When Does a Relationship Actually Begin?

So we’re all familiar with the idea of the wedding. You know, the grand ceremony where a couple avow their intention to remain married to each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for fairer or uglier, and so on, before friends, family and the whole world. It’s such a public declaration that there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind as to when exactly the marriage started.

Of course, this is not the beginning of the story of the couple. Even before the marriage, there is another defining milestone of the journey that they have travelled together – the engagement. The occasion may be a quiet one involving nothing more than a heartfelt request made on bended knee. Or it could something more dramatic involving fighter jets, parachutists and coloured smoke. Whichever way it happens, at the end of it, the couple have agreed to get married at some not too distant date in the future.

But we still have to go beyond the engagement to find out where the story begins... and here, things become somewhat murky. Did the story start when she noticed the way he smiled at her at work? Or was it when he studied her shapely curves and declared them good? Perhaps it was when they agreed – just as friends – to go out for a meal together? The reality is that what should be the true defining moment of the relationship is hard to pin down.

Now, some of you will say that if a point in time has to be picked, it might as well start from the point where the man (yes, it’s still usually the man) asks the girl if she would like them to start ‘going out’ together, and she says yes. This sounds a very reasonable proposition, since, like the engagement and the marriage, there’s a definite asking and accepting.

The trouble is that even this event does not always occur in relationships. For example, I recall the story of someone I know who was going out with this girl. I say ‘going out’, because I’m not even sure if I can say that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. From all indications, they started out as acquaintances, since they moved in the same circles. Then, bit by bit, they began spending more time together, visiting each other at home, holding hands, kissing, and pretty much doing all the things that boyfriends and girlfriends do.

Yet, when I asked this guy whether he and the girl were together/an item, he said that no, that was not the case. As far as he knew, he hadn’t asked her out, and she hadn’t asked him about the status of their relationship, so he was happy to assume it was what it had always been – a friendship.

But you do all the things that boyfriends and girlfriends do, I said, like kissing; doesn’t that make you a couple?

No, he replied. Which law states that ordinary friends cannot kiss?

Well, I had no answer to that. It felt strange, but I could only conclude that since they were both getting what they wanted out of the relationship, who was I to open my big mouth? However, they later split up and one of the girl's complaints to me was that the relationship was never defined and that was why it did not take off.

Now I know there are some people for whom that is how it works. Nothing is ever defined and yet they end up married one day without any of them having to say anything. Not even an engagement.

So I’m still confused. When exactly does a relationship start? Should the man always ask specifically for dating/courtship? Should the lady ask to be exclusive for the relationship to really begin? Must there be a ceremony to celebrate this most important of moments? Or maybe it doesn’t matter, and the very mystery of the start of the relationship is part of its appeal?