'Cuffing season': Why people couple up when temperatures drop

Penguin couple
The warmth of a winter romance may make it easier to get through those colder months. (Getty Images) (Getty Images)

You might call the period of time between late fall and the New Year “holiday season,” but for many singles, the dropping temperatures and early darkness delineates another equally important juncture: "cuffing season" — a time when people forgo the thrill of swiping right for a quick shag in exchange for a more snuggly, extended affair.

It may sound like a silly trend, but experts say the phenomenon has legs.

What is cuffing season?

Cuffing season is a time when single people link up romantically during the fall and winter months, Kathryn Smerling, a New York City-based psychotherapist, tells Yahoo Life. Think of it as the winter equivalent to a summer fling, or as millennials or Gen Z might call it, a seasonal “situationship,” adds Julia Svirid, a certified sex coach with Beducated.

Although these relationships typically lean casual and sex-motivated and end in the spring, Smerling adds that they can be friendships or develop into something serious. “A person might also settle for a partner below their typical standard, just to have someone to spend time with,” Svirid says.

More research is needed to solidify cuffing season as a true human phenomenon, but there is some data to support it. For example, numbers pulled from Facebook in 2010 and 2011 found that more people changed their relationship status from “single” to "in a relationship" between October and February than those who became newly single. In addition, a 2019 survey from Dating.com showed a 30% increase in activity between November and February.

What triggers the phenomenon?

There are multiple explanations for cuffing season. First and foremost: “The winter is a time for snuggling in,” says Smerling. “It's a time for intimacy and reflection and a time when we stay at home a bit more.”

It can also be an isolating time: Research shows people tend to feel lonelier when it gets cold, and overall, mental health can dip due to the lack of sunlight that can tank serotonin, a hormone that helps regulate mood. “It makes sense why people would want to go through this period with someone else,” Smerling concludes. “We saw the same thing happen during the pandemic with relationships.”

Some experts say that cuffing is a generational thing. “I think people are more fluid in their relationships now,” says Smerling. However, other experts say cuffing season could date back to hunter-gatherer times (despite the term only being published by Urban Dictionary in 2011). “The concept was to procreate during colder months to increase the survival of children when there were more resources available” in spring and summer, Jeff Yoo, a family therapist at Moment of Clarity Mental Health Center in Orange County, Calif., tells Yahoo Life.

Today, though, it’s more likely that people are looking for a cuddle partner or to recreate their own version of Holiday in Handcuffs, the Melissa Joan Hart rom-com in which she literally kidnaps Mario Lopez as her stand-in date to holiday celebrations so as to not disappoint her family. “Single people are the odd man out, and they want a partner to attend festivities and social settings,” says Yoo. “The idea of being cuffed to another can replace loneliness during the holidays.”

Lastly, cuffing season could simply come down to convenience: “It’s much easier to have a steady sexual partner during colder times than constantly having to go out and seek new ones,” Svirid explains.

Is cuffing really good for mental health during winter?

“It depends on the quality of the relationship,” says Smerling. That means that if you’re going to cuff, it’s important that good communication and clear boundaries remain a priority so that emotions and the connection are protected. If those parameters are in place, cuffing can be a good thing.

Additionally, mental health experts have found that married — or in this context, permanently cuffed — people live longer and have less depression than those who are single, divorced or widowed, says Yoo. “The percentage of suicidal ideation is lower in long-term relationships than otherwise,” he adds.

And then, of course, there are the two main pillars of cuffing season: Netflix (sex) and chill (cuddling), both of which have a positive effect on our general well-being and help the body produce the feel-good hormones oxytocin, endorphins and dopamine, explains Svirid. “They can provide a sense of belonging and alleviate feelings of loneliness,” she says. “It’s easier to cope with stress.”

That basically makes cuffing a form of self-care. However, as Smerling warns, when handled poorly, it can go sour and have the opposite effect. “If you are not honest from the start, one of you might end up feeling rejected or misled in the end,” says Svirid. “The lack of communication can also make the inevitable breakup very painful. The moment it’s over, most of the benefits go away with it.”

Whether or not that is the case, it’s generally best not to put all of your mental-health-related eggs in one basket, and, instead lean on a range of supportive habits to feel your best during cuffing season — with or without a mate.

“Exercise and moving your body is key, and you can even get seasonally fun with it by trying activities like ice skating, or even hot yoga,” Smerling recommends. Svirid also suggests getting plenty of natural sunlight, enjoying up a new hobby and being with friends and family. “Human connection is a very important part of the general well-being,” she says. “Spend time with people who make you feel good.”