It’s an extreme example, and thankfully, the average person isn't navigating the rocky waters of relationship stages on national TV (can you imagine?). But it goes to show that no one really has this “defining the relationship” thing—and more specifically, the difference between exclusive dating and an actual relationship—on lockdown.
Are you just talking? Hanging out? Having fun? Together? How do you introduce this person if you run into someone from high school? Gah, the anxiety. “People get so tripped up these days with ‘label aversion,’" says Lisa Concepcion, relationship expert and founder of LoveQuestCoaching. “They tiptoe around one another, wondering if they’re dating, dating exclusively, are in a relationship.”
Relationship ambiguity can be mind-boggling. It helps if you have a clear intention about your life and dating style, Concepcion says, so you can go into flings or relationships with clarity on what you’re looking for from it. Regardless of how you feel about putting a label on it, you want to be on the same page about what’s going on and the appropriate boundaries involved (like, dating-app usage and sex with other people).
If you’re confused about where you stand with one romantic partner in particular or are nearing the “what are we?” stage of your courtship, here’s what to know about exclusive dating versus actual relationships.
What does exclusive dating really mean?
“Simply put, dating exclusively means both people are only focused on one another. They’re not juggling other people,” Concepcion says.
Your goal is to be committed to each other in a monogamous relationship, but you still have to test drive things out a bit longer. You know, just to be sure. It’s also a lot less pressure than throwing a label on things right away.
You’re continuing to get to know one another, and you're putting the same amount of time and energy into doing so, without distractions from any other potential suitors. You gotta make sure the other person is okay with sleeping with the fan on or your strict reality TV schedule, you know? The main thing is, you see potential and are mutually willing to work toward a future to see if you're truly compatible.
This exclusive-dating process means your lives are starting to become naturally more entwined. Maybe you start hanging out with his friend group regularly on weekends, or you bookmark a funny meme to send him later because it reminded you of him.
You’ve likely lost interest in your work crush, and if a dating app is still on your phone, you haven't touched it in weeks. And when you make it onto his Instagram story—or even more telling his feed—it’s a sign things are becoming exclusive.
All that said, exclusive dating does not mean that this person is your boyfriend or girlfriend. That role requires legit responsibilities and a shifting of priorities—namely, putting your bond together before other commitments.
Oh, and while you're at it: Exclusive dating isn't something you want to assume or infer is happening. Even if you're ~so sure~ that you’re both only interested in each other, it’s still a good idea to have an actual (out-loud) conversation about it, when you’re comfortable. Trust your intuition, but know that hearing is way more reassuring.
Ah, okay. So how is that different from a relationship again?
An actual monogamous relationship takes exclusivity a step further when you can commit to a future with this person.
“When it shifts into a relationship, there’s a focus on the longer term,” Concepcion says. “There’s a desire to get on the same page about bigger life goals, such as living arrangements, finances, family, career goals, and anything requiring true partnership.”
Of course, these life elements take some time to build up to, as well. It’s not like you’ll be moving in on day one, but by the time you're in an established relationship with this person, you could see it down the line.
You also should feel more comfortable in your skin and willing to share more of yourself and your time with this person—since, you know, you've made a commitment to them.
While there’s no real timeline for when exclusive dating should turn into an official relationship—although that would make life so much easier, wouldn't it?—you’ll start to get an inkling when things take a turn for the more serious.
So how do you get from point A to point B, without breaking out in hives or ghosting the person, because OMG suddenly “the talk” feels way too overwhelming. Being vulnerable? Yikes.
“A lot of people are great at dating exclusively but then get a bit freaked out when a relationship goes deeper with a focus on merging lives,” Concepcion says. But the transition doesn't need to be scary. “It can be made through a spirit of curiosity and collaboration.” Translation: Open communication is key.
While at dinner, let them know how happy you've been with the way things are going, and—yes, this requires vulnerability—you think there's something real here. You can wait for them to respond before taking the convo deeper—but don't be afraid to tell them how you really feel about them and your connection.
You could also try a more casual approach: "Hey, I've been so happy with things lately that I've found myself gushing about you to my friends. But I don't know what I should be calling you—what do you think?"
Either way, as long as you're honest about what you want, you're that much closer to getting it.
Uh, scary! What if I'm not ready for "the talk"?
Rejection sucks. I know. I myself constantly try to swerve any potential rejection scenarios—in fact, I ended up taking my boyfriend’s lead when it came to defining the relationship.
But don’t take it from me; take it from an expert: Concepcion says that the strongest thing you can do is claim your power when it comes to dating.
You deserve to get what you want and need out of a relationship, especially since it’s something you’re spending so much emotional energy on. If the other person doesn’t want to be in a full-fledged relationship (or even date exclusive, for that matter), you can decide to keep the casual thing going or end it and move on.
“The most self-loving thing anyone can do is communicate where they are in life and what they want,” Concepcion says.
So even if the thought of taking the next step toward love with another person scares the bejesus out of you, at least you'll be showering yourself in the type of affection that matters most: yours.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US.