As a dating & relationship consultant, I come across this question constantly.
The most recent horror story I encountered was when one girl thought that “exclusive” just meant that she couldn’t have unprotected sex with anyone else, so despite saying “of course” to her new boyfriend’s request for exclusivity, she continued having sex with several of the other guys she was dating. Big. Problem. People rarely have the same exact conceptions of exclusivity, so it’s essential that you’re able to openly and honestly discuss the very subtle nuances of what exclusivity means to each of you. Below, I’ll describe how to do just that.
First, determine whether you’re ready for it
Part of determining how to have the “are we exclusive” talk entails first knowing whether you and your partner are at the right stage to justify having it. I think there are two main triggers for having the talk:
- You’re planning to engage in a type of sex that could transmit STD’s.
Basically, from the moment you remove protective barriers from the equation, every one of your partner’s current or future partners becomes a potential source of risk, and you are fully justified in broaching the topic of exclusivity (sexual exclusivity at the very least). Your health should always be your prerogative, and you are fully justified in bringing up exclusivity if you’re planning to engage in unprotected sexual activity.
- You care about your partner enough to not want to lead them on.
When you first start dating someone new, it’s reasonable to assume that they’re already dating a few other people (you’re likely doing the same). However, as you deepen your connection to someone, there may come a point where you can intuit that they may actually be hurt by the fact that you’re still seeing other people. At this moment, the most ethical action is to be upfront with your partner about who you’re seeing and ask a) how they feel about it, and b) whether exclusivity would be something they’re interested in pursuing.
Next, choose an appropriate setting
The time of day/week that you choose for having the talk, as well as the communication platform you use, will alter the nature (and likely the result) of the talk itself. Consider the following:
- Choose a time when you’re both free, with no other commitments
Someone recently asked me if it would be dumb to bring up the topic of exclusivity while her partner was at work. My answer: yes, very. The exclusivity talk one in which you essentially define the scope and nature of your relationship with your partner, so to do it under any time limits or outside of a safe, intimate context would likely result in huge gaps in communication. Pick a time when you’re both free for several hours to fully map out what exclusivity means to each of you and how you’d like to apply it to your relationship moving forward. I’ve seen these conversations last for hours at a time, and sometimes need to continue across several days in order for both partners to get fully on the same page.
- Face-to-face communication is ideal
Naturally, a lot of information needs to be conveyed during this conversation in order for it to be effective, so if you plan to do it via texting or instant messaging, you’re in for some very tired fingers. Ihighly recommend having this conversation face to face, because when you’re making yourself vulnerable to your partner, talking about your hopes, fears, and honest feelings, it’s hugely important to capture all the nuance in their speech, their facial expressions, etc., so you can pick up on any points of tension or confusion.
That said, some people are better expressing themselves online or over the phone, so decide on a platform that is most comfortable for both of you. Sometimes you can be a lot less awkward over Gchat or texing, which is great, but make sure that you are adequately communicating your needs and concerns. Text-based conversations are notorious for leaving out nuance, significance, and seriousness.
Finally, communicate clearly, openly, & exhaustively
Trust is the cornerstone of successful relationships, and you can’t build trust if you don’t clearly communicate the actions, duties, preferences, and expectations that define your relationship. Here are my absolute strongest communication strategies:
- Be honest and direct; withhold nothing
Relationships are largely defined by the limits we set, e.g. “x” is okay, but “y” is not. In order to agree to a set of limits (sexual, emotional, etc.) that will make sense for you and your partner(s), you need to get in the habit of being extremely open about your personal preferences, goals, fears, etc. After all, this is your relationship that you’re defining, so to withhold information from your partner at this stage would make for a suboptimal (or downright unbearable) relationship agreement. Obviously, trust can take many months or years to fully establish, so you need not feel pressured to reveal damaging or tragic events from your past, but if you do plan to embark upon a relationship with this person, it’s worth being as upfront with them as you realistically can.
- Strive to glimpse the world through your partner’s eyes.
This is one of the best opportunities you’ll have to fully delve into your partner’s perspective on trust, vulnerability, security, and relationships. The nature of this talk will likely define the nature of your relationship for months or years to come, because this is where you can fully seek to understand your partner’s perspective before fully committing to any single relational structure. Countless thousands of relationship structures are available to you, so remain open to a setup that makes the most sense for you rather than assuming that your unique setup with your partner should be crammed into any of society’s pre-made boxes (Protip: there aren’t any such boxes — every relationship is unique).
- Get on the same page by suggesting hypothetical scenarios
I’ve found that the most effective (and fun) way to really get inside my partners’ heads and understand their worldview is to basically role-play a variety of scenarios in order to understand precisely how far their comfort zone stretches. Here are a few questions to start with:
Is it okay to make significant eye contact with a mutual friend? What about handholding? Texting? What about a 3-day vacation? Is a single “friend date” okay? What about two dates? Three dates in a month? Maybe a single date, but with three people at a time? Is it the fear of a single individual’s intimacy that most worries you? Or is it disease risk? Or just dishonesty in general?”
There are literally millions of questions you can ask, all of which tease out precisely how you and your partner feel about relationship structure, security, and fidelity. Ask as many of those as you can think of, and prod yourself and your partner as much as you can. If you can’t push hypothetical boundaries now as you’re defining your agreement, then you’ll only end up breaking your agreement later as it comes into conflict with the reality of your actual fears and desires.
- Bonus: sometimes non-monogamy makes more sense
I’ve certainly encountered scenarios where the “are we exclusive” talk actually results in the answer, “No, but that’s okay.” If you are both seeing other people and want to continue seeing those people to some degree, yet you both still want to embark upon a deeper and perhaps more formally-structured relationship with one another, then it can totally make sense to opt for an open relationship. All you’ll need to do is negotiate your own unique set of boundaries and agreements, as well as prepare for a whole host of additional scenarios that could arise as a result of incorporating new (and/or existing) partners. To navigate non-monogamy, it’s essential to expose yourself to terminology and best-practices by reading books like The Ethical Slut and Opening Up.
Hopefully this helps those of you who may soon reach this super exciting phase in your dating lives. It may even help those of you who are in the midst of renegotiating relationship preferences with your existing significant other(s).