Describe going from "date" to "relationship"
April 9, 2014 5:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm a guy in his thirties who has never been in a romantic relationship. I've been dating through OKCupid for a while, without too much success, and I think one of the reasons is that I just don't have a model of how you go from "first date" to "exclusive relationship involving emotional commitment". Hollywood love stories are no help, and I have no real-life experience, even at second hand, of how this tends to happen. I think it would help me to read some concrete descriptions of various paths this transition can take.

Ideally, what I feel would be most helpful is if I could read a bunch of fairly detailed real-world accounts of how this process can happen. Help me out, green! MeFites who've gone from casual dating to a relationship, what were the milestones that felt significant, and at what point did they take place? Alternatively, can you point me to any real-life descriptions/memoirs/interviews/etc. that might be helpful? I'm mostly interested in concrete, external accounts of events: less "I woke up one morning and knew that he was the one", and more "after X happened, I felt we weren't just casually dating anymore".

I don't want to describe my specific difficulties in too much detail because I don't want this to be an advice thread. What I'm having immediate trouble with is how to get beyond "here we are having drinks and chatting, this is nice but for all anyone knows we could just be two friends hanging out" to "oh, this is now definitely a romantic situation". But I think part of my difficulty is that I also don't have a model of the next steps beyond that (since the latter obviously doesn't equal "we're in a relationship", which is my goal). So I'm interested in all stages of the process and in all forms it can take. Obviously accounts whose starting point is online dating (or a similar date-with-a-near-stranger situation) would be most useful.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
You are missing the "status of relationship" talk. After you have been dating for a while, someone says something like - "Hey, I think your neat. And I feel really strongly about you / love you / would feel lost without you." And then the other person says something like "Me too", or "ditto" or wants to talk about it for a long time about what a relationship means to them. This talk is the key to starting a real romantic relationship. The journey here and afterwards will look very different for everyone - but I think this is the one thing that every romantic relationship starts with.
posted by Brent Parker at 5:17 PM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

So, I am in a relatively new relationship, and we met on OKCupid. I'm around your age, he's a bit older. I hereby offer myself up as a case study.

Online: I sent him the first message. We messaged back and forth slightly longer than usual because he happened to be out of town when I messaged him initially. I forget who actually asked who for that formal OFFICIALLY A DATE meeting.

First Date: I actually asked an AskMe about this, prior to the actual date. Because yeah. Upshot - first date was casual and kind of all over the place. I was pretty sure the dude was never going to speak to me again. (I cannot offer up anything about his thought process.)

Second Date: BUT HE DID, YAY! After the extremely by the book 3 days, he asked me out again. I wanted to kick things up a notch, because drinks can be not a great indicator of who you really are and whether you're compatible. So I suggested a coffee shop that has a bunch of board games. We played Ticket To Ride. It was delightful. Then we went around the corner to a bar, which felt like a good omen. There was a "walk you to your car" makeout. I think the transition you're talking about happened here. I really do credit an activity date with breaking the ice a bit, and the second venue was also key because it communicated "I like you and want to keep hanging out for more than just a cup of coffee and a brownie." Also, the eventual bar meant we could get lubricated enough that kissing wasn't a terrifying proposition.

Third Date: Pretty much right after that (same weekend, even?), he invited me to go hiking. So we did that. It was pretty clearly a date type of hike, by this point, and there were no illusions about where we were headed.

Fourth Date: I felt like the ball was in my court at this point, and was worried that we were NEVER going to have sex. So I invited him to a taqueria near my place, with the intent of seducing him.

Fifth Date: This may have been the same weekend as Date 4, or possibly the following weekend. We have known each other maybe two weeks total by this point. I went to see a performance he was in. Lots of flirting and generally making it known that we like each other and want to be seeing more of each other.

Fifth Date: This fell on Valentine's Day, but by this point we really wanted to see each other and were past caring about The Big Valentine's Day Early Dating Dramazzzz. I sort of feel like this was when we drifted from numbered dates and getting to know each other into more of an early relationship kind of thing, where we were on the level of just assuming it was OK to hang out whenever and stopped needing organized dates as an excuse to see each other. On this date, he cooked me dinner and we rented a video from a bricks and mortar video store, which was not something I realized you could still do. If you must know.

It was another month or so before we had the Exclusivity Talk.
posted by Sara C. at 5:36 PM on April 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

I teach interpersonal communication at a college, and we cover the typical relationship stages. Admittedly, these are broad strokes, but here's what I give my students.

