What’s the real difference when it comes to dating vs. being in a relationship?
How do you know if you’re casually seeing someone or if you’re exclusive?
If you found your way to this article, you’re probably feeling a little confused and looking for clarity on your situation. And I get it. Nobody wants to feel like they’re walking in the dark, not knowing where they stand with someone.
You deserve to know.
There’s always that confusing period where you’re frequently seeing the same person. Maybe you automatically see it as a relationship, but you haven’t officially labeled it. It feels like you’ve got something special here, and all signs tell you it’s growing into a genuine partnership. Perhaps you’re apprehensive about having “the talk” too early on and freaking a guy out.
In this article, I’ll be explaining the key differences between dating vs. being in a relationship. By the end of it, you’ll know exactly where you stand—no more guessing or hoping.
Dating vs. Relationship: The key difference
In a relationship, both people must have agreed that they’re seeing each other exclusively and are mutually committed to each other and the shared partnership.
When two people are dating, there’s no agreement like this. Things are more casual, you’re probably dating other people, and there’s a distinct lack of commitment.
However, in real life, things can become a little murky. There’s a grey area in the transition between dating and being exclusive. That’s why I’ve created a list of signs that you’re just dating vs. in an actual relationship.
Signs you may be “just dating”
- You’re not entirely comfortable with him.
- You still get butterflies around him.
- There hasn’t been a discussion of exclusivity.
- You spend more time apart than you do together.
- You’re still in Little Love Step #5—exploring your options.
You know you’re in the dating phase still when it feels like you’re both still sizing each other up.
Both of you are keen to put your best foot forward at all times. You want to impress one another and hope to carry on seeing each other.
You’ll likely have moments where you feel nervous, self-conscious and sometimes overthink things.
You’re not putting all your eggs in one basket—you’re still deciding whether you’re a good match and want to take things to the next level.
Ultimately, your personal life still gets the majority of your attention. You spend time going out with the girls, enjoying your hobbies, and none of your choices are yet tied to his.
Signs it may be a relationship
- You have explicitly had a conversation about commitment and are both on the same page (unless you’ve done this, it is not a relationship!). This is what I call Little Love Step #6 in my dating coaching program, Love Accelerator.
- There’s a physical and emotional connection.
- Sex becomes more meaningful.
- You spend more time together than apart.
- You can see this person in your future.
As your connection develops and progresses, you’ll notice a difference in the conversations and interactions you have.
You’ll ask each other more profound questions, there’ll be more vulnerability and openness with each other, and you’ll notice and be attracted to the non-physical qualities your partner has.
There will also be a sense of security. You’re both in tune, and you know what you want.
You make plans and set future goals based on you being in each other’s lives long term. Terms like “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” and “partner” are used as you begin to feel like a couple.
There’s no set timeline for when the shift from dating to a relationship should happen. It depends on both of you, how much time you’ve spent together, and the pace you’re both comfortable with.
However, some guys will never commit, and you don’t want to waste your time waiting around for them to either.
If you feel confused about where you stand, ask. This might feel scary at first, but you shouldn’t be afraid to get clarity on your relationship status.
Any man worth dating will want you to know where you stand and will have no issue being open and honest with you.
So, what are some of the more subtle signs you’re in a relationship instead of just dating?
1. A relationship is more emotional
During the dating stage, there tends to be more of a physical focus. Touching, kissing, and sex that is purely physical. But as the connection grows, emotional intimacy develops.
Of course, you’re still attracted to each other and enjoy the physical part of your relationship, but there’s a deeper level to it now.
Sex isn’t just about wanting to rip each other’s clothes off and enjoy each other’s bodies. Sometimes it will still be purely physical, but generally, it feels more intimate, more special.
This emotional connection can only form when you’ve opened up to each other over time and consciously allowed that deeper bond to develop.
2. Dating feels unpredictable vs. a relationship offers stability
When you’re dating someone, there’s no sense of security or predictability.
Each date you go on may be the last time you see this person—you can never say for sure. And that’s okay because neither of you has committed to anything.
In contrast, a relationship feels secure and stable. There’s a certain level of trust, loyalty, and consistency from both of you.
You know he’s not just going to disappear one day. This gives you a solid foundation to continue building your partnership.
3. In a relationship you’re not interested in dating anyone else
If you’re still on dating apps or websites, keeping your options open, and seeing different people, you’re still in the dating zone.
But if you’re on dating sites and don’t feel compelled to message anyone new, there’s one person in particular you’re dating who stands out from everyone else, and you have no desire to see anyone else; you’ve slipped into exclusivity.
Just be sure to have the conversation, so you know where you stand.
4. Dating means spending some time together vs. in a relationship they’re your go-to person
When you’re dating, you usually plan to see each other one or two nights a week.
But there are plenty of other people that you make plans with to do fun things like head to the movies, go for a bite to eat, head to a local gig, or visit a local art exhibit.
In a relationship, you become each other’s go-to for making plans.
If there’s a new movie out you’re dying to see, you ask him if he wants to go with you. When your friend throws a birthday party and tells you to bring a plus one, you know you’re going to invite him. You also find yourself checking if he’s free before you commit to other plans.
It’s a no-brainer. He’s your go-to guy.
5. In a relationship you’re content doing nothing
Jeffrey Bernstein (author of Why Can’t You Read My Mind) says it best when he claims happy couples are comfortable just doing nothing together.
