How to Know if You're Ready for an Exclusive Relationship

Find out if it's time to take your relationship to the next level.
Valerie Nikolas - The Knot Contributor.
Valerie Nikolas
Valerie Nikolas - The Knot Contributor.
Valerie Nikolas
The Knot Contributor
  • Valerie is a freelance contributor for The Knot Worldwide.
  • In addition to journalistic writing, Valerie also works as a marketing copywriter.
  • Valerie has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
Updated Jan 11, 2022

Modern relationships resemble a meandering choose-your-own-adventure path much more than a straight line from A to B. There are so many unofficial stages of dating, from FWB to flings, "talking" vs. "seeing each other"—and all of them happen with the looming threat of ghosting.

So when does a new romance go from casual dating to an actual relationship? We spoke with Kate Balestrieri, PhD, a licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist and founder of Modern Intimacy, to find out.

What is an exclusive relationship?

While it may look slightly different for every pairing, the definition of an exclusive relationship generally boils down to both individuals deciding to focus only on each other. This is typically the point in time where they have a relationship-defining conversation, delete their dating apps, and agree to stop seeing other people.

"An exclusive relationship is one in which both partners have agreed to channel their energy into dating each other, without the distraction of dating other people," Balestrieri says.

According to Balestrieri, this is the initial step towards a more committed relationship. "Using the term 'exclusive' can indicate the couple is taking monogamy and commitment for a test drive, to see how they feel about taking the next steps toward a more significant commitment."

What are the typical stages of monogamous relationships?

From the first date to lifelong commitment, relationships tend to follow similar paths. There's no set amount of time for each relationship stage, and they vary from couple to couple.

According to Balestrieri, new relationships typically "start with a limerence or romance stage, which indicates high-intensity feelings and lust." In this stage when you first start spending time together, endorphins can take over, giving those new-relationship butterflies and even feelings of being high. This is the stage in which couples typically decide whether they want to take the plunge or not.

These days, not every relationship follows the traditional "date until it's official" route. Situationships, online relationships, and even friends–with or without the benefits–can all end up in a more defined relationship if the feelings and desire are there.

After things are defined, that's typically when the long-term relationship follows. You may meet each other's families at this stage, or finally become Instagram official. "The commitment period is when couples work through power struggles and major differences and get acclimated to a secure life together as each other's primary person in life," says Balestrieri.

If things progress well and the couple establishes long-term commitment, they can get to the renewal phase, which Blestrieri says is when "couples enjoy the security they've established, and renew the spark they have with each other, and grow together, actively choosing each other over and over again."

How do you know if your relationship is ready for the next step?

For these types of things, the old adage is usually true: when you know, you know. Is the thought of hooking up with someone else as unappealing as a Saturday morning at the DMV? Does the thought of your person with someone else make you jealous enough to launch an FBI-level of social media investigation? If so, you might be ready to take your relationship status up a notch.

"It may be time to explore an exclusive relationship if you are spending a lot of time together organically, noticing that you're not all that interested in seeing other people, you've had some challenges and have worked through them together, and you find yourself imagining your future, and seeing a potential place in it for this person, Balestrieri advises.

If you're starting to feel this way about the person you're dating, it may be time to have the "what are we?" conversation. When you do talk with your partner, maintain an open dialogue about beliefs and expectations to set yourselves up for success.

Ready for something more, but not sold on the idea of monogamy? That's totally fine too.

"If you are not ready for an exclusive relationship, or find yourself wanting to explore consensual non-monogamy or a polyamorous relationship, there's no need to fit yourself into a box that doesn't fit," says Balestrieri. "Stay honest with yourself and anyone you're seeing, and communicate with your partner(s), so everyone involved can make an informed decision about how best to move forward."

Defining your relationship may feel a little clumsy at first, but try to enjoy this phase. New beginnings are an exciting time where feelings are strong and the possibilities are endless.

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