What’s the Difference Between Dating and Being in a Relationship?

Are you dating? In a relationship?

It’s quite difficult to answer these questions if, in the first place, you are not sure of the differences between them.

To shed light upon this matter, we rounded up six experts who shared their thoughts on the differences between dating and being in a relationship.

Dr. Nancy Lee

Nancy Lee

Clinical Psychologist | Author, Don’t Sleep with Him Yet: A Badass Guide
to Dating in 10 Empowering Steps

The intention along with the trajectory

The difference between dating and being in a relationship comes down to intention along with the trajectory. Specifically, dating is all about getting to know someone romantically, while being in a relationship means that dating partners have already committed to one another and intend to (hopefully) cultivate their connection—at least for the time being.

Related: How Do You Know If You Like Someone Romantically

Problems with dating, especially, arise when partners are not straight with each other about their intentions or are altogether duplicitous (think: players). Some people might date purely for sex, while others may date with the goal of actually finding a serious, committed relationship.

Interestingly, a 2008 OkCupid survey of its members found that 55 percent of men and 29 percent of women would date someone just for sex; remarkably, in 2017, those numbers dropped to 44 percent and 19 percent, respectively.

Those survey statistics suggest a recent trend toward “serious” dating versus casual, hookup-ish dating—for both sexes. As confirmation, even the dating app Hinge was relaunched in October 2016 as, “the relationship app!”

This brings out another important point, that is, there is often a considerable area of overlap between dating and being in a relationship.

So you and your bae may be dating and be in a relationship because you are still getting to know one other in a romantic sense.

Usually, the word “dating” stops applying to partners in a relationship who are living together.

At this point, they’re considered instead to be “cohabitating.”

Unsurprising to anyone who’s been burned in love, although generally not as muted and muddy as in dating, intention can even be problematic in relationships. For instance, dedication is psychologically defined as a strong desire to continue a relationship into the future.

Relationships, where one partner is much more dedicated than the other, can be especially complicated—not to mention heartbreaking. As evidence of this, I see far too many guilt-ridden men in therapy who’ve agreed to be exclusive with a woman while simultaneously worrying about and planning how they’re going to break up with her.

Finally, know that just because you’re sleeping with someone doesn’t mean you’re in a relationship.

Similarly, sex won’t transform a relationship into something that it’s not. To confuse matters even further, note that most recent Bachelorette reality show contestant Hannah Brown broke off her engagement to Jed Wyatt when back-home ex Haley Stevens proclaimed (via People magazine) that she and Jed were still in a relationship.

Even so, Jed tried to weasel out of his predicament by stating that although he and Haley had been sleeping together just before his coming on The Bachelorette, they hadn’t actually been dating. (Dude, if you’re sleeping with her, guess what? You’re dating!).

David Strah

David Strah

Los Angeles Licensed Psychotherapist | Relationship Coach | Co-Author, Gay Dads:
A Celebration of Fatherhood

The difference between dating and being in a relationship is several things:

Dating is a fact-finding mission

It is a series of interviews. Your charge is to learn about the other person and discover if you are compatible if you share values and interests, and if you are sexually attracted to the person, how you feel when you are together and apart. There is no or less commitment to dating.

Dating is usually a shorter period; being in a relationship can go on infinitely

When we date, we try to present our best selves. We imagine and fantasize about what life would be like together, living together and maybe even married and having children.

Related: How Do You Know When to Move in Together

Being in a relationship usually involves a higher level of commitment

You are no longer looking for someone else because an attachment has formed. You have agreed upon certain things – being (sexually) exclusive, Saturday evenings is your shared time, or “couple bubble” you support one another, and you both bring something to the mutually beneficial relationship.

In a relationship, we can be ourselves

When we are in a relationship, because we have established some trust, and there is a feeling of emotional safety, we can be ourselves. Conflicts arise and (wonderfully) because there is emotional safety, past wounds can be healed.

Being in a relationship means there is a third entity now – the relationship

Ideally, things are done in service to having a healthy relationship instead of doing things for purely selfish/self-gratifying reasons. This means making compromises, doing things we don’t always want to do, being available mentally, emotionally, physically, and sexually.

Veronica Grant

Veronica Grant

Love and Life Coach

It all comes down a bit to semantics, but mostly communication

I frequently will say, “when my husband and I were dating,” and I’m referring pre-marriage. But, we were in a serious relationship for years before we got married.

When it comes to talking about a current relationship, it comes down to communication. Some people may think that the term “dating” means it’s not serious; it’s non-committal and not exclusive. I’d say that’s the standard definition, but by no means universal.

Being in a relationship general refers to a committed relationship

A committed relationship is when you make decisions together, big and small. Being clear for yourself and with your partner is key. That being said, we’re always in a relationship with everyone and everything. Even if someone is “just dating” someone, they’re still in a relationship with that person. Because of that, there must be consideration for the other person’s time, energy, and emotions.

Being in a relationship with someone affects your time, energy, and emotions

Even if you’re “just dating,” that still has to be important otherwise toxic, codependent, or otherwise unhealthy behaviors and patterns can emerge.

Stephanie Thoma

Stephanie Thoma

The Confident Introvert Coach

Dating is the activity, and the relationship is the label

When you’re dating someone, you’re actively going out into the world to engage in activities like hiking or sharing food, beverage, or conversation, getting to know one another.

When you’re dating, you can play the field and date multiple people, or date exclusively.

It’s crucial to verbally check in to gauge interest or openness to dating exclusively at some point during dating if that’s what you desire, and not assume that you are each invested in the same goal.

You can decide to be sexually exclusive, but still, date others, sexually open but to only date one another, or engage in a completely exclusive relationship where both of the physical and emotional aspects of the developing relationship are reserved for one another.

Typically, this definition of an exclusive dating relationship that each has agreed to means you’re “in a relationship.”

Lisa Rogers

Lisa Rogers

Certified Sexuality and Relationship Coach | Owner, GreenAura Wellness

When you are dating, all options are still on the table

Saying implies a non-exclusive relationship. During that time, you are exploring the person and learning about them. The definition of dating is to spend time and go out with them in contemplation of a relationship. During this time, both people are still “on the market,” and it is acceptable to see other people.

A relationship, on the other hand, implies exclusivity

It states that while you dated, you both saw the qualities in each other that you were looking for in a long term partner. It means that you are no longer searching for that one special person. In a relationship, you look towards the future and start planning a life together.

Adina Mahalli

Adina Mahalli

Certified Mental Health Consultant | Relationship Expert, Enlightened Reality

Being in a relationship is a broad, almost all-encompassing term; dating is a bit more specific of a label

Dating is a type of relationship, specifying that two individuals go on dates with one another. It can be exclusive, but isn’t necessarily, and also infers that the two individuals are on their way to a more seriously defined relationship.

Meanwhile, being in a relationship can be vague and can be used to define a multitude of different interactions. There are platonic relationships, polyamorous relationships, and everything in between. Being in a relationship with someone can mean you’re moving towards marriage or enjoying each other’s company for the time being.

Someone can be in a relationship and not be dating, for example, friends with benefits, but someone who is dating has given their relationship somewhat more of a definition.