1) The initiating stage. You meet, or you exchange messages online. You learn each others' names and a bit about one another. If things seem promising, you make plans to go out, leading to...

2) The exploratory stage. You are spending time together, and trying to see what you have in common. This stage done well has good conversations about interests, experiences, perspectives and future hopes. You start figuring out if your are a good match. Do you like spending time together? Do you "get" each other? Is there some physical attraction? ("Some" is the key--that can grow as you become closer emotionally. But a lot of attraction is good, too, of course.) This stage might last four dates, it might last four months, depending on your temperaments. In the latter stages, you are definitely moving into romance. How do you know it is becoming romantic? You kiss.

[Okay, side note: I didn't date seriously until my mid-20's and I know that the friendship-to-romance transition seems mysterious. It doesn't have to be. If you met through OKCupid, she--for convenience, I'll assume it's a she--she wants a romantic relationship. If she's having multiple dates with you, she thinks you are a decent candidate for one. By the end of date three, seize an opportune moment and lean in close to kiss her. Chances are, she'll kiss you back, and then you are off and running. If she doesn't kiss back or it gets all awkward, then you know something else.

Honestly, I'm a big fan of just asking sometimes what is going on. If you try the kiss and it doesn't seem to work, I would just say "I really like you and I felt like this was a romantic moment. Did I misread things? Or is my timing just bad?" That doesn't work for everyone, but I would rather just be adults and get things straight. Don't ask up front, though. Try the kiss first.]

Assuming you are enjoying each other and things are getting romantic:

3) The intensifying phase. Keep doing what you are doing, but more of it. As you spend more time together, you'll find that you start checking with the other person before making plans. You start assuming that you will be with each other during free time. You start referring to the other person as your S.O. or boyfriend/girlfriend to other people, because it seems like that is where you are. You stop dating other people or looking for other dates. You might talk about that together; it might just happen organically. Depending on your temperament and morals, this is usually where the sex begins, but I can't tell you a lot about that, because my wife and I were super conservative Christians and we waited until our wedding night. (Yes, believe it--that is a true thing.)

The intensifying phase could last a long time. At some point, you will either discover problems that lead to a break up or you will want to make this permanent. If you move toward permanence, you are in the:

4) Bonding stage. You are now a couple! Congratulations! You get engaged/married, or move in together, or both. You merge your stuff and it becomes less "yours and theirs" and more "ours." You have arrived. Yay!

Cliff's Notes version: The sign you have left the initiating stage is the first date. You date for a while; that is the exploratory phase. If you feel a connection and start kissing (at least) you are moving into the intensification phase. If you start assuming the other person is going to be involved with your free time, and thinking of yourselves as boyfriend/girlfriend, you are moving in the direction of the bonding phase. You fully arrive there when you move in/get engaged/get married.

There are some stages after bonding, but that isn't important right now. Email me when you get married and I'll fill you in.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:37 PM on April 9, 2014 [16 favorites]

But I think part of my difficulty is that I also don't have a model of the next steps beyond that

I have, in the past, said after a few weeks, "Hey, so I really like you, and don't really have any interest in dating anyone else. I don't know how you'd feel about being exclusive, but if you're into that, I would be too!" And then if asked for clarification: "I am asking you to go steady with me."

I have heard responses to this ranging from "WOW YES," in which case my response is "HECK YES, NICE", to "Wow... I guess I'd have to think about that?" in which case my response is "okay, feel free to take your time." Both pathways have led to cool functional relationships.

As far as earlier in the courtship process, I tend to be similarly direct: "Hey, you seem completely great. I'd like to see you again soon" at the end of the first date if I'm interested. If her response sounds enthusiastic, I would then follow up with a text or email the next day. If she seems to react like I just asked her to eat a clump of grass, I would wait for her to respond next, so she can decide whether she's even interested.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:16 PM on April 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

We met online; he messaged me, we chatted online two or three times, then met for dinner. We had pretty regular dates for a month or two---dinner or coffee once or twice a week, plus spending most of the weekend together.

At some point after that, we were having lunch at a cute little coffee shop one weekend when he took my hand in his and said that he would like to become exclusive and we should both take our profiles down.

