want to only date that one person, but that person wants to be free to see other people.

Similarly, if you have sex with someone you're casually dating, you may feel hurt or betrayed if you find out this person has been having sex with other people. For these reasons, it's helpful to be upfront about your expectations and ask for honesty from the other person as well.

Some conversation-starters might include:

  • Are we both free to date/have sex with other people?
  • Is it OK if only one of us dates and/or has sex with other people?
  • If one of us develops a strong emotional attachment, would we be open to discussing this?
  • Is either of us expecting this relationship to become more serious later on? Is it OK if the relationship only remains casual?

Dating Apps

There are pros and cons of using dating apps and online dating services. On the one hand, they can help you establish whether you and another person are looking for the same type of relationship before you even meet each other.

However, stress and anxiety levels may increase if you use dating apps frequently and spend a lot of time on them. So be sure to set boundaries with your dating app use. For instance, maybe you only check your dating app for 15 minutes three days a week instead of checking it constantly.

Try to recognize if you're relying on a dating app to provide you with validation, which can negatively affect your self-esteem. Be sure you're finding validation outside of your dating life. While using dating apps, stay safe by protecting your personal information and blocking anyone who sends offensive messages.

Remember, it may take time to find what you're looking for, but you are worthy of having the type of relationship you want.

Are Casual Relationships Less Satisfactory?

Another common effect attributed to casual dating is that these non-committed, casual relationships may be 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. That is to say that casual dating in and of itself 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 may 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 cohabiting 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—and the people you are dating share these expectations—it's likely that you'll be happy with your relationship and your sex life.

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 as there are a number 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 may be influenced more by the specific couples and not the couples' 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. Researchers can't agree because the research is so varied.

Can Casual Dating Lead to Committed Relationships?

Researchers have begun considering casual dating as a step in a progressive relationship that may eventually lead 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 potential committed 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, they may become exclusive, move in together, and eventually marry.

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 are 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

It's important to make sure that both parties understand that the dating is casual—and that you’re both OK with this. Discuss whether you do or don’t want to know about or hear about their other dates and discuss whether it’s an option for the relationship to potentially 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

Casual doesn’t mean that there are no boundaries. Define yours. What kind of behavior is OK with you and what isn't? Do you have limits with regards to physical and sexual intimacy? What are your rules for staying safe and protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?

Watch Out for Jealousy

If you’re having a hard time controlling feelings of jealousy, it might be a sign that you need to take a step back from casual dating. 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. You might consider planning dates around a fun activity, such as:

  • Meeting up at a coffee bar
  • Seeing a movie or music concert together
  • Going out to dinner
  • Taking your dogs for a walk together
  • Window shopping together

Show Respect

Mutual respect is key for 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

If you enjoy the sense of freedom that comes with casual relationships, allow yourself to enjoy this style of dating. Of course, if you are engaging in casual dating without wanting to or if casual dating goes against your values, you may want to abstain from casual dating and that is OK, too. Casual dating is not for everyone.

If you want to casually date but find yourself being held back by limiting beliefs, you may talk to a therapist or qualified mental health professional to address and potentially reframe your mindset on this type of dating.

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