How Soon Should You Date Exclusively?

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The Question

To find a good relationship, you first go through the dating process. This is littered with pitfalls.

In the real world of dating, the issue often comes down to the question of “exclusivity.”

Here is a real-life case example. “Teresa” (not her real name) asked the following question:

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“I am in love with a man who says he is not ready for an exclusive relationship. He has been candid with me about this from the beginning. We have been seeing each other for about five months.

“He was in a dysfunctional relationship, and it is evident that it scarred him deeply. He is afraid of being with only one woman because of the potential for pain. He wants to have multiple relationships.

“I have considered this but soon realized that I would not be true to myself if I did that. He had been seeing another woman very infrequently until a few months ago when I became upset about it. When asked if he was sexual with her, he said “yes.” I said that I would not have sex with him as long as he was sexual with another. I told him I thought it was best for me to be open to seeing others.”

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“I now see one other man on occasion. The first man tells me that he is not seeing anyone else but is still not ready. We do the things that couples do, so what he says vs. what he does seems incongruent. I could go on and on… I am conflicted about what to do. I have told him that what we are doing is OK for the short term, but ultimately I want a deeper connection with someone – preferably him.

What should I do?”

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Teresa’s question is prevalent. But before giving you my response, I want to provide you with some background information about the phases and stages of dating that will help put my answer in perspective.

Phases of Dating

First, let me describe the different phases during the dating process. Although there is overlap between these phases, it is instructive to know their essential nature. One could undoubtedly define more or fewer phases than I have done, but I think the model I describe below is very functional and easy to remember and understand.

Phase 1 – “Readiness” (pre-dating).

This phase involves getting your own house in order. This should include creating a vision for your life and a prioritized list of your relationship requirements. It should also involve gaining new perspectives, learning new attitudes and behaviours, and otherwise building emotional maturity (emotional maturity is the ability to deal constructively with life problems, including finding and keeping a quality relationship).

This readiness stage could also include “recreational dating” (dating for fun, companionship, and practice, as opposed to dating with the purpose in mind of finding a life partner).

Phase 2 – “Dating.”

I identify the following three stages in the dating phase:

Stage 1 – “Infatuation.”

This is where fantasy and wishes reign over reality. Infatuation feels like real love so that it can be very deceptive. This stage can last up to three months or more if there is infrequent in-person contact. The end of the infatuation stage can be marked by confusion and pain when you realize that your hopes and what felt so real were a house of cards. Relationships in this stage should not be exclusive, as this can lead to disappointment and difficulty in extracting yourself from the relationship.

Stage 2 – “Sincere Interest” (also known as “sincere uncertainty”).

If the relationship moves past the infatuation stage, there is likely genuine interest (though some relationships stay together out of fear or guilt). But there is still much uncertainty and disillusionment. This “testing” phase might extend from six months to two years. The couples are learning about chemistry, maturity, and development potential. They wrestle with questions of power, control, and uncertainty, assessing the relationship’s suitability.

When one spouse decides not to move on while the other partner wants to, the line between this stage and the next is unclear. To avoid a “mini-marriage,” it’s advisable not to sign an exclusivity agreement too soon (a monogamous union that is not yet based on reality and therefore has a relatively high potential for failure, and consequently a fairly high potential for pain).

Stage 3 – “Decision Process” (also known as “pre-commitment”).

With time and maturity comes the question, “what is the nature of this relationship?” You’ve shown genuine interest. Both sides are very certain they want something from this connection and hope it will continue, but they haven’t specified what it is or how it will manifest. This stage typically rushes into “commitment” even while many questions remain unresolved due to our various fears.

This level is frequently exclusive but isn’t (much depends on the nature of the partners). The key is to note that while this stage entails more decision-making than “sincere interest,” it is not yet a firm commitment (either party is still free to “unchoose”). There may be some breakups and reunions throughout this time. Not time, but preparedness and certainty.

Phase 3 – “Committed/Conscious Relationship” (post-dating).

In this phase, the focus is on further building and deepening the relationship understanding that both parties want it to last forever. Note that there are many kinds of relationships and commitments, and both of these things can change with time. Committed relationships in our culture are usually sexually exclusive but are not necessarily so.