Other significant points in the process, in roughly the order they occurred:

- Me having him over for a dinner I cooked
- A weekend away together
- Meeting a friend or family member of the other person
- Meeting the parents of the other person
posted by JoannaC at 6:16 PM on April 9, 2014

If you're just hanging out in a way that seems platonic, it seems like you're missing a key step of flirting and physical contact. For me the process is usually: 1) Meet someone and feel a spark of interest; 2) Flirt back and forth so we can both figure out how interested we are, at the same time as we're learning more about how compatible we are; 3) Someone initiates something physical-- a touch, and later, a kiss; 4) More of steps 2 and 3; 5) Sex, sleepovers at each others' apartments; 6) More of step 2, all of this time; 7) Meeting friends and family; 8) The exclusivity talk.
posted by three_red_balloons at 6:26 PM on April 9, 2014

I've been very fortunate in that all my relationships have been the result of a cascade of "holy crap, this is so awesome!". I meet a guy, or see a former classmate I haven't seen in a while, and we're out somewhere, we're having a great time, and wow I can't wait to do that again, so hey there we are out somewhere again, and there's kissing and we call and email without waiting for the polite 3 days to pass, and there's nothing more interesting I can think of doing than spending time with that person. And so the "are we dating" talk never happened, because duh, I wouldn't have time to be non-exclusive because we're very involved.

I also spent a year or so doing online dating, and while seveal of those led to pleasant dates, there was no relationship there. Most of those dates went pretty well, several had second dates and/or kissing; of those with kissing, one had a "whoops, why did I do that?!" morning after, and one had a couple more dates that were fun but not really inspiring. One led to a 2-3 month relationship that was only somewhat exclusive, and ended pretty abruptly.

Basically, all the good relationships I've been in have started with an avalanche of having both of us very enthusiastic about moving the relationship forward. I've also had some okay relationships that were the more formalized dating model, but in general, if the first couple of dates didn't feel certain, if there was enough question that it wasn't obvious that I should call him (and he'd be delighted to hear from me, and one of us would rearrange plans so we could meet up in the next couple of days), then I was kind of open for giving another date or two to see if there was any improvement, but had basically no interest in trying to make something happen if the fuse didn't light.
posted by aimedwander at 6:35 PM on April 9, 2014

For me, the sex is a good indicator. There is a difference between good "hehehe aren't we having fun?' sex and good "YOU ARE MY LOVER WE ARE LOVING EACH OTHER NOW" sex. After two or three instances of the latter, its exclusivity talk time.
posted by vrakatar at 6:54 PM on April 9, 2014 [8 favorites]

I've done a lot of internet dating, and I feel that unless the other person says from the outset they want a relationship or you have a relationship-status talk, you should assume it's not serious (and they're probably seeing other people).

For internet dating, it's way too easy to do the slow fade or disappearing act after a few weeks/months/whatever even if it seems it's going well. Not that everyone is looking to do this or evenly consciously does it, but when your social circles and lives have zero overlap other than a few dates it's real easy to be like 'meh' and move on to the next date or go out of town and forget about it or whatever. There's no consequences really, because your friends won't call you out on it and you'll most likely never see that person in your daily routine. Again, not that people do this on purpose, it's just sort of the nature of online dating.

Unless of course, you follow the advice above and tell your partner what you want and what you're feeling. This is how adults do relationships.

For me, my partner and I dated for like a year after meeting on OKC before we had 'the talk'. Neither of us wanted a relationship, which was clear from the outset. My friends would say 'how's your girlfriend?' And id say 'oh she's just some girl I'm hanging out with'. We both saw other people. It wasn't a big deal, but we were both obviously super into each other and traveled together, etc. even though we both would deny being a 'couple' if pressed.

Until of course we sat down and said 'hey let's do this for real, I love you.'

There is no script or one size fits all narrative. I've been with her for 3+ years, and now we are long distance because of grad school. Which isn't a big deal, because we talk about these things and define our relationship with what works for us together, not what a boy/girlfriend is 'supposed' to or by other peoples expectations. Reading the above expectations or stages of relationships from a conservative perspective is meaningless to me. What do you want? Why make the other person guess or base it off unwritten rules about sex? Just say it out loud and go from there.
posted by bradbane at 6:57 PM on April 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

The initiation part can be awkward. After 3-4 chummy dates my then-bf now-hubby went in for a quick kiss at the end of a date. We were both shy and it was awkward! But it made his feelings really clear and cleared up any "uh, are we friends?" thoughts. And then maybe six weeks into dating he brought up the exclusive thing. Again, it felt awkward! We were just hanging out! But it let me know that he was really into it. We still laugh about how awkward both of those things were!

