Straight talk: there are two phrases that a woman can say that will instill ball-shrinking terror in the heart of every man. The first is “We need to talk.” The second is “Where do you think this relationship is going?”
It’s the dreaded “Defining The Relationship” talk… and nobody ever looks forward to it. The DTR talk has achieved an almost mythical level of terror amongst people – especially men, because it almost always comes at the worst possible moment, and suddenly you have to make decisions that will affect you for the rest of your relationship. For many men, it represents a massive, possibly undesirable, change in the nature of your relationship with this person. Even if you’re actively hoping to be able to move the label from “dating” to “girlfriend”, it’s a conversation that’s rife with anxiety and potential pitfalls. When do you bring it up? Is a month too soon? Is three months too late? What do you do if you say you want to be serious… and she doesn’t? What if you’ve misunderstood the nature of your relationship? Guys always talk about the Overly Attached Girlfriend… but what if you’re the Overly Attached Boyfriend? And just what does it mean when she wants to “keep things casual”? What about if she’s looking “for something serious”? What do you do?
Calm down. The reason that the DTR moment is so terrifying is because we almost always do it wrong. The key to acing the “Defining The Relationship” talk – whether you’re looking to have it or it’s being sprung on you – is to make sure you do it the right way.
When To Have The DTR Talk
One of the first and most common questions is simply “when should you have the defining the relationship” talk?
Well… it depends. As much as it would be nice to have a handy rule of thumb like “three weeks after you start sleeping together” or a concrete date, every relationship is different and, as a result, the timing will be different as well. However, as with navigating the tricky world of gift giving there are some guidelines as to whether to have it sooner or later. It depends on a number of factors.
1) How often have you been seeing each other?
Dating is a cumulative experience; the more often you see each other, the more likely that you’re going to want to have the DTR convo sooner rather than later. When you’re seeing each other once or twice a week at the most – usually just on weekends – then there is a lower level of implied intimacy and emotional investment than a couple that sees each other three to four times a week. Seeing each other more often than that tends to mean you’re more into each other and you’re headed towards something more involved than a fuck-buddy relationship where you’re both enjoying the sex but you’re not interested in anything more. In fact, if you’ve been finding that you’re seeing each other more and more often lately, that’s often a sign that you’re both becoming more and more interested in one another and invested in your relationship together – a sign that you should consider discussing just where you think the relationship is going.
The amount of time you spend together when you do see each other should be factored in as well. If you’re getting together twice or three times a week on your lunch break, but not spending extended periods of time together, then the DTR conversation can be pushed back in the relationship timeline.
Similarly, a couple that only sees each other in short, intense bursts in between long stretches of non-contact (long-distance relationships and out-of-town hook-ups, for example) is probably going to want to have the DTR sooner – the intensity of that time together, coupled with the length of time spent when you are together tends to necessitate making sure everyone is on the same page. To give a personal example: my wife and I had our DTR conversation the third time she came to visit… because we were spending weeks at a time together whenever she came to see me.
2) How Often Do You Communicate Outside of Your Dates?
Just because you’re not seeing each other every day doesn’t mean you’re not interested. Sometimes the schedules of our day to day lives mean that we can’t see people as often as we’d like. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not in contact with them. If you’re talking every single day on the phone or over social media between the moments when your schedules line up, it moves the timeline for the DTR conversation slightly to “sooner”. If you’re not talking much outside of your dates except to set up the next one, then it’s safer to leave the conversation for later; your behavior is indicating that you’re not quite so invested in the relationship as to need to define things. Yet.
3) Are You Having Sex?
As a rule of thumb, it’s easier to go with the flow if you haven’t slept together yet; most of the time, the relationship isn’t going to be seen as being serious or in need of defining. However, if one of you is preferring to wait – whether for personal comfort, reasons of faith or any other reason – then it’s better to establish your expectations early on. Many people are less likely to stick around, without some idea of how you anticipate things progressing. If you are having sex, then it’s better to have some form of the DTR conversation soon-ish, if only to manage expectations… especially if you get the sense that you’re not necessarily on the same page. It’s better to be honest about how you’re feeling than to hide it and end up hurt or disappointing one another because you had different ideas about the nature of your relationship.
One hard and fast rule though: if you haven’t had the exclusivity talk, you aren’t exclusive. Never assume that just because you’re not seeing anyone else that they aren’t too. If exclusivity is important to you, then you need to establish this soon – otherwise you risk getting hurt, even though you both may have had the best of intentions.
Side note: These guidelines are assuming that the frequency you’re seeing each other or talking is a mutual decision. If one of you wants more than the other is providing, it’s better to talk it out earlier instead of letting the resentment grow.
Schedule The Talk
Ever want to make someone incredibly defensive right off the bat? Spring the DTR conversation on them with absolutely no warning. This is quite possibly the worst, most counterproductive way to negotiate something as important as the potential future of your relationship together. It immediately puts them in the spotlight and under incredible pressure to provide an answer right the hell now which will be binding forever.
There’s no better way to leave someone feeling like they have no options other than to go along with what you want or break up right then, which is a recipe for resentment. Nobody wants to feel like they’re Meat Loaf at the end of Paradise By the Dashboard Light – feeling like they’ve been tricked into agreeing to something they didn’t want because they were caught up in the pressure of the moment.
This is an important conversation, so it’s critical that you both have time to actually think. If you want to have the DTR conversation, tell your partner “Hey, I’d like to talk with you about us and our relationship, figure out where we’re going and what this all means. How does Saturday work for you?” Pick a day when you’re not going to have any commitments, deadlines or responsibilities that are going to cut into your time together; you want to be able to have the talk when you’re both relaxed. The conversation may be short or it may be long but either way, you want to be able to talk about it without feeling like you need to come up with an answer by X time or else.
