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Are We Exclusive Yet?

It's normal to wonder about exclusivity, but it doesn't have to make you crazy.

Irma eyewink/Shutterstock
Source: Irma eyewink/Shutterstock

When are you supposed to tell (or ask) a new partner about dating other people? After the first date? After the third date? After sleeping with them? Or before? What about if you’re just talking to other people, but not actually going on dates with them?

New relationships involve lots of questions, and many people struggle with this topic. Dating apps make it really easy to be talking to and going out with multiple people at a time, so this question has become increasingly relevant over the last decade. Sometimes the person is struggling because they are seeing other people and don’t yet want to be exclusive. Sometimes the person isn’t seeing other people and really likes this one person, but worries that they might be seeing other people.

The risk here is that asking about exclusivity can be a loaded question. Are you asking because you want to be exclusive? If so, what happens if your new partner doesn’t want to be exclusive? You may feel not only disappointed, but also like you put yourself out there and were shot down. There can be a lot of ego on the line. Or maybe you are asking about exclusivity, because you don’t want to be exclusive, but are worried that your new partner does. Anyone with a conscience won’t feel good about disappointing someone else, but if you let this other person continue to incorrectly assume exclusivity, that could set them up for greater disappointment.

There are some people who would say that you need to discuss exclusivity after certain thresholds (e.g., three dates) or before/after certain events (e.g., having sex with someone). The problem is that blanket rules like this don’t account for all the variability in real life. And that people have different preferences for what they want and what they expect.

As with so much else in sex and relationships, it comes down to knowing yourself well and communicating honestly.

What Do You Want—and Why?

If you are wondering about whether this new relationship is exclusive, why do you want to know? It may be because you want to know whether you should delete your dating profiles, but perhaps that really reflects a deeper desire to know whether this new partner likes you enough that it’s safe to invest emotionally in them.

It may be that you have the sense that your new partner is being exclusive, and you are feeling a growing need to break it to them that you aren’t. Perhaps this reflects some doubts about this new partner that you don’t (yet) want to commit. If so, what is holding you back? Dating apps always offer the promise of someone better behind the next swipe, but at a certain point, we need to commit and see what this bird in the hand has to offer. Standing one foot in the relationship and one foot out makes it harder to find that out. On the other hand, it may be that you have legitimate concerns about this person as a potential partner or about your readiness for a relationship at this time.

Whichever side of the fence you’re sitting on, take a few moments to think about not only what you want, but why.

Talk It Out

Much angsting (and polling of friends) can be done about this question of exclusivity, but the only way to really know is to have the conversation. If you broach the topic too early, the other person may feel like you’re being clingy. If you wait too long, feelings can be hurt if a misunderstanding went on much longer than it should have. This risk on both sides is part of the cost of doing business when it comes to dating, but may also be useful information to know about a new partner. (Everything early in dating is potentially useful information to know, if we can figure out which are the most revealing bits.)

Source: 123RF
Source: 123RF

Different people have different needs for exclusivity when dating. Sometimes this reflects enduring personality characteristics (e.g., a need for certainty versus a need for adventure), but it may also reflect situational factors (e.g., ready to settle down versus just wanting to date around after ending a long relationship). Despite these differences, it can be easy to assume the other person has the same exclusivity needs as we ourselves do—or to talk ourselves into believing it, even though our eyes tell us otherwise.

Since asking the exclusivity question can be revealing about how invested you are in this person, or possibly bring up a conversation you’d rather not have, sometimes people try to sleuth it out indirectly. For example, they may look to see if this person is still active on the dating apps. Or they may text them at a time when they might be out with someone else and see how long it takes to get a response. Or they could ask what they did over the weekend. This kind of information can be helpful, but you won’t know for sure until you actually have the conversation. Yes, that can feel risky, but guessing can lead you astray.

If you would like to be exclusive, then tell this new partner that you really like them and you want to see where things go, so you’re not going out with or talking to anyone else, then ask whether they are. This isn’t a marriage proposal, so it doesn’t need to feel monumental. If you would rather not be exclusive, then make it clear that you enjoy spending time with them (assuming that’s actually true), but that you aren’t yet ready to be exclusive. Either way, being clear where you stand will make it easier for your new partner to be clear about where they stand. Too much of the drama in new relationships is about guessing, double-guessing, and triple-guessing what the other person wants, making both people feel crazy. So use your words.

More from Ari Tuckman PsyD, CST
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