Erika Ettin: Exclusivity vs. official: What's the difference?

Erika Ettin, Tribune News Service on

Published in Lifestyles

I’ve received a lot of questions in the past six months—more than ever before—asking if there’s a difference between being exclusive with someone and the relationship being “official.” People are also asking, “How long should I wait after being exclusive before being ‘official’?”

The question usually comes from someone who is seeing someone they like (it’s usually a woman asking), and she’s told by her potential partner, “I’m comfortable being exclusive (as in, only dating each other), but I’m not ready to make it official yet/not ready for titles or labels yet.”

With all the ambiguity around exclusivity and official labels, it's no wonder people are scratching their heads and asking, "What's the deal?" Trust me, you're not alone.

My quick answer to the question, “How long should I wait after being exclusive before being ‘official’?” is “zero time.” What do I mean by that? I know there seems to be this trend now where people are exclusive yet there are no labels (like “boyfriend” or “partner”), and then eventually—maybe—they are “official.” But I personally think they should be one and the same.

If you feel comfortable being exclusive with someone, I also want you to feel comfortable saying that you’re in a relationship with that person. If that takes longer for you to become exclusive, then so be it.


There are many reasons to become exclusive with someone. The hoped-for reason is that you both feel comfortable not exploring things any longer with anyone else. But I worry that if someone is dangling exclusivity without the title that the other person wants, it’s because they simply don’t have the time to see other people. Or they think it’ll calm down the person who’s really interested in a relationship.

As in most of the advice I give, communication is key. If you're feeling unsure or curious about where you stand, don't be afraid to speak up. I’ve seen too many instances where one person thinks that “exclusivity” means deleting the dating apps and the other does not. In the conversation, talk through both of your expectations.

And if someone says, “I’m OK being exclusive, but I’m not ready to put labels on us yet,” then it’s up to you to decide if you’re OK with this yourself. You don’t need to just go along with it if you think something (exclusivity) is better than nothing. You need to honor your own wants and needs too. You can even say, “How should I introduce you to people when we go out?” If they hem and haw and avoid eye contact, that’s information worth knowing.

Remember that your happiness and fulfillment in a relationship are nonnegotiable. Don't settle for ambiguity or uncertainty if it doesn't align with your desires and expectations. Your feelings are valid, and you deserve clarity and respect in your romantic connections. So, trust your instincts and advocate for yourself. If something doesn't feel right or if you're craving more definition in your relationship, don't hesitate to address it with your partner. Healthy relationships are built on mutual understanding, compromise and open communication.

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