One problem to be aware of is the prevalence of “non-consensual non-monogamy,” i.e. both parties claim to be exclusive, but one or both are not. This usually results in pain sooner or later. Getting to high emotional maturity is the key to making conscious relationship choices that both parties can live with. Continued personal growth within the committed relationship is significant: the end of “dating” should not be the end of the shift!

And the answer is…

Here is my answer to Teresa’s question about “how soon to be exclusive?”

Her limiting beliefs hinder Teresa’s chances for success in a relationship. Specifically, her unspoken assumption that “exclusivity is the only way and it must happen soon” keeps her from enjoying the present moment with her friend.

Teresa has known this person for only five months. This is just barely out of the “infatuation” stage. She needs more time to know him before she can commit and become exclusive before committing only sets one up for future failure and pain. This is the classic “mini-marriage.”

Being non-exclusive in the early stages of a relationship is a good idea. It allows both people to have a more realistic assessment of each other and of the relationship while also getting to know others. Being exclusive too early limits your experience and limits your options. Teresa should see non-exclusivity as an opportunity (to get it right this time) and not a drawback.

Another of her limiting beliefs is that “exclusivity is an all or nothing thing.” The fact is that there is a whole continuum of things it could mean, and everyone can have a different idea. Each relationship can be free to define it for themselves.

One meaning is “you can’t date other people.” Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, in their book The Rules: Time, Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr Right, say, “Unless you’re engaged, date others.” I think this is good advice, though many people do not follow it. Restrictions (“you can’t date others”) only cause resentment, and unless there is a firm commitment, there really is no commitment. Dating others until marriage is assured makes a lot of sense.

However, you may find this challenging if the person you like is insecure and want your exclusivity. “I treasure my independence,” “I don’t want to make any mistakes,” etc., can help purchase time. You are not rejecting the other person or ruling out the main relationship, but keeping your choices open until both of you are ready. They will see you if they love you (and even want more of you).

Another meaning of exclusivity is “you can’t have sex with other people.” Note that this is different from “you can’t date other people” (because it’s possible to date someone without having sex…). One reason for not having sex with other people is to allow you to have safe unprotected sex with your partner. Unfortunately, more often, the reason is insecurity.

Until you agree to sexual exclusivity, you should assume the relationship is not exclusive and always use a condom. It is best to wait to have unprotected sex until you trust each other enough to agree with this. Such an agreement (for sexual exclusivity) should be based on mutual desire and trust (which takes time to build), not on insecurity and jealousy. In particular, you need to trust the person enough to believe that if they want to have unprotected sex with another person, they will not do so without discussing it with you first.

Teresa’s desire for exclusivity seems to be based on insecurity. She wants it too soon, she equates it with love, and she invests it with her pride (“I would not be true to myself if I did that”). Once it is infused with dignity, it becomes rigid and becomes a demand, and no one likes their needs.

The mature thing is to be aware of and discuss (at an appropriate time) the degree of exclusivity, the pros and cons of varying degrees, the comfort zones of the two partners, and find a negotiated solution that works for the present but may change in the future.

It seems to me that Teresa wants to put him in prison, and this is not love. She claims it to be love, but it is fear. Fear is natural, of course, given all the bad experiences so many people have had, but acting out of fear does not make things better.

Most people are unsure, uncertain, ambivalent, “not ready,” etc., because “Relationship” (with a capital “R”) is such a life-threatening thing. Some people reduce their uncertainty by jumping into an exclusive relationship, and it seems this is what Teresa is prone to do.

This frequently does not change the underlying ambivalence, and often the outcome is failure later on down the line. Others take it slow, and Teresa probably should too. Wanting something deeper is excellent and natural, but the way to get there is to enjoy the moment, allow it to happen (or not happen) naturally, and not press for the result too soon.

Also, Teresa needs to consider how vital this particular person is and how much she is willing to stretch to accommodate his needs/limits (and the same goes for him with her). When there’s a lot of genuine love going on, both people stretch to accommodate each other’s needs/limits. If they can find a familiar path, moment to moment, then the relationship can last.

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