According to the memes, this is the time of year when singletons pair up … but only until spring
Winter of content: there may be social pressure to pair up during the holidays. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images
Elle Hunt – The Guardian
You can feel it in the air, the snap when you step outside that – in the absence of a warm hand to hold – sends you scurrying back inside for gloves. Cuffing season is coming. You know, the run-up to winter when previously contented single people start seeking shelter in the cosiness of a committed relationship – at least until the weather heats up again.
So goes the meme, anyway. According to the “cuffing season schedule” lately posted all over Instagram, October is the time for “tryouts”, as you assess your roster of contenders for an autumn-winter mate to “cuff” (as in, handcuff) yourself to. It could be a short sentence. By mid-March, the schedule says, it is time to “cancel or commit” ahead of the summer of love – though timings can be “subject to change based upon feelings”.
Woman of the hour Lizzo’s new partnership with the vodka brand Absolut heralds the arrival of “cuffing season HO!!! Time to curl up w/ a boo” (and some Absolut, obviously). Jay-Z’s Tidal streaming service has a whole playlist dedicated to it, described as: “When the temperature drops, the thirst for a new bae rises.” In 2014, the rapper Fabolous’s 2015 song Cuffing Season sampled Bobby Vinton’s Sealed with a Kiss: “Though we gotta say goodbye for the summer …”
In 2017, “cuffing season” was shortlisted by Collins dictionary for its word of the year, defined as “the period of autumn and winter, when single people are considered likely to seek settled relationships rather than engage in casual affairs”. (It sadly lost out to “fake news”.)
Cuffing season was first defined on the crowdsourced online Urban Dictionary in 2010 as “the time of year when people are looking to be in a relationship”, and then subsequently in 2018 as “a stupid made-up season with no correlating evidence whatsoever”.
Both are correct. Like much digital culture, cuffing season exists mostly in name after being coined as a joke, then cemented in endless explanations online – but its sheer endurance reflects a central truth. According to Google Trends, the term has climbed steadily from 2013, with sharp spikes in late October or early November.
As we have seen with “cancel culture” and “milkshake duck”, a previously meaningless phrase can become useful shorthand for a facet of the zeitgeist that we have struggled to articulate. In this case: that it can suck to be single in winter.
People tend to socialise less, meaning more nights spent at home alone for many. Shorter days can exacerbate feelings of loneliness or depression, and can bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder. The holidays may loom as unwelcome reminders: another Christmas or New Year’s spent single, an empty diary come Valentine’s Day.
The social media monitoring firm BrandWatch found that mentions of cuffing season had grown at almost the same rate as mentions of the weather getting colder – “a direct correlation going all the way back to 1 July,” said Kellan Terry, who did the analysis.
In the first 10 days of October, there were some 60,000 references to cuffing season on social media. The most prominent emotion was sadness, said Terry; the reason being “many, many people don’t think they’ll find a partner to partake in all of the season’s festivities”.
“Festivities” may be putting it strongly. The rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s “hot girl summer” meme – about, she said, “women and men being unapologetically them, just having a good-ass time” – captured the collective imagination earlier this year. But it may feel harder to celebrate singledom in the colder, darker months.
Marisa T Cohen, a relationship scientist based in New York, is upfront about there being “little empirical support” for the existence of cuffing season, but says “there is definitely something to it”. From an evolutionary perspective, we have sought warmth from others to aid in our survival. “It’s almost like when animals hibernate,” says Cohen. A 2008 study from the University of Wroclaw, Poland, showed that men found women’s bodies most attractive in the winter and less so during the warmer months.
Studies have also shown that testosterone production peaks around October and November, Cohen adds – “so that’s going to lead to people wanting to engage in more sexual activity”. Although it seems unlikely that anyone looking to get “cuffed up” for winter would also be wanting to become a parent, most babies in the US are born in July through to September, reflecting wintertime conception. In the UK, Office for National Statistics analysis from 2015 showed that more babies were conceived in the Christmas period than at any other time of the year.
Serotonin can sometimes decrease in winter, notes Cohen, lowering mood; becoming romantically involved with someone is one way of boosting it. “Getting involved in a relationship can counteract some of those biochemical changes that are occurring,” she says.
The external pressures are more obvious. When families get together for the holidays, says Cohen, “there might be some social comparison going on” between you and your cousins of the same age, for example: why do they have partners, and you don’t?
“Or it might be external pressure from aunts, uncles, grandparents: ‘When are you going to bring someone home?’ or ‘Are you planning on getting married?’”
That can lead people to focus critically on their singledom, as can media representations of the colder months that celebrate romantic relationships to the exclusion of all others. “Every single Hallmark movie is basically one of those ‘home for the holidays’ tropes,” says Cohen, “where you go back to your small town to celebrate Christmas and fall in love with the person from high school you grew up with.”
In fact, 2012 analysis from Facebook “tracking the seasonality of relationships” from status changes found that, in the days around Valentine’s Day and Christmas, “far more people paired up … than joined the ranks of the newly single”. (Across all age groups, researchers found, “the summer months are bad news for relationships”.)
Embodied cognition – the science of how our perceptions influence how we think and feel – is another factor at play. Being socially excluded, for example, has been shown to literally feel cold, and – in the same 2008 study – to increase desire for warming food and drinks.
“If you think about it that way, to create psychological warmth, we might want to enter into a relationship,” says Cohen. A study from 2012, in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that being physically cold “in turn leads to an increased liking for romance movies” – further fuelling those forces of embodied cognition.
Certainly, there is a strong aesthetic associated online with autumn (or #fallvibes): “pumpkin spice” beverages, kicking piles of leaves, and rewatching Love, Actually – all reliably lacklustre experiences, especially by yourself. No wonder one solution is to get yourself a seasonal partner.
In 2014, a Craigslist listing for “fall boyfriends” for ski holidays, apple picking and Instagramming with “all the fall emojis” went viral. Prerequisites were a wardrobe from Patagonia and Barbour; a college education (“Ivy League preferred”); a window in their bedroom; and a desire to cuddle, with that window “slightly open to let the fresh autumn air in”. A fall-scented candle, to fill the room “with cozy comfort”, would be provided.
The women concluded their ad: “Strange how the night moves, with autumn closing in. If you don’t know that song, don’t apply!”
Ironically, far from manifest the seasonal Bob Seger fan of one’s dreams, the quasi-existence of #cuffingseason may just increase the pressure to find them. Cohen likens it to the popular meme #relationshipgoals: “All that does is make people feel bad about their own relationships because they might not live up to them. It’s almost as if that pressure that was really just once around Valentine’s Day, where everything was focused on the couple, the couple, the couple – now we pretty much just moved it earlier, so that it now starts as early as fall,” she says.
You do not need to be a relationship scientist, however, to see that getting involved (or breaking up) with someone on the strength of the seasons may not be a path to long-term love. “If you know that there’s a predetermined end and this relationship only has three months, you might not invest that much in it,” says Cohen. “It might have had the potential to be a long-term relationship – but you never gave it that opportunity.”
If you really do want a partner, “I just have to cuff to someone” may not be the right attitude to set out with, Cohen continues. “It also just sounds like you’re in a relationship under duress,” she says. Well, only until spring.