What Does It Mean If You're Exclusive But Not In An Official Relationship?

When my partner and I first got together, I was not ready to lock it down right away. I was looking for someone to hang out with and, if I’m totally honest, someone to hook up with more exclusively — like a regular friend with benefits, but none of the other obligations. This came about because I was equally tired of both the anxiety of looking for something serious and the dissatisfaction with hookup culture. What I really wanted was something in-between; I wanted the Goldilocks set-up of being exclusive, but not in an official relationship.

Ultimately, our super casual relationship did evolve, and we made things official, but I truly believe part of the reason our relationship has gone the distance was that it started off with the intent to keep it casually exclusive. It allowed us to get increasingly emotionally intimate, without the pressure and expectation that naturally comes with the girlfriend title.

In my case, I was the one with the control over how official things were, but for my partner, who always wanted more, I am sure there were times my resistance to going all in on the relationship was confusing and maybe even a little scary. Had they asked me at the time, I am not sure I could have even articulated what made me so resistant to rushing in, despite really liking them. Now, I know it simply came down to fear of moving too quickly. As it turns out, that fear is not uncommon. Plenty of folks have found themselves in the same situation, so I reached out to relationship expert and bestselling author Susan Winter to help explain why the person you're dating might want exclusivity without an official relationship, what it really means about how they feel about you, and what you should do if you want more from them.

What It Means When They Want To Be Exclusive But Not Official

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When someone you’re dating offers exclusivity without the actual relationship part of your relationship, it’s easy to feel like it’s some kind of soft rejection — like breadcrumbing, but with actual, in-person interaction. But here’s the good news: According to Winter, it’s often actually about buying a little time for them to ease into the relationship, rather than a reflection of how they feel about you. "It’s fear on their side," says Winter. "They know they’re committed to you, but don’t want the additional social pressure and responsibility of being known as your partner. Infuriating as it may be, here’s where actions are more important than words."

How They Really Feel About You

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Choosing to slow-walk the relationship a bit can also be a sign that they are testing the waters, says Winter. They may be taking the time to really get to know you and make sure you won’t change after things get serious. "Your partner may be putting you through a short testing period, just to make sure you don’t morph into a control freak or crazy [person]," says Winter. In other words, this half-step is a peek behind the partner curtain to make sure that who you are to begin with will be same after they commit fully to you.

What To Do If You Want More

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OK, great, so exclusivity without the relationship label isn't a deal breaker, but what if this arrangement isn’t enough for you? You should never settle for less than what makes you feel happy and fulfilled in the relationship, but if you want to see this situation evolve, Winter advises patience. "If you’re smart, you’ll let it be," she says. "Allow your partner a few weeks to adjust, and then, approach the conversation again by addressing their fears."

In the meantime, the best way to understand what the person you're seeing is feeling and where the not-quite-a-relationship is going is to pay close attention to their actions. "Are they honoring you? Are they continuing to be faithful? Do you know that you are a priority in their life? If so, take heart. Relax," says Winter. "Understand that they’re catching up to the truth that they’re already living."

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