What does it mean to be in an exclusive relationship? 

It sounds like a question with a simple answer, but when I posed it to my Instagram followers, dozens of responses came flooding in and and no two were alike. 

Michael, a gay man in his early 20s, replied, “Exclusive means to me that after an appropriate [amount of] time has passed and you’ve been talking/going out on dates, you just don’t entertain flirting with guys that aren’t him.” His response focused entirely on flirting and talking to other men — he never even mentioned physical infidelity. 

Billy*, a straight single man is his late 20s said, “I think only having feelings for that one person, even if you’re out there doing whatever you do with others.” 

Given the array of replies I received, I decided to ask two more related questions. “Who’s been in a situation where they thought they were exclusive, only to find out their partner didn’t think so?” 

Roughly half of the 267 respondents (128) said that it had happened to them. (Match actually asked this question in their “Singles in America” survey, and their results were a little lower than mine. They found 26% of singles have believed a relationship was exclusive when it wasn’t.) 

I went on to ask who’s been on the other side of that experience — you thought you were casually dating only to find out that your partner thought you were exclusive. This time 40% (98) of 246 respondents said that had happened to them. 

Clearly many of us have been in a situation where there’s been some confusion about being exclusive — and perhaps some disagreement about what the term “exclusive” even means. 

When I asked Margaux, 26, who defines exclusivity as sexual and emotional monogamy, if this had ever happened to her, she responded “like the most recent time?” Evidently, this is an issue she runs into often with the men she dates. While it seems obvious they’re exclusive when they’re hanging out nonstop, the guy is constantly talking about how incredible she is, and he’s saying things like, ‘You’re the one I want to be with the rest of my life,’ apparently it is not. “Then, one day, he’ll bring up some girl he’s talking to, and I’m like, what the fuck?” she says. 

Her confusion is undeniably understandable given that clear signs of exclusive interest are present. Nevertheless, you have to wonder why, given her pattern of assuming exclusivity when her partner isn’t on the same page, she doesn’t simply broach the topic and have the notorious talk.

“People don’t ask to clarify because they often believe it’s too soon,” says Vienna Pharaon, LMFT. “Since people want to be liked and chosen so badly, we’ll often try to fit into the non-needy or ‘chill’ character we believe the other person wants from us. It’s a quick and easy way to self-abandon.” 

This seems to be exactly what’s happening with Margaux. “I think a lot of guys like to avoid having the talk, because once you say that, it’s serious. Since I see them avoiding the talk, I don’t want to bring it up either,” she says. “It’s not always [the man’s] job to initiate the talk, but a lot of girls are afraid to start it, put them on the spot like that, and then have them pull away.” 

I ended the conversation right there because I figured one of two things were going on, neither of which Margaux would want to hear.

The first potential option: He’s just not that into her or at least doesn’t want to be exclusive. 

The second option: He knows exactly what he’s doing: reveling in this gray area. Since he and Margaux didn’t have the talk, he’s not technically doing anything wrong. Even if he really likes her and would, in fact, be exclusive, he’s going to keep fooling around with other girls until she says, “I want to be exclusive. This is what exclusive means to me.” At this point, he may reject her, which would be incredibly painful. Or he’ll agree to exclusivity, which, while great, still might not seem ideal since the relationship is starting off with an ultimatum. 

John*, 25, has taken advantage of the we-didn’t-have-the-talk gray area in the past. He gives the example of what he called a “girlfriend-type-deal” in college, who would ask, “Where do you want this relationship to go?” He’d reply by shutting down the conversation, saying something along the lines of, “I don’t want to talk about this now” or “Let’s not think about it. Let’s just enjoy where this goes.”

Some months later, John started dating someone else, and this girl found out. She replied, “I’m not mad because we never technically established monogamy, but I am hurt and you do have to deal with that.”

While John admits what he did was morally dubious, he maintains that it wasn’t his responsibility to protect her feelings. “If she wanted to be exclusive, that’s on her to make that clear,” he says. “Her feelings were dependent on me, this person she decided to trust, when she knew she shouldn’t have.”

Pharaon, however, isn’t letting John off the hook that easily. “We’re all responsible for ourselves, but being responsible for ourselves means that we are honest, transparent, and [don’t manipulate] the fine line to take advantage of that which we know the other person might not be saying.” 

Therein lies the crux of the issue. One person is avoiding the talk because they know they might not like where it lands, and the other is capitalizing off of not having things be “official.” The person who wants something more hopes that with more time, they’ll just happen to fall into exclusivity or the person they’re dating will bring it up on their own volition, explains Pharaon. “A lot of times people do this because they would rather have someone than have no one at all. It comes from a disempowered place that often leaves the person feeling disconnected, concerned, insecure, and resentful.”

The person who doesn’t want exclusivity knows what they’re doing might not be the kindest thing, but they can sleep at night knowing that they’re not lying or “technically” doing anything wrong. 

This leads to unofficial relationships that have a high likelihood of exploding when news breaks that one person is dating, sleeping with, or in the case of my Instagram follower, Michael, simply flirting with other people. Often, they knew the other person was likely with other people in some capacity. They were just hoping it wasn’t the case. 

There is only one solution to this. If you want to be exclusive, talk about it knowing that rejection is a very real possibility. “Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it [requires] confrontation. Yes, it can put you face to face with someone not choosing to pursue something with you. But, it is a practice that keeps you honoring yourself and respecting where the other person is,” Pharaon says. 

You owe it to yourself to be in the type of relationship you want to be in, and if that’s an exclusive one, then go and get it. And make sure to define exclusivity, since, as we’ve established, what’s exclusive to you may not be the same as what’s exclusive to someone else.

If you’re the person reveling in the gray area of not having the talk but knowing damn well the person you’re seeing wants to be exclusive to at least some degree, be honest about what you can offer. Maybe say, “I’m not sure what you’re looking for but I want to let you know that I’m not looking for exclusivity.” Then, the onus is truly on them if they say they’re cool with it, and if not, then you can sleep even easier knowing you did the right thing. 

*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.