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3 Sure Signs of Relationship Development

Are they really into you? Check for these signs.

Dating is supposed to be fun, but often we are riddled with confusion and anxiety. Perhaps we know we are really keen on someone but feel less certain about whether the feeling is mutual. How can we tell if someone is truly interested?

As an animal behavior expert who uses what we know from other animals to help better people's lives, I get asked this question a lot. The interesting thing is that we engage in some of the same behaviors as animals that reveal our true intentions. So why do so many of us end up befuddled?

One reason is that, unlike other animals, humans can have hidden intentions and multiple agendas, and can attempt to manipulate others to satisfy their own wants and desires. For example, sometimes people are interested in someone, but only for a short-term affair, not a relationship. Other times, they may be dating multiple people, and you are not the preferred love interest. These and other scenarios don't make dating much fun, and sifting through the confusion can be tiresome and painful.

Here's the good news: If you are looking for a solid relationship and need to determine if the person you are dating is on the same page, there are clear signals that can help you cut through the nonsense and decide to keep going or cut your losses and look elsewhere. This is because when someone is really interested in you for a long-term relationship, they're usually working pretty hard to make sure you know it because they don’t want you getting distracted and looking elsewhere.

What do this focus and attention look like? It can show up in a few ways.

Jennifer Verdolin 2019
Source: Jennifer Verdolin 2019

1. Regular and consistent communication

Great horned owls are a terrific example of this principle. I am currently doing research on these magnificent raptors, and pairs are in constant communication with each other. They hoot back and forth all night long. (Head over to Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and take a listen.)

We, as humans, can relate: We get a rush of excitement when we get a call or text from our love interest, and we may spend hours on the phone talking or texting back and forth. Basically, owls. All those hoots add up to a sign that a relationship is being developed.

The other key component to the communication is that a reply is rarely delayed for more than a few hours, perhaps a day at most. In owls, the failure of a mate to respond means only a few possibilities: Either they are in the midst of catching a meal (working), they are with another owl, or they are deceased.

2. Spending a lot of time together

After communication, we look at how much time one spends with a potential mate to get a clue about whether there is a real relationship underfoot. Barnacle geese tend to mate for life, so they are looking for that one special goose. First, though, they date.

What does a pair of dating barnacle geese look like? They look like they are in a relationship. They spend all their time together, feeding together, snuggling together, walking around together, socializing together. If they are lucky, they find their life partner on the first try. If for some reason the pair is not compatible, they break up and go back on the market.

Now, we aren’t geese, and alone time and time with friends is important, but the reality is that if someone is only making time to see you infrequently, or only when it's convenient for them, and doesn't introduce you to friends and family, they're not serious about you and/or they're also ruffling the feathers of another goose.

3. Simple and consistent gestures

This is the wild card because it will vary from person to person and the way they show affection. This could mean going out on dates to reinforce the bond (eating, dancing, hiking, etc.). It could mean helping you with an unpleasant task or listening to you talk about your day. We could translate that broadly into affection. Which brings up touching.

Todd Ahren CC BY 2.0
Source: Todd Ahren CC BY 2.0

While many people frown upon public displays of affection, this can be misappropriated by someone not truly interested in you. Why? Generally speaking, when someone is seriously interested in another, there is a lot of compulsive affection.

I am not talking about touching that leads to sex, but garden-variety hand-holding, arms around you, hugging, nuzzling, close physical proximity, etc. And it also happens in public. A failure to do so publicly usually represents announcing to the world they are not with you.

Partner prairie voles are a model of constant cuddling. They mate for life, are mostly monogamous, and are very touchy with their mate. Why? It is all about reinforcing bonding.

Researchers at Emory University found that the more time a pair spent huddling (their version of cuddling), the greater the attachment to their partner. The more time they spend touching, the more time they want to spend with each other (see number 2 above). All of this positive feedback may be driven by oxytocin and dopamine being released. That feeling that you are high on love? You kind of are.

When we look at other animals, we see some clear signs about whether it’s a real love interest or a short-term fling. The truth is, if you are asking this question about a partner or are confused about their feelings, there is a pretty good chance they aren’t that interested in something serious. The faster you recognize this and stop paying attention to someone who’s not paying attention to you, the faster you will find someone who is interested in being with you.

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Amadei, E. A. et al. 2017. Dynamic corticostriatal activity biases social bonding in monogamous female prairie voles. Nature 546, pages 297–301 (08 June 2017).