WHETHER YOU'VE been dating that special someone for a week, a month or a year, sooner or later you'll be asking those burning relationship questions that are fodder for countless conversations with your sister, your mom, your hairdresser and your friends.

Should I take this relationship to the next level? How?

From those first nerve-racking stages — establishing exclusivity, calling him your boyfriend and introducing him to friends — to more serious steps toward couplehood — taking a trip, meeting family, getting engaged and moving in — every woman has her personal list of do's and don'ts.

Many center around the tension of whether or not he — or she — should initiate that next relationship-defining move.

Are we, aren't we?

When it comes to "the talk," Jen Schefft, author of "Better Single than Sorry" (William Morrow, available in February) recommends waiting for a man's cue. Schefft was on both reality shows "The Bachelor" and "The Bachelorette."

"If I want to know if a guy wants to be exclusive, I'll wait until he brings it up," says Schefft, 30, of Chicago, who got the final rose from bachelor Andrew Firestone, then later broke up with him to try her luck on her own show.

"It sounds kind of old-fashioned, but if I broach it and he says OK, then I'll always be left wondering if he just said that because I was the one to bring it up first."

Jackie Chien, a sophomore at Stanford University, agrees.


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She became exclusive with her boyfriend, Arthur, also a Stanford student, when he asked her to be his girlfriend after a few dates.

"I make it pretty obvious if I like a guy," Chien, 19, says. "But I'd never straight up ask him myself exactly what we are. A guy should bring it up, even though it seems like a double standard."

April Masini, author of "Think and Date Like a Man," (iUniverse, 2005) takes the hard and fast line that women should not initiate, period.

"Women should never bring up such a talk — not ever! Nor should she ask a man out, or ask him to marry her for that matter," says Masini, also an

advice columnist for the online relationship magazine http://www.AskApril.com. "When a man is ready to be in an exclusive relationship with a woman, he will say so. And more important, he will act like it."

Not everyone would agree.

Scott Redmond, a CEO for a San Jose tech start-up, says he has no problem with the women he dates being direct.

"The Bay Area draws a lot of very proactive people to it due to the nature of all these start-ups and venture companies," says Redmond, who is single and in his late 40s. "People here are more dynamic, so it's expected. Men and women are on two totally different time frames, so if women don't ask, men might assume something different."

Adds Chris Beirne of Redwood City, a high school teacher and new mom who's been married for three years: "Women these days are very busy. It's reasonable for us to not have to wait around for a man to get around to asking, or to conversely have to talk someone into it."

Kenny Lee, 34 and single, says he prefers defining the relationship by the fourth or fifth date. And if a man doesn't bring up the topic within that time, a woman should.

"At some point the guy should be saying to you, 'I like you; I want to pursue something more serious with you," says Lee, a product marketing manager for a tech company in San Jose. "If you've been dating someone a while, it's understandable to want to know where you stand. For a girl, you want to know, is he dating other girls?"

We're exclusive; now what?

Once you're established as a couple, how do you decide when to bring him into your inner circle of family and friends?

Hanife Esengil of Palo Alto says introducing a love interest to confidants should happen later rather than sooner.

"Your friends are like your binoculars and should only be introduced after you've formed a solid opinion of that person yourself," says Esengil, a science researcher who is 28 and single. "I don't want everyone else's opinions overwhelming how I feel. You don't want that humiliation of having him fried under a magnifying glass."

Sherri Dohemann of San Mateo takes an opposite approach and introduces romantic interests early on. She sees her friends' reactions as a reassuring litmus test.

"I love seeing how a guy interacts with my friends," says Dohemann, 32, a medical sales representative who is actively dating. "It's not because I want my friends to interview him. But it's the best way of seeing how he is with other people. You want to see someone in as many environments as possible. And how well this person connects with the people who are close to you."

Meeting friends may indicate that you are moving a relationship forward, but introducing him to family is an even weightier measure.

Lauren Zugaro, 26, of Menlo Park first introduced her husband, Josh, to her family when they visited her college campus in Ohio. She had been dating Josh exclusively for more than two months.

"I've always been casual introducing guys to my friends, but with family I'm much more particular," says Zugaro, who works as a fundraiser for a non-profit and has been married for two years. "It's OK to meet each other's families, but to get intimate, like having dinners with them or staying the night, you should take your time. If the two of you break up, you end up breaking up a relationship with your families, too."

Lisa Daily, dating expert and author of "Stop Getting Dumped! All you need to know to make men fall madly in love with you and marry 'The One' in 3 years or less" (Plume/Penguin Putnam, $12), recommends recognizing a man's signals when taking your relationship public.

"A guy who wants to progress the relationship will want to introduce you to his friends, and he'll want to meet yours," Daily says. "If he only wants to meet you in the middle of the night in a secluded location, he's probably not going to be bringing you home to meet Mom any time soon."

Daily suggests introducing your

romantic interest to friends in a group of three or fewer — unless you're bringing him to a party — after three on-your-own dates. Family introductions should come within three to six months for in-town relatives and six to 12 months when overnight travel is required.

"Don't try to rush a family meeting," Daily says. "They are almost always weird or awkward, and you need to make sure the relationship is on solid ground."

Let's get married

Should you drop serious hints or make the move if you want to get married or even just live together?

Heather Yeomans, 24, of Menlo Park says she repeatedly let her fiance Neil know of her desire to get married long before they were engaged. While he acknowledged it would be part of their future, he also told her at various points that he was not yet ready.

"It was something I was ready for him to ask me for a long time," says Yeomans, a retail sales associate who has been with Neil since they were 16. "We both began talking about it from the beginning, because we both knew we were meant for each other since high school. But he was waiting for the right time.

"My advice? Be blunt about it. At this stage, you have to share everything. If it's something you really want, you need to make sure it's what you both want, and it's the right step for you to take together at the right time."

Karie Bennett, who owns Atelier Aveda salon in San Jose and has been married for 14 years, says the level of comfort you have talking to your significant other is a good indicator of what's to come.

"If you're going to avoid these conversations early on, you're going to avoid way more important things in your relationship later," says Bennett. When her husband first asked her to move in, she issued an ultimatum that they must be engaged within a year. "The way you do things in the very beginning of your relationship sets the tone for how you'll communicate later in your life together."

Contact Nerissa Pacio at npacio@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5827.