A Look at the Science of Cuffing Season
We asked a sex researcher to explain the psychology of getting into a relationship during cold weather.
We’re about to reach that time of year commonly referred to as “cuffing season.” As countless articles have explained, the shorter days and cooler nights that begin in late fall and extend through winter supposedly make us want to jump into a relationship—to get “cuffed” to a partner, at least until spring rolls around.
If you’re anything like me, perhaps you’ve wondered whether this is even a real thing or if it’s just another cute-sounding concept designed to drive clicks. I did a bit of digging, and here’s what I found out.
Let's start with the fact that “cuffing season” is a term that hasn’t yet made its way into the scientific literature. I couldn’t find a single academic journal that even mentioned it, but that doesn’t mean cuffing season is totally made up. Scientists have long documented seasonal fluctuations in partner-seeking behavior.
For instance, in one 2013 study, researchers looked at changes in Google search trends related to sex and relationships over a five-year period. They found distinct and predictable seasonal fluctuations: First, there was a reliable increase in searches related to online dating (i.e, searches for OK Cupid, Match, Eharmony, etc.) in the winter months, especially in January. Facebook data also supports the finding that people are more likely to change to a coupled relationship status in the winter.
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That said, people aren’t just more interested in relationships at this time of year—they appear to be more interested in sex, too; Google searches related to pornography and prostitution increase in the winter, as well. It’s important to note that there was also an increase in sex/dating interest in the summer, and that was even bigger than the winter spike. So while people do seem more interested in sex and love in the winter, it’s not necessarily the case that they’re more interested now than any other season. It seems that people are actually most likely to look for mates in the summer, which tells us that cuffing season occurs more than once annually.
These summer and winter peaks in dating interest, however, may very well be driven by different factors, and there’s a fair amount of research to suggest that the winter cuffing season may have more to do with our biology. Some studies have found that testosterone levels fluctuate seasonally in men, peaking in the winter months. It’s not just our hormones that change at this time of year, though—there are also changes in brain chemicals that regulate mood.
For instance, research finds that people tend to produce less serotonin in the winter due to lower levels of sunlight exposure. This may lead people to feel the “winter blues,” which they might try to compensate for by seeking out a relationship. Cuffing season, of course, might not be driven entirely by our biology. For some, the thought of impending family gatherings and holiday parties might create anxiety about showing up alone or being the only single person there, which may lead to relationship-seeking behaviors.
Or maybe cuddling and snuggling just sounds more appealing when it’s cold out and it costs too damn much to keep the heat on. All of this is to say that different people might want to get “cuffed” for different reasons.
As for that summer peak, well, it’s harder to point to our biology as the driver there, especially given that testosterone actually seems to take a dip in the summer and all of that sunlight exposure keeps our serotonin levels up. Maybe what’s driving our increased interest in sex and relationships during the warmer months is the fact that people tend to take more vacations in the summer, and vacations offer a good opportunity to spice up our sex lives.
With all of that said, what the data suggests is that the winter cuffing season does seem to be a thing, and whatever is driving it may be distinct from what propels mating at other times of year. Also, while “cuffing” may be on the rise in the next few months, what leads us to want to partner up at this time of year isn’t necessarily the same from one person to the next.
Justin Lehmiller is a research fellow at The Kinsey Institute and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. His latest book is Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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