Dating vs. Relationships: What’s the Difference?

At what point does dating become a relationship?
on June 03, 2024
Read time: 10 mins
by Moraya Seeger DeGeare

When you’re dating someone new, it can be difficult to tell whether you’re casually dating or in a committed relationship. For some people, the terms “dating” and “relationship” mean the same thing, while for others they’re starkly different. Dating is hard enough without needing a dictionary to make sense of every confusing label, so we aim to outline the difference between dating vs. relationships once and for all. 

If you’ve been dating someone for a while and feel like things are serious, but are unsure if you’re in a committed relationship or not, the best thing would be to ask them “Are we in a relationship or just dating?” Or, perhaps a better way to approach this is to say, “Can we set aside time to discuss how committed we both desire for this relationship or if we’re still in the dating phase?”

Having the “what are we?” conversation is never easy, but nothing beats open and honest communication.

Knowing where you stand is important. A lack of clarity can mean having different expectations, goals, and boundaries — three things you want to be aligned on.

So, how do you know if you’re dating or in a relationship? You might want to gauge the situation before having the talk, so to make things a little easier to decipher, we highlight the difference between dating vs relationships.

Is dating different from relationships?

In short, yes — dating someone and being in a relationship can be very different. When you’re dating somebody you’re still getting to know them. You’re attracted to one another and have fun together, but you’re still figuring out if you want to commit to a future together. 

Dating also doesn’t guarantee exclusivity, because you may or may not be seeing other people at the same time. There is such a thing as “dating exclusively”, which is typically the stage right before a relationship. A relationship will often mean you’ve defined the boundaries and agreed on terms that meet both of your needs. Often with boundaries that adhere to either monogamous, ethical non-monogamous, polyamorous, or open relationship standards.

Essentially, dating means you’re still testing out the waters while a relationship means you’re on the same long-term trajectory together. To get to the bottom of these sometimes shaky lines, we’ve dived deeper into the definitions to try and help you out! 

What is dating? 

We’d love to start with a simple definition, but fortunately or unfortunately, there are many different types of dating. 

While we’ve all held various crushes and romantic interests during our lives, it’s a big step (usually filled with butterflies and glee!) to step into the first dating phases. However, it’s important to remember that people date for lots of different reasons, and just because you’re dating someone, you can’t automatically assume the level of commitment involved. 

Back in our grandparent's days, depending on their religion, these different stages were a lot easier to understand, but in the modern dating scene, it can feel like a bit of a minefield. Depending on the people in question, the road from a first date to an exclusive relationship can be very straightforward or it can involve a lot of twists and turns you might not have expected. 

For example, you might be casually dating, where you’re allowed to date other people or be on dating apps, as you haven’t agreed to be exclusively dating. Then, while you may be exclusively dating, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in a serious relationship — as this needs its own conversation and agreement. 

The best advice we can give you for these early stages of dating is to never assume where you stand with your partner. Even though having the ‘what are we?’ question is never pleasant (especially when you’re trying to play it cool!), it’s the best approach to avoid any misunderstandings. If you feel like you’re at the next level of dating, or if you’ve been spending a lot of time together and are unsure where you stand — you need to chat about it. 

“In couples therapy, we go back to an early attachment rupture and pain point, such as a betrayal,” says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, a licensed marriage and family therapist and In-House Expert at Paired.

“When we uncover the motivation it so often comes to one person making an assumption. Rarely is a couple still together and these early hurts had been entionally crossing a boundary. Reinforcing the need to communicate needs early on.”

“One of the hardest parts is when each person does not truly speak the same relationship language, even saying words like I want to feel respected in this relationship, might mean very different things to each person,” says Seeger DeGeare. 

It may all seem very confusing and complicated, but even if you’re in a casual relationship with someone (or casually dating), it’s important to reach a mutual agreement on each level so that no one gets hurt! 

Stages of dating

Awkward stage: Even though some lucky few can escape the awkward stage, or are a pro at pick-up lines, most singles have to trudge through the awkwardness of early dating. This might mean plucking up the courage to ask someone out, or even struggling through a few awkward moments on the first few dates!
Honeymoon stage: Once some of the self-consciousness wears off, you can get to the good part! This stage usually involves a level of infatuation, where you can’t get enough of your partner and where everything is all new and exciting.
Uncertainty stage: By spending time with your partner, eventually the gloss of the honeymoon stage wears off. This stage can involve a lot of questions about whether this person is right for you, and if you’re compatible with them.
Intimacy stage: This stage involves fostering a deeper connection with your partner, with growing emotional and physical intimacy. Even if you haven’t put a label on things yet, you feel like you’ve found your go-to person — no matter the issue.
Commitment stage: You’ve made it over the hill and you finally feel like your love life is no longer in disarray. Whether you ask the question with a bouquet, or you finally pluck up the nerve to initiate the conversation — you’re finally committed and official!

