Amanda’s* “talking stage” lasted for five months. When Alan’s* name lit up her phone, she’d meet him on a Friday night in a dimly lit, brick-walled tavern in the East Village. “It was the type of place you’d go to be romantic—or if you didn’t want to be seen,” the 23-year-old graphic designer recalls.
He had a magnetic charm and cartoonish tattoos on both arms. She knew almost everything about him…except for what he called her when she wasn’t in the room. It definitely wasn’t “girlfriend”—they hadn’t had The Conversation—but they clearly weren’t just casual hookup buddies, either. What to call this ambiguously romantic, not-yet-official situationship? “Dating” felt sterile; “crush” seemed juvenile; “exclusive” wasn’t even necessarily true at the time. Rather, they were just talking.
Even if you’ve never heard of the “talking stage,” there’s still a not-small chance you’ve been in one. The apparently Gen-Z-coined phrase is a vague descriptor for an early pseudo-relationship full of texting and talking—and maybe even full-blown dates and hookups—but no commitment. Think of it as a pre-dating phase, one that might precede a more serious relationship, orrrrr one that can stretch on into indefinite situationship territory. If that sounds confusing and frustrating, that’s because it is! The talking stage is intentionally ambiguous, often emotionally exhausting, and, sorry, no one is safe from it.
Like these confusing pre-relationships, the term “talking stage” itself is notoriously vague and undefined. According to Strategic Relationship Consultant Stephanie Mintz, this ambiguity is a not-great sign of the times. “Dating has gotten way more difficult and way more complicated than it needs to be,” she says. “Throwing around new trendy terminology creates even more confusion—and even more opportunity for miscommunication—when building new relationships.”
Of course, romantic relationships without a title aren’t exactly a new thing. But since the talking stage took over our dating lives (and our social media; #talkingstage has a whopping 737.8M views on TikTok) this buzzy not-label label has introduced a new layer of confusion and anxiety to the already often torturous infancy of a potential new relationship.
So, uh, why are we doing this to ourselves? Good question! Here’s everything you need to know about the talking stage, how we got here, and how to get TF out.
Doesn’t anyone just date anymore?
Yes, they do. But, for better or worse, dating has changed—and so have the relationships that it leads to. As various forms of non-monogamy increase in visibility and popularity (a 2020 study found that one third of Americans say their ideal relationship is a non-monogamous one) we have an increasingly diverse catalogue of different relationship styles to choose from. And as our relationships change, it’s only natural that our approach to building those relationships would change as well.
People have more freedom now to define their romantic relationships on their own terms, which means we also tend to feel less committed to the traditional script that has long governed mononormative courtship. And TBH, that’s actually a very good thing. A more fluid approach to relationships and relationship-building gives people more space to date with intention, to think about what they really want out of their love lives and pursue it on their own terms.
That’s the key word though: “intention.” Fluidity isn’t the problem with modern dating, and neither is the fact that fewer people may be looking to settle down into traditional monogamous relationships these days. According to Mintz, a lack of clear communication—with ourselves and our potential partners—about what we actually want is the real culprit behind the situationship epidemic.
“You have to be clear with yourself about your goals when meeting new people,” says Mintz. When it’s time to communicate those goals to a potential romantic partner, being open and honest with yourself will make relaying that message to the person you’re seeing—or, *ahem* talking to—much easier, she adds.
Hi, commitment is scary
While we may be living in a brave new world of romantic fluidity, there’s also still plenty of good old-fashioned commitment-phobia floating around these days. And according to marriage and family therapist Nicole Richardson, that fear of settling down is a big part of what’s keeping so many of us stuck in talking stage hell.
“Commitment is scary,” she says. And when you throw in the abundance mentality of the dating-app era—aka, the constant awareness that a new, potentially “better” partner is a mere swipe away—it can be even harder to feel confident making things official with a new flame. It’s an unflattering reality, “but the truth is, the paradox of choice can be paralyzing,” says Richardson.
Naturally, when you have a dating pool full of options constantly at your literal fingertips, it can be all too easy to keep your current romantic prospect on hold in unofficial “talking stage” territory while shopping around for others. It’s not particularly cool behavior, but it happens.
How TF do I get out of the talking stage?
Look, the talking stage doesn’t necessarily have to be all bad. Those early weeks of feeling each other out can be filled with crushy bliss, low-pressure hangs, and plenty of opportunity to flex your wittiest banter over hours of carefully crafted texts. Used as a sort of pre-dating trial period, it can be a great way to chill out and enjoy yourselves without feeling pressured to rush into “something serious.” And if you’re good with liminal spaces and not looking for anything serious at all, then there’s really nothing wrong with chilling in talking stage territory indefinitely.
If, however, you’re kind of over it and looking to advance to the next stage, we hear you. The talking stage is often framed as a sort of pre-dating trial period, right? So does that mean that if you just ride it out, it will eventually turn into a relationship?
Maybe! But also, maybe not. And either way, playing that waiting game might be an annoying, drawn-out process that leaves you stressed out and shakes your confidence. Not exactly a great foundation for a healthy relationship, you know?
Not to mention, staying in the talking stage doesn’t just hurt the person who’s seeking commitment, it’s actually bad for the one who’s slowing the relationship down, too. According to Richardson, that person “is denying themselves the honesty and clarity that comes from vulnerability while continuing to indulge in the myth of perfection.”
Sounds like a big ol’ mess, right? That’s why the only way to actually get out of the talking stage is to (eep!) be honest about your feelings. It’s important to be direct about what you want, communicate those desires clearly, and—most importantly—leave if your intentions don’t match your potential partner’s. It’s scary, yes! But it will save you both a lot of time and heartache, and will leave you free to pursue the kind of relationship you’re actually looking for.
That’s what Amanda learned when she finally broke off her situationship with Alan. “I wasn’t getting what I wanted. I wanted to be his girlfriend,” she says. Coming clean about her real feelings ultimately ended their months-long talking stage, which Amanda knows is very much for the best. “I would’ve wasted time ‘talking’ forever if I hadn’t.”
Plus, it allowed her to find a new partner and a real relationship—one where she never has to question where she stands. And yes, he calls her his “girlfriend.”