Defining the Relationship


by Randall S. Frederick

Every relationship will, at some point, need to have a DTR. Partners will need to “define the relationship” as they see it, lay out where they think things are at and where they anticipate them going, and more or less compare notes.

The first time a woman actually used the acronym “DTR” – Hey, can we have a DTR on Tuesday? – I was confused. What the hell was a DTR? A Subway sandwich? She giggled and explained that she hadn’t known what the letters meant either until college. Her experience of being in a relationship inevitably mandated a DTR after the first month of seeing each other to determine whether there was a point developing and strengthening whatever attachment bonds were forming. A few days later, we sat on her patio beside a fire and realized we weren’t compatible. To be honest (and maybe this shows how much of a blunder I have been in some of my ‘ships), I hadn’t even realized we were “officially” dating. For me, a month of seeing one another was still “seeing each other” territory. It seemed a natural progression to go from meeting up, to going out, to seeing other other (whether frequently or occasionally), to being in a relationship and beyond. Until you decide to get married, all of these would fall under the umbrella of “dating” – a sometimes vague and inexplicable category.

For many people, this conversation is necessary early in a relationship. It’s popular now to “hang out” and “chill” for longer periods of time, to “just be” without labels or expectations, but every relationship, romantic or otherwise, is fraught with having to navigate What’s Up and What’s Good. It can be exceptionally confusing to think you’re building towards something when your “hang out” just wants to… well… hang out. They like you enough to spend time with you and kick back, but not kick it. DTRs are not the only conversation that needs to take place during the initial stages of a relationship or whatever it is you are doing.

Sometimes, when those initial endorphins are running rampant, we have a false sense of intimacy. We’re sharing pieces of our lives in bars and under stars, but those tales are highly edited. Personally, I’m always taken aback or find it humorous when a date tells me that she “gets” me because there are a handful of profound experiences that have shaped me and that I never talk about. When we create this false sense of security or hope or security, we tend to think in one-offs. We’re not in a “relationship” per se, but we are. No one has said they “love” each other, but we do. Living in that sustained optimism can make things unclear between partners. One thing I noticed a lot in college and even into mid-adulthood is that many (re: most) of my friends avoided a conversation to Define The Relationship “because we’re on the same page” only to be thrown off course when a partner started seeing other people “because we never said we were exclusive.” Cue Beyonce’s Put a Ring on It – the anthem of a generation. In some of those ‘ships, I think the choice to see other people was calculated to up the ante. You don’t want me to see other people? Then you need to tell everybody we’re official. But most of those instances, sadly, occurred simply because of youthful ignorance. They didn’t know the other person cared that much. Some questions to ask yourself before you pull that card and request a DTR might be:

  1. How often are we seeing each other?
  2. Do I want to know the answer to these questions? Have them asked of me?
  3. Do I want to see this relationship evolve right now, or am I comfortable keeping things where they are?
  4. Are we communicating outside of our dates? Is this “arrangement” expanding, staying the same, or shrinking?
  5. Are we having sex, and if so, are there any issues that need to be addressed?

Intentionally setting aside time to discuss the nature of your relationship and important experiences, putting those conversations on the calendar, is vital to the foundation of any relationship. So let’s discuss approach.

Preparing for the DTR

There’s the very direct, very intense Q&A where you compare notes. What do I mean to you? Where is this going? When do you see us getting to the next level? Do you want kids with me or not? When are you going to let me meet your family? Why don’t we spend more time together? Are we dating? You know, I think all of these are great questions that need to be answer. I’m just worried that it might come off a little desperate, even aggressive, if that is your style. I’ve been on dates where the woman pulled the DTR card way too early and when I said we were still getting to know one another, she became very direct. I was really offended by it, and told her as much. I thought it was desperate and offputting. But I also know I’ve done similar things – I think everyone has, at some point, come to the place where they don’t want to play games that week. They don’t want to “do the dance.” They want to know, very simply, whether this is a good use of their time or not. I think all of us should feel justified in wanting to cut the fluff and get straight to it – what are we doing here, where is this going, and is this an actual relationship or are we keeping it loose to see other people? Just be aware that this can be very intimidating, especially if it seemingly comes out of nowhere. That said, a direct approach may work very well for your partnership, especially if you have a short list of questions still to be worked out. Remember: a DTR is about “defining the relationship.” It can be very simply. It’s not about defining expectations and schedules and how many kids you’ll have and where you’ll live and whose family you’ll spend holidays with. Keeping it simple and direct can alleviate anxiety between you and allow you to focus on other parts of your day.

There’s the conversational approach. Sometimes DTRs take the form of conversations about where each other are going in their career. Is someone moving or keeping the option to move open? What about finances – are they paying off student loans, a house? Paying off a house indicates you intend to stay for at least a few years in one place. Easing into a conversation about whether they plan to stay in an area is a strong indicator of where their head is at, where their finances are at, and could bring up some very revealing insights. If they want a new place, are they looking for “something small and private” or “room to grow” and have a family? There are many creative ways to gauge where your potential partner is at that are not manipulative. Taking a conversational approach is often the best way to have a DTR, starting on a related topic and easing the conversation toward the two of you specifically.

You have a good idea of how your partner will likely respond and how to communicate your thoughts to them. But when the tables turn and they begin to share their own feelings, be prepared for the unknown. Assuming they’re on board with you, there are still things you never anticipated as the two of you share honestly. Approach the DTR optimistically, believing the best of your partner no matter the outcome. After all, you may want to marry them or kill them – but you’ve been spending a lot of time with them for a reason, so be prepared to embrace or let them go with peace and well wishes.

