How To Define The Relationship (When To Do It & Why It's So Hard)

Written by Amari D. Pollard
Amari D. Pollard is a writer and audience development strategist. Her writing focuses on politics, culture, relationships, and health, and she has been published at The Week, Bustle, PopSugar, Reader's Digest, and more.
Expert review by Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP
Board-certified Clinical Psychologist
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist, Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology. She has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut.

Image by Oleh_Slobodeniuk / iStock

Similar to most things in life, there are aspects of relationships we enjoy moving through and others we wish we could run away from. For every hand held, there's one being pulled away. For every moment that feels stable and grounded in something authentic, there's one of uncertainty.

When it comes to seeing someone, there's perhaps nothing more anxiety-inducing than figuring out how to define the relationship (DTR). But there comes a point when you've exhausted asking yourself all the questions: Are we talking? Are we dating? Are we exclusive? And now you're ready to create the boundaries of your relationship and have an honest conversation about where you each stand.

Why defining the relationship is important.

Defining a relationship is all about clarifying your needs, desires, and boundaries, explains AASECT-certified sex therapist Constance DelGiudice, Ed.D., LMHC, CST. Having a DTR conversation is just a way for both people to get on the same page about how you're viewing the relationship and what the expectations are around commitment, exclusivity, and emotional investment.

Importantly, how someone chooses to define a relationship is dependent on the individual, adds therapist and life coach Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC. Culturally we often receive implicit or explicit messages that relationships are supposed to be long term and monogamous, but Brigham says that formula doesn't always work for everyone—and defining the relationship is not just about trying to shove your particular relationship into that mold. More and more people are redefining what relationships look like to them and creating relationship agreements that actually make sense for their needs. "[Long-term, monogamous] relationships are hard, and it isn't always what everyone needs," she says. "If you're happy with where you are, don't let other people tell you that it's not OK.

A DTR conversation can be two people agreeing they want to be exclusive, continue dating casually, continue hanging out just as friends with benefits, or anything else that fits how you feel. What's important is that it's a shared understanding.

Psychotherapist Beth Sonnenberg, LCSW, says enjoying where you are in a relationship and living in the moment is also important. Sometimes you have to "make it up as you go. There should be some spontaneity; otherwise, that takes the fun out of it." Even if labels aren't your thing, though, practicing open communication and being sensitive to how each of you feel throughout the relationship is key to keeping it healthy and nourishing for both parties.

Now, approaching that particular conversation can require some skill and finesse. Figuring out how to start is always hard, and so is mentally preparing yourself for not liking how the conversation ends. But it provides a sense of clarity that can be necessary for a relationship to continue.

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When it's time to define the relationship.

There really isn't a set time frame. Both Sonnenberg and Brigham agree that it should be based on a feeling rather than on how long two people have been engaging with each other. This should also not be based on other people's timelines. Just because a friend became exclusive with someone after one month does not mean you have to follow suit. Remember, everyone gets into relationships at different points in time. "Everyone opens up at different points in time, and we have to realize we can't expect somebody to be exactly where we're at, at the exact moment that we are," emphasizes DelGiudice.

But if you struggle to work outside of time frames, Brigham says to wait at least two to three months before defining the relationship. By that time, you should have a better sense of the person and be able to gauge their feelings. Research has also proved there's something to the three-month period; for instance, 90-day rehab programs used to be the golden standard because it takes 66 days on average to develop and form habits.

Importantly, people often find themselves stuck in ambiguous relationship situations—or situationships, as they've been labeled—because they don't want to face what's already in front of them, explains Brigham. "They don't do what's right for them, hoping that the other person will change their mind. I've never seen it happen."

Most of the time, the person has already shown you how they feel. "If they want to be in a relationship with you, they will show up. They will keep asking you out, they will want to see you a lot, and they will want to move in that direction," says Brigham. "They will ask you to things that are significant, and they will talk about plans for the future."

How to define the relationship when you're ready.

There are multiple steps one should take when having the DTR conversation:

  1. First, assess where you are in the relationship. Brigham says it's important to ask yourself how it makes you feel: Are you happy, or are you constantly anxious about where you stand with that person? Usually people want to have these talks because they feel stationary, "and if you feel stuck and stagnant, then that means something needs to progress and move forward."
  2. Next, assess what you want. Once you've thought about why you're pulled to have the DTR conversation, then ask yourself what it is you want. What is it you ultimately want, and what do you want out of this specific relationship? Once you answer those questions for yourself, then you'll know what to ask the other person.
  3. Prepare yourself for what they might say and how you'll react. For example, you may want to suggest having a committed, monogamous relationship, and the person might reveal they're not into the idea. Be ready to decide what that'll mean for you moving forward and what your next steps might be if your visions for the relationship aren't aligned.
  4. Be mindful of how you start the conversation. Don't make a formal announcement using a trite phrase like, "We need to talk." Even if you've planned when you want to have the conversation, it's important to make it flow naturally like any other one. If you push too hard or set it up as a potential confrontation, the person might feel threatened and run in the opposite direction, warns Sonnenberg and DelGiudice.
  5. Ask open-ended questions. Sonnenberg also suggests asking "open-ended questions instead of ones that require a definitive yes or no answer." This signals that you're coming from a flexible space, and you won't judge the person for answering your questions openly and honestly. 
  6. Use "I" statements. For example, "I like you," "I enjoy spending time with you," or "I'd like to spend more time with you. What do you think?" Brigham says this will probably be hard because it requires a certain level of vulnerability, but it emphasizes your own feelings and gives the other person space to respond. "Being aware of your tone is all you can do," explains Brigham. "How they respond is out of your control."
  7. Be specific. After expressing what you like about the relationship—and whether the other person is on the same page—discuss what you think the next step should be. For example, if you're only seeing each other every other week, say you'd like to see them once a week or more.
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Be prepared to have the DTR conversation throughout your relationship.

This isn't a one-and-done kind of conversation; it's one that you will have to have more than once as your relationship naturally evolves. Even at the end of having that initial discussion, things might play out differently than what you both said and agreed on in the moment.

That's why Sonnenberg says it's important to enter these conversations with an open mind and the willingness to be flexible. "I think having that conversation often would allow for the most success because you might change your mind while you're in it, or stuff might not be working the way you had envisioned," she explains. "It needs to be fluid and an ongoing conversation about what's working and what's not working."

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