Dating Tips

The Key Differences That Separate Casual Relationships From Serious Ones

Photo by Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt
Especially when dating someone new, it can be hard to tell the differences between a casual versus serious relationship. This lack of clarity can lead to all kinds of confusion if all parties involved don't communicate and have the same expectations of the arrangement. However, not everyone is comfortable having a "define the relationship" style of conversation so early on, which might lead a person to rely on telltale signs of casual versus serious relationships to decipher what's happening.

“A casual romantic relationship is [defined by] mutually agreeing to date without being exclusive,” says relationship therapist Chautè Thompson, LMHC. The success of a casual relationship with someone has a lot to do with whether or not you see a long-term future with the person (if so, you'd likely want to eventually "graduate" to a serious relationship, which could potentially lead to being on different pages).

“This is someone that you're having a good time with, that you're enjoying yourself with,” says certified sex therapist and licensed marriage family therapist Jacqueline Mendez, LMFT, of casual relationships. However, someone you’re dating casually isn’t necessarily “someone you want to spend the rest of your life with or grow into a deeper commitment with,” she adds.

Alternatively, in a serious relationship, you and your partner have gotten to know each other well and are starting to prioritize one another, says sexuality and relationship therapist Chanta Blue, LCSW. Thompson agrees: “A significant romantic relationship is being in a...relationship where expectations are discussed and emotional, physical, and mental needs are being met.” Of course, it is possible for a casual relationship to turn into a serious one, so long as that's what both parties involved want.

Below, learn about the differences that separate casual versus significant relationships.

5 markers of casual relationships

1. You don’t make long-term plans

When discussing markers of casual versus serious relationships, one key difference is whether or not you plan for the future. "There's no planning of the future, so it's [more], ‘Let's plan for this next day, maybe let's plan for the next week,’ but there's no talk of future goals,” says Blue of casual relationships.

“It's [more], ‘Let's plan for this next day, maybe let's plan for the next week,’ but there's no talk of future goals.” —relationship therapist Chanta Blue, LCSW

Additionally, there may not be a long list of activities you do with your partner in a casual relationship. “You’re meeting up to just do one activity [and] you're always going to that same activity—there's no variety,” Blue adds.

2. Your dates might lack meaningful connection

”I think there's a huge difference between going on a [dinner] date and going to a movie, where you're both quiet for an hour and a half,” says Mendez, noting that people in casual relationships tend to opt for activities that don't require vulnerability or true intimacy. You’re likely passing time together with activities that you can do together, but not necessarily ones that will facilitate connection.

3. Your conversations are mostly surface-level

Experts agree that conversations in a casual romantic relationship tend to steer clear of serious topics. Since the person isn’t necessarily someone you see yourself dating for the long-term, you might be less inclined to learn about their past experiences, family history, or other non-surface-level information.

4. You lead very separate lives

Whether you’ve known someone for a few weeks or a few years, if you’re casually dating, it’s likely that they haven’t met your friends or your family members because you’re not particularly interested in how they’ll mesh with your inner circle.

“If someone's casual, you don't care if they don't get along with your best friend,” says Mendez. The connection is about you and that person, as well as what you do and talk about together, not about how they can be further incorporated into your life.

“You're keeping yourself to each other,” says Blue. “You're not introducing them to friends or family members. They're not introducing you to other friends or family members. It's just the two of you,” she adds.

5. You’re less mindful of their sexual pleasure

Sex can be a huge component of any romantic relationship. However, when it’s a casual relationship, you might not be interested in figuring out what your partner may be into—and vice versa, says Mendez. Because you’ve (hopefully mutually) agreed that the relationship is casual, she says there isn’t pressure to please your partner the way there might be with someone more serious.

5 markers of serious relationships

1. You’re interested in getting to know each other on a deeper level

A good indication that you’ve arrived in serious-relationship-land is that you want to know more about the person you’re seeing. What do they remember about their childhood? What do they like to do for fun? Is there something that the two of you share in common beyond the surface-level?

If you’re asking each other these types of questions, experts say you’ve likely come to see this person as someone you want to learn more about—which, in turn, means that you could be picturing something more long-term with them.

2. You let go of low-stakes details that you might otherwise turn you off

“When it's moving to a serious relationship, you overlook those things, because you want to spend time with the person,” says Mendez. Essentially, while red flags shouldn't ever be ignored, there might be room for certain non-deal-breaker yellow and orange flags in a relationship that is turning serious.

3. You’re meeting each other’s family and friends

If you find yourself wanting a partner to meet your loved ones, you’re probably already considering this relationship as serious. Bringing the person you’re dating into the fold shows that you’re serious about them and want them to be a bigger part of your life, says Mendez.

4. You start prioritizing each other—in the short-term and long-term

If you find yourself planning a trip months in advance or inviting each other to weddings that are happening way down the road, it’s likely that your relationship has moved from casual to serious because you’re prioritizing each other, and are planning future events with the other person in mind.

This prioritization can also look like checking in on the other person or ensuring that you see each other on a regular basis. “We always make time for the things that are important to us,” says Blue. For example, if you’re both typically busy, a marker of a serious relationship is regularly checking when you’re both free to hang out.

5. You meet up to do more than one activity together

The experts agree that the more activities two casual daters experience together, the likelier it is that they move into serious territory. A good marker of a serious relationship is that “you can have fun—whether it's meeting up at each other's homes, going out to dinner, or doing other activities,” says Blue, adding that planning meaningful outings is a telltale sign that you’re in a serious relationship.

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