Here’s Everything You Can Expect to Change After You Define the Relationship
"What are we?"
Dating is tricky. There are all sorts of unspoken rules about what it means to be casually dating, exclusively dating, or in a relationship, which can make it unnecessarily confusing for figuring out where you and your (potential) partner stand. Deciding how to DTR, or “define the relationship,” requires answering the most daunting question of 21st-century life: “What are we?” And since things change throughout different stages of any romantic partnership, we talked to the experts about what to look for between the dating and relationship phases. So, before you change your Facebook status from “single” to “in a relationship” (if anyone actually does that anymore), check out the signs for what each means.
Definition of “Dating”
Here are signs you may be “just dating”:
- Might not be exclusive
- You spend more time apart than you do together
- You’re still somewhat nervous around them
- It may or may not include sex
Dating is like going through the first few rounds of a job interview. First, you’re trepidatious about how you want to approach it, but go in with good intentions and excitement at the prospect of a new connection or opportunity. It’s all about putting your best foot forward in the hopes that the other person will want to keep seeing you—and vise versa. That said, it’s also a time where you’re most likely to feel self conscious, overthink, and can come across as nervous.
“For most people who are serious about getting into a long-term relationship, dating can be fraught with uncertainty and managing expectations,” says Cherlyn Chong, a dating coach for successful professionals. “Because no one is committed to each other, both dating parties can date other people, which can be a cause of anxiety for the more invested person. It’s always tricky to navigate taking it slow or giving into your feelings and rushing into things.”
No two ways about it, dating is weird. Even if you’re the kind of person who knows whether or not they want to continue seeing someone after the first date, it can be an awkward balancing act between showing your feelings and trying to play it cool. You and your partner are getting to know one another, feeling each other out, and having fun. You may or may not be seeing other people, and sex might not be a part of your relationship just yet.
“The dating phase is definitely viewed as more laid back and often focused on the here and now rather than the future,” says Maria Sullivan, a dating expert and vice president of dating.com. “It’s the time period where you get to know someone better all while not putting all your eggs in one basket.”
Most importantly, when you’re just dating someone, your life choices are not intrinsically tied to theirs. You may see each other for regular date nights, but ultimately, you spend more time cultivating your lives outside of one another. Jacob Brown, a San Francisco-based psychotherapist, says that moving from a more casual to a more serious phase of any relationship all depends on how you view the other person within the context of your life.
“When you’re dating, you’re going through life with the sense that all avenues are open,” he says. “For example, if you have an opportunity to move to a new city, you think about it in terms of what’s best for you—not the impact on you and the person you’re dating. That changes when you’re in a relationship.”
Definition of a Relationship
Here are signs it’s become something exclusive:
- There’s a level of emotional intimacy
- You spend more time together than apart
- You both see a potential future together
- Sex is more meaningful
When you’re starting to progress from casually dating to exclusively dating, it’s likely you’re on the way to making the partnership a defined relationship. If you’re looking for signs that your partner may be ready to take the next step, Sullivan says to pay attention to the kind of compliments they give you. Transitioning from the superficial to the meaningful signals that the two of you are forming a deeper connection—beyond the confusing stage of “just dating.”
“When someone falls in love, they begin to notice the way you laugh, tell stories, or the way you interact with family,” Sullivan says. “Look out for compliments that show the person is paying attention to your quirks and personality traits. If they’re making these kinds of comments, they may want to turn the fling into the real thing.” Plus, a higher level of emotional intimacy begins to develop through these kinds of compliments and conversations, which further deepens your relationship bond, and the commitment you feel towards one another.
Feeling a sense of security is another vital part of a healthy relationship, and is often what distinguishes a solid, long term partnership from a passive, “situationship.” You both feel connected, satisfied, and, most likely, have had conversations about the near future. Once the two of you are on the same page for more longterm goals, you’ve moved past mere dating.
“When people move into the relationship stage, they are usually unconsciously saying that this is the person that I have chosen to potentially spend the next few years of my life being exclusive with,” says Chong. This is where terms like “partner,” “boyfriend,” or “girlfriend” get dropped, and when the two of you feel more like a couple than two people getting to know each other. At this stage, sex becomes more meaningful because physical intimacy is another part of your romance.
This is all to say that, when you and your partner feel like you’re in a relationship, and you’ve had a conversation about it, you are. There’s no definitive timeline for how or when the shift from dating to relationship should happen, so if you’re confused about where you stand with a partner, open up about it! It really doesn’t have to be scary.
To sum things up, take the advice of relationship expert Audrey Hope: “Dating is like trying to find the right apartment. You research, ask for leads, try different buildings, and do a lot of leg work and then, eventually, if you don’t give up, you find the right one. When in a relationship, however, you’re making a commitment, signing a lease, and agreeing to live in that place. You have to make a decision that this is where you are going to be—at least for awhile.”
Here’s to clearing up at least some of that confusion. Sounds like it may be time to DTR.
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