DTRing (aka defining the relationship) was so much easier in middle school when all it took was passing a note and checking yes or no. As adults, it’s way more complicated. Are you in a relationship if you’ve been hanging out with someone every weekend for three months? If you have a toothbrush at their place? If you’ve met their family? And, perhaps more to the heart of the matter, how long does it take before you know if someone you’re casually dating is a good match for you long term?
According to marriage and family therapist Racine Henry, PhD, and couples and sex therapist Corrin Voeller say there are a couple factors to consider. Here, they give their expert insight as to how long it takes to know if someone truly has relationship potential and how to know when you’ve officially crossed over from casual to defined relationship.
Okay, first things first: There is no clear-cut answer to the question, “How many dates before a relationship?” Voeller and Dr. Henry agree there’s no magic number of dates or amount of time. “It’s not like all the sudden it’s date seven or three months have passed and that’s the time to figure it all out,” Dr. Henry says.
Instead, Voeller says the first step to figuring out if someone you’ve been dating has relationship potential is to evaluate how that person makes you feel. “Does he or she make you feel desired and secure? Does he or she make you feel anxious? Does there seem to be a lot of game playing?” Voeller says as examples of questions to ask yourself.
Dr. Henry adds that if you realize that you want to introduce the person you’re dating to people as your partner, that’s an indicator that you want to be in a relationship with them. “If you find yourself thinking about introducing him or her to your family or making future plans, that’s something to pay attention to,” she says. Not really something on your radar? That could mean that you either aren’t craving a relationship right now, or you don’t want one with that specific person.
“When you’re thinking about your future with someone you’re dating, it’s good to consider if you both have shared goals,” Voeller adds. “You may know that a relationship is something you definitely want while the other person actually doesn’t want that.” Or you may know that it’s important to be in a relationship with someone who wants kids. Communication is key to finding out if your goals sync up.
Again, while the timeline will vary from person to person, Dr. Henry says that you can start asking yourself what you want early on in the relationship, and keep checking in with yourself the more you get to know the other person—especially several dates in when big subjects that are potential deal breakers for you start coming up.
Just like communication is key as to finding out if someone is looking for a relationship and if their goals are aligned with yours, both experts say it’s crucial to actually defining the relationship. Just like in seventh grade, the “are we/aren’t we” question has to be asked. “I know people don’t want to do this because they want love to be this magical thing that just happens, but love doesn’t just happen. Love is a series of decisions being made,” Dr. Henry says.
Voeller says a major reason why asking is so vital is because different people have different expectations of what a relationship looks like. “Someone might think that because the person they’re dating introduced them to their family that they’re in a relationship now. Or because you’ve been having sex every weekend for three months that you’re in a relationship. But those could both be things someone else does as a casual dater,” she says.
As far as how to ask, Voeller says it’s best to be clear. “I always advocate that someone be super direct,” Voeller says. “You have to remove the fluff so there’s no miscommunication.”
While the conversation can be tricky to broach, once it’s done, you’ll be able to know exactly where you stand with the other person—for better or for worse.
If you’re dating in your 30s, these tips will help you find what you’re looking for. And here’s how to navigate the dating scene in your 40s.