Do you smell that? The scent in the air? It’s the first hint of pumpkin spice, and it’s also the initial sign that cuffing season has arrived.
Though it happens to coincide rather well with football season, cuffing is more like hunting. To put it in terms even Elmer Fudd would understand, it’s open season on relationships. Cuffing season begins during that stretch of fall when the weather begins to cool off and everyone you know starts coupling up so they don’t have to drink their way through another winter alone. The term is a reference to being handcuffed, as in, you know, committed to or tied down by a particular person.
For single folk, it can be nauseating to see all your formerly single friends giving up their debaucherous summer ways to cuddle with a new boo for the coldest third of the year. For couples, it’s nauseating to have to pretend like all of these newly paired people will stay that way for more than a few months. Either way, it’s a lot of work to learn the names of everyone’s new temporarily significant other.
While there’s no official start date for the Valley’s cuffing preseason, it’s pretty much locked in for the last portion of September and all of October. In colder climates, cuffing season begins shortly after Labor Day, when bikini-clad pool parties and tank top-friendly cookouts become a thing of the past. Seeing as Phoenix's pool season extends well beyond the first Monday of September, it’s more of a scouting and recruiting atmosphere until Halloween festivities are over.
Right now, those looking to partake in cuffing season are scouring the last few weeks of warm-weather events in search of that mildly special someone to exchange cheap gifts with in late December. They’re trading out their poolside sangria for a glass of pinot noir at a wine bar, and they’re more interested in getting phone numbers (for the long game) than morning-after pills. They’ve dropped their copious amounts of gym time to learn to cook or draw or play a musical instrument. Which is to say they’re polishing their relationship skills rather than preparing for more one-night stands.
Fast forward to the weeks surrounding Halloween, and you’ll notice that some of the biggest and best cuffing-season fish have already been reeled in by those unwilling to test their luck when all of their competition is also on the market for a semi-meaningful relationship. This is the same time when nearly every potentially active, meaning still single, cuffing-season participant will begin to subtly tell you (and their social media followers) just how excited they are to dress in a sexy costume and party as a single person for their final solo act of the calendar year.
Now, if Halloween is on a Wednesday or Monday and people are confused as to when they’re supposed to celebrate, then the timeline becomes slightly complicated. But generally speaking, come November 1, cuffing season officially begins. Single people begin dropping like flies as they each settle for someone they’d never give a second date to during the summer. Weekend day-drinking moves from raucous hotel pool parties to sports bars, craft breweries, and vineyards. Everyone begins putting on just a few pounds in preparation to completely destroy their diet between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, only to begin it again with a New Year’s resolution.
By mid-November, the conversations over whether your significant other is important enough to come to the familial Thanksgiving dinner begin. At this point, every other Friday night has been switched from bar-hopping to channel-surfing, but it’s cool because you’re almost done with The Wire and you’re totally going to start Mad Men next. You’ve also seen enough HGTV that you now know the schedule by heart and you can incorporate layout plans and backyard seating into the debates over where you’ll spend Thanksgiving/Christmas. If you’re lucky, at least one person doesn’t care about seeing their family for any given holiday, so you don’t have the extra step of deciding whose to go to — or worse, trying to do multiple holiday stops.
Assuming you survive cuffing season’s first true hurdle, Thanksgiving, the beginning of December is dedicated to figuring out what you’re going to do about gifts with the other person. Sure, you’ve only been seeing them for about a month, but it’s starting to get to the point where they’ve left a toothbrush at your place and your dog already recognizes the sound of their footsteps before they get to the door. You should get them something, but you don’t know them well enough to narrow it down much. Hopefully, you have a gut feeling about roughly how much money they’ll spend on you, because you don’t want to come off as a cheapskate when the holidays roll around, but you also don’t want to be that jerk who gets their significant other something so amazing and expensive that it could never be equaled.
The closer you get to Christmas, the more romantic things get between you and your cuffing season catch. One of you ends up getting adorable his-and-hers mugs or Santa hats or stockings or whatever, and the other wonders if they’ll throw it out in a few months or put it in a box somewhere to reminisce about years down the line. When you go out to dinner (because that’s what you do with someone you only started dating six to eight weeks ago), there’s that wintry smell of cinnamon or nutmeg or some other Christmas spice in the air. It makes you feel like you live in a place where it just might snow on Christmas, or at least be cold enough for you to wear a real jacket instead of a light sweater. It’s super-cute, and Christmas goes off without a hitch because you both pretend to like each other’s gifts, even though you had to exchange them on December 22 because the 23rd is your friend’s brother’s birthday party and Christmas Day/Eve are both booked with your respective families and whatnot.
Make no mistake about it, New Year’s Eve is the peak of cuffing season. It might not be the Super Bowl, but it’s basically college football’s rivalry week where all the big personal vendetta games happen. Why? Because no matter what you do or where you go for NYE, there’s one tradition that always holds true: the midnight kiss. In a pinch, you can almost always find someone to kiss within 50 feet of you who’s desperate enough to not be the one awkwardly watching their friends make out to kiss. But it’s obviously preferable to show up to the event with your designated kissee. In the event that your cuffing season partner makes any number of poor decisions that lead to them not kissing you at midnight on New Year’s Eve, that’s totally grounds for dismissal. Why? Well, there’s no shot that someone who doesn’t value that kiss will make it to the cuffing season playoffs.
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January holds the dog days of cuffing season, when your semi-significant other isn’t new and exciting anymore, but it’s still cold enough out that you want someone to share a bed with from time to time. If you’re not feeling the relationship grind by the time you get to late January, then you might be in for something more than a cuffing-season romance.
Early February is when you have to start prepping for the cuffing playoffs. Not every couple will make it to February 14, but those who do will have proven their worth. On one hand, being together probably beats being alone on Valentine’s Day for most people, but it can also be quite the expensive event for someone you won’t be seeing in a month or two. Choose wisely as to whether you want to continue your cuffing season fling through V-Day, and you’re better off making that decision at least a week beforehand so you don’t look like the jerk who dumped their date immediately before the “romantic” holiday.
After Valentine’s Day, it’s pretty much all downhill for cuffing season. You’ll see couples begin to break up by the end of February. More will go when one wants to be single for spring vacationing in Cancun. Some will end in drunken St. Patrick’s Day fights. Others yet will be caught up in spring rraining drama when the snowbirds are replaced with cleat-chasers. Regardless of how and when a couple bows out of cuffing season, at least Phoenix provides everyone with a solid seven or eight months of pool weather for everyone to erase the memory of last year’s failed relationship before it all starts over again.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version, which first appeared in September 2015.