How Does a No-Strings-Attached Relationship Work?

From hookups to one-night stands, experts share everything you need to know.
Heather Bien - The Knot Contributor.
by Heather Bien
Heather Bien - The Knot Contributor.
Heather Bien
The Knot Contributor
  • Heather contributes wedding, honeymoon, travel and relationship content for The Knot and WeddingWire.
  • Heather also writes for publications including Apartment Therapy, StyleBlueprint, MyDomaine, HelloGiggles and The Everygirl.
  • She holds a degree in Art History and Architectural History from the University of Virginia.
Updated Nov 26, 2021

The idea of "no strings attached" burst into popular culture a decade ago when Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher starred in a movie about pursuing a hookup-only relationship and, because it's Hollywood, eventually falling in love.

In real life, however, the whole point of pursuing a no-strings-attached (or NSA) relationship, is to not have a serious relationship. Both partners typically want something super casual without any glimmer of commitment or exclusivity. Let's just say that unlike the movies, an NSA relationship doesn't typically end in love.

Of course, any relationship that veers outside the norm can seem a little tricky, particularly as you're navigating dating sites and new partners. Need a little help figuring out whether NSA is a good fit for you? We asked two sex therapists to explain what an NSA relationship entails, as well as how you can decide whether it's right for you.

In this article:

What Does "No Strings Attached" (NSA) Mean?

First, let's look at a straightforward definition of an NSA relationship. "No-strings-attached connections are sexual in nature with no underlying romantic relationship," says Indigo Stray Conger, a certified sex therapist. "If you find someone who you are sexually compatible with and who fulfills some of your sexual desires, an NSA scenario can definitely be healthy."

You might be wondering, How does this differ from a friends-with-benefits relationship? Aren't they both sexual relationships without monogamy or romance? Not necessarily. No strings attached is the most casual of casual relationships, and it works best when there isn't an existing friendship.

"There is no relationship in no strings attached," says Joseph LaFleur, a Washington, DC-based therapist specializing in LGBTQ+ relationships. "It's usually two people, previously unknown to each other, who hook up with minimal interaction beyond sex." This isn't a friends-with-benefits arrangement where you two grab dinner after sex and text funny memes between rendezvous—it's strictly about sex.

How to Decide if You Should Pursue an NSA Relationship

If no strings attached sounds right for you but you're apprehensive about taking the next steps, consider whether that's due to preconceived ideas about the term. Conger says society's idea of what traditional relationships should look like has impacted our perception of NSA. "Our sex-negative culture pairs sex inextricably with romance, when the two interests do not necessarily have to go hand in hand," she says.

Her professional opinion is that people can have casual sex without the goal of pursuing a monogamous or serious relationship. It can be fun for fun's sake, as long as you both go into it consensually.

Ready to explore your options? If you meet the following five criteria, you're likely ready to explore an NSA relationship.

1. You know yourself and what you need.

Not everyone is up for an NSA arrangement. Some people want the formal first date, the cuddling and the vulnerable late-night talks. That's why LaFleur says you should look inward to figure out what's best for you. "Pursuing a no-strings-attached relationship with a sexual partner is a personal decision," he says. "Some people can separate sex from emotional intimacy, while others need the connection. It all depends on how you are wired."

2. You don't have time for a committed relationship.

Sometimes, a real relationship simply isn't on the table. Life gets busy or you're frustrated with online dating. Even friends-with-benefits arrangements seem daunting. "If you don't have the time or energy for a full-blown relationship, or the right person simply hasn't come along but you would like to get your sexual needs met, then an NSA relationship might be for you," Conger says.

3. You want to explore new kinds of relationships.

Conger says NSA can work when one person in a relationship is looking for something that can't be fulfilled by their current partner. "If you have a romantic partnership that does not fulfill all of your sexual needs and your current partner consents to your looking elsewhere to get those desires met, then seeking a consensually open relationship with an NSA partner might be the answer to feeling fulfilled."

4. You can be honest with a partner.

Honestly is always the best policy, and that applies for both long-term and casual relationships. You and your partner—whether it's a one-time thing or a consistent hookup—need to be on the same page. "Most people know what NSA means: sex without expectations," LaFleur says. "However, it can be unhealthy for one party if they go into it already having feelings for the other with the intention of shifting the agreement. When someone states they are looking for NSA, you should believe them."

Conger agrees. "As long as you're clear upfront with what the relationship is and is not, and continue to check in as feelings may evolve, an NSA setup can be extremely satisfying," she says.

5. You're willing to put sexual health first.

Anytime you're approaching a situation where you or your partner could have multiple sexual partners, you need to feel empowered to put sexual health at the forefront. That includes discussing STDs, STIs, birth control and boundaries. If you're not ready to do that, an NSA relationship may not be for you.

Know When It's Time to Move on

Perhaps you've taken all the above steps and you've had a great time, but now you want to end things. What do you do when an NSA relationship has run its course? You may not feel the need to officially break up when you've never technically been together. Instead, things will likely fizzle out after one meeting or a few.

The most important thing is to keep checking in to see if the arrangement is continuing to work for you and your partner. "If you would prefer to be in a relationship based on more than sex, the sooner you bring it up, the better," Conger says. "It is possible that your NSA partner also has evolving feelings, but if not, the sooner you move on, the sooner you can meet a compatible partner."

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