What is a relationship? 

So, if you make it past all the different stages of dating, what is a romantic relationship? How different is a relationship to dating? How do you know if you’re nearing relationship territory? 

A relationship is a mutual commitment between two people, involving a deep intimate connection that goes beyond a regular dating relationship. This relationship progression usually involves exclusivity, where you refer to them as your ‘partner’, or ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’. After you’ve had the conversation about your relationship status, it removes any of the confusion, so you officially know where you stand with your partner. 

While the definition may be shorter than dating, relationships are no less complicated! However, when you’re in a committed and healthy relationship with your significant other, the 

Stages of a relationship

Euphoric stage: Just like in the dating stages, you can get a whole other honeymoon stage once your relationship officially begins! During this time, your partner becomes the most important thing in your life, and are full of excitement for your adventure together.
Early attachment stage: Once the honeymoon phase is over, you progress into the first stages of attachment, where you start to build your life together and learn to rely on your partner.
Crisis stage: Every relationship hits a crisis stage, where it seems like everything has suddenly been derailed. During life, you might have lost sight of why you’re together in the first place and everything feels in crisis.
Deep attachment stage: With the aid of relationship advice or couples therapy, you’ve made it over the hill and are ready to commit to a lifetime together. This is known as the deep attachment stage, where you’ve grown to rely on each other, and they’re forever part of your future.

How do you tell the difference between dating and relationships? 

The difference between dating vs. relationships can be very nuanced, but there are some ways to know if you and your partner are committed to one another — other than asking them. 

This can involve gauging your level of emotional intimacy, or evaluating how they’re acting around you. If you’re still unsure whether you stand, here are a few signs you’re not “just dating.”

12 main differences between dating and being in a relationship

You refer to each other as a boyfriend, girlfriend, significant other, or partner.
You’re not dating or sleeping with other people (if you’ve agreed to be monogamous).
You live together or have keys to each other’s homes.
You make long-term plans together or talk about your future together.
You’ve said I love you to each other.
You’ve met each other's families.
You’ve gone on holiday together.
You’ve gotten to know each other deeper and aren’t afraid to be vulnerable with one another.
You have good communication and aren’t afraid to have (and resolve) disagreements.
You prioritize each other and the relationship.
You feel like you can be your genuine, true selves around each other.
You trust each other.

How long do you date before being in a relationship?

There’s no set rule for how long you should date someone before making things official. 

The amount of time from dating to a relationship can vary from couple to couple, depending on their unique love story. For example, some people might spend time as close friends for years before getting to know each other on a deeper level and committing to a long-term relationship. 

Or, other people might fall in love at first sight and immediately commit to a relationship. Or other people might start casually dating with no intention of anything more, and end up getting married! We could come up with a million different variations, but you get the idea! 

How long you should wait before becoming exclusive varies from person to person and from couple to couple. 

However, it’s not something you want to rush into or assume without having “the talk” with your partner.

How to have the ‘relationship’ conversation? 

So, we’ve tried to decipher all the differences in relationships vs. dating, but if you’re still scratching your head — it might be time to bring out the big guns. 

Sit your date down and discuss what your relationship means to them. Are you exclusive? Are you in a committed relationship? Or, are you just seeing where things go? 

Try and reach a mutual understanding about where you stand, and it will make everything feel so much better. It might also reduce the time you spend stalking their social media accounts looking for answers…. And that’s always a plus. 

Remember that if you initiate the talk, it may not always go the way you like it. If someone dances around the questions or dangles commitment issues in your face, this refusal to have a mature conversation is a red flag in your relationship

Even if it feels like the end of the world, and makes you question your self-worth, remember that it’s nothing that you did wrong. Brush yourself off and walk away from the person who doesn’t realize what they have right in front of them and one day, you’ll find the one who does. 

+50k reviews
Start the conversation with your partner!
Download the #1 app for couples to guide you in the process.
petal decoration

Enjoying this article?

A happier relationship starts here.

Question with locked answer