Communication in casual relationships can feel like a minefield, but it's safe to say most people know that it's not actually cool to be aloof in a relationship, even if it is "undefined." Luckily, communication isn't a skill set reserved for long-term couples and married people. And there are ways to avoid the early morning "u up?" text if you don't want it (and, of course, set rules around the booty-call if it is your thing).
"I think that open communication is important in all relationships, not just the exclusive [or] committed ones. And some people might disagree, but I think it's actually more important in casual relationships," Dr. Tanisha M. Ranger, licensed psychologist and owner of Insight to Action LLC, tells Bustle. The "go with the flow" mentality might seem like the path of least resistance, but it's really not. You need to know you're on the same page.
"[For casual couples,] lack of communication is the biggest mistake I see. Often, neither party is being honest because they are afraid of hurting the other person's feelings or not getting what they ultimately want," Monica Parikh, dating and relationships coach, tells Bustle. Having a solid relationship with yourself and feeling open to clear communication with friends and family can make broaching these difficult topics with casual partners more stress-free.
"Open communication in a casual relationship can help people avoid a lot of awkwardness, hurt feelings [or] bitterness," Dr. Ranger says. And it's way easier than it seems.
Here are 10 communication tips that work even in casual relationships, according to experts.
1Express Your Needs Up Front
From the get-go, if you want something casual, you should be open and honest about that. And you should expect the same from your partner.
"Be very clear about what you want and don't want. Let the person know where they stand with you. For example, 'I'm interested in dating but am not wanting to be exclusive at the moment. Does that work for you?'" Dr. Ranger says.
On the flip side, if you don't want to be casual forever, that's something to express. If you tell your partner early on, there will be fewer surprises (and potential hurt) in the long-run.
2Share Even Your Most Basic Expectations
One of the worst things about dating is trying to navigate all those unwritten rules. But you can avoid them by setting your own parameters in your own casual relationship. "Open a conversation and share what your dealbreakers and needs are," says MacLeod. Time, for example, is an important factor to consider.
"[Tell them they] need you to text if you can't make it or are going to be late," says MacLeod. Whatever works for you. Remember, it's not an ultimatum, but a mutual conversation when you share your needs. There's no way you can figure these parameters out without a clear line of communication between the two of you; otherwise it's just a guessing game.
3Use "I" Statements
An oldie but a goodie, "I" statements are the star of any communicative relationship. "Use 'I' statements so you don’t make your partner defensive when you’re talking about hard topics," Heidi McBain, MA, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), tells Bustle. This means saying things like "I feel frustrated" or "I feel hurt" instead using phrases that inadvertently blame your partner.
On top of that, don't subject your partner to harsh language about their behavior. "Using phrases like 'you always' or 'you never' to your partner raises their guard and defenses because it focuses on what’s wrong with the person," Dr. Walfish says. Plus, adjusting your language to be personal instead of accusatory can keep the pressure off your relationship when you want to keep things easy-going.
4Ask The Right Kind Of Questions
If you are looking to get to know your partner better, or have more interesting conversations, it's all about the way you talk to them. If you're looking to switch up your small talk, try the baby step of changing how you ask them about their day.
"Be a 'detective.' Ask the other person questions that require more than a one-word answer. In other words, don't simply ask, 'How are you?' You will likely get a quick response of, 'Fine.' Ask thought-provoking questions including, 'Tell me how you've been spending your time,'" Dr. Walfish says. If you're not seeing each other as much as you would a committed partner, it can make the "how was your week?" moment a little less awkward.
5Make A Habit Of Sharing What's On Your Mind
Beyond asking questions, sharing your own thoughts can help a casual relationship grow, too. "Share personal struggles," Dr. Walfish says.
You may worry that it's "too much" for a casual relationship, but it's not. "I am not suggesting that you vent or use your [partner] as a receptacle or trashcan. Don't dump. Be human. All of us struggle at times. When you share and expose your vulnerability the other person feels safe to do the same with you," Dr. Walfish says. Remember: honest is best.
6Be Proactive About Sex Talks
Sexual relationships need open and honest communication almost more than any others.
Parikh suggests using three steps to set your expectations around sex in a casual relationship. "Understand your feelings ('I feel nervous'). Express a need ('I need to communicate with you'). Say your truth in one-two sentences ('I don't want to have sex without protection'). Then set a consequence. ('If you're not willing to wear a condom, I cannot be sexually active with you') ... [this skill] will keep you safe — emotionally and physically," says Parikh. Obviously you don't need to follow these exact guidelines, but it's crucial to practice safe and communicative sex.
7...And Don't Fake It
Honesty is important in the bedroom too. So try your utmost not to "fake it." "Fake nothing! If you don't feel like you can be completely honest about what you're experiencing with this person, it's just not worth it. Even if it's just casual. Keep your needs, wants, joys, and pleasures at the forefront of your mind," Dr. Ranger says. Really it's all about setting healthy expectations and enjoying yourself in the relationship.
"Don't tell little white lies, or lie by omission to spare feelings or make your casual partner feel like they are more important to you than they are. I'm not advocating brutal honesty, as I feel that honesty without tact is just cruelty. But don't be coy," Dr. Ranger says. Being honest about sex (and all other things) will make things much easier in the long-run.
8Have Important Discussions In Private
Being in a casual relationship might mean you're often in 'casual' settings, like bars, or hanging out around friends. But those environments aren't the best for more serious conversations.
"[When having a discussion,] be sure you are in a quiet place with no distractions so you can focus on the other person," Dr. Walfish says. You don't want to have people at the brewery hear you define the relationship.
9Know How To Argue
Arguments happen. That's OK. There's a myriad of tactics you can use to make them less hostile and scary. Some of the simplest ones should work for your casual relationship.
First and foremost, make sure you're actually listening to your partner. "Use active listening so you are tracking the conversation, but also giving your partner a change to explain things in a different way if they are not making sense to you," McBain says. And it can be really, really tempting to interrupt someone who's upsetting you, but don't.
"During intense disagreements, you often interrupt or think about your response while your partner is talking. Instead, 'listen' intently without interrupting and try to understand and empathize with your partner’s feelings," Dr. Walfish says.
If your partner is the type to ice you out instead of argue, openly observe that so that the reality of the situation is out in the open. "[Try to] state what you see. This means you are tuned in and observing reactions and behavior. For example, You're really quiet. Seems like you don't agree. You look upset. This opens the door for the person to share what's going on — without overwhelming them with questions," MacLeod says.
A good (as opposed to a toxic) argument can be really refreshing. "When everyone is on the same page, things go more smoothly — no matter how committed or casual the relationship is," MacLeod says. An argument doesn't have to be the kiss of death for a casual couple; it can actually be an opportunity to learn and grow.
10Be Honest When Things Change
You may think that because you defined the relationship as one thing, you don't have a right to want that to change. That simply isn't true. "For some reason, we often forget that we are human beings and sometimes feelings change. We get into this rigid place where we think, 'this is what I agreed to, so this is what I have to do,'" Dr. Ranger says.
You can avoid that fear by being honest with yourself and your partner. "One of the biggest communication mistakes casual couples can make, is not being honest with themselves when feelings start to change. This applies to when one or both people wants to become more than just casual, and when one or both people is no longer wants to be attached at all. It is perfectly natural to feel anxious about this," Dr. Ranger says. So avoid staying in something you don't want by making open communication a constant in your relationship, even if it's not "committed."
There's a taboo around being open and honest with someone you're seeing "casually," but it doesn't need to be that way. Mind games begone, it's time for you to get what you really want.