It’s pretty much the bread and butter of every mainstream romance book and rom-com: the ~exclusive relationship~. Cue the hearts, sunsets, and kisses in the rain! And while exclusive relationships might seem like the end-all-be-all definition of lurve, there’s actually a lot more to monogamy than what you’ve seen in Hallmark movies. In fact, if you’re trying to figure out what it really means to be in an exclusive relationship, the IRL version is a little less “hold me forever” and a little more “it’s your turn to take out the trash.”
In reality, people typically enter into exclusive relationships for emotional support, physical comfort, companionship, stability, and even safety, explains dating coach Blaine Anderson, founder of Dating By Blaine. “The right partner can accentuate and improve virtually every aspect of your life, from mundane things like waking up and making coffee, to big things like starting a new job or traveling to a foreign country,” she says.
But being in an exclusive relationship is about more than just having someone to eat dinner with and argue over what to watch on Netflix. Relationship therapist and consultant, Stephanie Mintz, LMFT, adds that some individuals don’t feel comfortable being physically intimate with others unless they’re monogamous. This could be because they view physical intimacy as an expression of singular commitment, or it could be due to health concerns.
Whether you’re considering taking the leap with a special someone or you’re just trying to learn more about different types of relationships, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything you need to know about being in an exclusive relationship and having the coveted, perpetual plus-one.
What does “exclusive” mean?
The movies usually stop when the couple finally gets together, which can make the whole concept of what it actually means to be in an exclusive relationship a little confusing. “Typically, it means monogamy,” says licensed psychotherapist Rachel Wright, founder of Shame Free Therapy and Zumio sex educator. “It means: ‘We’re no longer available for romantic or sexual relationships with anyone else.’” The concept usually applies to both the emotional and physical aspects of a romantic relationship. So, in theory, you like/love only this person, and you also do the no-pants dance with them and only them too.
Additionally, Anderson adds, both partners in an exclusive, monogamous relationship are typically expected to be physically and emotionally faithful. “[This] can mean different things to different people though, so it’s beneficial to set clear expectations and boundaries with anyone you’re considering being exclusive with,” she says.
As with most things, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all deal. Some people aren’t a fan of the lack of variety or spontaneity generally associated with exclusivity, while others choose to adapt the concept to fit their needs. Nowadays more and more couples are taking the time to lay out what exclusivity means to their relationship, Anderson says, so the definition won’t necessarily be the same for everyone.
In fact, there can be—and oftentimes is—exclusivity in open and polyamorous relationships too, notes Mintz. “The exclusivity can be with more than one person with discussions and agreements understood by all of the people in the relationship.”
What counts as cheating in an exclusive relationship?
Just like the definition of an exclusive relationship varies on who you ask, what it means to cheat is going to depend on the couple. As a very base level across the board, though, cheating = a broken agreement, Wright says. That’s why cheating can happen in non-monogamous relationships; it all goes back to crossing some sort of boundary. When it comes to exclusive relationships, though, Wright adds that this typically means “having sex or flirting” with someone other than your monogamous partner.
But since every relationship—exclusive and non—is different, what one couple counts as cheating, another might consider a normal Tuesday night. Some partners might be cool with kissing but intercourse is off the table, while others count any type of physical or emotional intimacy (like long, heart-felt chats or mushy texts) with someone outside of their relationship to be cheating, Mintz says.
This is why agreeing on what your relationship does and doesn’t mean in regards to intimacy is essential to fostering a successful bond. You might come to find that you’re okay with your partner flirting with other people but not crossing a physical line, or vice versa, and it’s all totally normal.
How do you talk about exclusivity with your partner?
If you think you’re ready to define the relationship, the first thing you want to do is find a good time to bring up the convo so it won’t feel rushed. Waiting in line at the grocery store or catching them between Zoom meetings isn’t ideal. Anderson says you’ll also want to bring the topic up in a safe, private place where you both feel comfortable sharing and listening.
When you go to lay your heart on the line, Wright suggests explaining that you want to talk about relationship exclusivity and check to see if they’re receptive to that conversation. This isn’t an ambush. They might need more time to get in the proper headspace. From there, honesty—even if it’s hard—is key to ensuring both of your needs are heard. Try to keep the conversation respectful, open, and judgment-free, and take breaks if needed.
The caveat here, of course, is that you could be on two totally different pages. You might want to be exclusive and they might not believe in closing the relationship or aren’t ready for that step. While that might hurt, it doesn’t mean you should take that as your cue to pressure them or give an ultimatum. “Being respectful does not include trying to convince someone to change their mind so you’re on the same page,” Mintz explains. “Take what the person is saying at face value and decide whether you want to continue being with them in light of the knowledge you’re given.”
Does exclusivity work for everyone?
Nope! Despite how most mainstream media makes it seem, monogamy isn’t always the move. In fact, according to Anderson, many people rush into this type of relationship before they’re actually ready. If you’re considering embarking on an exclusive relationship, Anderson and Mintz say you should really consider whether or not you know each other well enough to make such a commitment. Are you aware of each other’s imperfections? Do you trust them to meet (at least most of) your needs and expectations? Can you meet (most of) theirs? And finally, are you both actually ready to be exclusive?
Unfortunately, people often say they *want* to be exclusive, but their actions speak otherwise. “If you’re seeing someone who talks about wanting exclusivity, but doesn’t seem to want it in practice, they don’t want it,” Anderson says. The same thing goes for you. If you find yourself thinking of straying, missing being single, or going behind your partner’s back, exclusivity probs isn’t a good fit right now. (Or ever, even.)
The good news is that relationships and exclusivity aren’t synonymous. If you love the idea of being with one person, great. If not, also great because there are a lot of different types of fulfilling relationships out there to explore. “We are brought up into a mononormative society, so most folks assume an ‘exclusive’ relationship is the only way to move towards moving in together and potentially marriage and kids,” Wright says. “But monogamy is not the only long-term committed relationship design option.” There are open relationships, ethically non-monogamous relationships, polyamorous relationships, and triads, just to name a few.
That’s what’s great about modern relationships: It’s up to you and your partner(s) to define them. As long as you communicate with each other, respect one another, and maybe even share a few kisses in the rain, you’ll have that coveted romantic comedy-worthy bond.
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