A Complete Guide to Defining the Relationship: The Good, Bad and the Ugly

Navigating the modern dating scene is, in a word: difficult. But even after you do the hard part (finding one person you really like AKA a needle in a haystack) there’s another hard part…. And that’s defining the relationship. There comes a time in every new fling when you just have to DTR so that you know what the future holds for you, and how much energy to invest into this new situationship/relationship.

Defining the relationship can feel super awkward, (especially if you aren’t sure if you are on the same page), but it’s a necessary step. You may be thinking to yourself, why would I potentially ruin a good thing by asking to DTR? Especially if doing so potentially ends the relationship? Well, a lot of good can actually come from clarifying the parameters of your relationship. If you want the relationship to become more serious, you will eventually have to have a conversation that establishes what you are. Defining the relationship has the potential to put your fears of unreciprocated feelings at ease which will let you feel more comfortable and open with your partner. It will also help take your relationship to the next step if you are interested in things progressing.

Alternatively, if you are happy with the freedom in the relationship, you should probably still talk about things to make sure that the other person is also on the same page. You never want to be on a different page than your partner, or semi-partner that is. Defining the relationship in the early stages, or at least talking about what you are open to in the future will bring a lot of good, helping both you and your partner set your expectations. If you don’t DTR at the right time, you risk viewing the relationship differently from your partner, which more often than not leads to hard feelings - even heartbreak. For example, if you think that the relationship is casual and open and that you both are seeing other people, while your partner thinks you are being exclusive, there will be problems. Or, let’s say you are both keeping it casual, but your partner sees a more serious future than you do, then they might feel as if they are wasting their time when they hear your intentions. Almost nothing good can happen if you don’t communicate about your relationship early on, and periodically!

Here are a few tips about how to bring up the DTR discussion, and how to handle different whatever response you get:

1. Ask yourself what you want

Before you put everything on the table and ask your partner to define the relationship, it’s important that you ask yourself what you are looking for. Doing this will not only help you articulate your desires during the conversation, but it will also help you reflect on your current situation and identify if you want things to change or stay the same. Really thinking through your own wants and needs in the relationship will also help prepare you for different responses from your partner. If they are on the same page as you are - great! - but that doesn’t happen all of the time, and being able to explain where you are coming from might influence their opinion of the relationship moving forward, or at least show them why leaving your relationship undefined isn’t working.

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2. Think about more than just your feelings

When you are defining the relationship, it can be really easy to focus too much on how you feel and let that override other important parts of the equation. Especially in the early stages of a relationship, it’s all about things like whether the person makes you laugh, or whether you are attracted to them. But, if you want to have a conversation about the longevity of your relationship, then it’s important to consider other, more practical, factors as well. Do you have similar world views? Are you planning to live in the same city in the near future? If not, how do you feel about long distance? Do you have the same long term goals? Sometimes even if you really like the other person, the relationship isn’t going anywhere because of something besides the emotions involved. As sad as this can be, it’s often easier to call things quits if you are both on the same page about practicalities not aligning. If you are on the same page, talking about these things early on (when you DTR), will help you feel more security in the future of the relationship. Taking emotions out of the equation (or at least out of the forefront of the equation) can also lead to more mature, rational discussions.

3. DTR before there is a conflict

No good conversation ever starts with the phrase “We need to talk.” Those four words tend to put a huge pit in peoples stomach. How could you not feel as if you have done something wrong? So, that leaves the question: in what way should you start off a conversation about defining the relationship? Bring it up during a dinner at home one evening. Or on a lazy Sunday when you don’t have anything else to do. It’s important that you have the time, space and, most importantly, privacy to talk through the inner workings (and potential future!) of your relationship. A lot of people fall into the trap of waiting to define the relationship when a conflict arises. It can feel inopportune to bring up a heavy subject like the future of your relationship out of the blue, so people wait until there is already a fight happening to talk about things like “What even are we?” If you feel like you and your potential partner are on different pages, don’t wait for them to mess up in a huge way before having a conversation about your relationship. Try to DTR in a proactive way, so that the conversation comes up in a more natural way. The added benefit of DTR before there is a conflict, is that you will most likely avoid conflicts all together if you and your partner are on the same page about the parameters of your relationship.

