Can We Be Exclusive?

When is it OK to ask someone if they’re seeing anyone else, and if, indeed, they would agree to see you exclusively? Yes, I know the mature answer to this is “Whenever you feel that that’s what you want,” but given that I’m not quite out of my 20s, this is the kind of thing that often (always) plagues me at the start of a relationship.

I’m such a pussy, in fact, the biggest question I find myself asking is, “How do I know if he’s on the same page as me so I don’t appear overly needy?”

Not that there’s anything needy about saying, “Hey, I like you, and would like it if we only dated each other going forward,” after you’ve been seeing someone fairly regularly for a discernible period of time. It’s not like I’m saying “Heyyyyyy, so like, here’s a bracelet made exclusively from my hair, you should wear it and OMG BITCH ARE YOU LOOKING AT MY MAN. OH NO, YOU LOOK AWAY NOW OR IMMA POUND ON YOU,” on the first date. No, no; those are two completely different and mutually exclusive things, the latter being an entirely insane thing I would never say, and the former being completely normal and rational.

Why, then, does it not feel like a normal and rational thing to say?

I mean, I’m not looking for a declaration of love. I’m not looking for a marriage. I’m looking for the guarantee that whatever guy I’m sleeping with isn’t sleeping with anyone else, especially when we’re going out to dinner, watching movies, holding hands, sharing feelings, touching each other’s hair, and other such frivolous intimacies on a regular basis. When did that become too much to ask?

The simple answer is: When I moved to New York. It seems like most guys here are trying to have their pussy and eat it too; not that the women are any better. We’re all on constant rotation, unable to commit to a Saturday night party invitation let alone another person. We don’t give ourselves exclusively so we don’t expect it; likewise, we’re so scared of being asked for exclusivity from someone, we become too scared to ask it of someone else.

And it’s such a simple thing, or at least it should be. It should be that when you’re really enjoying getting to know someone you’re satisfied to be getting to know only them; maybe I’m too traditional or old-fashioned, but “getting to know” several people at a time kind of takes the importance — and ultimately the magic — out of getting to know one that might be special.

A friend of mine suggested that asking the person you’re dating if they’re seeing anyone else too soon will “scare them off.” This is a concept that I’m not even sure I entirely understand. If someone is that easily scared, then isn’t it better you learn say, after a month or two of seeing them, than after a longer period of time in which you’ve managed to fall madly in love with them? Aren’t these the sort of things we want, are important, to know before we invest?

Moreover, doesn’t the “scared off” excuse just mean they don’t like you as much as you like them (which, again, is probably something that’s good to know)? And what are the benefits of not asking for what you want anyway? Isn’t that somewhat duplicitous — hiding your intent in the hope that the person you’re seeing will one day like you enough to only like you? It just seems like we’re selling ourselves short by playing games.

Listen — it’s OK to want to be with only one person, even in a new relationship. I know we’re all young and free and getting tatts and eating kale and kissing girls and liking it or whatever, but I sometimes feel like we’re never going to get what we want if we’re too scared to ask for it. Wanting to be exclusively special to someone you find exclusively special is a normal desire. It doesn’t mean things are going to work out, or that you’ll even get to fall in love; it just means that you think it’s worth it enough to try, to give you whole heart to, and that tiny, seemingly insignificant sentiment is something that we’re in danger of losing entirely. TC mark

image – Shutterstock


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  • ererer

    When should you ask to be exclusive? Simple, the moment you feel comfortable asking the question. If you have any hesitation talking to your partner about it, it may not be time,

    • P

      This article presumes that everyone is monogamous, or wants to be. That’s a problem. Sexual exclusivity (or emotional exclusivity, for that matter) is not an honest barometer of affection, and treating it that way can only lead to problems.

      Perhaps the author didn’t intend this, but the last line seems to draw an opposition between the possibility of finding love with your partner and the possibility of seeing other people. Polyamory is not for everyone, certainly, but it works for a lot of people – probably more than you’d suspect – and it’s irritating to see those experiences disregarded.

      • Jack

        No it doesn’t. It presumes the author is not polyamorous. She’s writing from personal experience, all she’s saying is that he shouldn’t be afraid to ask someone if she is/can be exclusive with them. She’s not saying everyone SHOULD be exclusive.

  • Jess

    This is rarely a problem in the UK, the “dating” scene is so different here. I can’t imagine what you guys have to deal with!

    • Alex

      When I lived abroad in Seattle for 2 years (I’m originally from Argentina) I swear the whole “dating” process (because it really feels like a process) always seemed too stressful for me. When I was in the UK for 2 months it was just like being at home, you’d hang out and things would just happen, it’s weird if you have to explain it and most americans don’t get it but yeah, their way (in my opinion) makes the situation a bit awkward.

      • jcq

        can you expand more on this?

      • Jess

        In America, people date more than one person at the same time, as in they hang out, stay over, have sex etc. Then, I gather they figure out which one they like the most, ditch the others and shack up with one as their full time partner. In the UK (and other places) this is completely unheard of, people would flip if they found out that someone they just started seeing was seeing and sleeping with another guy or girl. It happened to my friend once and he was so pissed off that his then girlfriend had slept with someone else in the early stages of their relationship that he broke up with her.