If you're the kind of person who is not overly flirtatious and is more friend-like on dates, it's hard to switch gears at first... and as a guy you are unfortunately saddled with more of the cultural expectation to act. [Hubby and I have an equitable relationship but at the beginning it was definitely pretty gender-normative, I'm realizing in writing this comment.] I really think just sucking it up and embracing the awkward will serve you well. Be short and sweet - "You are a really awesome person and I have loved getting to know you so far. I'd like to date exclusively, how do you feel about that?" Don't worry about being smooth! If they're truly compatible, they will be all about it.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 7:46 PM on April 9, 2014

I'm a guy in his thirties who has never been in a romantic relationship. I've been dating through OKCupid for a while, without too much success, and I think one of the reasons is that I just don't have a model of how you go from "first date" to "exclusive relationship involving emotional commitment".

Maybe my experience with Ok Cupid was unusual, but women, especially women in their thirties, that you meet on that site can be pretty forward, even if you're shy or awkward (maybe especially if you are). I'm guessing if you're having trouble negotiating to the 'in a relationship' part, you aren't making a great impression. They're on there to meet a guy, and if they like you, they will let you know. Maybe be a little bit honest on date 2 (probably not date 1) about your dating inexperience, which will let them know that it's okay to take the lead.
posted by empath at 9:05 PM on April 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are having trouble distinguishing a date from a just-friends get together, then I think you need to practice flirting more. It took me a long time to learn this, because I can be terribly oblivious, but if someone is getting into your physical space and there is no external factors forcing them to be there (for example, they are sitting very close to you in a totally empty restaurant at a big table, and they keep touching your hand, your arm, or your knee, or they keep nudging you with their shoulder, making physical contact somehow), then they are attracted to you.

Likewise, if you are sitting politely across from her at a coffee shop, and and you don't reach out and touch her arm when you are excited to say something (or for any other reason), and when you get up and walk somewhere, you keep at least a foot and a half of space between you two, and you never let your arm brush hers while you are walking and gesturing, and when you say goodbye, you reach out to shake hands, then no matter how much you like that girl, she is going to go home and be pretty convinced that you aren't interested in her that way at all, and so--particularly if you are internet dating--she may decide to just cut her losses and bail, even if she thought you were attractive and interesting.

I would say work on the flirting part. In my experience, getting better at flirting makes a lot of the stuff that seems complicated and mysterious right now a lot simpler. Here are some other aids: The SIRC Guide to Flirting and a good AskMetafilter question: Remedial Macking.
posted by colfax at 1:46 AM on April 10, 2014 [4 favorites]

I like to do the exclusivity/relationship before the sex. Maybe you do too, which can make things a bit awkward sometimes. You're going to have to explicitly say "I want to date only you" to get this going.

Prior to that? Well, here's how it went for me:

Date 1/Pre-date: We met up at a coffee shop. I meant it to be a meetup, he meant it to be a date. We ended up talking for 4 hours and I completely lost track of time (Indicator #1).

Date 2: We wanted to go hiking, but it rained. So we went out to dinner instead. I noticed he smelled really, really good as we were walking back to our cars (Indicator #2).

Date 3: I went over to his house to watch bad movies. We cuddled on the couch and kissed (Indicator #3).

At this point I was pretty sure that I wanted to try a relationship with him. I basically stopped looking at OKCupid.

Date 4: We actually went hiking.

Date 5: I went to see his show. Afterwards we went back to his place and talked/made out (Indicator #4).

Date 6: He came over to my place and I took him to a really good restaurant in town. We went back to my place and made out.

I knew where this was going so I asked him, "Are we seeing other people?" His response was, "I have no desire to do that."

Date 7: A quick coffee date in the middle of the day.

Date 8: Sex (Indicator #5).

I hear tell that this is slow compared to a lot of people, but it felt right to me. From date 1 to date 8 it was about a month and a half. The noted indicators were what led me to think, yes, relationship, instead of, oh, coffee.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:45 AM on April 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

I've been married since 1972, and if there is anything I've learned that could help you is that all the things you are nervous talking about CAN be talked about, but the longer you wait, the harder it gets.

Someone mentioned THE TALK. It's a real, common thing, but if it doesn't happen until one party is desperately in love, there is danger of heartbreak. Better to do it earlier.

Another social skill is to be preemptive. Right at the first date, or even before online, ask the same question you asked here. It's a topic of mutual interest. Quite likely, she'll give you a hint ("I know a guy is getting serious when he asks if he can go to the ballet with me.") on how to signal a deepening interest.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:59 AM on April 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

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