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Relationships

Defining the Relationship: When and How

| 04/15/2022

Illustration by Sophi Gullbrants

So you’ve been going on dates with someone, and you’ll admit it: You like them. Maybe they’re sweet, or funny, or smart. Maybe you two have had a good mix of silly, lighthearted conversations and deeper ones about family or your fears. Regardless, you know the sometimes dreaded time — defining the relationship (DTR) — is coming.

For many, defining the relationship can be scary. What if they laugh in your face? Want something different? When is “too soon” to define the relationship, and how does one even start that conversation?

You may have lots of questions surrounding this experience, and that’s perfectly normal. Questions like these are all over Reddit and other forums, so you’re far from alone. But try not to worry — we’ve got you covered with tips from the experts.

When It’s Time to DTR

If you’re looking for a fast and easy answer, I’m afraid there’s not one. Some experts shared a general timeline — anywhere from a few weeks to half a year — but ultimately, they all agreed on one thing: the time frame depends on the relationship. 

“In general, the very best time to define a relationship is when both parties feel free and clear from prior relationships, feel ready to ‘give the relationship a name,’ and have the intention to maintain the relationship,” says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, dating expert, and author of the new book “Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships & Love Fearlessly.”

You won’t necessarily know if those factors are true for your date, of course, so the best you can do is make sure they’re in line with how you feel.

Other signs to look out for include getting uncomfortable when the person is with someone else, talking about them a lot, and communicating back and forth consistently, according to Joseph Moore, a relationship and certified life coach at issuesoflove.com.

How to Make the Convo as Comfortable (and Clear) as Possible

First, mindfully choose a setting. “Make it a fun interaction,” says Jaclyn Gulotta, Ph.D., LMHC, a qualified mental health supervisor and parenting coordinator. “Meet for a day date or a walk in the park, and share your feelings with your partner.” Remember, you don’t have to be overly serious in your tone or where you have this discussion. A relaxed, fun space is perfectly fine.

On the note of going somewhere, it’s best to have these discussions in person (even though that can feel more intimidating at first!). “I don’t recommend phone or text for this conversation, because you wouldn’t be able to see their reaction or observe their body language, which is very important,” Moore says.

Once you’re at the spot, it’s time to actually define the relationship. Even though you may feel awkward and want to beat around the bush, it’s best to be honest and straightforward. “As an example, you might simply say, ‘I realize I have developed feelings for you. I feel ready to take the next step — to talk about defining our relationship more clearly. I’d love to hear your thoughts,’” Manly suggests.

If you both want to be in a more serious relationship, you can then set boundaries and expectations. Questions like “Are you exclusive or will you still see other people? What label are you comfortable with?” can be helpful, according to Katie Lasson, a clinical sexologist and sex, intimacy, and relationship advisor. “By defining the relationship and the rules surrounding it, everyone knows where they stand and what is expected of them. This makes the entire relationship easier for all people involved,” she adds.

So They Don’t Want Anything Serious, and You Do…

Having the let’s-define-the-relationship talk certainly has its benefits. According to a 2020 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, DTR talks often result in increased clarity, intimacy, and commitment, and they can even positively affect your sexual health.

But on the chance you get an answer you don’t like, preparation is important. Reminding yourself of key truths and how you want to respond in the moment helps you know how to take care of yourself while respecting the other person.

“Do not shut down and become defensive or take it personally,” Gulotta says. “Allow your partner to share why they may not feel the same way … You can then share your expectations and establish healthy boundaries to see if you are able to work through this and create compromise, or decide if this may not be the best time to have a relationship.”

Lasson believes moving on is probably your best bet. “They are entitled to feel the way they do, and it’s unlikely that you will be able to change their mind,” she says. “Staying with a person in the hope they will change their mind only ever leads to resentment.”

And remember: Their rejection doesn’t define who you are. “You are valuable and worthy,” Manly says.

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