      • R

        This is weird to me because I’m American, and all of my relationships have evolved organically, with no pressure. I’ve never been in that weird where-is-this-going-am-I-the-only-one-feeling-anxious-about-this-what-is-the-other-person-thinking stage. But every one of my friends finds themselves in that place at some point. What am I doing differently? Maybe I’m just not afraid of commitment (I don’t get why that is frightening) or asking others to commit to me, and I’ve always been able to discern when a new romantic relationship is just never going to head in the direction of exclusivity.

  • Melysa Martinez

    “It seems like most guys here are trying to have their pussy and eat it too; not that the women are any better. We’re all on constant rotation, unable to commit to a Saturday night party invitation let alone another person. We don’t give ourselves exclusively so we don’t expect it; likewise, we’re so scared of being asked for exclusivity from someone, we become too scared to ask it of someone else.”

    Love this paragraph. The observations, the phrasing, the juxtaposition of male vs. female dynamics, the fear and frustration.


  • Richie Cruz

    I want to know what the hairstyle in the pic is called, and if it needs hair products to sustain. I’m hoping it naturally looks like that, with the appropriate haircut

    • Liz (@cheezliz)

      Looks like an undercut, and you’d need some sort of gel or hairspray to get it to stay up like that.

  • AM

    Needed this. Thank you.

  • Ariana

    Amen! Well said :)

  • Brynvincible

    Amen, sister friend.

  • Only L<3Ve @

    […] Thought Catalog » Love & Sex Add a comment […]

  • well

    I want to believe that this writer mentioned the fact that she’s in her 20s just to continue TC’s giant f-you to the readers who hate this “how we get through our 20s” shit. I don’t understand this battle but it makes me uncomfortable. And of course the article is tagged “20-somethings”.

    Whatever. Regardless, what a sensible article! All of the applause!

  • Jenny

    The guy I’ve been dating has hinted that he’s been exclusive with me (probably due to his busy schedule or whatever), but I have not… even though I want to. But I have not dared to ask to be exclusive out of fear, of not only “scaring him off”, but also of becoming attached before he’s ready to be with just me. And if I do ask, assuming he’s only been seeing me, how am I supposed to not come off as a complete jerk?

    • Jessica

      Don’t be aggressive or pre-emptively defensive when you bring it up. Just say, “Hey we’ve never really talked about this before and I just want to make sure we’re on the same page.” You don’t have to say that you’re seeing anyone else if he says he hasn’t been. it sounds to me as through you like him enough to be exclusive but have been seeing others as sort of a back-up/safety net deal? If that’s the case, there’s no need to bring up the safety nets. Just smile and say you’re glad he wants to be exclusive too. If he says no, then you can say something like “Oh well I might have plans for next Saturday then” just to let him know you’re not pining away.

      • Ziri

        That was great advice up until the last part. Saying “okay, I might have plans on Saturday then” sounds a bit like either emotional blackmail, or like you’re trying to make them jealous.

      • Jessica

        Ziri, I didn’t mean to lie or make up plans to make him jealous. I just meant say something to let him know in a vague way that you’re seeing others without coming out and saying, “Well, if you don’t want to be exclusive, then I’m going out with Mark on Saturday and I plan to fuck the hell out of him.” I guess it came across a little more strategic than I intended it to.

      • Ziri

        Oh no, I get that totally, but I just feel like if you said that to someone after they said they weren’t up for being exclusive with you, they might take it as either blackmail or an attempt to make them jealous. I guess it’s because of the context of the conversation.

      • Jessica

        It could easily sound like you have other potential suitors and you are trying to be respectful by making sure he won’t be hurt or upset if you accept an offer for a date. That’s the way to do it without coming across like a jerk.

  • Hello

    And this is why NY (and probably other big cities) sucks for single people. I hardly know anyone in a relationship here, but everyone seems to be dating in one way or another. Looking to get out of NY for sure–it’s a dehumanizing city. I’m sure I’ll get argument here, but think about how fucked up your love life is if you live here. Although, the 30-something dating scene seems to be a little different

  • Jessica

    If you don’t feel comfortable asking the question, that’s a warning flag to me. The way I see it, if the other person does like you they are going to say yes and things will be good. If they get scared off or are wishy washy about committing to an exclusive relationship, then they’re probably not the sort of person with whom you are realistically going to have a strong, healthy relationship with anyway. If you feel like the two of you get along well and you would like to make it exclusive, ask! There’s the chance of rejection — and that sucks — but it’s better to know than to live in limbo land.

    • callmeann

      You say the wisest things. Thank you!

      • Jessica

        Thanks! I know it’s often easier said than done, but keeping a cool head and thinking through these situations as rationally as possible is an incredibly important skill to learn. One that I still need help with sometimes!

  • Caitlin

    Same in San Francisco – and agree, finding out now is better than down the line.

  • JesusAngelGarcia

    Seems to me you’re talking about a generational culture of fear… of intimacy, interpersonal honesty, in-the-flesh authenticity, etc. What do you have to lose by asking? Something you never had to begin with if the answer doesn’t go your way? At the end of the day, I’m convinced, the most honest thing we have going for us is how we feel in the moment. If we can’t share this with someone we’re spending intimate time with, then I’d argue that time is not truly intimate. And if that’s the case, then we ain’t doing the “dating” thing right.

  • jyi90

    Hit the nail on the head. GPOY and well done.

  • Coconuts

    UGH i just had this happen recently, he turned out to be weird.

  • Veronica


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