What Does The Relationship Term 'Exclusive' Really Mean, Anyway?

"Love Island" might not resemble the average dater's experience (the luxury villa, the tropical locale, the cameras documenting everything...), but it still finds a way to influence our dating lexicon with terms like "slow-burner" and "on job." Recently, viewers have noticed the "Love Island" cast throwing around the term "closed off," seemingly as an alternative to the word "exclusive," and some fans are scratching their heads. What does "exclusive" really mean, and do Love Islanders (and the rest of us) really need a new phrase to replace it?

According to Lisa Concepcion, relationship expert and founder of LoveQuestCoaching, exclusivity is a fairly straightforward concept. "Simply put, dating exclusively means both people are only focused on one another. They're not juggling other people," Concepcion told Women's Health. However, exclusivity agreements can vary depending on the couple. "People will often define their terms for being 'exclusive' and agree to them," Whitney Goodman, a licensed marriage and family therapist, explained to PsychCentral. "I have seen couples discuss exclusiveness around seeing other people, physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, and other areas of the relationship." The good news: "Exclusive" can fit whatever your personal desires and needs are in a relationship. The bad news: The label may not always mean what you think it does.

The term 'exclusive' doesn't signal commitment

Dating exclusively may sound a lot like being in a committed relationship — or at least something that comes just before one — and some experts would still define exclusivity that way. "An exclusive relationship is typically the natural progression on the path to a more committed, monogamous relationship," Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist and professor at Yeshiva University, shared with Verywell Mind.

However, with new relationship arrangements like situationships and FWBs making their way into our love lives, the term "exclusive" might not hold the weight it once did. In a 2015 Inverse article discussing the evolution of the word, Stephanie Amada, a faculty member in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University, suggested that exclusivity is much more relaxed compared to actually being in a relationship. "I don't know if I can put my finger on what makes it different, but as someone who works with language, I think the words we use are really important," Amada said. "How we identify ourselves, with words, is important. When you put a label on it, an identifier, it [the relationship] does feel more serious and more important."

Given the confusion over the term "exclusive," it makes sense that the singles on "Love Island" started using the phrase "closed off" instead. Even if the phrases have similar meanings, "closed off" might be a way to communicate exclusivity without any pressure to commit later on.

How to define exclusivity in your relationship

A situationship could be exclusive if both people agree to only see each other, and hookup buddies could be exclusive if they're not sexually active with anyone else. You could also be exclusive with someone you're dating, even if you're not confident they'd make a good long-term partner. Put simply, exclusivity can mean a lot of things, yet it can also mean a whole lot of nothing.

The only way to clear up any confusion is by talking to your partner. "The best way to communicate [exclusivity] is to be direct and clear about what you want," Whitney Goodman told PsychCentral. "You can start by bringing it up to the person and saying something like, 'I want to talk about our relationship and make sure we're on the same page.'" Hayley Quinn, a Match dating expert, agrees, telling Metro, "If you haven't had an explicit conversation about not seeing other people, chances are you aren't 'exclusive' yet."

Be open about what exclusivity means when it comes to your emotional connection, sex lives, and how you spend your time. You may also want to set specific boundaries around things like dating app activity and hanging out with exes. And if you realize you don't want to be exclusive, just say so. As Goodman cautioned via PsychCentral, "We almost always end up hurting people more when we aren't honest or when we say something to make them happy and then do the opposite."