How to Survive — and Thrive — During Cuffing Season

Relationship experts share how to navigate cuffing season mindfully and still get your needs met.

How to Survive — and Thrive — During Cuffing Season When You're Single
Photo: Getty Images - Design: Alex Sandoval

Every year, there's a lot of noise around cuffing season. The term first appeared in Urban Dictionary in 2011 and since flourished as a themes in television shows, movies, and of course, memes — and as the weather turns, like clockwork, cuffing season is back on the radar.

Even if you've heard all the jokes, if you're new to or reentering the dating world (pandemic breakup anyone?), you should get to really know the meaning of cuffing season — and whether it's actually a good idea to indulge those instincts. Here, experts talk about what cuffing season is, whether locking down a bae for the colder months is a good idea, and how to deal with catching feelings (gulp).

What Is Cuffing Season, Again?

"Cuffing season generally begins when the summer sun turns, and the brisk fall air sparks a desire to get cozy," explains Kate Balestrieri, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist. "Partners who may not necessarily feel a long-term connection may find themselves continuing to spend time together, even though they believe their relationship is not necessarily a forever relationship."

The definition of cuffing season, more or less: "During the fall and winter months, people who would normally rather be single or promiscuous find themselves along with the rest of the world desiring to be 'cuffed' or tied down by a serious relationship. The cold weather and prolonged indoor activity causes singles to become lonely and desperate to be cuffed," according to Urban Dictionary. Essentially, people tend to entering committed (albeit temporary) relationships, thanks to the cozy, stay-at-home vibes this time of year. And, yes, "cuffing season" takes its name from "being handcuffed with whom you are committed for the time being," says Balestrieri. (Though handcuffs aren't actually involved... unless you want them to be.)

Though there isn't a formal timeline for "cuffing," the typical season begins in October and lasts through February. "The fall season and holidays tend to bring up nostalgia and loneliness for many people and some choose to stay linked up with someone familiar rather than be alone," says Balestrieri.

You might think that the summer, typically a season of weddings, long weekends, and impromptu BBQs, may instill similar feelings of needing a partner or plus one, but statistics show the opposite is true: a study investigating seasonal changes in internet searches found that the peaks of keyword searches related to sex and "mating behaviors" occurred most frequently during winter and early summer. "It's easier to feel carefree and optimistic about meeting potential partners when there's more time to spend going out and enjoying sunshine during the warmer months," says Heather Mazzei, A.S.C.W. and clinical associate with Modern Intimacy. This is typically why cuffing relationships fizzle out as the temperatures increase, as the more casual partner often breaks up with their seasonal mate in anticipation of this warm-weather freedom.

Why Is Getting Cuffed So Enticing?

There are plenty of reasons why having a partner during this time of year seems especially nice. For one, the colder weather and vibe of this time of year is prime for getting cozy and intimate, says Mazzei. (See: How to Build Intimacy with a Partner)

Second, there's the whole holiday thing. Coupling, err, cuffing up in the fall means, for example, you score the benefit of attending holiday parties with a plus one, says Mazzei. "Enter: couples halloween costumes, work holiday parties, or most importantly, someone to kiss when the ball drops."

And there's also the fact of the "winter blues" or even the more serious seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which may feel lessened by having a partner, says Mazzei. SAD is a form of depression marked by, yep, depressive symptoms that begin in the fall and winter seasons. It's in large part caused by the lack of sunlight during this time of year, which can then affect your circadian rhythm (your sleep/wake cycle) as well as levels of melatonin (a hormone produced by your brain in response to darkness) and serotonin (a mood-regulating neurotransmitter), according to the Mayo Clinic. While only 5 percent of adults in the U.S. actually meet the criteria to be diagnosed with SAD, according to the American Psychiatric Association, more general and mild "winter blues" can still affect a larger number of people. In either case, this dip in mood can increase a person's desire to remain connected to a partner throughout the fall and winter months, says Balestrieri. "For those who are more dyadically regulated (whose emotions feel more contained when they are around another person), sticking with a partner during cuffing season can help abate the symptoms of SAD that may feel more intense when they are alone."