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4. Be vulnerable

When you are having the DTR conversation, it’s important that you are vulnerable and honest with your partner. If you can’t openly talk about the status of your relationship, and where it could go, then you probably aren’t ready to take things to the next level, even if you think that you are. Relationships require a lot of vulnerability, honesty and open communication to be successful. If you want to define the relationship with the hopes of becoming more serious, then you need to be able to openly communicate with your partner. A lot of people think that not defining the relationship/keeping things casual requires less vulnerability, because those relationships require less commitment. But in reality, failing to define the relationship can cause a lot more hurt. Recognizing that you want to be in a casual relationship requires as much vulnerability as recognizing that you want things to be more serious. Sharing what you want for the relationship with your partner takes vulnerability no matter what. Focus on being kind to your partner even if you disagree, because these vulnerable conversations are hard for everyone!

5. Read the signs

While we will always encourage you to define the relationship with your partner (as we said above, it’s better for you both to be on the same page and have your expectations and needs out in the open), there are some times when the signs are pointing to the fact that you are in a situationship not a relationship, and you might save yourself a terribly awkward conversation if you just read the signs. If you are thinking about having the DTR conversation, and you want to take things to the next level with your partner, you should reflect on how they have been treating you over the course of this relationship. Do they prioritize you? Are they flaky?, or do they hold plans? Can you make plans with them far in advance, or do you see each other on more of a booty call basis? Have you ever talked about the future together? Do you ever have deep conversations? Asking these questions, and thinking about your interactions with your “partner” can give you a hint as to whether or not you are on the same page. Actions often speak louder than words and some people try to preempt the DTR conversation, by leaving clear signs that they are not interested in a serious relationship from the beginning. Even if they think they are being clear, it’s still hard to know exactly what someone is thinking unless you have a conversation. So, again, after reading the signs, it’s almost always better to DTR. We’re not saying it won’t get ugly, but having the conversation will at least give you a clear answer and let you move forward with your life.

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6. Make sure it’s two-sided

Pro tip: when having the DTR conversation, make sure that it is actually a conversation! After reflecting on what you want from the relationship and thinking about what you want to say, it can be easy to totally dominate the conversation, especially if your partner is blindsided and trying to collect their thoughts. If you want to ensure that you have a productive, two-sided conversation, you can even break the DTR convo into a couple different parts. After mustering up the courage, tell your partner that you want to talk about where things are going and set a time for you both to talk about it. This will give them the opportunity to really think about what they want. This strategy might seem a little formal for some couples, but it is a great option if communication is not your strength. Or if you know your partner takes a while to make a decision/formulate their thoughts. If you would rather avoid the planning, and dive right into it, that’s also great, so long as you are both given time and space to share what you want. You may not always want to listen to your partner’s point of view, especially if it’s not what you want to hear, but hearing them out in a respectful way will help your relationship as you negotiate, move forward or call things quits.

7. Prepare to have the conversation again

As nerve-wracking as it can feel to define the relationship the first time, just know that you will probably have this conversation a few more times over the course of your relationship. If you decide to become more serious as a couple, you and your partner will become closer and closer and more and more things will need to be defined. You will have to talk about boundaries, managing time with friends, moving in together, starting a family, or not starting a family, managing money, buying a house, taking a job, etc., etc. When you are in a partnership, most life events will require you to define and redefine your relationship with your partner. Good relationships are all about communication, which means making sure that both of your wants and needs are being met in the relationship. Even if you DTR in the beginning and are on the same page about keeping things casual, it’s not a one and done conversation! It’s important to check back with your partner periodically to make sure that you are still on the same page about whatever decisions you are making about how you define your relationship to one another. Learning how to have these conversations early on will help you as you move forward in a casual or serious way. Just think of the first time around as practice!

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