Today’s connectivity has made dating simultaneously easier and harder. It’s easier to find matches (Tinder!), but harder to get to know them as people. It’s easier to express interest in someone (swipe right!), but harder to make that leap into authentic vulnerability. And thanks to Facebook profiles, one day you’re single, and the next you’re suddenly “in a relationship.” But it’s that wide gap between singleness and relationship that is so nebulous, and the cause of so much angst.

Lost in all the noise of dating advice is the fact that relationships develop in stages. Websites like OKCupid and apps like Tinder obscure this natural progression, dumbing down dating to a few simplified choices. They also give single people the wrong impression that there are only two options when approaching potential mates: You are either looking for something serious, or for something casual. There’s little space to explore anything in-between.

Those who are looking for casual dating will thrive in the online sphere. These websites and apps are intentionally built to play like relational versions of Candy Crush: fun, addictive, mindless past times you can enjoy for a few minutes at a time on your subway commute or during your lunch break. They don’t care about whether you find a mate; in fact, it’s in their interest to keep you single because once you’re off the market they lose you as a customer. And so they keep it all about the game. The goal isn’t to set a good foundation for a marriage or long-term relationship, but rather, as this New Yorker cartoon to the right puts it, to get good at dating.

It seems many people eager for a relationship have a warped view of how they actually develop. These people approach first dates as low-key marriage proposals. By the fourth date, they start telling everyone that they’re “dating someone.” And by the tenth time they’ve set eyes on this person, they’ve made it “Facebook official.” Ding, ding, ding! Goal achieved. Prize unlocked. They are In. A. Relationship. 

And, that’s kind of it. You’ve spent so much energy and endured so much self-doubt, frustration, and awkwardness that now you just want to relax. Getting in a relationship takes so much work that the last thing you want to do once you have it is do more work. It feels like once you’re in a relationship, that should be it. You should be good now that you don’t have to worry about being #foreveralone. It’s been so hard to find this person you like who likes you back that they better be it. 

You invest a lot trying to date. Expecting a good return on that investment is perfectly fair. The problem is that the bulk of your investment has been in the game. This person you’re now dating? You haven’t invested a lot in this person. It feels like it, because, well, you did make it to 10 dates, and each of those dates represents hours upon hours of swiping, matching, texting, ghosting, lol’ing, and eye-rolling. But that was other people you were texting and ghosting and pining after. This person? You’ve seen this person maybe a dozen times in your life. You’ve known them for all of two or three months. And this whole time, you’ve both been on your best behavior; you’ve presented your most attractive selves. You can’t possibly know, at this point, if this person is The One. This is when you finally get to know them, when discernment starts. It is only the beginning of Stage 1.

Saying that you’re “in a relationship” is too broad. It’s hard to even define. It could mean you and your partner have been together for 10 years, co-own a condo, and have a couple dogs. Or it could mean you met last month. It is this broadness that makes the term too loaded for couples who are in the beginning stages of dating. It obscures the fact that there are gradations of relationship. Labeling a relationship prematurely not only makes it harder to get past those early stages, it causes deeper heartache if the relationship doesn’t pan out. You think you broke up with a boyfriend, when really you just stopped seeing someone who turned out not to be a good match.

Maybe we need more precise language to better explain the full spectrum of dating. Fiancé and spouse have very clear delineations. Boyfriend and girlfriend are less exact, but they generally have connotations of committed monogamous relationship. Yet the whole gamut from single to boyfriend is large, varied, and vague. The problem is, Facebook doesn’t have an option for “Seeing a Guy I Kinda Like and Want to See Where it Goes.” So maybe the best option is to avoid naming our relationships at all in their early phases. 

Perhaps by resisting the urge to classify your relationships, you'd be better at living in (and appreciating) all of what each stage has to offer. Maybe you'd be better off, when you start spending a lot of time with someone you like, not leaping ahead to the next phase, but rather giving every step its proper space. You don’t get to jump from seed to blossom. Worry only that you are giving the relationship the water and sunlight that it needs, then patiently allow it to sprout and grow at its own pace. And above all, if you want my advice, I urge you to keep your budding relationship confined to reality and out of the social media sphere until it is something that has taken root.


Photo by Sergey Poliakov, used with permission through Flickr Creative Commons.