Ladies, I’m talking to you! If you’ve ever had a crush, gone on a date, or have even survived any kind of long-term relationship, then I’m sure you know that the dating world can be a rather tumultuous and confusing one! It’s filled with hormones, fast-beating hearts, and spiraling thoughts – and probably the biggest cause of confusion for us all is that the act of “dating” hardly means the same thing to everyone. For some, it’s actually progressing through a set of romantic dates, and for others, it can just mean being sexually or emotionally exclusive with one partner. For others still, dating can just mean spending a lot of time with someone special, without the structure of formal dates at all. And beyond all that, there are still people out there happy to participate in all of the above, but who like to avoid labels and commitment, and therefore might shy away from ever “making it official” and acknowledging the transition from dating to relationship.
Aligning the expectations
Though a healthy relationship can be both thrilling and satisfying, all the possible candidates out there, combined with the social expectations and pressures of your friends and family, is all more than enough to give you a headache. And to make matters even worse, we all now have computers or smartphones in our pockets that are capable of helping us find just about anybody, and formulate our opinions about them before we’ve even met them face to face. So when you finally find yourself, someone, with whom you share mutual attraction and affection, how can you initially be sure that the expectations you have of him and of your relationship together align with his? We’re all familiar with the all-too-common situation in which one partner prods the other into the next big step that they aren’t necessarily ready for, and the overall health of the relationship usually suffers because of it. Nobody wants to disappoint or hurt someone they care about, which is why those relationships seem to uncomfortably surge forward and then inevitably collapse.
I stand by my own time-honored rule here that, if you can’t communicate effectively with your boo, you’re just not going to make it. We’re all human, we all have our own issues, and when you’ve decided that you might possibly want to spend the rest of your life with another human, both of your individual issues are going to have to mingle. That’s not to say that those issues can’t be worked through, but they should definitely not be ignored. And if you can manage to express your issues to one another, you’re on the right path to communicating your expectations as well, so that you’re both comfortable and happy with the pace of your progress together, every step of the way.
I know, I know – we live in the 21st century, and not everyone waits around until they have a ring on their finger and have said “I do” before they’ve stripped down together. We have dating apps at our fingertips, overly sexualized advertisements in the media and hormone filled-bodies from our early teenage years onward. I fully respect those who choose to wait, but it’s also no wonder why most of us don’t any more! So if you’ve read this far, you’re probably already beyond this issue (in which case, congratulations, and please feel free to move on below), or you know that you currently do or will eventually want to be intimate with your partner, and are concerned about the timing and smoothness of the whole matter.
It’s obviously fine if you don’t turn out to be one of those movie-style couples that inherently wind up making passionate, beautiful love the first time they try. News flash for you if it’s going to be your first time ever, and a gentle reminder for all of the veterans out there: it hardly ever looks or works out the way it does in the movies. When two people genuinely care for one another on some level, there’s always a certain level of timidness present, comfort zones to recognize, and self-consciousness to be aware of. It might sound awkward, but that initial discomfort is a really good sign – it means that both you and your partner are in at least some small way afraid of messing it up, embarrassing yourselves, or not being good enough for the other person.
And I can hear exactly what you’re thinking: Excuse me, all that is supposed to be a good thing? To which I will respond, yes! If for no other reason than the fact that that awkwardness proves you’re not about to get laid and then dumped, it is a wonderful and glorious thing. If you can recognize that behavior from your partner in your lightly intimate exchanges, then he likely actually cares about you, and isn’t just pushing for sex. It sounds like the age-old adage you might have heard from Dad, that he’ll wait to have sex if he actually respects you – more clearly put if he’s trying to be careful with you when taking these steps forward, he’s thinking just as hard about the progression as you are, and therefore worth progressing with.