Define Some Terms

A few days ago, I was in New Orleans with someone very close to me. We were just leaving one of my favorite bookstores in Uptown when she got a call. Hurriedly, she told the person on the other end she couldn’t talk because she was “hanging out with a friend.”

At first, I was a bit put off. Hanging out? A friend? Surely, I’m more than that, I felt. She could tell I was pulling away and shutting down and that we had to talk about it. For her, “hanging out” was something meaningful, she said. She didn’t just “hang out” with anyone. And because we had not yet defined what exactly “hanging out” mean, all she could say for certain was that I was, in fact, a friend. I share this because sometimes you have to lay down some terms, or explain them as they come up. What does it mean to “hang out” or “see” each other? To be “casual”? To say you want to “get serious” or even “date” can mean different things. Relationship expert Harris O’Malley, writing under the moniker “Dr. Nerdlove” puts it like this:

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.

Alternative DTRs

Maybe you feel a bit hesitant to really define the relationship right now. That’s cool. There could be dozens of reasons why, or even one really big reason. Whatever is going on, instead of feeling pressured to “give an answer” of where you’re at, you can take a deep breath and accept that every relationship is a process. Even if you have a big DTR and settle things, give and get all the answer you want, all that means if that you have to navigate new terms of what is happening between the two of you. If you wind up “friends with benefits” and see other people, you will still need to navigate what it means to occasionally feel things for your FWB. Navigate what it means to want to see them make good, healthy choices and bring their best to the bedroom when the two of you get together.

Instead of a traditional DTR, consider juggling other issues that might be more important than “The Two of Us.”

  • Faith and/or value systemCompatible values are essential in developing a healthy relationship. Discuss faith systems, both those from childhood and any current beliefs. What does he value most in life? Does she pray? What does happiness look like to your date? What factors does she evaluate when trying to make tough decisions?
  • Family of originTalk about your families. Is she close to her parents? Does he respect his brother’s life choices? Family, both immediate and extended, play an important role in who we’ve been and who we are. Some people aspire to having a love story like their parents, others want to avoid their parents’ mistakes. Talking about upbringing can reveal a lot about how your date sees the world and what he/she believes a healthy relationship looks like.
  • Physical expectationsIf you’re ready to have sex after date ten and your date is waiting for an “I love you” first — or maybe even marriage — things will get awkward if these physical-relationship expectations aren’t outlined before one of you rejects the other. As awkward as these conversations may be, negotiate appropriate boundaries early on. Some relationships can’t withstand differing views on physical contact, so discuss this early and often.
  • Definition of relationship Sure, you’re having a great time together a few times a month, but do you really know where you stand, relationship-wise? Is one of you hoping it will turn into marriage and kids while the other is commitment-phobic and enjoys seeing more than one person at a time? After a few dates, sit down to discuss your thoughts on relationships, commitment, and how you’d define where you currently are — and where you might be headed.
  • Conflict-resolving skillsIt can be hard to assess how someone deals with conflict until you’ve had your first fight, but discussing previous conflicts and their subsequent resolutions can help you both understand how each of you deals with arguments. When you do have your first fight, debrief after it. Was your partner aggressive? Was he quick to apologize? To walk out the door? Did she respond to conflict with insecurity? With cruelty? As conflict is an unavoidable part of life, discovering how your date deals with it is an important part of getting to know him/her better.
  • PassionsWhat makes your date feel most alive? What does he daydream about during board meetings? What hobby or side project keeps her up late at night? Can your date share these passions with you? Can you support these passions and projects and get excited for them? Are your own passions compatible with his/hers?
  • Closest friendsDon’t just meet friends in a large group setting; intentionally get to know your date’s best pals. Who does she go to for advice on a bad day? Whose phone calls does he never fail to return? Do you fit in with the group? Can you respect the people he loves? Do you feel included and respected when thrown into the group as the new person? Can you see yourself becoming friends with them, too?
  • Social lifeIf you and your significant other are not spending every night together, how do you each spend those nights apart? While introverts and extroverts can definitely make it work, being honest about your social life — how often you go out, how late you party, how many quiet nights in you crave — can help you both navigate busy, merging schedules. Speak up about what you need. If you need to be doing something project-based or social to feel invigorated, share that. If your date needs a night on the couch to feel energized and rejuvenated, try to respect that, too.
  • Money mattersIs your date a spender or a saver? Is the pursuit of wealth important to her? Does he aspire to living well below his means, giving most of his income away to charity? How does your date make decisions regarding big-ticket items? Money and sex are two driving forces behind divorce. Be transparent about your own spending habits and talk about your respective relationships with money. You don’t need to disclose financial details early on in a relationship, but be aware of how you both approach payday, splurges and saving for a rainy day.
  • Dreams and goalsAre you heading in the same direction? Can you become your partner’s greatest cheerleader and champion? Ask about your date’s dreams for his/her future. Does she have a five-year plan for herself? Does he secretly dream of starting his own business? Is parenthood, financial success, creative pursuits or travel on the wish list? When you’re dating someone, you’re both determining whether or not you fit into one another’s presents and futures. Sharing dreams and goals can better help you assess if you can partner with each other in a way that enables you both to thrive.

Further Reading


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