What does dating even mean anymore? The exact definition of dating has largely remained the same, but how dating looks when put into practice changes drastically depending on the society and times we live in. The way people date today is entirely different than the way our parents dated, which is entirely different than the way their parents dated.
And while it’s often a fun and fascinating topic, it can be confusing to figure out the various stages of dating and what they mean for a relationship. Some things remain the same throughout the ages—there is usually some sort of meeting point, some sort of first date, some sort of conversation to define where you are going—but some things are much more fluid that it’s hard to know where you stand with someone.
To help you find your footing, here are a few of the major stages of dating that are important to know and think about:
Stage 1: The Meeting
Everyone has to meet to date. That will always be true, whether it is 1918, 2019, or 50 years from now—you have to meet to date. Meeting, of course, looks different now than it did in the past. You can “meet” someone on Twitter and be “friends” with them for six years before ever physically meeting in person. It’s up to you to decide when you meet in person while using a dating app or through social media. But one thing is true—meeting is an incredibly important stage of dating a person.
Stage 2: Establishing a Crush
Crushes are fun but also, well, potentially crushing. Developing feelings for someone is usually the fun part, but by the time you realize you have a bonafide crush, the complications have settled in. Maybe the person you’re into is dating someone else. Maybe they’re straight and you are not. Maybe they’re your coworker and you know human resources doesn’t support company romance. There are a lot of big obstacles around having feelings for a person, but most of the time, they’re surmountable.
A major stage of dating, however, is that moment when you know you have a crush or legitimate feelings for another person.
Stage 3: Declaring a Crush
Perhaps just as important as having a crush, is making it known to the person you’re crushing on. This stage is super important because it makes or breaks the future. Maybe your [friend, coworker, stranger in a bar, person on a dating app, longtime Twitter mutual] has feelings for you too. Great! If so, you’re onto the next step. But maybe they don’t. Maybe the whole saga ends here. We call it a crush for a reason—it’s the stage where you’ll discover whether that person stays a crush or you move on to something more than that.
Stage 4: The Awkwardness
This stage is hard to know but almost all of us have been here. Regardless of if you just met or have known each other for a super long time but have finally taken the next step, there is most likely going to be an awkward stage at the beginning of your dating relationship.
This can occur on your first date, or right before it, or even right after it, but there will likely be an awkward feelings exchange for a bit of time before you settle into your new normal. It can be awkward to start dating your best friend after just being pals for years. It can be awkward to take innocent Twitter flirting to a stage where you are now going to a nice dinner and talking in real life. It can be awkward to interact with someone after sleeping together or kissing for the first time. It happens, and it is really sweet. When you’re getting closer to someone there are a lot of barriers to overcome and some are easier than other. Embrace the awkwardness and try not to let it freak you out. Feeling unsure, wondering if they like you as much as you like them, not knowing if you should text or call or invite them to that thing or invite yourself to that other thing… this is all just part of the fun of the awkward stage.
Stage 5: The First Date(s)
While this can be a stage that occurs simultaneously with the awkward stage, it’s a definite major stage in dating. You have to have a first “date” in some sense of the word. Even if your first date is just the two of you hanging out on a couch drinking wine and watching television—if it happens post-feelings declaration, it counts.
Stage 6: The “What Are We?” Stage
Maybe everyone’s least favorite stage, “What Are We?” is frequently called “defining the relationship” or the “exclusive relationship talk.” After hanging out or dating for awhile, it’s inevitable that you’ll need to decide what you’re doing. Is this just casual? Are we just hanging out? Are we seeing other people? Do you want to see other people? Are you in love? There are so many questions that go into defining the relationship, and while it can be an incredibly anxiety-inducing conversation, it is also a very important one to have. You may want to keep things casual while your partner wants to be exclusive. It is important to establish that as early on as you can in order to spare feelings.
If you both want to be together, exclusively, great! The next stage is a good one.
Stage 7: The Lovey Dovey Stage
Not every serious couple has to be in love, of course. However, chances are if you have successfully managed the other stages, you will eventually meet this one head-on. Being in love is incredible. It’s such a special feeling to love and be loved in return. Whether or not this stage looks like exchanging sweet nothings on the phone or in person every night, or if it is more of a general feeling, it’s a really special place to be. It’s when you’re both smitten and enjoying your time together, learning new things about each other, and growing as a couple.
Stage 8: Being a Partner
The “final” stage (because real relationships really have no end or final stage) looks drastically different for so many people. Maybe partnership for you means a long-term relationship that’s never legally bound. Maybe this means an engagement and a marriage and kids and everything that comes along with it. Maybe this just means the complete comfort and familiarity of loving someone long-term. Maybe it means moving in together and being completely content in just being the two of you. Regardless of how it looks for you, the partnership stage is where two people who have worked through and been through good times and bad, and come out continuing to choose one another.
Dating is fun. Dating is also scary and unclear and worrisome and magical and lovely and unique and delightful. There are so many different stages of dating to experience before the partnership stage, and even then, you get to enter whole new relationship stages that each bring their own unique challenges and benefits.
While everyone’s relationship will look different from each other’s, the main stages will be familiar to most couples in one way or another. Enjoy them and enjoy each other. It may very well be that you’ll discover a stage we haven’t mentioned here, and it might just be your favorite stage of all.