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When Is a Relationship Serious? The Difference Between Dating and a Relationship

Jorge's relationship advice is based on experience and observation. Let his trial and error be your success (hopefully).

What Is a "Serious" Relationship?

If you're dating someone who you really like, it's normal to eventually come to that point where you ask yourself: "What are we?"

This can be an awkward moment between you and your partner, especially if you both want something different from the relationship. Do you want something casual? Or are you looking for something serious?

When is a relationship "serious," though? Where do you draw the line? Well, obviously everyone has a different definition of what this means. Definitions will also vary widely across cultural lines. In modern Western cultures, such as the kind you will find in Europe and the US, a "serious" relationship usually has these traits:

  • The relationship is long-term. The people in the relationship are not expected to part ways suddenly or easily, or at least not without some discussion.
  • It is monogamous. Often by the time the relationship is considered serious, both members of the couple have stopped seeing other people romantically. In the case of people in an open or polyamorous relationship, monogamy doesn't always factor in.
  • Both partners can see a future together. In a serious relationship, people usually can see themselves with their partner a year, two years, five years, or more years down the line.
  • The couple lives together or is planning to live together. Making a household together is a major factor in the modern concept of a serious relationship.
  • The end goal is probably marriage. This isn't always true. Some people are content with being unmarried forever, but most people see marriage as the natural result of a serious relationship.
  • The couple may intend to have children together. For many people, the point of "getting serious" is to settle down and start building a life that can produce children. In fact, this is so common that some people who don't want to have children may have trouble getting into long-term relationships or marriages.

In short, for most people, a serious relationship has to do with the future more than just the present. It is about commitment to the idea that you will stay with this one person for a while and attempt to make a life with them—usually, but not always, with the intention of making a family someday.

A serious relationship often means weathering life's storms together.

A serious relationship often means weathering life's storms together.

The Difference Between "Just Dating" and Being in a Relationship

So how do you know when you're in a relationship or "just dating"? Well, the difference between dating and being in a relationship comes down to the level of commitment between the two people.

If you're just dating or "talking to" someone, usually:

  • You are not entirely monogamous. You might be seeing other people besides this person, and they may be seeing others, too. Even if you are only seeing each other, it might just be incidental. Neither of you has agreed to exclusively date the other.
  • The focus is on getting to know the other person, not making a life with them. You don't really know the other person yet, so all your efforts with them center around having fun in the moment and learning about each other.
  • You don't live together. Unless you happen to be roommates who decided to get romantic, you typically don't live with someone who you're just casually dating.
  • You don't call the other person your "girlfriend" or "boyfriend." If you don't have titles for each other, then you're probably not past the dating phase.
  • You haven't made long-term plans with the person. If you avoid making plans with them even a few months in the future, then you're probably not in a relationship.
  • There's no expectation that you will spend time together. If you see each other whenever you want, but if there's no expectation that you should see each other X days per week or that you should call X times per day, then you are probably not in a relationship.

On the other hand, you're probably "in a relationship" if:

  • You refer to your partner as your "boyfriend" or "girlfriend."
  • You and your partner make plans together for the future. This means there's some sort of commitment between you.
  • You expect to see your partner frequently. This is especially relevant if you've taken steps to see them more often, such as moving in with them.
  • If your partner were to move out of your city, you might move with them. Again, this is a sign of commitment to the other person.
  • You have gotten to know your partner reasonably well and they are well-established in your life.
  • You are talking to each other about marriage.
  • You would have to "break up" before you stopped talking to each other. In other words, there is something between you that would need to formally be addressed if you were to stop hanging out. In a dating situation, this isn't necessarily the case, and people just randomly stop talking sometimes.

Every situation is unique, of course, but these are the basic differences between dating and being in a relationship for most people.

Your Relationship Status

Many people in serious relationships expect to get married.

Many people in serious relationships expect to get married.

Signs That Your Partner Is Ready for a Serious Relationship

Are you ready for a serious relationship, but you're not sure if your partner is? Do you want to transition from a dating arrangement into one that will move you toward a future together?

This is a common concern. Often one of the partners will be more eager to commit than the other, but here are some signs that the person you're seeing might be looking for a more serious relationship:

  • They ask you where the relationship is going. They wouldn't be asking if they didn't want it to go somewhere. People who just want to keep things casual will avoid talk of the future like the plague.
  • They want to define the relationship. If someone wants to know where they stand and they just need to know if you're their girlfriend or boyfriend, then they are looking for something more serious.
  • They ask if you're seeing other people. This is their way of ascertaining how serious you are about them. It's a pretty obvious sign that they want some kind of exclusive relationship.
  • They've stopped dating other people. In the same way, if they are only dating you, it might be because they're trying to make the relationship serious and monogamous.
  • They make plans about your future or refer to your "future kids." Even in a joking context, this can be very telling. They may be imagining the rest of their life with you and wondering what it could be like.
  • They ask if you want to move in together. This is often the first step towards marriage in a modern relationship. If they want to live together, then they are no longer satisfied with casually dating.
  • They are very open about their life with you. Finally, if they include you in a large part of their life, they probably want to have a life together eventually. This can involve them introducing you to their parents, adding you to their wider circle of friends, or spending lots of their free time with you.

Are You Ready for a Serious Relationship?

The question now is: Are you ready for the same thing? If you want a serious relationship and your partner is showing all of these signs, have a talk with them. Sometimes it's important to define these things so that you know you're on the same page.

Just remember that it's perfectly fine to be in a loving relationship without an explicit long-term commitment. This doesn't mean that the relationship is any less real or important. Don't let society define what you're supposed to want—and if you get into a serious relationship, do it because it's your choice.

Being in a relationship often means becoming monogamous or exclusive with each other.

Being in a relationship often means becoming monogamous or exclusive with each other.

Your Relationship Goals

© 2017 Jorge Vamos