How to Navigate the Commitment Quandry

Getting to know someone is difficult territory. Communicating what you want to them effectively is even more fraught. Here's our quick and dirty guide to what you can expect from, and implement in, talking to a date about how much commitment you can handle.

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October 21, 2021

Three dates in, what's the commitment etiquette?

There's a point at which getting to know someone is supposed to start turning into something more serious. But how do we determine where to stick that goal post and, regardless of whether you want to establish commitment or the exact opposite, how do you bring it up?

You've just recovered from your most recent relationship and you're ready to dip your toes into the dating pool. We live in an incredible time where you can cross paths with singles well outside of your social circle, instantaneously, from the comfort of your couch. Fast forward a couple of weeks and you're past the first date stage with many of the matches you're getting to know. If you've been out of the dating game for a while you might be faced with an uncomfortable dilemma. Either you've just finished your previous relationship and need a period of lighthearted fun with a variety of new people to rediscover who you are and what you want or you've spent enough time working on yourself and want to try to find someone to integrate into your life in a more meaningful way. In both cases, you have no idea where on that spectrum your various matches are and you don't want to mislead anyone. So how many dates is too many to avoid making your intentions clear, how do you get that conversation going, and what do you say once you're having it?

The first question is the hardest to answer because it varies greatly based on several factors including age, region, culture, etc. and therefore largely relies on intuition you haven't built up yet. That being said, here are some high level rules that can help you navigate.

First of all, if you're not ready to commit that's completely okay. In modern times, many people are enjoying the era of self-love. Don't be afraid that you're going to shock and offend someone with this concept. In fact, there's a decent chance that they feel the same way. The only way you can wind up being rightfully perceived as a jerk is with a lie of omission.

Are you the pursuer or the pursued?

Courting always has a power dynamic. Even if the roles are fluid -and they often are- at any given time one person has to be more aggressive than the other in order to maintain momentum. Which role you're currently filling makes a difference in how soon you need to bring this conversation up. If you are the pursuer (planning dates, texting first, establishing frequency of communication) you only need to rush to make your intentions clear if you aren't ready for something serious. If you are, or if you're somewhere in the middle, the effort you're putting in suggests you're interested in something.

The general rule of thumb: if you are the pursuer and not interested in commitment is somewhere between date 2 and 5 you should broach the topic of what you both want out of dating at the moment. Any longer than that and you are wasting someone's time if they don't want the same thing.

As the pursued your role is counterintuitively more active on this front. No one, of any gender, is a mind reader. As the pursued you're already in a stronger position in the dynamic because you're rarely expected to do anything that would make the depth of your interest obvious. It can be really difficult for someone to distinguish between a person who is busy with work, a coy dater, or bad at texting in general, from someone who isn't that interested. It can be very appealing to lean on one of these as an 'out' from the uncomfortable conversation of not being interested. This all makes it incredibly difficult for your counterpart to decide whether they should give up pursuing you or try even harder.

The general rule of thumb: if you're the pursued and interested in commitment your continued receptiveness to their efforts should be enough of a signal. If you really do work a lot or are a bad texter and are worried that they may misconstrue that as lack of interest, it's generally pretty harmless to give them a compliment or two about how much you enjoy spending time with them. If you aren't interested in commitment it's important that you broach the conversation as soon as possible. Ideally, you will have the conversation by the third date - before they've put in a lot of effort with a false understanding of what they were working toward.

The second question feels really charged with anxiety but it has an incredibly simple answer. Just bring it up. There is absolutely no chance that they aren't just as interested in the answer as you are. So be brave and just ask where they are in their relationship life or what they want from dating at the moment. The second you say it and they start answering, you'll both feel relieved and can start moving forward.

The general rule of thumb: not asking won't change the answer, it will just keep you from being able to prepare for the consequences. If you avoid asking what someone wants you are giving them the opportunity for omission and keep yourself in an anxious state trying to interpret their actions.

What do you say in the modern 'Defining The Relationship' conversation?

Many people have trouble being straightforward in this situation but it's imperative that you try. There's no point in having the conversation if you don't manage expectations correctly. In fact, it's counterproductive. However, you should also remember that the person you're speaking to is a relative stranger and kid gloves might save everyone involved some hurt feelings.

The general rule of thumb: If you want something serious, you should say that you ideally are open to a commitment and know you wouldn't be satisfied long term with something casual. This wording is important because feeling like the person across the table is expecting a proposal the next week is possibly the least sexy thing that can happen on an initial date.

The general rule of thumb: If you want something casual, be honest but kind. If it's that person specifically make sure to lead with the ways in which you think they are great and compatible and then follow with the things you're sure you need in a partner that you aren't getting with them. Or, just say it's you, not them. That's a cliche phrase but it never sounds canned when it happens in such a serious conversation (if paraphrased, obviously) and if you aren't up to expending the emotional energy it takes to give them a post mortem it's an easy way out. Maybe they were terrible, maybe you're really overwhelmed with the rest of your life. Regardless of why you don't have the energy to dissect what was incompatible, you don't owe it to someone you've only spent a brief time with so only go through that effort if you feel like it and you think they will grow from it.

The general rule of thumb: If you don't know what you want, say exactly that. Even knowing that you're unsure of where you stand can be really useful to the other person in crystallizing their own feelings and expectations. Saying one way or the other is great if you know what you want but, if you don't, you risk sending them in the wrong direction and regretting it once you have a better idea of what you want.

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