Relationship Experts Tell Us How To Navigate Cuffing Season

There's no better way to get through frosty weather than with a special someone by our side. SZA was not playing when she sang about wanting someone with "polar bear arms" to snuggle up to and keep her warm through the winters — or, as singles today famously call it, cuffing season. A dip in the mercury typically heralds the start of cuffing season, which is the golden period for uncommitted people to come out of hibernation and find themselves a significant other just for the holidays. 'Tis the season to make merry after all! 

If the pairing is compatible enough, it could weather the season (pun intended) and continue even as spring blooms. But the main draw of this dating trend relates to its prearranged impermanence. The couple can decide to keep things strictly fun — winter getaways, outdoor activities, holiday parties — without the pressure of deep emotional investment. These romantic handcuffs can come off when both partners have had their fill.

The concept of cuffing season as we know it has been around for a while now, first popularized by avid internet users looking for a "cuddle buddy," dating as far back as 2013. But how exactly does seasonal dating work? Relationship experts Amber Kelleher-Andrews and Patrick Wanis spoke exclusively with The List to explain the ins and outs of cuffing season as well as the best tips, tricks, and etiquettes to help navigate the search for a successful short love affair. 

Finding a cuffing partner

To have someone to cozy up to when temperatures dip outside has got to be one of the best feelings in the world. And there are more than a few ways to set about searching for such a companion to make winter more magical. Being open to new experiences is where it all begins. A perfect match could show up practically anywhere, anytime. "You can update your online profile, join a matchmaking firm, or join social communities and engage in activities that interest you," suggests Amber Kelleher-Andrews, Co-CEO of matchmaking firm Kelleher International

For romance-seekers who don't trust themselves with the responsibility of finding the perfect partner on a dating app, your friends will likely be willing to play cupid between parties they think would be compatible. Remember: One's preferences and intentions behind searching for a cuffing season partner must be conveyed clearly to friends before they get down to their matchmaking duties. 

The underlying key is to basically socialize more. "Say 'yes' to attending social events, parties, or gatherings where you can meet new people," says Kelleher-Andrews. "This includes attending friends' get-togethers, social clubs, and block parties." In the booming era of digital dating apps, old-school meet-cutes are still very much a thing. And during cuffing season, with single people out on the streets, you never know who you might bump into.

Cuffing season etiquette

A seasonal fling is extraordinary in the way that it floats between a situationship and a relationship — it's neither as volatile as the former nor always as profound as the latter. It's a fun space where partners coexist without the usual pressures of year-round romances hanging over their heads. However, for a cuffing season relationship to hit the sweet spot, it's important for the parties involved to mutually lay down some fundamental ground rules. 

"Discuss topics such as the duration of the relationship, exclusivity, and the level of emotional involvement you both desire," Amber Kelleher-Andrews says, reminding us that a cuffing season relationship is more than a hookup. "So more than just where you seek a partner — think about what you really want in this 'trial-period' coupling." It probably goes without saying, but it's also best not to let the transient nature of seasonal relationships dim the basic values of mutual respect and trust expected of romantic partners. 

The thought of having a blunt conversation about what each partner wants can be daunting, but transparency is what leads to success. As Kelleher-Andrews puts it, "Even if it is meant to be only 'seasonal' it is a form of partnership." To avoid falling into situations that may later be hard to get out of, it is imperative to keep the channels of communication open from the get-go. And remember: self-examination before everything else. 

These relationships can extend past cuffing season

Did you think cuffing season relationships are only meant to last as long as winter does? Think again. While their reputation as seasonal flings — that are destined to be flung out the window once the season changes — precedes them, cuffing partnerships have loads of potential to be carried over into the spring, summer, and beyond.

In fact, as Amber Kelleher-Andrews puts it, cuffing season can be a sort of test drive to determine the future of relationships forged during that period. "You get to see your potential partner in a variety of situations that can make or break a relationship and see real moments of love and vulnerability. It's possible to develop a genuine connection and enjoy each other's company during this time," she explains. 

The setting of a cuffing season relationship could mimic a long-term one and partners should be prepared to experience everything from family gatherings to travel getaways and time alone together. Such circumstances could set the stage for a longer relationship to materialize in spite of one's predictions otherwise. So getting into a relationship with the attitude of eventually ending things may not always be fruitful since life could have other plans in store. Kelleher-Andrews' suggestion is to "be open if it's working well and don't be afraid to change course if it's not." Cuffing season relationships aren't bound by any hard-and-fast rules about duration. When in doubt, remember this nugget of wisdom: Why fix something that isn't broken? 

