The Psychology of “Cuffing Season”Dating Advice
During the coldest and darkest months of the year, there’s a predictable rise in dating and mating behavior. For example, Google search trends reveal a winter bump in terms related to sex and relationships. Online dating apps tend to see increased sign-ups and downloads. And people change their relationship status on social media more often during colder months.
This tendency to stop loneliness and couple up in the winter is often referred to in the popular media as “cuffing season.” Although this term only emerged in the last decade or so, this pattern of behavior is anything but new. And it seems to be a worldwide phenomenon, too.
While there’s no official start or end date, in the northern hemisphere, cuffing season generally begins around October or November and runs through February. By contrast, in the southern hemisphere, it begins in March or April and runs through August. Basically, cuffing season spans whatever months of the year constitute your winter.
So what’s the deal with cuffing season anyway? Why do we seemingly want to start relationships more in the winter compared to other times of the year? I like to think of this as a biopsychosocial phenomenon, meaning there can be biological, psychological, and social factors at play, all at the same time.
In other words, not just one thing drives cuffing season. The story behind it would appear to be quite complex, and different people may be propelled to couple up for very different reasons. Here’s a look at what we know.
Changes in Sunlight Exposure
In the winter, the days get shorter, and we tend to see a lot less sunshine than we do in the summer months. Certainly, this varies a bit depending on where you live—but, as an example, back when I lived on the east coast of the United States, it was often the case that it would be dark before I would even leave work for the day for much of the winter. So, if I went to the office early, I often wouldn’t see any sunlight unless I stepped out for lunch!
Why is sunlight important to talk about here? Because sunlight exposure affects the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is a vital brain chemical in regulating mood. This is why the most popular antidepressants are known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs for short)—they help to treat depression by keeping our serotonin levels up.
When sunlight exposure goes down in the winter, so does serotonin in the brain. For most people, this effect is likely to be mild, but it can be more severe in other cases, such as when someone has the seasonal affective disorder (a seasonal form of depression).
It’s possible that part of what drives people to seek romantic connections in the winter is because, on some level, they’re looking for a mood boost or perhaps social support. Relationships and sexual activity can be good for our mental health in many ways, so that may partially be what’s going on here.
Cold Weather Tends to Limit Socialization Opportunities
Think about how different your daily life is during colder months in the winter versus the summer months. In warmer weather, we’re more likely to step out of the house, do active things, and bump into people we know. But when it’s cold out in winter months, we tend to stay in a lot more and spend more time on our devices.
Less exercise and physical activity (especially during the holiday season) mean less of those feel-good endorphins produced by the body, which may be another part of this—but, perhaps even more importantly, that’s coupled with fewer daily, in-person social interactions. In other words, during winter months, we tend to have more limited social interactions, and some people may feel a need to fill that void.
At least in the northern hemisphere, cuffing season coincides with several major winter holidays. In the United States, that pretty much spans everything from Thanksgiving to New Year’s to Valentine’s Day.
There are usually a lot of family gatherings, parties, and other social events that take place at this time of year, and some people feel pressure to bring a date—sometimes, our family and friends make that pressure explicit (and deeply uncomfortable) by prying into our dating lives or asking when we’re going to “settle down.”
We may also feel some amount of pressure to swipe right on dating apps because of the holidays themselves, from having someone to kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve to having a partner to celebrate Valentine’s Day with. Some people may want a date during the winter season for these reasons, even if they know it’s just temporary, because it can relieve some of the pressure.
Cuffing season certainly predates the pandemic; however, COVID-19 upended many people’s dating lives, and we’re still feeling the effects. Many people hit the pause button on dating for a few months during the initial wave of lockdowns back in 2020, but local restrictions and health concerns led many to take a break from the scene for a much longer period. And some people are just now re-exploring romantic relationships.
For many folks (particularly those living alone), the COVID pandemic has been a time of social starvation. While things are returning to normal in many ways, our level of in-person social interaction still isn’t what it once was, with the rise of working from home and the closure of many businesses and venues, among other things.
In some of the surveys I’ve run since the pandemic began, I’ve seen a general increase in dating interest among singles, which has likely been adding fuel to the fire for the last few cuffing seasons. We’ve seen at least some evidence of this in terms of record-breaking numbers of people signing up for online dating services, including dating apps. It’s cuffing season on steroids!
Now that you know what cuffing season is, you understand that it comes around each year for multiple reasons, from sunlight exposure impacting our brain chemicals to cold weather limiting our opportunities to socialize to pressure from family, friends, and relationship-centric holidays to couple up.
A given person’s desire to get “cuffed” and begin a romantic relationship can be a product of one or several of these factors in combination—and it’s possible there may be other motivators, too. The story is probably different for different people. But no matter the reason, this seasonal event is likely to keep coming around year after year because so many of the factors that propel it aren’t going to change.
And coupled with the lingering effects of the pandemic, this cuffing season is likely to be a Tinder feeding frenzy.
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Lehmiller, J. J. (2017). The psychology of human sexuality (2nd edition). John Wiley & Sons.
Lehmiller, J. J., Garcia, J. R., Gesselman, A. N., & Mark, K. P. (2021). Less sex, but more sexual diversity: Changes in sexual behavior during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Leisure Sciences, 43(1-2), 295-304.
Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2013). Seasonal variation in internet keyword searches: a proxy assessment of sex mating behaviors. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(4), 515-521.