Once upon a time, back in middle school, when a boy and a girl both admitted to liking each other, it automatically made them boyfriend and girlfriend. There were no games, there was no confusion, and everything was cut and dry; you were either in a relationship, or you weren’t. If only it were still so simple, right?
These days, you have to work up to being in a relationship. There are steps along the way: first comes casual dating, then comes exclusive dating, and then comes being in a relationship. Believe it or not, all three of those are very distinct stages with their own rules and expectations. Even though they may sound the same, there are big differences. Sound confusing? We’ll help break it down for you.
Consider this your official guide to understanding the differences between casual dating, exclusive dating, and being in a relationship.
Casual dating is exactly that: casual.
Casual dating is the phase of dating that gives you the most freedom. When you’re casually dating, you might be seeing more than one person. You’re still using your dating apps, matching and messaging with new people, and going on first dates and second dates and third dates. When you’re casually dating, you should expect that your dates are also casually dating; it’s just part of meeting new people.
Exclusive dating means you’re both not dating anybody else.
Dating goes from casual to exclusive when, typically after a few dates, you both decide you’d like to see each other exclusively. While there are no hard and fast rules for what exclusive dating has to mean to you—every duo can define the boundaries for themselves—there are some general guidelines that will give you an idea of what exclusive dating looks like.
This is the trickiest phase to define because it’s like a holding area. Think of exclusive dating as the period between casual dating and being in a relationship. Things you do: exclusively date one person, get to know them better, meet their friends, pause your dating app activity, and agree that you’re not seeing anyone else. Things you don’t do quite yet: call each other boyfriend/girlfriend, take vacations together, and commit to attending events more than a few weeks in the future together, like weddings or concerts.
Exclusive dating is like the trial run for the relationship itself. It’s the period of learning someone’s likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, goals, and future plans. If you both enjoy getting to know each other and spending time together during the exclusive dating phase, it will likely lead to the relationship phase. Just make sure that’s what you both want.
As you get to know your date during the exclusive dating phase, of the most important thing to find out is if you’re looking for the same thing. Be open and honest. If you’re looking for a long-term partner, this is an important step in your journey together. But if you’re not looking for something serious, it’s probably best not to exclusively date someone. Why get their hopes up if you’re not ready to commit to the next phase?
Being in a relationship means putting a label on it.
If you’re both enjoying the exclusive dating phase and want to make it fully official, congratulations: You’ve reached the relationship phase. It’s important to have a conversation that makes it official; you want to be on the same page with your partner about what being in a relationship means to them.
Once you’re in a relationship, you might feel pressure to act differently because it’s official now. But the truth is, if you had a blast during the exclusive dating phase, just keep doing what you’re doing, and the relationship will unfold naturally.