Cuffing during the holidays

Cuffing season partners make for great companions at events that typically populate people's year-end calendars. In fact, human behavior and relationship expert Patrick Wanis, Ph.D., recognizes this social need as one of the main incentives behind seasonal relationships. "The primary motivation to having a cuffing partner is to have someone to take to family gatherings during the holidays, attend end-of-year events and parties, and also to have someone to spend New Year's Eve with — and potentially Valentine's Day," he says. 

Having a special someone to accompany us to family events isn't just a shield against wintertime blues but also any anxiety we may feel around certain relatives, especially those overly invested in our love lives. A plus-one can stave off high-pressure questions (e.g., "When are you going to find a partner?") that singles are generally badgered with, Wanis says.

The nature of a cuffing season relationship could resemble the dynamic a long-term couple shares, from traveling together during the holidays or meeting each other's families, Amber Kelleher-Andrews notes. But this partner doesn't necessarily have to be the one we intend on settling down with in the future. It's best, therefore, to avoid playing with people's expectations by presenting this relationship as something less or more than it actually is. Most importantly, both partners should mutually discuss beforehand the approach to take when confronted with sticky questions about the future of their relationship. 

How to know if you're being cuffed

Some of us wouldn't be able to identify a romantic encounter even if it hit us right in the face. Luckily for the likes of us, there are a few signs and traits to help recognize if we are being cuffed for the season. The starter pack includes the usual dating menu — from constant texting to perpetual meet-ups. But a lot differentiates a cuffing season relationship from a leisurely fling, considering the intent of the former. "Signs that someone may be seeking a cuffing season partner include a sudden interest in settling down, a desire for intimacy and companionship, and a focus on indoor activities rather than outdoor adventures," Amber Kelleher-Andrews observes. Coziness is the keyword for cuffing season relationships, after all! 

If partners are blocking off dates on each other's calendars for the whole season — think family Christmas dinners or holiday travels — one can best believe that cuffing is in progress. They shouldn't get ahead of themselves though. Given the nature of cuffing season relationships, it wouldn't be wise to have unrealistic expectations from each other for the unforeseeable future. Kelleher-Andrews advises against cuffing a partner by tricking them about the intent of the relationship.

As ever, having open conversations about each other's goals for the season is most ethical. She adds, "Going into the season as partners should be fun, an adventure, and a step towards something meaningful — even if not long-lasting." 

A cuffing season relationship may transform

From casual dates to holiday rendezvous to long-term commitments — it's quite possible for cuffing season affairs to go from milestone to milestone and outlive their predicted timeframe. A partner one cuffed to snuggle with during the colder months could well become someone they want to continue cozying up to even as the snow melts outside. Emotions often get the better of us! "You have some real relationship time under your belt," Amber Kelleher-Andrews explains. Her advice for couples whose cuffing season relationships are transforming into something more serious is to "set new relationship goals and evaluate together what's working and where you want to address any issues." 

Of course, this is only viable if both parties are on board and are mutually willing to take things beyond cuffing season. A significant turn in the relationship might feel like a rom-com dream come to life, but make sure that just one partner isn't swooning over it. For a profound, season-agnostic romance to bloom, there needs to be a common ground of understanding between the pair. "If one person isn't happy, we all think we can change people. But most of the time that isn't true," according to Kelleher-Andrews. Candid check-ins can help give clarity to both partners about the emotional, mental, and physical expectations from the relationship and how to pursue it jointly. If love comes knocking and you're ready for it, don't hesitate to take the plunge! 

Avoid having multiple cuffing partners through a single season

Notwithstanding their varying shelf lives, a cuffing season relationship is not too different from a regular one in the sense that it requires a degree of commitment. Though a seasonal arrangement is, well, seasonal, it asks for time and effort — as any odd romance does — to have a smooth, fair run. Giving this kind of honest attention to one relationship should ideally leave little room for one to build connections with other potential partners. "You want to find one person that's going to be somewhat of a good match for you, who's willing to engage in social activities, and willing to be your partner during this cold, lonely time," relationship expert Patrick Wanis says. 

Seeking multiple partners through a single cuffing season — especially behind each other's backs — is not ideal. But the occurrence of certain situations can warrant a search for alternatives, Wanis notes. For instance, if one's cuffing season partner isn't available to accompany them to a year-end event where showing up as a single would be a nightmare, the couple can depend on stand-in consorts to go with them. Or if there are signs the relationship is in trouble, there is little else left to do but search for a different partner for the season. Of course, all parties involved must be aware of and in agreement with whichever course the relationship is taking. Have candid dialogues to avoid misleading anyone. 

