Ask Wendy

Do I Have To Have The “We’re Dating Exclusively” Conversation Yet?

Friday, March 16, 2018
happy mid life couple on beach
Hey Wendy,

I am newly single again and I remember from 20 years ago what my process was for dating. As soon as I met someone that I liked, I saw them exclusively and just worked through things. And ultimately, never identified what I needed. Been there, done that!

Now I’m older and wiser, and I want to date around until I’m absolutely sure that the person is someone who has long-term potential (and after 20 years of marriage, I am in no great rush!). That being said, when and how does the “we are just casual” conversation come up? Or it doesn’t have to?

I’m a month into dating this guy and as much as I enjoy him, it’s way too early to know if he has good long-term potential. My thought was to just enjoy our time together, continue to see other people, and not bring up the fact that we are casual and seeing other people at this point. I think it would actually crush his unspoken, but obvious, a fantasy of him being the only apple of my eye. If he asks me if I am seeing other people, which I can’t see this guy doing, then I will be upfront with him. But otherwise, until he brings it up, I wasn’t going to bring it up. I realize I am possibly sending mixed signals because there are a lot of sleepovers and I always find time to see him, so why would he think I’m still seeing others? Is that his bad for assuming or my bad for not spelling things out for him?

Ella P. – San Diego, CA

Hey Ella,

Thanks for this question. Thousands of daters find themselves in this situation. This oh-so-common conundrum is caused by the framework our society has built around dating, and it’s a bit, well, fucked up, to be blunt. So, let’s reframe this problem, okay?

Here’s how “good” people date: You meet someone. If you two have chemistry, you grab each other’s hand and promptly leap onto the relationship escalator that starts climbing ever upwards on the second date and ends at the top with “I do!” Up, up, up—the second date is scintillating, the third heats up, and by the fourth, you’re getting truly familiar with each other. Up, up, up—by the fifth date, maybe you’ve slept together, and maybe you even have a drawer at his place (with or without a conversation about exclusivity). Up, up, up you go, higher and higher on the relationship escalator. You’re exclusive (or are you?) with (unspoken?) promises and (unrealistic?) expectations all around you, and you find yourself wondering where this relationship escalator is going. Straight to the top, or will something throw a wrench in the works? Within about nine months to a year and a half, there better be a proposal and a rock or something has clearly gone terribly wrong. The escalator comes to a grinding halt, and whoever stopped the ride is in really big trouble.

We all know the deviants; the ones who don’t hop on the relationship conveyor belt and commit to the ride to the top. Those people who “date casually.” They’re bad people. They’re players, emotionally unavailable, narcissists! They waste the other person’s precious escalator-riding time!


Raise your hand if you know what I’m talking about.

This is madness.

It’s not all or nothing, or at least it shouldn’t be. You’re either dating casually or dating for a relationship, and we all seem to judge each other for doing one or the other. Here’s a thought: “Dating for a relationship” isn’t an accurate label. Instead, most daters think, “we had three dates, so now we’re in a relationship.” That’s not dating for a relationship, that’s serial relationshipping.

Dating is a series of events, get-togethers, and conversations in which you get to know someone. What if we created a third category called “dating for the possibility of a relationship.” I betcha a twenty that more than half of the “casual” people would bop on over and check out this cool new camp if it were deemed safe and socially acceptable enough to do so. The pressure of hopping on the relationship escalator with a total stranger is intense, but what if there were another way—a space somewhere in between instant exclusivity and playing the field?

So back to you, Ella. I think you want to be in the “dating for the possibility of a relationship” category, and that’s an awesome place to be! It’s smart not to hook your wagon to a star when you don’t yet know what you can count on that star for. There are lots of stars in the sky, after all.

Until you’ve had the “let’s be exclusive” conversation, then single is single. And when you’re single, you have autonomy and can do anything you want with anyone you want at any time you want. The world is yours. I’m assuming you’re in this current entanglement with an adult, which means if you’re happy with your single status, it’s not your job to bring it up. They’re responsible for speaking up for what they need, and if he brings it up before you’re ready to commit, instead of saying “let’s be casual,” try “I like you, and I see the potential for a real fit here. Let’s keep dating to see if we’ve got what it takes, but right now is too soon for me to commit.”

Good luck!

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