Introducing him to your family
This is an important step that is often overlooked as such, and which I have frequently seen happen at the very worst of times. Ultimately, you know your family best – you’re familiar with their demeanor and their opinions, and you are hopefully aware of how those things impact you and your behavior. It’s a tricky situation to pin down depending upon several factors, but if you two have been consistently connecting well, and you don’t foresee any huge, potential reasons to break the relationship off in the near future, then it is time to discuss meeting each other’s families. You’re obviously not going to want to put it off forever, since that can lead to a handful of uncomfortable situations (not to mention a mild level of isolation in your life, if you’re constantly choosing to spend time with either your family or your boyfriend). But If you feel the urge to introduce your S.O. to your family out of obligation to your parents, at their request, or out of your need to determine how receptive they might be to him, then it’s truly not the right time to pursue a relationship between your family and your dude.
Choosing to tie your love life and your family life together turns into a bit of a commitment. By doing so, you’re starting to cross two halves of your world together, an act from which a ton of possibilities (and potentially a lot of drama) can arise. Those halves don’t have to like each other, but they both separately and combined can have a huge influence on your personal happiness and comfort. This is why it’s so important to make this step a deliberate and conscientious one. If you’re thinking of bringing him home for the first time for any reason other than that you’re personally ready to share that part of your life with your family, then don’t. Likewise, if you want to do so, but he’s not quite on board yet, then save the visit for the near future. You’ll know that it’s the right time when you can both recognize that it’s a good idea to do so, and when you’re both comfortable in overcoming the experience together.
Handing over your key
At this point, you love spending time together, you love the things you do together, and you may even still be wading through the honeymoon phase. To recognize that fact doesn’t make the happiness you feel when you’re around him any less bright and shiny, but it can certainly be clouding your judgment if you’re starting to think about handing him a key to your living space. And I get the thinking behind that, because I’ve been in the same situation and done it before – if you love having him around over the weekend, on a day off together, or even overnight, why wouldn’t you also love to have him drop by whenever, or maybe even have him around all the time? Think of it this way – is there any particular moment you experience regularly in which you would not want him present? I’m willing to bet there is, even if it’s just when you take an extra-long bathroom break while at home alone. Or maybe it’s that night you sometimes take to yourself after an intense day or week at work or school, when you whip out a bunch of junk food, binge Netflix in your pajamas, and don’t even think twice about taking a shower.
Nobody should be judging you (we are, after all, only human), but that doesn’t mean it might not be somewhat uncomfortable for you to have your S.O. unexpectedly let himself in during any one of dozens of potentially private moments. And if you’re considering handing over the key to a living space that you share with one or more roommates, then the possibility of that intrusive sensation not only multiplies but will definitely affect the people you live with. Is the possibility of him stumbling into any of these situations going to ruin your relationship? Likely not, but it can definitely put a strain on your love for one another, especially if you foresee it happening frequently (and particularly if you notice that you are more independent than him, which is a perfectly fine way to be!). The good news is that these issues are preventable, and the solution to this whole situation is once again communication. If you are considering allowing him open access to your space or accepting a key for his, please be prepared to not only establish boundaries first but also commit to respecting his and ask that he respects yours.
The conversation doesn’t have to be mean or defensive – but it should encompass all of your concerns and willingly invite him to share his. If your roommate goes to bed early on weeknights and doesn’t like to be disturbed, or if it’s that you can focus best on your favorite hobby when you’re alone – any details like that are important to express. A successful version of this discussion is one that sees both you and your guy coming out the other side having listened, spoken, and retained the necessary points, and goes hand in hand with a certain level of commitment to be understanding when those things arise. I personally find that this form of trust (both that you can each have your down-time when needed, and that neither you nor your S.O. is doing anything you shouldn’t be when asking for privacy) is integral at this step, and invites the capability of eventually being able to happily share a living space.
Moving in together
Hopefully, if you’re looking at sharing a living space, you’re pretty much on the same page in most regards. You guys have had some differences, worked out some kinks along the way, and are generally comfortable moving through your necessary daily routines around each other, with some intense snuggles or separate downtime here and there. At this point, all of the emotional aspects might be coming along easily to you guys – so again, I can see you thinking about how well everything is going, and wondering why you shouldn’t just move in together. You’re already over at each other’s places all the time, you get together every week to watch the same shows, and you may even be sharing some of the same friends now. What could possibly go wrong by running your lives out of the same household?
