How to have the ‘define the relationship’ (DTR) chat


You swipe right. You go on a date; it’s nice. You go on a second date, and then a third, and a fourth. You’re getting along, and maybe you even tell your friends about them. Eventually, you stop dating other people, but you’re not sure if they’ve stopped the hunt along with you. The ambiguity gets to you and it’s time to do something about it. It’s time to Define The Relationship.

Sometimes that conversation goes really well! Something along the lines of:

“I like you. Would you like to be exclusive with me?”

“I also like you and would love to be exclusive with you!”

But it doesn’t always go so smoothly. Mark, a 30-year-old in Brooklyn, who asked to keep his last name anonymous, had a rough time with the DTR conversation. He was seeing Jennifer, whose name we have changed, for about three months when he started getting clues that she was more into him than he was into her.

“I had been coming out of a breakup and so I’d told her from the get-go that I’m not looking for anything serious,” Mark told Mashable. Jennifer said she was cool with that, and their relationship developed into a kind of situationship. “It was beginning to dawn on me that maybe this was getting too serious and I probably needed to say something and do a sort of check-in. I hate doing that. It’s a weird kind of confrontation.”But, he went with it anyway — a move supported by relationship experts who tout the idea that honesty really is the best policy. Laurie Weiss(Opens in a new tab), a psychotherapist, marriage counselor, and author, told Mashable that it’s natural to be nervous about these kinds of conversations — no one wants to be rejected, and no one wants to hurt someone else. That is one of the risks you’re taking when you decide to DTR, or have a conversation to determine just how you’d like to see your relationship with someone moving forward — be it maintaining the relationship you have, choosing to be exclusive, or any other option in a litany of ways relationships can provide joy. These conversations aren’t always easy, but relationship experts like Weiss and sex experts like Kate Moyle at sex toy company LELO(Opens in a new tab) can help set the groundwork for what a DTR calls for, how to DTR, and what to do if a DTR doesn’t turn out exactly as you hoped it might.

When to DTR

For Mark, that conversation happened in late January. He had spent the entire day with Jennifer, bouncing around to different places in Brooklyn, and they ended up at a bar together that evening. “She said something that was indicative of the fact that maybe she was starting to develop feelings for me or that this was turning into like a relationship in her eyes and — very poorly timed on my part — I used that as the cue to have this conversation,” Mark said. He told Jennifer that he came into the relationship wanting to keep things casual, but that it seemed like they were getting into relationship territory and he wanted to make sure that they were still on the same page. They were not.

“She took it really hard and I felt really bad and the timing was bad because we spent this whole day together and we get along really well,” Mark said. “She’s very poised and a wonderful person. She was upset and she basically was like, ‘Okay, I understand, but I think I’m gonna go.’ And she just got up and left the bar. We ended up talking it over a little bit, but we have since ended things very officially.”

Mark said he thought that saying he wasn’t looking for anything serious when they first met would have saved him from ever having this conversation. But, of course, nothing can fully save you from having to DTR eventually. You can’t be in a situationship forever. Nothing can fully save you from having to DTR eventually. You can’t be in a situationship forever.

Moyle told Mashable that defining a relationship is all about setting boundaries. “There are so many nuances to intimacy, sex and relationships that having clarity is important — otherwise you are basing your relationship on assumptions of which you may have different views on certain things,” Moyle said. 

Why to DTR

Take Mark, who said he was “under the mistaken impression that if you said these magical words at the beginning of a relationship, that it was never going to be serious, that you abra cadabra’d your way out of ever having any issues. And then the reality set in that if you speak with somebody and hang out with somebody for several weeks, what you said on that second date might not hold as much water as you thought it might.”

That lack of understanding is exactly why having the DTR chat is important.

“There isn’t a set formula or plan for when to define your relationship, but if you are starting to want to change something about the relationship then that’s probably quite an indicator that a conversation could be helpful,” Moyle said. That can be your desire to make things exclusive or, as in Mark’s case, keeping things the way they are.

Mark wanted to be able to keep seeing Jennifer casually. Jennifer did not want that. And that’s what happens when you DTR, sometimes — your feelings might not match up. But, Moyle explains, “a relationship is not a failure if it ends, and the longevity of a relationship isn’t always a determinant of relationship success — just because it ends doesn’t mean that it wasn’t right for a time or for what we needed then.”

And importantly, Weiss told me, just because two people disagree, that doesn’t always mean the relationship will have to end.

“If you’re on different pages and somebody says, ‘I’m not ready, but I’d like to keep it at the level we’re at, if you’re willing to wait,’ you can certainly wait,” Weiss said. But that’s only if both people see the future lining up in the same way. Sometimes, even if you like each other, you have to decide if you’re willing to wait or even completely change your expectations for a relationship — and if you’re not willing to do that. The danger here is that you might get your hopes up only to end up even more disappointed. That’s where Moyle’s boundaries come in.

MASHABLE