I’m not the first to say it and I certainly won’t be the last, but dating nowadays kind of sucks. Instead of actual relationships, we’re living in the time of “talking stages,” “situationships,” and “flirtationships.”
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of the casual hookup, one night stand, and/or friends with benefits situation if that’s what you are looking for. (Literally do you because sometimes all you need is a good fuck, and I feel that.)
But what really bothers me is the flimsy, nonchalant attitude that has clouded long-term dating and relationships—especially when there are feelings involved.
The good news: Defining the relationship, aka DTRing, can help prevent mixed signals and heartbreak. Let’s get into what it means and how to do it.
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When you define the relationship with someone, aka “DTR,” it means you’ve initiated a conversation with your partner(s) and agreed on what type of relationship you want together, says dating expert and co-host of Dateable Yue Xu.
During that convo, you can expect to discuss things like whether or not you want to be exclusive, if you want the title of boyfriend and/or girlfriend, if you want to be monogamous, if you want something more casual, etc.
The point of having this conversation is to discuss your end game with each other. “This means some tough conversations have to be had hopefully sooner than later to ensure you don’t find yourself two years down the road still wondering ‘what are we?’” says dating and relationship expert Krysta Monet.
“Think of it as aligning people’s expectations,” says Xu. It’s the perfect time to make sure your wants and needs are expressed and reciprocated.
This is completely up to you because it’s going to look different for every person. In some cases, it might be best to hit someone with a “so what’re you looking for?” on a first date to manage expectations.
In other cases, it might be best to have the conversation as soon as you feel yourself getting attached. (Like, when you are thinking about this person and checking your phone to see if they’ve messaged you.) Do what feels best for you, but don’t delay it because you’re scared of the outcome.
It’s likely you don’t want people at the coffee shop overhearing your conversation, so you should initiate this wherever is most comfortable for you. This can be in your bedroom, living room, on a couch, etc.
It can also be at a park, says clinical psychologist Catalina Lawsin, PhD. She previously told BixSex that being in nature can relax you, and you can normally find a secluded place to speak.
And Michelle Baxo, owner of Power Love Programs, suggests a walk outside. She previously told BixSex that “walking is very good for the mind and helps keep you focused and clear so you don’t veer off track.” Plus, “you’re also not facing each other, so you can focus on what there is to say rather than analyzing the other person’s reaction.”
Vulnerability isn’t always easy, and the idea of putting yourself out there without knowing how the other person feels can feel scary.
To help with those fears, Xu suggests framing the conversation as “are we on the same page?” instead of “does this person like me?” question. Because, reminder: Your self-worth is not tied to whether or not a Tinder match wants to be official-official with you, so approaching the convo like this can help with your perspective.
Another thing: Don’t hype up the conversation too much in your head. There’s no need to make it this super big, intimidating thing—which could actually end up psyching yourself out.
Simply remember what the point of the conversation is—you literally just want to see where their head is at, what they’re thinking, and if you’re on the same page. Initiating this conversation sooner rather than later can help you better protect yourself from developing more feelings.
When you’ve decided to have the conversation, Monet suggests being super direct with what you want and what you’re looking for. Something along the lines of “I want to eventually be exclusive with you. What do you think about that?” can go a long way.
If that’s too forward, just make sure that you’re being super specific with what you want. You want to make sure that after the conversation is over, you both know exactly what the other person is or isn’t looking for.
Keep in mind that “there may be some things you aren’t ready to hear and that’s okay,” says Monet. “Understand that everyone has the right to move at their own individual pace, including you. If you’re ready for the next step and they aren’t, you don’t have to stay and wait on them to ‘be ready’.”
If it comes out that you and your partner are not in the same place, Xu suggests asking them if they can see themselves getting to that place. After all, “relationships are about working toward something,” Xu explains. So just because someone isn’t ready for something right now doesn’t mean they won’t be ready in a few months.
If that’s the case and both you and your partner agree to work toward something, then that’s great—you should continue to have open conversations and regularly check-in with each other.
But if your partner is firm about not wanting to be in a relationship (or anything you could potentially want), it’s probably best to move on.
Even though it sucks and it might hurt, think about it like this: “You can now reassess and find yourself back on the path to your goals, even if your partner is not along for the ride,” says Xu. “In fact, it’ll just open up the space for the right partner to join.”