5 dating tips for navigating the 'nonexclusive' relationship world

Jenna Birch
Contributing Writer

Whether you enjoy this “new normal” or not, online dating has fostered an environment where it’s perfectly common to date multiple people at the same time. You have access to so many people. You match with so many people. You get ghosted, you move on to the next, you go on a date, it’s a dud, you rinse and repeat. But here’s the problem: People have very different (often very strong) opinions about whether or not it’s OK to date multiple people at once.

Illustration: Laurène Boglio for Yahoo Lifestyle

On one side of the debate is the argument that we should only ever date one person at a time. How can you give a relationship the proper attention and time it deserves if you’re never really focused on it?

On the other side, to potentially find your match, obviously you’ve got to widen your pool — and expect disappointment. You get ghosted, breadcrumbed, zombied. People are evasive and dodgy. Of course you’d want or need to date multiple people if you wanted to maximize your odds.

It’s a tricky subject, and the lack of communication about expectations is where problems and hurt feelings arise. So, with that in mind, here’s a quick guide for dating in the current landscape, no matter which side of the debate you think is right.

Illustration: Laurène Boglio for Yahoo Lifestyle

1. If you don’t date multiple people at once, you should communicate your expectations upfront.

Going in, you need to assume that the person you are seeing is also seeing other people. Especially if you met online or on an app, but really, you should always assume that there are others in the background unless you know this person really well. If you are not the type to date multiple people at once, and you’re hoping to find someone who’s going to focus their attention on your relationship early on, you should communicate that upfront.

As early as the first handful of dates, you can find a way to state your interest or mention, “I only date one person at a time.” At the bare minimum, your dating prospect will know where you stand, and they’ll likely be more open with you about how they typically date as a result. If you are really uncomfortable with the person you’re seeing dating other people, then you need to communicate that discomfort. Since the norm is dating around until you’re exclusive or have the DTR talk (“define the relationship”), the ball is in your court.

2. If you’re being intimate with more than one person, you should share that information when it becomes relevant.

Physical intimacy is a normal and healthy part of any evolving relationship. However, for obvious reasons, a lot of people are uncomfortable having multiple partners at once, or not knowing that the person they’re seeing is also having sex with other people. If you are dating, not just hooking up, this is something that should be cleared up as you get closer.

My opinion is that both parties owe it to the other person they’re seeing to have a quick talk before they proceed with a physical relationship. If you’re seeing other people, say so. If you still want to keep seeing other people, and the man or woman in question, say so. If you’d rather halt other romantic or sexual interactions as you move forward with the person you’re into, say so. Clear, honest communication is the best tactic here; hopefully, the other person will do the same. Don’t assume, or feelings are highly likely to get hurt — and you could destroy whatever it is you’re building.

3. If you’re dating only one person, don’t assume that the other person is only dating you too.

Check your assumptions at the door. No matter what connection you feel, or what you think should be happening in a perfect universe (exclusivity!), it’s important to have a real conversation about where you’re going as a couple. I can’t tell you the number of times “shock and awe” follows. And not in a good way.

If you really like how things are going and would like to pursue a more serious relationship with someone, you should bring up what you want, very clearly, with your dating prospect. Tell them what you want specifically from a relationship with them; don’t just ask for some kind of label (because terms like “exclusive,” “dating,” and “relationship” mean different things to different people).

At the same time, be aware that if the other person isn’t where you’re at, you’ll have to adapt to their wants and needs — or you could scare them off entirely if it’s still early, and they don’t want anything too serious. The timing of this conversation is important, and it should feel relatively comfortable and natural. Unless, of course, you are only looking for daters who are serious about building an exclusive relationship. In this case, having the conversation earlier on can serve as a filter.

4. If you’re dating multiple people at once, don’t lead someone on.

If you’ve dated around enough, you can kind of sense where the other person is at. If you’re still feeling it out and dating others, but the other person is texting you all the time, sending you links to interesting stories or memes over email, and trying to set up dates each weekend, that interest differential is going to be pretty obvious. It’s not that you’ll never get there, per se. Maybe you will! You just need more time.

Don’t lead someone on; balance that dynamic when you sense that the scale is decidedly tilted. If they are clearly “all in,” you can simply say you’re looking for something casual for the time being. It’s fine to give a reason — a recent breakup, a crazy work schedule, feeling out what you want and need in a partner — but you can keep it simple. Just don’t string someone along, canceling dates or disappearing for a while and coming back on the grid. Be open about what you want and need.

5. If you’re dating multiple people at once, one will usually emerge as the top contender.

There’s no easy answer to the question of when to date just one person, but in the age of apps, it’s not uncommon to be seeing two people at the same time, both of whom you really like for different reasons. When it comes to choosing one for a relationship, my best suggestion is to tell both prospects that you want to take it slow, as you’re still figuring out some things in your own life. Focus on really getting to know both people on a deep level: How they interact with you when you are together, and when you’re not together. How they see their life unfolding, and if you’d mesh well. Their temperament, their dreams, how they handle disappointment and imperfect situations.

Honestly, if you take the slow approach here, usually one prospect will emerge as the best person for you in a matter of weeks. It won’t take long. Just give it time. And in every possible situation in this dating landscape, seek to be honest when needed, clear when you have a concern, and kind toward everyone’s feelings.

It’s hard out there. But if you follow the golden rule and treat others with respect, it’s not impossible. All can find their best match.

Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love (Grand Central Life & Style, out now). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Monday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to jen.birch@sbcglobal.net with “Yahoo question” in the subject line.

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