“Are you getting serious?” is one of the most anxiety-inducing phrases in the dating world.
While well-meaning loved ones are genuinely interested in our relationship status, the steps in dating can feel more like a mystery maze than a natural progression.
Then factoring in how different generations define dating can be all the more confusing.
Here we’ll help dating world explorers stop overthinking and start understanding.
How Does Dating Work?
At its core, dating is simply two people spending time together with the idea of a romance developing.
While there is a natural dating progression, you should allow yourself space to define your own steps as necessary.
The pandemic not only tapped into feelings of loneliness and craving companionship but also forced those in the dating world to explore distant or virtual relationships.
Dating works any way you want it to work with new influences our parents and grandparents didn’t have the option to explore.
- SOCIAL MEDIA: We can now meet people on social media, even when not on a dating site.
- VIRTUAL CONNECTIONS: Traditionally, dating is assumed to be two people going somewhere together and doing something. Using technology, we can have a date with someone across the world through Skype or Facetime and still have a human connection.
- GROUP SETTINGS: Millennials and Gen Z are much more likely to have group outings that they would consider a “Group Date.” While more people are involved, it’s still a social experience of getting to know potential partners.
- ONE-ON-ONE: This is when two people agree to do something together, whether it’s dinner and a movie or just hanging out playing video or board games.
Beyond the concept of dating, you’ll find dating phases that can grow the relationship.
The 5 Stages of Dating in a Relationship
As crucial as it is to know about the stages, you also need to know you aren’t going to reach all five of them with every person you date.
Part of dating is learning about other people and establishing boundaries and deal-breakers.
Dating also helps us realize how prepared we are for a relationship or if we need more time to focus on self-awareness and self-love.
So, what are the stages of dating? Let’s look at what you might expect if your romance progresses.
1. Attraction and Sparks
We start dating someone when we feel a spark or a connection. This spark can be a purely physical attraction or shared interests.
Since the spark can happen through social media, internet forums, dating apps, or organically, there’s no right or wrong way to feel the spark.
You might know that you like the other person during this initial stage. However, you only like what you know, which is very limited.
Each text message and social media post like sends your endorphins flooding. You might even find yourself on all-night text sessions or phone calls.
You could also find yourself going on dates often and neglecting friends and hobbies because the “newness” feeling is so powerful.
In this phase, you’re picking up a lot of information, and it’s easy to allow confirmation bias to cloud judgment. Since we’re loaded with feel-good hormones, we take all the details we learn and help them confirm what we already know – we think we really like this other person!
2. The Reality, Red Flags, and Researching
The second dating phase gives a little more texture and tone to the relationship that’s forming.
You’re past the butterflies and dopamine rush with each point of contact, digging below the surface of the personality and appearance. The person you’re dating is doing the same to you.
Never mistake a lack of a “spark” as a failure point. It’s impossible to keep up that excitement for long periods, and you’ll see that a relationship advances into deeper emotions as you go.
Some key moments confirm you are in this second phase of dating:
- You have your first fight
- Your confirmation bias wears off, and you start to see bright red flags or little bitty annoyances.
- You get really scared of getting hurt.
- You begin to care if the person is seeing other people or exclusively dating you.
If “The Spark” is Dating 101, try to think of this as “Dating 201.” You want to go deeper into conversations and lifestyles without scaring the other person off.
At this point, you can still cut bait without too much emotional risk, but you should also avoid diving into topics like how many children you want to have or what their salary is, so you can start choosing a floor plan for your future home.
In this stage, you should also start laying firm boundaries, as should they. This could be discussing topics like what honesty means to you. For example –
- Is omission a lie?
- Will you want to have access to each other’s passwords?
- Can you sleep next to the person and get a good night’s sleep?
Even things that seem trivial, like if you go to sleep with the television off or on, could impact your sleep health for years to come.
3. Commitment and Exclusivity
In this stage, you have “the talk.” You decide if you want to see each other exclusively.
Some generations might also view commitment differently than others, so this could also be considering if you want to remain devoted to each other but have an open relationship.
Commitment isn’t like a mile marker on a marathon you must hit at a certain time. Enjoy the first two phases of getting to know someone in different settings.
