How to Tell If You’re Casually Dating or in a Committed Relationship, According to Experts

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Modern dating is basically an obstacle course of swiping, decoding texts, and differentiating between the rainbow of relationship flags—even something as simple as labeling a relationship can be unnecessarily confusing. How do you know if your relationship is casual or serious? Where do situationships fall on the will-they-won’t-they spectrum? And how does ethical non-monogamy play into all of this? When it comes to casual vs. serious relationships, things can get murky, which is why we consulted a few experts to help guide us through the perplexing process that is labeling a relationship.

Experts In This Article

Being able to identify the kind of relationship you’re looking for is a crucial first step in finding the right fit regardless of the type of intimacy you’re seeking. “In any of these scenarios, make sure you are open and honest about your intentions,” advises Dr. Morgan Anderson, a licensed clinical psychologist, attachment theory expert, relationship coach, and author of Love Magnet. Without knowing what you—and the other person or people in your relationship—want, you may find yourself in an ill-fitting situation, even after a successful first date.

Thankfully, we found a few therapists to help us define our dating parameters and differentiate between casual and serious relationships.

How many types of relationship status are there?

Between domestic partnerships and friends with benefits, labeling a realtionship is easier said than done. (And, disclaimer: labels are completely subjective so how you refer to your specific relationship type is fully up to you and your partner(s).) That said, there are two main types of relationship status that can be tricky to differentiate. Allow us to simplify.

What is a casual relationship?

As far as movies and TV shows are concerned, it’s easy to write off a casual relationship as being completely passive and all about physical intimacy. Real life is a little more complicated. IRL, both casual and serious relationships are comprised of physical and emotional components that make the gray areas between the two especially murky. So what exactly is casual dating, and what is expected in a casual relationship?

“Casual dating implies the time you spend together is more relaxed and flexible,” explains Tess Brigham, LMFT, a therapist who specializes in relationships, life transitions, and anxiety. “There is no talk of the future and no demand for a long-term commitment.” A key concept for many casual relationships is “no strings attached,” adds Hayli Evans, LMFT, LPCC, a therapist who specializes in trauma, relationships, and communication. “For someone, this might be the ‘early stages’ of a relationship, and for others, ‘casual’ might be the end goal,” she continues.

Further, there are different types of casual relationships, including everything from friends with benefits to one-night stands. The frequency of contact, type of contact, friendship status, and degree to which each person discloses their feelings all play a role in defining these types of relationships as casual. Because the definitions of casual relationships and serious relationships are subjective depending on the people involved, it’s important to make sure you’re on the same page with your partner(s) and respect each other’s needs.

What is a serious relationship?

A serious relationship—or an intentional relationship—is defined by a more significant level of committment between partners with a specific end goal in mind, typically a long-term relationship or marriage. “[In a serious relationship] you have two people who are intentional and who want to invest emotionally in the relationship, and with their time and energy,” Dr. Anderson says. “It includes making future plans, spending quality time together, introducing each other to each other’s friends and family, and more.”

Other common denominators in many committed relationships include planning for the future, and a high level of emotional intimacy, Evans says. These are all signs a casual relationship is getting serious (or already is). So, if the person or people you’ve been “casually” seeing suddenly decide it’s time to introduce you to their parents, consider that your relationship might be developing into something more serious according to their expectations and assess how you want to move forward.

With that said, Evans emphasizes that relationship statuses are not binary. With the situationship in its prime and dating apps opening the possibility to new relationships dynamics, it’s important to acknowledge that the gray area between casual and serious relationships may be wider than ever before. “I think that there is much more fluidity and nuance to modern relationships than distinctly ‘casual’ or ‘serious,’” says Evans. “However, since there are people who find themselves confused as to their relationship structure and unsure of how to navigate their relationships, it can be helpful to start with these two ideas as a conceptual framework.” (More on modern dating in a bit!)

What is the difference between casual dating and intentional dating?

  1. What does it mean if my partner talks about the future with me?

Casual relationships are more of a here-and-now, or “for now,” situation than one in which you think of committing to your partner longterm. For instance, a casual relationship might be one in which you don’t really text or call each other unless you’re making plans to meet up, you avoid deep conversations that might focus too heavily on your feelings, and you don’t take each other into consideration when it comes to planning for the future. Conversely, “in a serious relationship, if you got a job offer in another city, you would take your partner’s thoughts/feelings into consideration because this will also impact their lives,” Brigham says.

