They might sound similar, but they’re worlds apart.
Relationships happen in stages. You don't just meet someone and automatically become their significant other. I've tried that. In fact, there is a big difference between being exclusive and being in a relationship, though sometimes, it can be hard to identify.
First, you meet and message. You'll go on a first date, and if there's chemistry, you'll go on more. You'll see one another for a few months, along with a few other candidates and Tinder swipes, until you finally decide your crush is the person you want to be in an exclusive relationship with. But, you're not quite boyfriend and girlfriend yet. and that's where it gets complicated.
How do you know when you are truly done seeing other people, and have moved to a committed relationship with your partner? Sometimes, this confusion can make me want to come to every date with a checklist: "So, we've gone out, like, five times. Are we still allowed to send memes to other people? Is it cool if they still like @emrata’s bikini photos?” But there's got to be a tactic easier than that to figure out where my relationship stands, without having to bring Emily Ratajkowski into it.
The dating vs. relationship conundrum can be a tough one to maneuver. Here's how you can distinguish between dating exclusively and being in a relationship, because seriously, what the heck are we anyway?
Here’s What Dating Exclusively Means
Exclusive dating can happen with or without an explicit conversation — that is a main difference between dating exclusively and being in a relationship. Sometimes, it is just assumed by the amount of time and energy you are both putting into the relationship that you are only seeing one another. But make sure you're being realistic about this assumption, and not just basing it in fantasy. That can be dangerous and hurtful. If you're ever confused, just ask your partner casually.
“I think dating exclusively feels obvious but sometimes needs to be explained or defined to mean that you are exclusively seeing a single person and you are not still on the prowl,” says George Kong, dating consultant and founder of byGeorge dating consultancy. “Exclusivity, while we [may] believe it’s implied, is not and should be talked about in a non-accusatory, non-judgmental way.”
Dating exclusively is the step before being in a relationship. “You’re spending plenty of time with your partner, getting to know them better and seeing if you’re ready for a relationship,” according to the experts at eHarmony. “It’s a big step and an important stepping-stone to being in a proper long-term relationship.”
You're still undergoing the screening process, but congratulations! You've beaten out everyone else who was in the running, and don’t forget, congratulations are in order for your partner as well — never forget that you’re a catch, too! You're no longer hooking up with other people, and you're essentially only emotionally invested in one another. The goal is that you're working toward a relationship, which is the next big stage of commitment. However, your partner might have a few people on the back burner just in case things don't work out, and so may you.
If you think of dating in terms of finding a job, you've passed all the interviews, and you're now working for a trial period before becoming a full-time hire. If all goes well during your temp job, you'll move on to the next step and get your own office at the company. Maybe you will even start keeping your tampons in the office bathroom, and you'll get your own drawer, keys to the apartment, and place in the fridge... you never know.
Here’s What An Exclusive Relationship Means
“To be in a relationship with someone is to be honest and communicative with the person and know what the other person wants and agree on it,” Kong says. “[It means] having a title. There are certain expectations on that title, but everyone experiences that differently, and I do believe that it is about being supportive of each other, of getting past the basic carnal, sexual needs and the goal hopefully is to get to a point of vulnerability with each other.”
A relationship implies some sort of goal for longevity and a commitment to working things out when problems arise. A relationship is an investment in the future and is not something that should be assumed. Relationships have the future in mind. When you decide to take that step with your significant other, there's a world in which you can imagine them as your spouse or as the parent to your children, if marriage or kids are important to you — or if not, your partner could be your go-to travel buddy or fellow pet parent.
If you're in a relationship, that also means your partner is always your plus-one. You are fully integrated into one another's lives. You know each other's families. Your significant other's mom calls you just to chat. There are talks about eventually moving in together one day, and vacations are being planned. People who are in relationships are trying to lock it down and have thrown most of their concerns out the window.
I once had an ex-boyfriend introduce me as his girlfriend to a group of people before we had ever had the conversation. I was definitely still talking to other people at the time, and I had no idea this guy thought we were committed. Who's to tell in this weird dating age? I never know who actually has feelings or is taking things seriously.
If you want someone to be your boyfriend or girlfriend, what I'm saying is, talk to them about it — out loud. “Yes, it’s scary to bring up because not everyone is comfortable talking about these things, but if you’re looking for a future of being open and vulnerable and honest with this person, you need to start practicing and asking what are you looking for out of this,” Kong says. “It is something that should be asked, something that needs to happen.” It's a conversation for two people... or however many people, if you're polyamorous. I don't know, do your thing!
So if you're wondering if you are exclusively dating or you're in a relationship with your partner, maybe refer to this article to find out. Or better yet, just get up the courage to ask them. It really comes down to having an explicit "determine the relationship" conversation. When it comes to dating and relationships, communication is key. If you can't do that, you've got nothin'.
George Kong, dating consultant at byGeorge
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