A Guide to “Keeping it Casual”

Casual-anything (dating or sex) can be carefree, empowering, and fulfilling – given the right circumstances – but it can unexpectedly veer into an emotional minefield of confusion, bitterness, and heartache.

Getting a casual relationship right is tricky, as the lines between friendship and romance can be surprisingly blurred: there’s precarity in attempting to remain suspended between the two. Whether we’re talking friends with benefits, quick flings, or ‘just sex’, “keeping it casual” generally translates into the heady freedom of baring little-to-no emotional responsibility for your partner. Or at least this is often how casual relationships are (mis)interpreted. I don’t mean to vilify such set-ups – especially given how much I myself have reaped their rewards in the past – but often people forget that just because one isn’t ‘official’ with someone doesn’t mean you can go about your existence as though your actions are inconsequential regarding your partner. There’s a tendency to side-line casual partners – to insist that they are but minor characters in one’s narrative – but sex and dating (no matter how casual) are ultimately intimate acts which require sensitive management.

This is more than a cautionary piece; a few of my friends – and myself – have managed casual sex and/or dating with success. In fact, I spent an entire (pre-Covid) term doing just that. At times it was exhausting, but overall it was liberating and provided me with a space to practice vulnerability without being afraid of long-term consequences. Casual relationships can provide wonderful opportunities for growth – for improving our relationships with romantic and/or sexual intimacy. So, based on my own and my friends’ more successful casual endeavours, I have provided some steps on how to keep it casual. I can’t guarantee that this is a mess-free formula, but it certainly helps to bear the following in mind:

STEP ONE:  Recognise that “casual” on paper doesn’t always mean “casual” in practice.

I’m guilty of using the phrase “keeping it casual” to excess – it’s not an incantation you can use to magic feelings away. Most of us will have had an infuriating conversation with a friend regarding the “casual” status of their relationship with a partner; no doubt they will have insisted “we’re just friends” and that “neither of us want a relationship right now”. Sadly, simply not wanting a relationship also won’t protect things from getting complicated. It’s incredible how quickly you can go from no-strings-attached to an unresolvable knot of attachment – precisely what you were trying to avoid by pursuing casual relationships in the first place.

Step one of any casual relationship should be recognising the obvious early on. Feelings happen, life’s messy, that’s okay.

STEP TWO: BOUNDARIES

Boundaries are obviously important in every kind of relationship, but – as I mentioned earlier – we tend to downplay our casual relationships and subsequently this can leave things a little too open. Some of the casual partners I have been with in the past have had temporal boundaries; i.e. they only see someone once (max) per week. This kind of boundary has worked for me in the past as it prevents things from escalating too quickly and – in a way – creates a sense of formality that might squash any potential romance. Negotiating this set-up also stimulates conversation between you and your partner regarding emotional availability, giving each of you insight into one another’s schedules. It’s not particularly glamorous, but it is sensible.

Many people have personal boundaries – some unwritten rules they tend to stick to when engaging in casual sex or dating. These can include:

  1. Only casually sleeping with someone a set number of times (i.e. 4 – however this is entirely arbitrary and very much dependent on your own relationship with sex and feelings).
  2. Never staying the night; sometimes post-coital-cuddling can take things beyond casual (plus it’s nice to sleep in your own bed).
  3. Keeping chat to a minimum; this seems pretty crude, but if you’re someone who’s averse to emotional intimacy then I suppose it functions as a means of self-preservation.

The boundaries you set will differ from partner to partner as every dynamic is different, but it can be useful to discuss the kinds of boundaries you’d want to put in place during your first few interactions. They form a comfortable safety net and prevent things from escalating beyond whatever either party is happy with.

STEP THREE: *notice* your feelings

I know I’ve used casual relationships as a means of accessing the intimacy I was craving without necessarily exercising any vulnerability – but it’s a precarious line to tread. “Casual” exists liminally, so it’s easy to get lost amidst the haze of feelings that might feel more or less than just casual. This is why it’s important to emotionally check-in with yourself regularly and consider whether or not the set-up is still fulfilling. Whatever you do, do not repress or shy away from whatever feelings there are emerging from the dynamic. Feel your feelings; sitting with them is a better way to process them than shrugging them off. As I said previously, feelings can happen regardless of whether we wanted them to.

STEP FOUR: communicate these feelings

Arguably the most important aspect of any casual relationship, communication and regular check-ins with your partner is the best way to ensure you are both on the same page, provided you are both honest first with yourselves and then with each other. One of my big pet-peeves with casual relationships has been a partner’s inability to communicate. Don’t air your casual-sex partners; if you really don’t want any kind of relationship with them beyond sex at least let them know. Personally, I prefer to have a bit of a friendship with casual partners (i.e. the occasional text, or even a coffee) as it helps to maintain a healthy dialogue between the two parties. If there’s already a bit of ongoing dialogue between the two of you, it makes it easier to raise grievances as and when they spring up. It makes those conversations feel like less of an ordeal.

But regardless of what your relationship with your casual partner is like beyond sex and dates, it’s crucial that you keep each other in the loop and make sure you communicate those feelings you’ve taken the time to *notice* as and when they come up.

***

These steps are all you really can do to keep things healthy and uncomplicated with your casual partner. I recommend that you repeat steps one-four – regularly reminding yourself of the reality of what “keeping it casual” means, re-evaluating boundaries where necessary, checking in with yourself and your partner regularly. Repeat these steps throughout the casual relationship, until it fizzles into a friendship or develops into something more (as casual things so often do). This can only ever be a rough guide, but I have faith in the ability of these steps to prevent emotional carnage and confusion. 

If you have any further questions about the steps I’ve outlines here, feel free to drop me a line through the (anonymous) form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1G6c4F6GPwOO0kmAH9uL3rlTs87CDUz3S712Ezc7Wn2w/edit

I will be answering more questions in Hilary!

With all this in mind, I encourage all you “no strings attached” people to go forth and keep it casual (and emotionally responsible)! <3<3<3

Alice Garnett

Alice is our resident sex columnist whose interests include pints, pink, and all things love-related. When she's not evangelising Singledom she's busy hyping up her East Midlands home town, demystifying...