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Gen Z is all about ‘mutually exclusive situationships.’ What does that even mean?

Illustration by Lu Chen

After maintaining a long-term, long-distance relationship through a pandemic, then surviving its dissolution, then following that up with a hot-and-cold fling with a doctor as well as a dalliance with a guy who dumped me for not giving off “best friend” vibes, I thought my dating life couldn’t get any more complicated.   

I was wrong. Turns out, there was another ambiguous relationship status I had yet to stumble into: the “mutually exclusive situationship.” It started off as a meme and then became real—for me, anyway—over espresso martinis and fizzy water in a secluded corner of a dimly lit Marina restaurant.  


Gen Z

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After months of wondering if we were or weren’t an item—or if he had been seeing others—I finally had an answer. And that answer was … “Sort of?” 

“There was no one else,” my newly minted ex(?) said as we ended our five-month, undefined romance. “It was just you.” 

He said he’d probably consider me an ex-girlfriend even though we both resisted labeling the relationship at various points while we were dating. But did that mean he was now my ex-boyfriend?

Something about that title—even after the semblance of a breakup—didn’t sit right. After all, we had never called ourselves a couple during the course of our courtship, but now I was simultaneously upgraded and downgraded. And then TikTok gave me a term for this precise type of off-brand coupling. 

The term “situationship” has been around since freelance writer Carina Hsieh coined it in 2017 and Tinder’s year-end report validated the term as a legitimate relationship status. But the murky relationship style somewhere between friends with benefits and committed coupledom has evolved in the digital stomping grounds of Gen Z, adding “mutual” and “mutually exclusive” to the mix. 

It could very well be the most complicated dating trend of 2023. But what does it even mean?  

I asked one of my younger 20-something friends what she thought of the term and sent her a tweet of this TikTok meme

“Lmao,” she replied via text. “No, I haven’t been in one. Also, what’s the difference between that and just being single?” 

It gives me TikTok vibes, for sure,” added my 24-year-old Standard colleague Liz. “'Mutually exclusive situationship,' I feel like is Gen Z-speak for 'casual relationship.'”

If the term is as confusing as it sounds, it’s probably because “mutually exclusive situationship” sounds like an oxymoron.   

“‘Exclusive' goes back to the old school, like exclusive monogamy. It's me and you. But a situationship opens it up to, it's not just me and you,” said Jonathan Kirkland, marketing chief for BLK, a Match Group dating app for Black singles.

When you combine the terms—“mutual,” “exclusive” and “situationship”—things can simultaneously become clearer and more complicated. While Kirkland offered a few potential definitions for the term, he said that there’s still plenty of room for interpretation. An “exclusive situationship” offers the opportunity to write your own rules. 

“That's the beauty of it all,” Kirkland said.  “You make them up on your own.”

In this middle ground between playing the field and the marriage track, there’s a degree of mutual care—but you and your situationship buddy are free to see other people or have one-off romantic encounters or hookups. 

“But the level of situationship that you build with this person, you can't do that with somebody else,” Kirkland said. In other words, you and your situationship buddy are not having situationships with others, and you’re probably not spending as much time nor putting as much effort or energy into other romantic prospects. But you’re also probably protecting yourself from heartache or avoiding commitment by not announcing yourselves as a couple. 

For the Gen Zers I talked to, the “exclusive” and “mutual” add-ons seemed to carry more weight but still without the tie downs of long-term commitment.  

The mutually exclusive situationship to me means like you're not seeing anyone else,” said Liz, who, for the record, says she’s never been in one but has had friends and partners in these types of relationships. “You're exclusive with them. You might be hooking up with them. You're essentially dating, but you don't want to admit it or you know that long-term they're not, like, your partner.

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Twenty-year-old Temple University student Krystiana, (who asked only to be identified by her first name) says she was in a mutually exclusive situationship for two years, but only recently came across the TikTok-based vocabulary to name the type of relationship she was in.

“At both ends, there were mutual feelings, and it was mutually exclusive to each other. But there was no boundaries. Like, there was no label for it,” she told me over the phone, explaining that her and her situationship partner could see other people, but never actually did. “I think [mutually exclusive situationship] finally gives a name for that phase of ‘I don't know what this is; I just know we're not dating anyone else.’”

Krystiana also points out to me that there’s a degree of acknowledgment that you’re both in a mutually exclusive situationship.  

Reflecting on my own five-month romance, I see strains of mutual agreement and exclusivity to the relationship I had with a bespectacled redhead with a penchant for pearls and high-end bikes. We made a pact when we decided to become intimate: We could each see other people, but we had to let the other know if we decided to sleep with anyone else. By the time our courtship ended, I figured out that we were basically “sexclusive” and for a brief and blissful period, it was just us—inside and outside the bedroom. 

While dating apps like BLK may be far off from adding the term to its relationship status options, it could be a way of redefining, or in my case, rewriting our romances.

I can’t say if my lover boy truly loved me in the conventional sense, but I can say our connection felt like more than just a fling. When it ended, it felt just as painful as the crumbling of a defined relationship.  

“People are more so defining their relationships of how it works for them,” Kirkland said. “People are now defining their own love story.”  

Christina Campodonico can be reached at