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How to Take Back a Promise to Be Exclusive, But Keep Dating

Trick question. Can’t be done.

Truth: You can’t downshift into first while doing 90 on the freeway, and you can’t suddenly suggest seeing other people after you’ve already promised someone a commitment. But such is the folly of an anonymous letter-writer who wonders to New York Times Social Q’s columnist Philip Galanes if they can essentially renege on a promise to be exclusive and keep hanging out without taking the relationship to Defcon 1. Folly alert!

Anonymous writes:

My girlfriend and I have been going out for six months. At about the three-month mark, she started raising the issue of dating exclusively. I really care for her, but I wasn’t ready for exclusivity. Still, I agreed. (I was a jerk!) Recently, I almost hooked up with a girl I met at yoga, and would have if she hadn’t backed out. (Now, I feel like even more of a jerk.) Please tell me how to handle this. I think I could be exclusive with my girlfriend in the future, but I’m not there yet.

First off, who still calls it “going steady,” anyway? Second, I can’t tell if this is a guy or gal letter writer (“yoga”; “jerk”), but it feels like a male question, and one thing women always objectively get right are their feelings. Let’s parse!

I can say these things in the letter-writer’s defense: For all its loveliness, the first blush of romance and the heady thrill of courtship comes with a lot of anxiety over the future: What if he really likes the Dave Matthews Band? How long before we get on each other’s nerves? How long before I get really bored with the sex? How long before this person tries to lock me into the jail cell of fidelity and throw away the key?

No one is immune from the fear of being rushed into love or commitment. From studies looking at how quickly men and women say “I love you,” we know that men may actually want it sooner, but also that women often wait for men to make the first commitment move anyway, because news flash, it’s for precisely the reason stated in this letter: If you bring it up first, even if he agrees, you’ll never really know if it was his idea. Then you’ll never know if he’s really off drooling over some girl during downward-facing dog while you’re abstaining from the Netflix show you promised you’d watch together.

Both men and women have found themselves in the untenable position of dating someone they like perfectly well but to whom they aren’t ready to commit. The other person gets all starry-eyed, and there you are, backing away slowly, terrified of being bound too soon. But this is why there are so many perfectly great vague, date-like but commitment-phobic ways to describe a relationship wherein one or both parties are not ready for the more traditional language: Hanging out, hooking up, chilling, dating, “dating partner.”

What’s more, most people seem to know in about a month whether they want to get serious with someone. One recent survey at Mic found that most people tend to go exclusive after about four weeks. Another study found most people know if they want to make it official after about six dates.

All of this makes Mr. Three Months Going-Steady Yoga Jerk sound like a real outlier. It’s been three months and you’re still not sure? You “could” be more exclusive in the future, but you’re “not there yet”? All that is perfectly defensible — feelings can’t be scripted; no one has to care sooner than they care; we are all free to move about the cabin as jerkily as we desire. All’s fair, right?

Where you lose us is on this gross yoga thing. The last thing anyone wants is a theoretically committed boyfriend who is actually across town not even fighting the urge to fuck someone else during Sun Salutation B. This is, by the way, why romance has its own unspoken stand-your-ground laws — we all have the right, out of pure self-defense, to hold back certain things from a relationship until we’re ready to give them, and sex and commitment are the two big ones. Also the routing number to your bank account.

But here are also certain things that, once given out, you can’t take back: Birthday gifts, tickets to a cool show, STDs and a promise to date one person exclusively. In a monogamous relationship, the only way to go back is to break up. (I’m sure someone somewhere went from casual to serious and back again; please leave a smug comment detailing how you did it.)

Of course, there’s always the nonmonogamy option — plenty of people have it both ways by seeking out partners who are into having an open or polyamorous relationship. But that’s the kind of thing you really need to decide in advance, and think through carefully: Are you cool with your partner taking home the occasional yoga hottie of their own?

Back at The New York Times, Galanes tells Anonymous to tell his lady friend a sugar-coated version of the truth: “Talk to your girlfriend right away,” he writes. “Say: “I really care about you. But I agreed to exclusivity before I should have. I feel confined by it, and that’s not right. Is it possible for us to step back and keep dating, without that promise?” (Confessing your aborted hookup strikes me as needlessly provocative. It would be the only thing she hears, and it’s beside the point. Your premature agreement is the main issue.)”

Needlessly provocative? How about honest? Because if you told her you really, really like her — but not so much that it would overshadow the urge to tap a nice ass in Lululemons — she’d dump you. And you would deserve it. Accept defeat and depart the field.