  1. What is considered a date vs. “hanging out”?

In casual relationships, time spent together is more likely to happen last minute or when it’s convenient. “You’re not necessarily prioritizing one another, including not making plans in advance,” Dr. Anderson says. “There’s an element of ‘If it works out to hang out, great. If not, no big deal.’” A casual date or hang sesh is usually something more chill, like grabbing food, bowling, or watching a movie together. “Nothing is planned that far in advance, doesn’t cost a ton of money, doesn’t require a lot of thought,” adds Brigham.

Full-fledged dates require a bit more effort. With serious relationships, you’re thinking more about what makes the other person happy, and you’re engaging in more meaningful activities. This might mean more structured dates that require effort, such as going out of your way to do something with your partner that makes them happy (i.e. making a reservation in advance or driving farther to go to their favorite movie theater). “They are willing to take time/money to create a special experience for their partner,” Brigham says. That doesn’t mean you aren’t having laid-back time together, too, but that’s not all you’re doing.

  1. What are your boundaries in the relationship?

“The main difference between a casual relationship and a serious one is the level of commitment and vulnerability shared in the partnership,” Evans says. For this reason, relationship boundaries are crucial to hash out as soon as possible, regardless of your relationship type. Being explicit with your boundaries can be incredibly helpful, but not all boundaries are communicated verbally and sometimes actions really do speak louder than words. Take introducing your partner to your parents for example.

There’s a reason rom-coms always have that awkward yet amusing moment where the main character introduces their new partner or fiancé to their parents; it’s kind of a big deal to merge those two worlds together. If everyone gets along, maybe this partner is destined to be a part of the protagonist’s life for good; if not, maybe it’s time to call it quits and redownload the dating apps. For this reason, Brigham sees the partner-parent introduction as a key marker that helps differentiate between casual and serious relationships. If you spend time with the other person’s friends but haven’t met anyone in their family, you’re probably casual, Brigham says. In serious relationships, people are typically more involved with their partner’s family and other parts of their life.

Additionally, casual relationships typically adhere to more strict emotional boundaries that discourage the partners from creating deep, personal connections. In serious relationships, these emotional connections are not only an expectation but a priority that the partners actively dedicate time and effort into cultivating. Evans refers to these expectations as “strings.” If “strings”—such as meeting the fam or providing regular emotional support—are attached, the relationship is probably serious. If they’re not, then it’s likely you’re floating in the more casual waters of the dating pool.

How do you know what your relationship status is?

The quickest markers to look at when determining your relationship status are time and effort, says Brigham. Some signs of casual relationships, she continues, include a lack of effort or a feeling of one-sidedness. So, if you’re always in charge of making plans, if your partner never asks you about your plans for the future, and if they don’t really think about you unless you’re face-to-face with one another, chances are your relationship is casual. This includes your partner only reaching out for a quickie or a makeout sesh, which can be another sign that they’re more focused on meeting their own immediate needs rather than being near you specifically.

With a serious relationship, Brigham says, the other person may plan really nice dates, think about you when you’re not around (and let you know), ask you questions about yourself, and ask what you want for the future. While these questions may seem pretty standard in terms of dating, they’re a tell-tale sign that your partner is really putting in the effort to get to know you on a deeper level and foster a connection that may last longterm.

What is better, a causal or serious relationship?

There is no definitive guide to dating (unfortunately), but there are a few signs to keep in mind when you’re trying to determine whether a casual relationship or a serious relationship is right for you. Ahead, experts share situations and desires that fit best with casual and serious relationships. (Of course, use your judgment when determining whether a situation in your life might be catapulting you in one direction or the other.)

When is a casual relationship best?

  • A casual relationship may be best if you don’t have the time or energy for a serious relationship, perhaps because of school or a demanding job.
  • You may also be on the market for a casual relationship if you just got out of a serious relationship (or experienced a casual relationship breakup!) and need time for yourself, but also want to have a little fun and start dating again.
  • You’re not sure what you’re looking for in a partner and want to explore that more.
  • You’re new to dating and want to gain experience with less pressure.
  • You just want companionship or casual sex.
  • You’re experiencing a big life transition that’s taking a lot of your time and emotional energy.
  • It’s what you want!

When is a serious relationship best?

