When do you know if your relationship is exclusive (without asking)?

Ok sure- many of you might think the only way to confirm that you are in an exclusive relationship is to sit your partner down, take an impressive deep breath and launch the phrase “So… where do you see us going?”   I personally hate this drama-inducing question and tried to avoid it in the past.  Some people find this topic too taboo to bring up at all.   Here’s how my conversation went after my now husband and I were dating a few months:


Scene: Halloween party: two nerds dressed in ridiculous outfits:

Him: Are you seeing anyone else?

Me: No.  Are you?

Him:  Ah- no.  Of course not.


Him: So, can I call you my girlfriend now?

Me: Sounds good.  Let’s get another drink!


Clearly this wasn’t our best, most romantic conversation ever.  But by the time we got around to officially rubber-stamping the boyfriend/girlfriend titles into our relationship, I already thought we were exclusive.

What are clues that someone can use to verify their relationship is serious- without “the conversation”?

A recent study looked at dating rituals that would need to happen in order for daters to consider a relationship exclusive:

  • Attending social activities together:  Sure, this one seems obvious- and over 90% of their sample listed it as their top choice.  I mention it only because in the world of online dating, people can spend a lot of time talking to each other online before they ever meet.  This may give daters the illusion that their relationship is already serious before a date has even occurred!  If that date doesn’t work out, partners might feel more confused and rejected than they would have otherwise if so much time had not been spent communicating online.  Just remember, it isn’t serious until you are consistently seeing each other face-to-face.
  • Hanging out with his/ or her friends:  Clearly if you are going to parties or other events and meeting your partner’s friends, this person feels confident in being seen with you.  They are sending out a visual signal to their social group that they are potentially off the market. If the friends already knew of you before you were introduced, even better.  This ranked especially high with Caucasians.
  • Hanging out with his/her family members:  Think of the pressure!  For many the family represents a litmus test for the relationship.  Siblings may also be best friends.  If you are hanging out with the family, there is a good chance this partner thinks the relationship is serious.  Interestingly, this choice ranked higher for African Americans than Caucasians.
  • Dressing up and going out: Are you going out on official dates to places that require reservations and menus, or are you still in the meet-up-for-coffee club?  Have you gone outside, or do you always seem to stay in and cook/order food?  Do you start the night together, or do you only get a phone call right around the time a bartender yells “last call?”  Think about where (and when) you spend your time together, and you’ll get a sense of how seriously it’s being considered.
  • Buying gifts:  This wasn’t high up on the list, but it stood out for men: if they were buying the lady a gift (especially an expensive one), they were more likely to consider the relationship serious.  However, this wasn’t equally true for the ladies!  A gift doesn’t make you exclusive. Consider an affordable option next time you start seeing someone near the holidays.
  • Sex:  No one reported that sexual intimacy by itself would indicate exclusivity, but sex was considered valued in a serious relationship.  Men were more likely than women to consider sex necessary for an exclusive relationship; the researchers point out this might have been more of men’s opinion about the importance of sex as a component of a serious relationship, not an accurate marker of one.


Keep in mind that all of these components need to be happening in constellation with each other.  Don’t assume because one is happening that you have the golden ticket for exclusivity.  While it’s always best to confirm that your feelings about the relationship are mutual, taking notice of these signs will help you feel more confident that the relationship is progressing in the desired direction.

Further Reading:

Jackson, P.B., Kleiner, S., Geist, C., & Cebulko, K. (2011). Conventions of courtship: Gender and race differences in the significance of dating rituals. Journal of Family Issues, 32 (5), 629-652. DOI:10.1177/0192513X10395113


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