Dating vs Relationship: Know the Difference

Published 11/03/2021

What are we? Partners often dread having the DTR (define the relationship) talk for fear their intentions may not be reciprocated. Navigating expectations around casual dating, exclusive dating, and committed relationships can cause stress regardless if a person is new too dating or experienced and ready to seek marriage. This blog covers the main distinctions between dating and relationships to support you with identifying what you are looking for and what it would look like to move onto the next stage.

Casually dating means no strings attached

Couples in this stage focus on getting to know each other, having fun, and spending time together through planned dates. Physical intimacy may or may not be present at this level, but the emotional connection is not as profound compared to a relationship. Most often, there are no expectations beyond planning future dates, which means people may date multiple people at the same time and be hesitant about sharing more personal details due to a lower level of comfort. Overall, casual dating offers companionship without the promise of a long-term partnership.

What’s the difference between casual dating vs a committed relationship?

A serious relationship can include exclusivity, mutual commitment, deeper communication, increased expectations like prioritizing your partner. However, there can be some overlap between casual and committed relationships based on personal values and personalities. For example, dating can also include deep discussions, and some relationships may choose to not be exclusive under mutual agreement. In addition, a formal relationship may focus on building a shared future and connecting with increased vulnerability, vs dating that tends to focus on the present and dates as the main method of connection.

How is exclusive dating different from a committed relationship?

Some people may move from casual dating to dating exclusively once they decide they enjoy the connection with the one person and dating others becomes less appealing. When exclusively dating, people may continue to focus on a short-term investment while continuing to learn more about themselves in relation to the other person and determine whether there is potential for a further commitment or the development of sincere love for the person. In addition, there may still be a greater level of independence that both parties experience in comparison to increased unity and higher prioritization that a relationship may require. This stage may feel experimental as you learn about each other and can at times contribute to stress or anxiety due to the uncertainty of where the relationship may go.

Being a committed relationship means both partners are on the same page

Outlining mutual expectations can help build a healthy relationship. People may align through having a conversation to define the relationship or find themselves here through gradually developing mutual increased trust, comfort, and commitment to maintain the relationship. Both partners may now make greater investments to increase emotional intimacy via compliments, deeper conversations, reassurance, and trust. Consider how different definitions of dating vs relationships can impact the level of investment and talk about it with your partner to get on the same page and know what to expect from each other.

Barriers to being on the same page may include dating experience, attachment styles, personal goals, and insecurities. This means that if you find your partner is not reciprocating, it may not be personal and they may desire to take that next step to increase commitment but struggle with overcoming these factors. Seeking professional support from an individual or relationship counselor could be beneficial in cases such as these.

Differences in a relationship vs dating

A difference between dating and a relationship with long-term goals includes certain expectations that reflect the level of commitment and maintain the relationship. These expectations are mutual and partners may agree to prioritize each other over other matters including friends and family. Moreover, willingness to take risks that deepen connection and increase vulnerability may be needed when building a real relationship and sharing your life with another.

Mutual trust of each other

Trust can include relying on the other, maintaining exclusivity, or being comfortable with expressing your true self around them as you would with close friends and family. This trust also conveys respect towards the other and the shared knowledge that you both are willingly choosing to be in the relationship together despite risk. This may lead to identifying their partner as their best friend or go-to person in times of trouble. Trust also allows for increased vulnerability and space to be your true self with less anxiety that they will leave if you show your true colors.

When your relationship status is “just dating”, you may still be getting to know the other person and feel self-conscious about showing your true self. The level of trust here may be lower and revolve around expectations to just have fun and be present during dates. There may be stress or anxiety around the ability to show your “raw” self, however, the risk may be low as the level of commitment and investment is lower at this stage.

Mutual commitment to each other

A long-term relationship commits to a sharing lives together whether that involves talks about planning for marriage or just about maintaining and making the relationship stronger as you align your worlds. However, mutual commitment does not mean you have to just be in a relationship with one person. This may also involve exploring each other’s feelings about exclusivity or consensual non-monogamy within a committed relationship. Building a polyamorous or open-relationship may require more honest and deeper communication than you would find in a casual relationship in order to preserve the commitment to the primary or all partners.

When casually dating, you may not commit to only dating that person and other dating prospects may be more appealing. Commitment may be more present focused or short-term centered around planning dates and enjoyable moments together without exploring intimate details about each other or considering the other as a long-term partner.

Mutual expectations of one another

Given the decision to increase trust and commitment to the other, shared expectations can help partners maintain the relationship and work towards a shared future. These expectations may also consider how much of a role each other will play when interacting with friends and family, how to spend time together, or what it would take to construct a life together.

A major difference in dating vs relationship is that expectations may be low in the first few months as you get to know each other and explore if they are the right person or if they are after the same thing as you. Outlining personal expectations for dating in casual relationships as early as the first date can be significant to avoid one partner being confused about intentions including desires to continue dating other people as you get to know each other. Of course, these expectations can shift as you identify whether you would like to move into a more serious relationship with the dating partner.

You are each other’s main priority

A main difference between a dating and a long-term relationship is prioritizing the relationship and your partner. Prioritizing can demand greater effort, patience, and consideration as a person works to incorporate their partner in their life. At this point, getting to know your partner may involve understanding their habits and preferences by building “love maps” and creating greater space for respect and consideration of the other person’s needs.

Before stepping into relationship territory, folks may prioritize family, friends, or career and there may be a larger proportion of focus on “me” rather than “we.” A person dating may also date other people or look for a connection without plans to build a life together, which can impact the amount of prioritization they can offer the other person. Talking about these preferences early on can help one realize if the other person is right for them as people’s desire for closeness and availability can vary.

Common signs that you’re probably just dating

To summarize, the following are common signs of a dating relationship . Most people will focus on their independent needs rather than relationship needs and on engaging in the present rather than working towards a shared future. This focus creates a common theme around these signs.

  1. May be dating others or considering other people as potential partners.
  2. Spending more time apart than together.
  3. Difficulty showing your true self around them.
  4. Low emotional intimacy or vulnerability.
  5. Other items are higher priority than the relationship.

Additionally, not everyone that dates is seeking a long-term relationship, whether that’s due to personality, past history, or present stressors. On the other hand, folks may not be interested in marriage but wish for an exclusive relationship with romance and intimacy. Finally, the dating process can help determine whether you are compatible and align based on the amount of willingness to focus on mutual needs and work towards a shared future.

Common signs that you’re in a relationship

In contrast, the following items may indicate that you are in a relationship rather than just dating. These signs share a theme of consideration for a shared future and maintenance of the relationship.

  1. Decreased interest or no interest in dating others.
  2. Increased consideration when making plans.
  3. Spending more time together than apart.
  4. Increased emotional intimacy.
  5. Taking steps to a shared future together.

When entering relationship territory, conversations may start to shift to consider shared future and long-term goals. You may not need to make actual plans to spend time together anymore and can feel comfortable mundane or routine tasks together. Here is where you no longer find interest in others and have a companion that you know has your back and provides space to be yourself. These signs paired with reciprocity can lead to a long-lasting relationship.

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Laura Richer, Seattle Therapist

Laura Richer is a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and coach. Located in the Queen Ann neighborhood of Seattle, she is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been practicing in the state of Washington since 2011.

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