Getting played or ghosted is a risk, but 'follow your gut'

Looking forward to a brief romantic encounter during snow season only for it to fall flat can be a real downer, especially with the frigid weather already giving us the blues. Like most other cuffing season quandaries, the best way to avoid falling into this hairy situation is to initiate honest conversations from the start. "Be completely open from the beginning about who you are, what you want, and what your expectations are of this relationship," Patrick Wanis suggests. While it's true that there is no airtight safeguard against someone leaving us high and dry in the middle of the relationship, frank conversations can surely decrease the likelihood of that happening by a great measure.  

Frequent check-ins about the status of the connection are also a good way to avoid that vicious monster known as a situationship. Couples shouldn't hesitate to discuss boundaries down to the last detail — from texting practices to intimacy levels — and arrive on the same page as each other before entering the season. There are always secondary checks one can do, such as browsing a potential partner's social media (in a non-creepy way) or verifying their backgrounds through mutual friends. But as Wanis puts it, the bottom line is this: "There isn't any black-and-white secret to avoiding getting played other than following your intuition. Follow your gut." 

Uncuffing 101

Having "the talk" is not typically easy — but it's definitely easier than staying in an unfavorable situation beyond one's endurance. Taking the cuffs off after the season of romance wanes away could seem like a strenuous process at first. There are, of course, one's own emotions and connections to consider — and as Amber Kelleher-Andrews points out, those of the people around the couple, too. The end of a cuffing season relationship might evoke corollary reactions from friends and family who have seen (and approved of) the pairing through the holiday season. "Stand your ground, be honest with yourself, and treat others with empathy and respect," Kelleher-Andrews suggests. 

The break-off will hopefully not come as a surprise to either party involved since the ideal situation requires that clear, honest communication about the longevity of the relationship will happen at the start of the season. But since we're all only human and love can make us loopy, it's highly possible for a cuffing season relationship to take an unexpected route. 

"Often one person is less inclined to change status, and change is hard for almost everyone," Kelleher-Andrews notes. "Uncuffing often creates a situation where one or both partners realize what's at stake in changing status — give this a moment of reflection." If the relationship absolutely must end, go about it kindly without disregarding each other's feelings. Consider not breaking up over text, or worse, by ghosting. A holiday romance deserves a gentle ending!

Don't set your expectations to rom-coms

Even the most practical of people turn into mush over the idea of a Hollywood rom-com coming to life. An accidental meet-cute, an ambivalent relationship, and eventually, a full-blown romance. Who here hasn't hoped for a Julia Roberts-style — or Emma Roberts-style — love story to happen to them? Such wishful thinking makes for great daydreaming, but it's not the best idea to set our real-time relationships to rom-com standards — especially not connections that are formed during cuffing season. 

Our cinema dictates that the partners we find will be forever and the love shared with them everlasting. These grand ideas of romance could set the stage for falling into the classic rom-com trap of regarding our cuffing season lovers as soulmates. It's a dangerous headspace to be in, considering the predominant trend of cuffing season arrangements being only temporary. We don't want to end up hurt when cuffing season, and possibly the relationship, runs its course.

"You might be creating expectations, standards that cannot be met by the other person," Patrick Wanis warns. "You want to find someone that's a reasonable match for you." Another tip in the cuffing season survival guide is to avoid going all in unless the understanding of the relationship extending beyond the season is mutual. The rom-com formula usually goes against this maxim, with lovers intertwining their lives too deeply. Compartmentalizing aspects of a cuffing season relationship will make it easier to evade extreme emotional entanglement. 

Cuffing in a post-pandemic world

To say that the world was rendered different by the pandemic would be the understatement of the century. Routines, ideologies, perspectives towards life — a lot changed at the fundamental level. And so did our approach toward relationships, to a great degree. In fact, The Washington Post reported that Google searches around "how to date" were at a record-breaking high as restrictions eased up and people returned to offline meetings. 

The dating pool is bound to comprise a mix of people with varying opinions on vaccinations, masks, social distancing norms, and testing regulations. Now that we live in a society polarized on more issues than before, many of us would prefer to have a partner whose worldview isn't too radically separate from our own. Patrick Wanis suggests, "When looking for a cuffing partner, look for someone whose values are generally in alignment with yours." 

A cuffing season relationship might only last so long, and that's enough reason for us to ensure that it progresses smoothly and we enjoy it without introducing needless friction in the middle of the season. Since our expectations are higher from each other in a post-pandemic world, according to Wanis, potential couples should always lay out their cards about their individual belief systems before embarking on a relationship. "In having that conversation, you can find someone that is more in alignment with your values and with the things that you want in life," he says.