When you’re still dating and getting to know each other, there’s a tendency to want to fill any gaps with chatter or action. It feels awkward or uncomfortable to sit in silence or do nothing.
And this is normal because you haven’t yet built up that comfort level with each other.
When your plans don’t necessarily involve doing anything, you know things are getting relationshippy.
6. When dating you don’t share everything vs. in a relationship you communicate openly
When you’re still dating, you don’t feel ready to start telling each other everything. Information tends to be on a need-to-know basis. And you’re still trying not to irritate or annoy each other with quirks or bad habits.
This level of comfort and trust has to evolve organically over time.
But in a relationship, communication seems easier and more open. Not that there won’t be disagreements or issues, but you feel comfortable airing and discussing things—big and small. You always know what’s going on with each other.
If you need some extra help when it comes to communicating openly and assertively with your partner, you may want to talk to a dating coach.
7. When dating the trust is still building vs. in a relationship you can count on them
When you’re dating, you’re not one hundred percent sure you can count on this guy.
For example, you might not feel able to ask them a favor or share something big with them. Likewise, you might feel uncomfortable being on the receiving end of something similar.
But when you feel confident they will be there for you no matter what you need and when you need them, you’ve established a level of trust that is synonymous with the start of any healthy relationship.
8. People dating value their freedom vs. in a relationship you value partnership
One of the key differences between dating and a relationship is people who are dating still value their freedom.
This is clear because they’re still living their lives entirely selfishly and doing what they want when they want to do it.
They can walk away whenever they like and start a new connection with someone else.
People in relationships have moved past this phase and recognize the value of a partnership.
They understand that even though there will be ups and downs, they’re up for working through those challenges together because they believe what you’re building together is worth it.
9. In a relationship you’re okay with them seeing the real you
You know you’re still dating when you feel the need to look your very best and be on your best behavior at all times around them.
You spend solid time picking out an outfit and doing your hair and makeup. Maybe you feel the need to keep quirks and flaws on the down-low—like your obsession with binging on trashy reality TV.
Gradually over time, this need to always be your best self begins to fade.
You’re okay with him seeing you without makeup on or lounging around in sweats with your hair pulled back. And you feel more comfortable sharing those weird quirks that make you, you.
You’ve moved beyond the superficial stage of dating where you worry this person might run if you show them something too real.
10. Dating means you avoid arguments vs. in a relationship, you’re solution-oriented
If you’re dating, you probably won’t have many (if any) arguments because you’re not faced with the challenges and obstacles established couples face.
When you do disagree, you’re likely to avoid arguing and change the subject or have a “fight to win” mentality.
But in a relationship, you become more “solution” oriented. You’ve already committed to each other, so you know you need to find a solution.
Whereas when you’re dating, it’s much easier just to walk away.
And research has shown that navigating conflicts constructively can actually benefit a relationship in the long run.
11. In a relationship you’ve both integrated with each other’s friends and families
When you’re dating, the focus is still on the both of you getting to know each other. You’re not ready to start adding other people into the mix when there’s still so much uncertainty.
You know you’re moving into relationship territory when you start introducing each other to friends and family, especially if the terms boyfriend or girlfriend are casually dropped.
Not only this, but you’ve both integrated with each other’s nearest and dearest.
That means his friends extend an invite to you when they make plans, and your family extends an invite to him when they’ve got something going on.
12. Dating means no labels vs. in a relationship you’ve had “the talk”
Like I mentioned earlier, if you’re dating, you won’t have put any labels on what you are. Whereas in a relationship, you will have had “the talk.”
That means you’ve defined what you are. You’re clear that neither of you is dating other people, and you’ve discussed your future needs and desires.
If you don’t feel like you can have an open and honest conversation like this with him, that’s a red flag that something is off. You should be able to talk about things.
Don’t ever assume anything until you’ve spoken about it and reached an agreement. The last thing you want is to assume you’re in a relationship only to find out he’s still seeing other people.
13. In a relationship there’s commitment from both of you
Dating allows room for a certain level of flakiness and non-commitment. One or both of you are probably undecided and still not entirely giving it your all. And this is normal at this stage.
But in a relationship, both of you are equally committed to a shared goal. You both put in the same time and effort into your partnership and want to see it grow.
How long should you wait before putting a label on it?
First, there’s dating when you’re both still seeing other people.
Next, there’s dating each other exclusively. Some people assume this equals a relationship, but different people will have different ideas about this. Again, it’s all about communicating so you know where you stand.
The final step is being in a relationship where you view each other as partners.
All stages are wonderful and have their joys and challenges.
When it comes to knowing when you’re ready to take things to the next level, it’s about trusting your intuition. Only you will know when you’re ready, and it feels right.
When it does, allow yourself to be vulnerable and have that conversation.
This is Little Love Step #6: setting boundaries for a committed relationship. Without setting clear, healthy boundaries, your relationship is likely to fail.
Don’t apologize for what you want, and don’t be afraid to walk away
Sometimes things will work out, and the guy in question will want the same things you want and be ready to commit.
Other times, you won’t get what you were hoping for.
And although it might feel disappointing in the moment, it’s actually a great thing.
Because it means you can forget about this guy and move on to someone who’s looking for the same things you are and is ready to go all in.
What do you struggle with most when it comes to having “the talk” and voicing what you want?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a comment below.
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