When you are ready to commit, you feel comfortable bringing your partner to office gatherings, family events, and possibly even a funeral for a loved one.
Commitment is a slippery slope, and it’s not easy for both people to arrive at the “couple moment” simultaneously. You know you are ready for commitment based on a few things, including:
- You accept the person as they are and aren’t trying to “fix” them, nor are they trying to “fix” you.
- They have proven to be fair in disagreements, respectful of boundaries, and emotionally open to your needs.
- You don’t want to date anyone else and are ready to delete your dating apps. You might also feel jealous if you think they show too much affection to another person.
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4. Up Close and Personal
This step is often skipped for those who rush through the first three stages. When commitment happens, you’re simply saying, “I like this enough to be committed to you right now.”
During the up close and personal phase, also known as the intimacy stage, you learn all the things you might have missed before.
We’re not just talking about physical intimacy; we’re not judging anyone who got physically intimate along the way. This is the intimacy where you can finally “let down your hair (extensions)” and let them see you as you are.
You expose all the parts you’ve hidden or protected, and not only will you let your partner see them, but you will feel comfortable doing so.
Some examples of this stage include:
- You no longer worry about them seeing you without makeup or in your leisure clothing.
- You feel like you can openly and honestly discuss any uncomfortable topic with them, and they can do the same with you.
- You can be vulnerable about past mistakes, insecurities, and the less attractive parts of yourself.
- You would trust them alone with your best friend.
- They see you “ugly cry.”
In this phase, you’ll likely notice you’ve let down those walls that used to protect you from getting hurt. You could talk about your traumas or discuss intimate fantasies you’d like to explore.
While you should hold firm to your boundaries, you can openly address when you feel your partner violated one without fear.
5. Put a Ring On It
While this dating phase is traditionally when a proposal happens and the couple starts planning a life together, those who aren’t keen on getting married might mark this moment with moving in together or having a commitment ceremony.
By the time you’re at this level of commitment, you might use words like “soulmate,” “my person,” or “love of my life.” You feel ready to avoid phrases like “mine” and “theirs” and be a “we” for the foreseeable future.
This phase shouldn’t be reached by guilt, pressure, or ultimatum. If you’re still in that stage of emotional manipulation or playing games, you’re likely still at step two or three.
You should also be well past the “fix it” stage and accept the person as they are while supporting their goals and dreams to evolve as a couple.
How Long Until Dating Becomes a Relationship?
Trying to force a relationship is as impossible as forcing a flower to grow faster. Each couple, each relationship, and each marriage has its own timeline and evolution rate.
You shouldn’t treat your relationship as a race against time or in comparison to other couples. We can explore very general guidelines.
- The first phase will likely have a lifespan of three months or less since it’s hard to keep that level of excitement and endorphins for a long time.
- The second phase can take weeks, months, or even a year or more. It depends on how much time you spend together, what obstacles you face, and what previous experiences are haunting the new relationship.
- The commitment phase will likely happen within six months to a year. This assumes both parties want a commitment and are working toward that goal together.
- The intimacy phase can happen alongside the commitment phase but also could last months to years. Some relationships stall out in this phase and become pressured by the desire for a more formal commitment.
- The average length of time it takes to get to the “Put A Ring On It” phase is two years. Don’t let the word “normal” mean “average.” You haven’t run out of time if you’re past the two-year mark but still have a healthy, vibrant, and respectful relationship.
It will help both dating partners if you clarify the meaning of phrases such as “I want to take this slow.”
You might feel like slow is three months until commitment, while your partner could mean, “I’m giving this a good year before I even think about exclusivity.”
Opening the door to that conversation also sets a great pattern of transparent conversations and conflict resolution down the road.
You can research statistics and averages all you want, but it comes down to your happiness and trusting your gut.
If you are staying in a relationship because you are bored, just want companionship, or are afraid you’ll never meet someone else, that’s the wrong reason at any stage.
You can stay in any stage as long as you’d like, despite family pressure or nosy friends. If you wake up every day feeling happy, appreciated, and supported, that’s the best stage of all.