As if finding love through boundless dating apps wasn’t mystifying enough, determining when it’s time for you and your S.O. to update your statuses to “In a Relationship” is a completely different conundrum. Even if sparks are flying on every date and you have incredible chemistry between the sheets, it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that you’re headed past the “just seeing each other” stage.
Whether you’re looking to play the field or you’re ready to get serious about finding “the one,” it helps to know the point of casual dating and how to tell when it’s becoming long-term. As with any relationship—romantic or otherwise—keep in mind that you should always communicate your expectations to avoid being blindsided. Desires for monogamy can vary from person to person. So how do you know if your partner wants to keep it casual or if you’re heading toward a serious relationship? It can start with setting boundaries (and whether that includes other people).
Read on to learn what it means to be casually dating, and when it’s time to make it official.
When you can’t get someone off your mind, it can be especially hard if you don’t know what they want. Is it turning into something more, or do they just think you’re friends with benefits? At the beginning of a relationship, it’s important to discuss your intentions. That doesn’t mean you’ll have all the answers from the start—some relationships start casually, and not everyone needs the same amount of time to make it official. If your partner hints at a future where you’re exclusive, they’re likely open to the possibility of a relationship. On the other hand, they might keep a guarded schedule and prioritize their time with other people.
One problem with friends with benefits is that people seldom talk about their expectations or feelings.
According to a report from the Pew Research Center, about 50 percent of all single people aren’t interested in a serious relationship. Another 10 percent are strictly looking for casual dates. If you’re hoping to get serious with your casual partner, those odds may not be encouraging…but like all matters of the heart, the best way to know what they want comes down to communication. “One problem with friends with benefits is that people [seldom] talk about their expectations or feelings,” says expert Paul Joannides, Psy.D. “They don’t talk with each other about their relationship, which is still a relationship of sorts, even if it’s not filled with ‘I love you’s.'”
For many people, the beauty of casual dating is that it doesn’t have to be exclusive. If you’ve just left a serious relationship, you may not be ready to settle down anytime soon. You might also still be finding yourself—so if one person can’t meet all your needs right now, it’s okay to focus on you while exploring what you want from a partner.
The halfway point between casual dating and serious relationships is often a gray area of “dating exclusively.” This is a great time to feel out whether your partner is right for you. You may not be committed to the long haul yet, but you’re both ready to agree that you won’t see other people for the time being.
Good relationships start with good decisions, and evaluating your beliefs before you start a relationship is the most important thing you can do.
When you’ve decided to be exclusive, you might treat each other as serious partners without the weight of a full-on relationship. Take time to get to know your partner and understand their values, romantic desires, and interests to ensure they align with yours. It’s also a time for exploring what life would be like together—go on dates, try new things, and be vulnerable with your thoughts or concerns. “Good relationships start with good decisions, and evaluating your beliefs about relationships and love before you start a relationship is the most important thing you can do. You must be sure that your expectations are realistic in order to have a happy and functional long-term relationship,” says licensed clinical psychologist Seth Meyers, Psy.D. In this stage of dating, it’s important to decide whether this person highlights your best self or if you’re seeing red flags. “The purpose of a romantic union is to provide support and bring out the best in each other, so that each individual has the nourishment and strength to go out in the world and reach [their] life goals.”
In a Relationship
Once you’ve found the right person, a committed relationship can grow. Sometimes one partner might have different views than the other, so be sure to communicate your feelings. This is a time for setting boundaries and discussing your future. The decision to make it official can be exciting, but it’s important to set yourselves up for success: Be sure you both expect the same things in terms of commitment, and you’re not bringing past burdens to your new S.O.
“Think now about the relationship dynamics that typically evolve over the course of the months or years with your own partners,” says expert Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. “Do you have trouble communicating your feelings? Do you tend to get involved in petty arguments? Does it bother you when your partner pays attention to other people?” Issues from previous relationships may carry over, so be honest when evaluating yourself. If you’ve experienced patterns of problems with your exes, it’s possible—even likely—that they could happen again. Take time to communicate any worries to your partner so you both know what is and isn’t acceptable in your future.
When to Break Things Off
Breaking up is never easy, but it’s safe to say that ghosting is harmful to both people. If you’re unhappy with your casual partner, express your feelings while being careful to respect the other person. Another sign that it’s time to reconsider your relationship is if you’re emotionally cheating. It might feel awkward to break up with someone you’re not dating, but it’s best to communicate clearly about where you stand. On the flip side, if your casual partner seems like their mind is somewhere else, it may be a sign that they’re not planning to make things serious. It’s still a good idea to have a conversation to let them know when you don’t want to see each other anymore.
Whether you’re ready to commit or you decide it’s best to be on your own, casual dating has its benefits (even if the relationship ends). Dating different people is a great way to learn what you want in romance—and even learn more about yourself. So when you’ve met someone you like, regardless of future intentions, be open to exploring. Those laid-back relationships might even be the key to discovering your dream partner.