What does the term "dating" mean to you? Or the term "going steady"? Or the term "boyfriend" or "girlfriend"?
This is more than an academic question. Everyone has a slightly different concept of these terms. You may consider yourself to be dating after going on a single date with me, while I may consider myself to be dating after the third date.
In most cases, the difference definitions arise from a different sense of exclusivity implied by such terms. Using the example above, the fact that I don't think I am dating until the third date suggests that I don't feel any requirement to be exclusive until then. And depending on my concept of dating, I may still not feel the need to be fully exclusive after that point, but it is likely that I feel an obligation to be more exclusive, or at least more open about my other dates if I am not exclusive.
Being on a different page about exclusivity is an almost sure fire way to ruin an otherwise good relationship. When details come to light, one person in the relationship is almost certain to feel like they were cheated on, even if the other person never intended to cheat.
The following tips will help you check your exclusivity at a time and in a way that will help you maintain a healthy relationship.
Polyamory vs. Monogamy
Adding to the complexity of the situation, exclusivity has a different meaning for a person who is polyamorous than it does for a person who is monogamous. While monogamous individuals tend to have stricter requirements for exclusivity, the polyamorous community tends to be better at expressing clear expectations and guidelines for partners.
Whichever community you are a part of, you should be open about the fact from the very first date. While it is possible for successful relationships to form between a polyamorous person and a monogamous person, it will usually require some significant compromises on the part of one or both parties. This is a foreseeable major roadblock that should be shared before any relationship starts, in order to prevent major heartache later.
Thankfully, almost every major online dating website makes sharing this information easy by including this information in your quick stats or encouraging you to share it in your long text.
Moving Too Quickly
Other than sharing whether you are monogamous or polyamorous, discussing exclusivity is usually seen as a sign that the relationship is becoming, or has already become, more serious. This is why getting into a discussion about exclusivity too early in the relationship will make it seem like you are moving too quickly.
How do you avoid moving too quickly? Sadly, there is no science to this. The best answer is to be a little conservative. If you have reached the point where you and your partner are comfortably referring to each other as boyfriend or girlfriend, it is definitely time to have the conversation. In fact, it is probably past the time.
Waiting Too Long
Unfortunately, waiting too long can be just as bad as discussing the situation too soon. By waiting too long, you can easily find yourself in a situation where one of you thinks you should be exclusive while the other one isn't yet exclusive.
Luckily, there is a very easy metric for this one. Always check exclusivity before having sex for the first time. While there are plenty of emotional reasons for this, the reason for the standard primarily has to do with health. Even if neither of you yet feel the need to be exclusive at this point in your relationship, you should definitely set exclusivity ground rules before having sex for the first time.
That Awkward Moment
There is one awkward moment that will immediately move up the timeline of this discussion. If you witness your partner on a date with another person or vice versa, it is time to discuss exclusivity.
First, though, avoid a public scene. If you witness your partner on a date, the last thing you want to do is approach them during the date or even talk to them. And definitely don't break any windows. It is bad form and windows are expensive.
Keeping in mind that you are at least partially at fault for not having brought up the topic already, discuss your mutual expectations of exclusivity as soon as possible. If you don't come to an agreement on those expectations, that is pretty much the end of the relationship. But if you do, then that awkward moment is just something you can laugh about someday when you are 80 (if you already are 80, congratulations on having a healthy dating life as a senior citizen).
Of course, if you already had the discussion of exclusivity and the other person is violating whatever you agreed to, just try not to get arrested when you dump a pitcher of water over their head during their date.