Casual Relationships: Are There More Than One Kind?

If I say "casual relationships," what comes to your mind? Maybe a one-night stand, or friends with benefits? How about casual dating? Are these relationship types the same, or are they somewhat different?

Today's young adults apparently have a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of different types of casual relationships. Not all of them are the same, and each of the four types identified by Canadian researchers Wentland and Reissing come with a different set of expectations. This article will explore the different factors that influence the types of casual relationship that exist today for young people.

Four Types of Casual Relationships

Let's begin with the four types of casual relationships that Wentland and Reissing identified. After running four focus groups with 23 participants aged 18 to 24, the researchers were able to name four main types of casual relationship, from least intimate to most intimate:

  1. One-night stand
  2. Booty call
  3. F*ck buddies
  4. Friends with benefits

In this case, the authors omitted casual dating because they wanted to explore relationship types that were not considered "dating" by the participants.

Wentland and Reissing identified five different characteristics that influence each type of casual relationship. These characteristics are frequency of contact, type of contact, personal disclosure, discussion of relationship, and friendship. Let's look at each in turn.

Frequency of Contact

This first characteristic differentiates one-night stands from the three other kinds of casual relationships. A one-night stand is, by definition, a single contact that goes no further. Once the contact becomes repetitive, we are in booty call, f*ck buddies, and FWB territory.

Type of Contact

The next defining characteristic of casual relationships is the type of contact. There are two: sexual only, and sexual and social. People in one-night stand and booty call relationships only have sexual contact.

F*ck buddies and friends with benefits share sexual and social contacts both. Social contact means that the people in the relationship can see each other in non-sexual contexts. They can be part of the same social circle or even be friends.

Personal Disclosure

By "personal disclosure," the researchers mean that the people in the relationship share their feelings with each other. F*ck buddies and friends with benefits relationships do have an expectation of personal disclosure, but not a one-night stand or booty call relationship.

Discussion of Relationship

This characteristic is not exactly like personal disclosure, although they are similar. According to the research, only friends with benefits discuss their relationship. People involved in one-night stands (obviously), booty calls, or f*ck buddy relationships tend to avoid discussing the relationship at all. This means that although f*ck buddies can talk about their feelings and become emotionally intimate, they don't really apply that intimacy to their relationship.

Friendship

There are three friendship levels in casual relationships: none, resultant, and pre-existing. People in one-night stands and booty call relationships tend to not share a friendship with each other. F*ck buddies become friends after the relationship starts, but friends with benefits are friends before they begin their sexual relationship.

As you can see, casual relationships are more complex than most people think. There are different levels of personal and social engagement, as well as different pathways towards longer-term relationships.

Why Engage in Casual Relationships?

People, especially young people of university age, engage in casual relationships for many reasons. A synthesis by Rodrigue and Fernet looked at several studies and parsed out a few different themes.

They noted, first, that casual relationships are more common in certain periods of people's lives and contexts. For university students (the majority of the respondents in these studies), a lot of it is about the university context encouraging those kinds of relationships. University students often found that they didn't have the time or energy to develop long-term, emotionally committed relationships. They also talked about how the party culture normalized casual relationships.

Many of the studies mentioned how young adults use casual relationships to satisfy sexual, intimacy, companionship, and even self-confidence needs without having to commit a lot of energy or emotion into a relationship. This lack of commitment, communication, and accountability that is inherent in casual relationships makes them attractive for young adults trying to find their place in the world.

This study also found a few negative aspects of casual relationships, like the sexual double standard (men who sleep around a lot are "studs," women are "sluts"), pressure for women to accept penetrative sex as the main activity, and women feeling a lack of agency that lowers their sexual pleasure.

Participants also identified several risks associated with engaging in casual relationships, including unrequited feelings, the potential for hurt feelings, and possible regrets and mistakes because of the relationship. Participants also talked about the risks of ruining friendships with sex. However, the researchers note that good communication can mitigate a lot of these issues.

Casual Relationships Are Normal

In the context of young adulthood, university life and the beginnings of a career, casual relationships can be a great way to explore different types of sexual activities, to engage with others intimately without the demands of a long-term partnership, to relieve stress, and to develop a social circle.

From a sex-positive perspective, casual relationships can be fun and satisfying, as long as everything is consensual. Even though most of the scholarship has young adults as participants, older adults can enjoy the benefits of casual relationships. This happens most commonly after the end of a long-term relationship.

People engage in casual relationships for many different reasons. But casual relationships are not free from potential problems, hurt feelings, and miscommunications. Most people who engage in casual relationships as young adults eventually settle down in long-term partnerships and marriages as they get older. But if you are not interested in a long-term, committed relationship, for now, casual relationships can help fulfill your need for intimacy and sexual pleasure. Just enter with your eyes open, communicate with your partner(s), and engage with a spirit of compassion and care for the people around you.

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Article Sources
  • Wentland JJ, Reissing ED. Taking casual sex not too casually: Exploring definitions of casual sexual relationships. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. 2011;20(3):75-91.

  • Rodrigue C, Fernet M. A metasynthesis of qualitative studies on casual sexual relationships and experiences. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. 2016;25(3):225-242. DOI: 10.3138/cjhs.253-a6.