  • You have the time and energy to give to another person.
  • You’ve dated enough to where you know who you are, what you like, and what you don’t like. (This may or may not be part of dating in your 30s.)
  • You want to spend a lot of time together.
  • You’ve done the personal work to know what you want and how to treat yourself and others well.
  • You’ve met a person who feels right to you.
  • You’re willing to put another person’s needs ahead of your own sometimes, and are even happy to do it.
  • You’re ready to invest in someone and build a future with them, like getting married, starting a family, or adopting a pet together.
  • You’re ready to be vulnerable with someone, share life with them, and learn about yourself and this person in a new way.
  • It’s what you want!

Evans also touches on what this “serious vs casual” decision may look like for clients who have relational trauma as a result of abuse, neglect, or other times of suffering. “I often advise that when they are getting back into dating after any relational breach of trust, that they focus on learning to listen to their intuition rather than expecting a certain outcome or romantic relationship in the beginning,” she shares. This may look like listening for and identifying red flags, checking in with how your body feels around a person, and taking time to open up and know someone, she continues. “I also always encourage reminding themselves that it is always okay to stop seeing someone at any time, for any reason.”

Modern Differences in Casual vs. Serious Dating

With modern dating, Brigham believes the biggest difference between serious and casual relationships deals with commitment and exclusivity. A generous amount of both typically indicate a serious relationship, and vice versa. A core exception to this is non-monogamous relationships, in which having more than one partner is the norm rather than a sign the relationship isn’t serious.

For example, a serious romantic relationship has historically been acknowledged as a committed relationship between two people, but monogamous relationships aren’t the only kind of serious relationship, adds Evans. For instance, someone might be in an ethically non-monogamous relationship with a primary partner, or several people might be seriously dating each other, as in a polyamorous relationship. According to Dr. Anderson, the increase in modern dating app use may be a key factor in encouraging people to explore their relationship boundaries and preferences.

Evans summarizes modern dating as fluid, saying we’re in a time of transition—and that’s not a bad thing. She speaks to how gender roles and responsibilities are less fixed, and people have more authority and autonomy over what they want. “Since modern dating has no roadmap, we may see a wider variety of casual and serious relationship structures than was previously common in the United States,” she says.

FAQs

Does casual dating mean seeing multiple partners?

Casual dating can sometimes mean seeing multiple partners, but not always. “While some people might casually date one person at a time (with the criteria mentioned above), others may date a few people at the same time without a particular attachment to any one partner,” Dr. Anderson says.

Evans typically finds that casual dating includes the freedom to see and sleep with multiple people. It depends on the relationship, though, she says, so remember to initiate that conversation with the other person or people. Does casual dating mean multiple partners for you? Does it mean the same for them?

“Casual relationships are undefined, which means anything is possible,” Brigham agrees. “A big benefit of being in a casual relationship is you get to date whomever you like—that might mean several people or it could mean no one . . . Casual dating means the possibility of multiple partners.”

Can a relationship go from casual to serious?

According to Brigham, a relationship can go from casual to serious, but be cautious if you’re looking to switch up your relationship status. “As a rule, if someone tells you they just want to be in a casual relationship, believe them,” she says. (In most cases, there’s no reverse psychology or coyness at play.)

Of course, this doesn’t mean staying in a casual relationship is your only option. Instead of agreeing with casual and hoping it will lead to something more, Brigham continues, be upfront with what you want and don’t compromise. You’re both allowed to want different things out of a relationship—ongoing communication just has to be at the forefront of any decisions about the future, according to Evans.

“A casual relationship can turn into a serious relationship if both people develop feelings and decide that they want to invest in the relationship,” says Dr. Anderson. “However, I think this happens pretty infrequently. Typically, we see a situation where only one person develops feelings but the other does not.”

How long do casual relationships last?

The length of a casual relationship will vary, Brigham says, but usually, you’re looking at anywhere from three months to a year. “Usually after three months, one or more of the two people have either moved onto another casual relationship or one person realized that this is never going to be serious, so they leave.”

Alternatively, Dr. Anderson believes a casual relationship could last anywhere from days to a year, but usually not long since the partners aren’t prioritizing each other. “[Casual relationships] only last as long as they are mutually beneficial, and that can vary,” she says. While the timing is up in the air, a core part of maintaining a healthy relationship isn’t. “There is no exact science/rule for how long a casual relationship will last, but communication (or lack thereof) can influence the length of any relationship,” Evans adds.

So whether you’re in a casual relationship or a serious relationship, don’t hesitate to communicate your desires and your boundaries with your partner(s). It can make all the difference next time you spot that special someone.

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