Not sure how to label your status with a person you’ve been hanging out with? You’re not alone. The gray area before you agree to become a couple is fraught with semantic uncertainty, and figuring out where you stand can create enough insecurity to drive you insane. While there’s no magic definition for either word, there are a few key differences. Here’s how dating is different from being in a relationship.
You’ve talked about it.
Before you can declare to other people that you’re in a relationship, you need to be on the same page as your partner. “Relationship” isn’t the most specific word (it could refer to friends-with-benefits, marriage, and everything in between), but it is an intentional arrangement. In contrast, you can say you’re dating someone without discussing it with them. If you’re going out together, you’re dating, whether you’re two dates in or 200.
Dating comes before a relationship.
When you’ve been dating someone for a while, you can probably assume that the two of you are in a relationship even if you haven’t discussed it directly. You can’t however, start a relationship the moment you meet someone and then decide weeks later that you want to date. Dating is a necessary first step on the path to a relationship. This is probably the distinction between the two that is easiest to grasp.
Relationships come with more clarity.
Dating is a vague term that occurs throughout multiple stages of coupledom. It runs the gamut from casual, non-exclusive hooking up to a fully committed partnership. When you’re in a relationship, you’re on more solid ground. It implies that the two of you are a unit, even if you’re not exclusive. If you say you’re “dating,” it sounds intentionally ambiguous and implies that you’re obscuring the specific nature of your situation.
You’re in agreement when you’re actually together.
Dating more than one person at a time is much more common than being in a relationship with more than one person at a time because there is no commitment involved. Once you define your relationship, you and your partner will decide whether you want exclusivity. You don’t have the luxury of mutually agreed terms with dating. Each person gets to make their own rules about their conduct.
Dating gives you independence, a relationship gives you commitment.
Dating is all about freedom, experimentation, and fun. You can meet whoever you want and go on dates with anyone you want and are unencumbered by expectations or obligations. When you’re in a relationship, however, you have chosen to link yourself with another person and are therefore not free to do whatever you want. With this commitment comes stability, companionship, and, hopefully, trust.
Consider the timeline.
You can say you’re “dating” after a single date. But unless it was a really intense, fast-tracked introduction, you can’t call it a relationship. Depending on your pace and personal circumstances, it can take weeks or even months of dating before a relationship forms. There is no template for how long this takes, but it isn’t instantaneous. You’ll be dating a person for a while before you’re in a relationship with them.
Dating is something you do, a relationship is something you create.
If you want to get grammatical about it, you’ll notice that dating is a verb and relationship is a noun. That indicates that dating is an action that the two of you engage in together, while a relationship is a separate entity. You create the relationship, but once it’s there, it exists in its own right. Because of that, a relationship is much more solid and requires effort and intention to maintain. A relationship carries responsibilities that dating does not.
The “L” word plays a part.
If you’re saying “I love you” to each other, you’re definitely in a relationship. Even if you haven’t had the DTR talk, a declaration of love is a way of defining the relationship in itself. Dating implies a lack of certainty or commitment. Love, on the other hand, is unambiguous. Any relationship that contains love is not a casual one.
Dating is about the present, a relationship is about the future.
When you’re dating someone, you take every day as it comes. If you have a good date, you’ll probably have another one, but there is no expectation that the situation will continue indefinitely. It lasts as far into the future as the next date. When you’re in a relationship, however, you are making an unspoken agreement to be together unless something changes.
As long as you know the situation, words don’t matter.
If you’re driving yourself crazy trying to figure out what a person means when they say they’re “dating” vs. saying they’re “in a relationship,” searching for ironclad definitions probably won’t help you. The important thing is to know where you stand with the person you’re with, even if you aren’t sure what lingo applies. As long as you and your partner have clarity, universally accepted definitions are irrelevant.
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