The past two years of global pandemic have also exacerbated the loneliness epidemic that already existed in the U.S. "Virtual get togethers are nice, and better than no contact for most, but they do not sufficiently ease the ache of touch deprivation or a lack of in-person connection. Humans are beings wired for connection, touch and closeness," says Balestrieri. "As adults, those needs remain, and we obtain the bulk of our needs for touch with romantic or sexual partners," she says.

That's why a cuffing season relationship often begins as something casual — maybe just a hookup — to satisfy your basic human needs, and often unintentionally develops into something more, says Balestrieri.

Is It All That Bad to Be Cuffed During Cuffing Season?

If you find yourself heading in the direction of a temporary relationship, there are a few things you should do in order to avoid disappointment — on either side of the relationship.

For starters, it's important to be honest with yourself and your partner about your expectations, says Jess O'Reilly, Ph.D., licensed sexologist. "Take some time to reflect and think about what you really want from a relationship. If you know that this arrangement is temporary, ask yourself why and take responsibility for your role."

If you're not looking for a temporary arrangement, but you're worried that your partner isn't as committed to the relationship as you, this is when O'Reilly says to speak up. "Don't make accusations. Be open to hearing what they have to say. Oftentimes when someone doesn't want to commit, it isn't about you — it's about their specific needs and plans."

Once both parties are clear on the relationship — setting boundaries and expectations is important for defining any healthy partnership — Balestrieri recommends checking in from time to time with your partner, to ensure neither of you are overestimating the longevity or depth of your relationship. "For balance, stay connected to friends and family, and other hobbies, so your cuff doesn't result in more isolation than it helps stave off," she adds.

Of course, sometimes a partner does catch feelings during casual relationships or temporary arrangements — it's only natural. "But before you confess your undying love, you might want to check in with yourself to ensure your feelings are rooted in reality, as opposed to fantasy," says Balestrieri. "It's easy to misplace hopes and dreams on a cuffing relationship that are not sustainable, especially if the cuff is rooted in a desire to avoid loneliness or an unconscious effort to stave off or minimize other negative emotions." (See: Are you Really That Busy or Just Lonely?)

Just as it's important to be honest with yourself and your partner during a cuffing commitment, O'Reilly emphasizes the importance of evaluating your tendency to cuff yourself to someone annually and to evaluate who you're choosing as your seasonal mate. "If you find you're inclined to cuff yourself to someone who doesn't lead you to feel loved and fulfilled, ask yourself why and perhaps focus on self-love this season instead," says O'Reilly. (To be fair, this is solid advice for all relationships — cuffing season-induced or otherwise.) She also recommends asking yourself (and maybe journaling about), what you can do to like yourself more and be the type of person you'd want to date or hang out with. Ask yourself, do you want to do something to increase your energy levels and mood (e.g. working out, dancing, meditating, painting, writing)?

And even if you feel solid on the self-love front, if you're cuffing yourself year after year, it's still a symbol of acting on societal norms. "Our societal norms still posit monogamous and conventional relationships as the epitome of relational success, but is it for you?" asks Mazzei. "Begin asking yourself what needs you would like met by a partner versus needs you can meet on your own or by friends or family members." (See: Couple Privilege Is One Reason Why Being Single Sometimes Feels So Hard)

While cuffing may indicate a deeper intimacy or self-love theme for some individuals (which can and should be addressed by talking to a professional), for the majority, it brings a sense of comfort — so have sympathy with both yourself and others when it comes to the stigma so oft surrounding cuffing season, says Balestrieri. "Sometimes, that may mean being present with the journey, even if you know it's not a direct route to your desired destination. In other words, it's important not to shame people who participate in a cuffing relationship," she says. "It's important to remember that human beings are all trying to do their best to get their needs met."

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