A big factor that many couples fail to anticipate fully is the financial aspect of sharing a home. If less than both of you have ever had your own place before, it’s a huge financial step independently, let alone one made together with someone you trust you can count on to split the costs. Do you have impeccable financial history and know what all of your accounts look like, but your partner’s finances seem like a wreck? Is either of you currently dealing with high amounts of personal debt (which could include student loans, credit card debt, medical debt, personal or auto loan debt, or a number of other factors)? Does either of you expect to have to make any large purchases over the course of the next year, such as buying a new vehicle? What do your credit scores and savings accounts look like? How do your usual spending habits compare with one another’s?
Although these questions could send us into a world of other in-depth topics, and none of them are very fun to discuss with someone you’re excited about moving forward with, they’re all important to look at if you’re planning to move in together. You really don’t want to be six months down the road in your new abode, still loving your partner, but stressing daily over whether or not you can pay your bills because the money discussion caught you by surprise. Have the conversation first, look at what you both make and what your debts look like, plan out the total amount you can collectively afford to live together, and have a backup plan in the savings account in the case of an unexpected emergency. If you can effectively discuss and settle on all that before dreaming about what life will be like in your love nest, then start packing, because you’re more than ready to take the step.
Talking about having a family
Here we get into dangerously serious waters, but this next bit might sound more familiar than you’d expect. There are a ton of younger couples out there reinventing the modern flow of relationships – and by that, I mean they’ve gotten together, stayed together, and essentially committed themselves over time by structuring other major life events around their relationships, all without ever seriously discussing their future together. And it’s fine to keep going that way if you both like to live life on the edge, and are comfortable not mapping out major events such as getting married or having a child. But if you’ve been together this long and know that you’re not falling out of love anytime soon, then you’re sort of keeping yourselves at a disadvantage by not discussing and preparing for the next step in life, whether it’s something you wind up doing independently or together.
So whether or not you’re already thinking about marriage, if it’s pretty clear that you’re both in this for life, then it doesn’t hurt to bring up this conversation sooner rather than later. It can obviously just be a tentative discussion (no pressure, no plans, just both of your thoughts), and might even motivate one or both of you to consider other future plans for yourselves that you had not previously settled, all of which might also have implications for the discussion at hand. If your individual plans for the future align healthily, that’s wonderful! But it’s probably even more important to be aware if they don’t, and the earlier the better if that’s the case. I personally know a couple that was engaged for several years, because their officiate refused to marry them before they had agreed on whether or not they eventually wanted to have kids. It may seem like years away to you, but the time flies when you’re in love (that’s what they say, right?), and you’d much rather be prepared than be surprised in this situation.
Transitioning from dating to a relationship
My answer to the question of when is the right time to transition from dating to relationship is “Whenever you’re both ready!” I don’t mean to make it sound simpler than it is, because sitting down with your partner to have a serious discussion can be very difficult for many people, and for a lot of different reasons. But it’s a skill that, if you can manage to successfully incorporate into your relationship early on, should be able to help you guys endure a lot of the challenges out there today. If you’re both honest and on the same page most of the time, what can really go wrong? So try to make it your golden rule: if one of you is itching to take the next step, have an open discussion about it. If you’re both not feeling comfortable or excited about whatever it is, then it’s just not the right time yet, and you then have to decide what that means for you personally, and maybe even look at what is missing from the situation that one of you isn’t quite ready yet. Remember that communication begets trust, so the better you understand what’s going on, the sooner you’re likely to be at peace with it and move forward. Next time you’re with him, ask him to sit and discuss whatever has been on your mind. Not only might it bring you relief to get it out in the open, but you’ll probably wind up resolving some of your thoughts as well. Good luck – you got this!