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Dating vs. Relationships: Which Is Right for You?

Head and shoulders photograph of Suzannah Weiss
A man and woman sitting at a table having a good conversation
Many people think of dating and relationships as synonymous, but there is a difference between dating and being in a relationship. If you can figure out which is best for you, you can avoid getting involved with someone who isn't looking for the same thing as you.

Dating, and particularly online dating can be fun, and a great way of putting yourself out there. But is dating a relationship? Sometimes. People in relationships often still go on dates with their partners, and this is often recommended as a way to help keep both people in the relationship happy.

Dating often leads to a relationship, but it doesn't have to. People can go on dates for as long as they'd like without becoming serious if neither of them wants to. After all, there really are no rules. That said, here are a few things to think about.

Can You Date Someone Without Being in a Relationship?

Being in a relationship means different things to different people. To some, it means that you both stop dating other people, yet many people in non-monogamous relationships consider themselves to be in a relationship even if they are dating other people.

Being in a relationship can also mean using terms like "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" to refer to each other, expecting to see each other regularly, and becoming involved in many aspects of each other's lives.

Most definitions of a relationship allow you to date someone without being in one. For example, you might go out with someone regularly, sleep with them, and spend a lot of time together and still not call this person your partner. You both might also still date other people.

You might even decide to become exclusive but not commit to the level of involvement in each other's lives that a relationship entails. You also might date to get into a relationship but not be at that point yet.

How Does Dating and Being in a Relationship Differ?

For many people, dating is what you do in the early stages of meeting someone, perhaps using an app like Zoosk or OurTime, before deciding whether you want to be in a relationship with them. This stage may only last for a date or two for some people. For others, it could last months or even years.

Others date without the intention of ever getting into a relationship. Maybe they've consciously chosen to be single and work on themselves before looking for long-term love. There are also some people who identify as solo poly. This means their primary relationship is with themselves, and they're not looking for a serious relationship with another person.

Dating without a relationship is known as casual dating. Sometimes, people engage in casual dating with one or more people primarily for sexual reasons. For others, it's more about companionship.

When to Move From Dating to a Relationship

Whether you're looking to be in a relationship or stick to casual dating, you should write what you're looking for in your online dating profile. This way, you'll avoid situations where one person who isn't seeking anything serious unknowingly strings the other along. In general, it's good to put as much information about yourself and what you're seeking on your profile as possible so that instead of snooping around on dating background check sites, your potential partners can judge whether you're a good match right away.

If you're dating to get into a relationship, you should find out what the other person is looking for early to make sure your desires match. Even if you're not sure whether you're compatible, it helps to know you're at least looking for the same kind of relationship.

There are no rules for when people should move from casually dating to being in a relationship, but a few signs that you're ready are:

  • You've been meeting other people and exploring what's out there, and you feel confident that one particular person is the best fit for you.
  • You've been spending increasing amounts of time together and don't seem to run out of things to talk about. You're constantly learning new things from each other, and the time you spend together is exciting.
  • They can stay calm and collected during stressful moments and may have even helped you through your problems. You feel confident they'd be able to support you through life's challenging times if you were in a relationship.
  • There hasn't been any drama between you two, and both of you can handle the complexities of relationships like mature adults.
  • You are starting to feel love or something like it, and they seem to be feeling the same way.

Entering a new relationship is extremely exciting, especially if you haven't been in one in a while, but don't rush to make it official until the above criteria are met. Once you have some certainty about wanting this person to be a part of your life, you can start a conversation about this by letting them know how you feel.

Depending on what being in a relationship means to you, you can tell them, "I've enjoyed spending time with you so much. I'm not finding myself wanting to date anyone else" or, "We've been getting to know each other for a long time, and you're starting to feel like a partner to me. I was curious whether you've been feeling that way yourself."

Don't make assumptions about how they will respond. Not everyone gets into relationships at the same pace. If they have feelings for you but aren't yet ready to commit, you shouldn't necessarily brush them off. Give them the time to find their own answers, and you may find yourselves on the same page.

If they are on the same page as you, that's something to celebrate! You will still need to figure out what exactly being in a relationship together looks like, so make sure to continue having open discussions about what each of you wants out of your connection, or you could use a relationship app for couples to strengthen your connection.

Head and shoulders photograph of Suzannah Weiss
Suzannah Weiss is a feminist writer, certified sex educator, and Brown University graduate in Cognitive Neuroscience and Gender and Sexuality Studies. In addition to writing for Top10.com, Suzannah written for major publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan. Weiss' writing about feminist issues and sexuality has also been discussed on The Today Show, The View, and C-SPAN.