If your partner springs the conversation on you without warning, then ask for time to think and pick a day to talk about it. If they care about your feelings on the matter, they will actually respect that you want to give this important discussion the attention it deserves. If they’re demanding an answer right then and there… well, they’re showing you that they are less concerned with how you feel and more about getting the “right” answer from you. This can be a serious relationship warning sign, so proceed with all due caution.
Define Your Terms
One of the biggest causes of relationship strife is when two people are talking but nobody is understanding what the other is saying. This is doubly true when it comes to having the DTR talk. Just as when you’re bringing someone home, you should never assume that everyone knows what “casual” or “serious” means. One person’s “casual” means “non-exclusive, sex only” while another’s means “we only see each other once a week”. Your “serious” may mean “sexual exclusivity” while somebody else’s means “calling each other boyfriend/girlfriend” while another person’s means “We are going to get married.”
When you’re defining the relationship, you first need to define your terms. You want to make sure you’re both crystal clear on just what you mean and how you see things. It doesn’t do you any good to put the effort in to try to establish just where you are if you’re not both working from the same map. If you say you want something casual, explain just what you mean by “casual”. What do you expect from your partner, and what should they expect from you? Does casual also mean non-exclusive to you, or does it mean that you aren’t necessarily seeing this as leading to a long-term, committed relationship? If you mean “serious”, do you mean that you see yourselves on the path to a more involved commitment – moving in together, children, marriage – or that you expect to spend more time together while leaving the future slightly more undefined?
If you’re not sure what your partner means, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It can feel a little awkward at first – admitting you’re not sure what they mean can feel a lot like telling them you’re stupid – but it’s important to make sure you’re both on the same page. After all, the last thing you want to do is to get into an unnecessary argument because you want the same things but you’re getting tripped up by the way you aren’t using the same words. It’s easy to say “words mean what they mean”, but that is cold comfort when you end up breaking up because you were unable to communicate exactly what you were thinking.
Stand Up For Yourself (The Right Way)
This can be a hard one. Often when we’ve had the DTR conversation sprung upon us, we can feel like we’re being pressed to agree with our partner… or else.
The pressure to agree can be intense, especially if you’re left feeling as though the fate of your relationship is in the balance. Even if you’re both going into the conversation with the best of intentions, it can feel as though one wrong answer can mean hurting the other person and torpedoing what was an otherwise happy and successful relationship.
This is why it’s vitally important to be willing to enforce your boundaries. No relationship is going to survive one partner feeling as though they were pushed into something they didn’t want but felt obligated to agree to. Relationships, after all, are partnerships; you want something that feels right to both of you, not just one person giving in to the other’s wants and desires at the cost of their own. You want to negotiate and compromise, trying to find something that works for you both. This may mean that you will have to be flexible; sometimes the price of entry in a relationship means giving up some of the things you might want out of it. It’s up to you to decide whether or not the relationship is worth the cost.
However, everyone has absolute “must haves” or expectations, so when you’re having the defining the relationship talk, it’s important to be up front about what you want. If you are looking for a relationship that is going to lead towards marriage within a certain period of time, it’s vital that you say this. Hiding something you want because you’re worried it would chase your partner off – or hoping that you can change their mind about it later when they’re more invested – is going to just make sure you’re going to have an epic and even more brutal break up later on. So if you want or expect something from your ongoing relationship, you have to say so. If you want exclusivity, let her know: “I’ve done the dating thing. I want a relationship that’s about you and me and nobody else.” If you want something casual but you’re open to something more committed in the future, then say so: “I love what we have together, but I’m not ready for something serious right now. I want to keep seeing you and just taking things day by day and see what comes.” If you aren’t relationship material or can’t (or won’t) do monogamy then you have to be upfront. If you are going to want an open or poly relationship, then you absolutely must establish this.
Don’t browbeat your partner into accepting your terms; after all, just as you don’t want to be pressured into a relationship you don’t want, neither do they. Explain what you want, be willing to compromise where you can… and be willing to walk away if it just isn’t going to work.
It can be hard because sometimes standing up for what you want or need from a relationship means risking losing it all. At the same time, it’s better to end a relationship than to be in one where you – or your partner – is going to be miserable. You need to be willing to admit that you want different things and sometimes this means that you aren’t going to work out in the long term. It sucks, because you care about this person… but love isn’t enough to gloss over fundamental incompatibilities. It’s better to walk away if your DTR conversation shows that you won’t work. The cleanest break heals the fastest and gives more opportunities to salvage a friendship when you’ve had time to heal.
It’s An Ongoing Conversation
One of the classic blunders we make with the DTR talk is that we assume that it’s a one-and-done. This is a mistake; it puts an incredible amount of pressure on both of you to “get it right” off the bat. There’s no pressure quite like feeling that everything about the future of your relationship hinges on this one conversation and that everything is set in stone afterwards.
The fact of the matter is, people change and so do relationships. The things that we want or expect from a relationship can – and frequently does – change as we grow. Someone who only wanted a casual relationship can come to decide that they want something more committed. Someone who is in a monogamous relationship may want to open it up, while somebody in a non-monogamous relationship may want to close theirs for a while. Somebody who thought she was interested in a relationship leading to marriage may realize that this wasn’t what she wanted after all. This is why it’s important to not treat the DTR conversation as a one-and-done. Instead, go into it understanding that it is an ongoing conversation, allowing your relationship to grow and change as you both grow and change. It takes away the pressure that says “we are like this now and forever” and instead gives you the flexibility to admit that you may have to revisit how you feel about each other and just what your relationship means.
And after all: it’s your relationship, not anybody else’s. Relationships aren’t open to public vote. It’s about the two of you. This means you get to define your relationship as whatever makes you both happy… even if you both decide to toss the rules out and start over entirely.