The Exclusivity Talk

Have your ever wondered, "Is it lying to not tell him I'm dating other guys?" Michael, for one, wanted the answer to this very question as he debated the pros and cons of having "the exclusivity talk" with fellow Washingtonian Sean, who he'd been seeing for four weeks. Michael liked Sean and wanted to continue dating, but not exclusively.

Do times like these make you wish that everyone had to take a class called Dating Ethics 101? In theory, of course, it's not lying at all. In fact, it's smart to see other people before getting too serious with one particular guy. "The purposes of dating," says Joe Bavonese, Ph.D. with the Relationship Institute (relationship-institute.com), "are to have fun, learn as much as you can about this person, and, ultimately, discover if you are compatible for a long-term relationship, if that is what you desire."

But theory is easy. Reality is hard. Handling delicate situations in real life when others' emotions are involved takes finesse. During the first couple of dates, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is the standard policy. Early on, assume that everybody is free to date around. But after the first few dates, questions arise about non-committed dating. If you're looking for answers, here are suggestions for handling four common dating scenarios:

You want to date casually
"Has someone asked you for an exclusive commitment? If not, you don't have one," says Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author of The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again. "Don't assume that anyone you're dating is seeing you exclusively unless you've had a discussion and agreed upon it. All parties are free to date others until that agreement is made." If you are asked to clarify dating status, be honest. Full disclosure will teach you about your date, and that's valuable information. "His reaction to your telling him you're dating others will reveal some valuable things about his personality and maturity," says Bavonese.

Sample script: "Tell him that you are enjoying getting to know him, but that you usually prefer to take things slowly," says David Wygant, author of Always Talk to Strangers: 3 Simple Steps to Finding the Love of Your Life. Or, you could say, "I want to continue dating, but because (fill in your reason here), I am not ready to date exclusively." This approach worked for Michael, who continued to date Sean after their talk.

Watch out for: Poor wording or attitude, since people can misinterpret your intentions. You don't want to sound overly casual, disinterested, or like a player. "I once dropped a guy like a hot potato because of the -date around' talk," says Frank, 35. "It wasn't about us dating other people. It was the way he said it. He sounded like he was doing me a favor by seeing me while he hunted for something better."

You want to move toward exclusivity (if all continues to go well)
In addition to what you say, watch what you do. Casual is as casual does. If you don't want to be the exclusive boyfriend, then don't act like one. "A conscientious single person will also be aware of the signals he's sending," says Charles Purdy, author of Urban Etiquette: Marvelous Manners for the Modern Metropolis. "Once you've spent an entire weekend shacked up in a new lover's apartment, sharing intimate secrets and discussing a future together, it's hard to go back to -casual dating' without leaving someone feeling emotionally betrayed."

Sample script: If signals indicate that you might have different expectations for your dating relationship, say, "I really enjoy spending time with you and want to continue. But I also want to make sure that we're not giving each other confusing mixed messages."

Watch out for: "Don't be -relationship tease.' Don't hint that you might want to go farther in the future if you don't," says Purdy.

You want exclusivity with your date
Deciding when to have the conversation is subjective, but if you know that's how you feel, put it out there. Once your feelings are that strong, it's hard not to. As Orlando native Tim, 34, says, "I dated one guy for months before it became exclusive. With another, it took a few weeks. You sense when the time is right."

Sample script: "How would you feel about seeing each other exclusively? I'd like to." Express yourself without giving an ultimatum or threatening to leave. Remember that "no" might mean "not yet."

Watch out for: Bad timing. Timing is everything. As New Jersey resident Larry, 37, told me, "You don't want to come across as overly demanding or overeager." Of course, if you're at a point where exclusivity is a requirement, be prepared to move on if your date doesn't reciprocate the sentiment.

You want: uh-oh…you aren't sure!
Relationships are rarely black and white. You might feel twinges of longing for exclusivity. But be sure that they're real before you act on them. Remember that words are the Pandora's Box of dating. Once spoken, they're impossible to retrieve. "In a moment of loneliness, I told the guy I was dating that I wanted to be exclusive," says New Yorker Andrew, 44. "He agreed. But the next day, I felt like I had rushed the decision."

Sample script: Acknowledge the risk by saying, "I am really enjoying this and don't want to rush, which might put undue pressure on both of us."

Watch out for: Premature commitment! Andrew's story demonstrates why it's important to stay aware of your emotions that impact dating. Loneliness or a recent sad event can trigger you to say things you might regret later.

You don't need to rush "the exclusivity talk." But when it's time to have that conversation, dating honestly is the best policy-and will let you and your sweetie move forward (or not) in the best possible way.

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