The One Little Conversation Every Guy Needs to Have in a Relationship
Dating in the 21st century can feel a little like the Wild West, or like you’re hacking your way through a jungle, miles from civilization.
Thanks to today’s hyper-online dating climate, where swiping, sexting and hookups have all but replaced concepts like dinner dates, going steady and, hell, monogamy itself, it can sometimes feel like there are no rules.
Conscious that they can be replaced before they’ve even unfriended you on Facebook, people end up stifling their real feelings so as not to scare the other person off.
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The upshot of that is that people get mired in weeks- or months-long interactions that aren’t quite relationships. Instead, you have situationships, textlationships, nonlationships, but whatever you want to call them, they’re exhausting.
All of this uncertainty (“Does she like me like me?” “Is he seeing other people?” “Could we make this work as a couple or am I kidding myself?”) has given rise to another concept: the DTR conversation.
What Is a DTR Conversation?
Short for “defining the relationship,” a DTR conversation is between two people who start dating about what the relationship can and should look like going forward.
“In most cases this conversation refers to when two people decide to stop seeing other people and enter into a monogamous relationship,” says Gigi Engle, SKYN Condoms’ sex and intimacy expert, certified sex coach, sexologist, and author. “This happens at different times for different couples, but it’s widely considered the time when you’re supposed to stop dating [others], being on dating apps, etc.,” she says.
The end result doesn’t necessarily need to be exclusivity, though. As Engle notes, “You can also have these conversations (and should) when clearly defining a casual hookup or friends with benefits relationships.”
Why Is Defining the Relationship Important?
If you’re in a casual relationship situation, defining the relationship might seem unnecessary, unpleasant or awkward. You might not be used to having serious emotional discussions, either with your current partner, or at all — and you might wonder what the big deal is with DTR convos.
That said, it’s worth thinking about a DTR convo as a kind of insurance. Just because you don’t need it now when everything is going well, doesn’t mean you’ll never need it.
Having that conversation will help you better understand the relationship and what the other person wants, as well as position you to navigate difficult discussions, arguments or even full-blown fights later on.
“Having clear expectations from the beginning ensures that both people in the relationship understand what the other wants,” says Maria Sullivan, dating expert and VP of Dating.com. “Defining the relationship doesn’t mean you have to get married and spend the rest of your lives together, but it does show your partner that you are committed to them and potentially see a future together.”
It’s also a means of feeling more secure. Knowing where your partner stands will mean you won’t spend as much time worrying about their feelings.
“For many people this conversation comes from a need to feel more emotionally secure in the relationship,” says Jor-El Caraballo, a relationship therapist and co-creator of Viva Wellness.
“A DTR conversation can also help address sexual risk in a relationship as well,” Caraballo adds. “For example, if you want to be sure that your partner is only interested in seeing you (and is monogamous) then it’s important to define sexual boundaries for the relationship so that you can mitigate exposure and risk to potential STIs or unplanned pregnancy.”
Engle agrees that defining sexual boundaries is a useful and important aspect of a DTR convo.
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“Having this DTR convo is needed to ensure the sexual health of both partners,” she says. If you’re still seeing other people, you need to keep using condoms to protect your health and the health of your partner.”
Regardless of your sexual health situation, though, a DTR conversation is about trust. Old ideas about relationships — like the desire to progress towards marriage, or the necessity of meeting each other’s parents, or the fact that you were both swearing off other partners — can now feel very much like options rather than givens.
Without a DTR conversation, one partner might assume the other person is monogamous — while the other might assume that it’s a casual situation and continue hooking up with other partners on the side.
Discovering that you had vastly different ideas about the relationship after the fact is deeply unpleasant, and can essentially feel like cheating. There’s even a dating term, roaching, to describe the practice.
How to Have a DTR Convo
Once you recognize that it’s important to have a relationship-defining conversation with someone you’ve been seeing, how exactly do you go about it?
“Many people who are dating these days express anxiety and fear about having this kind of conversation,” Caraballo says. “The unfortunate reality is that you can’t control whether or not someone is freaked out by a conversation about commitment. All you can do is speak your truth, ask for what you want when you feel it and take the risk.”
As scary as that might be, he says, if you have very clear expectations about what you want your relationship to be, it’s always better to express that sooner rather than later to stave off any potential misunderstandings, unnecessary conflict and resentment.
As NYC-based dating coach Connell Barrett notes, a DTR conversation is about being confident to be open about your feelings, not about making the other person agree to your terms.
“The secret to a good DTR conversation is being vulnerable and sharing both how you feel and what you want — and asking how the other person feels and what they want,” he says. “You’ll freak them out if you pressure them to get on the same page.”
Sharing how you feel and where you’d like the relationship to go can take the pressure off, Barrett adds. “Be vulnerable, share, and see if they feel the same.”
How to Initiate a DTR Convo
So how do you kick the conversation off? Sullivan suggests thinking it over in advance rather than simply leaping into it. Since it could significantly impact your relationship, it’s worth thinking about what you want to say before you start saying it.
“If you’re nervous about the conversation, set a time and day to talk with your partner so you have time to prepare and gather your thoughts,” she advises. “However, you should never be nervous to bring up topics that are important to you when defining the relationship.”
Sullivan notes that how your partner responds to a DTR convo can be a big tell as to whether you two have a future together.
“If they do not want to define the relationship, that could be a red flag,” she says. “Don’t be uncomfortable to ask for what you want out of your relationship, and make any needs you may have known from the beginning.”
When you finally initiate the DTR conversation itself, Barrett thinks it’s important not to freak the other person out by making it seem like a bigger deal than it is.
“Never use the phrase, ‘We need to talk,’ which is freighted with heavy-duty emotions,” he says. “It’s better to say,
‘Hey, can I share something with you?’
and take it from there.”
Then, once they’ve agreed to hear you out, Engle suggests you say something like,
“I know this is never easy to talk about, but I’m looking for a partner and I’d like to be monogamous with you and stop seeing other people, if you’re down.”
“Anyone who wants the same thing is going to be happy to move forward,” she says.
DTR Conversation Dos and Don’ts
Do: Have the Conversation When You’re Ready
“There is no right or wrong time to talk about the boundaries in a relationship, contrary to popular belief,” says Caraballo. “Every dating ‘rule’ out there on this topic only reinforces disconnection and shame. It’s OK to crave intimacy and go for it!”
Don’t: Make Demands
A conversation to define a relationship is about boundaries and limitations, Caraballo says. “You cannot force that conversation. If someone is not ready to have that conversation, or isn’t ready to make a commitment you’re ready for, then you are solely responsible for what actions you choose next.”
Do: Be Honest and Vulnerable
“This part is hard, but speaking from your honest thoughts and feelings helps avoid playing the ‘game’ of dating,” says Caraballo. Instead, he suggests you “speak from a place of honesty and vulnerability. I call this speaking from your ‘I.’ Phrases like,
‘I would like….’
are all good ways to start.”
Don’t: Have the Conversation If You’re Distracted
“Make sure to have the conversation with a clear and present mind,” says Sullivan. “Don’t suggest having the talk after a night out and a few drinks, [and] don’t have the conversation via text message.”
“Have the conversation in person,” Engle agrees.
Do: Respect Their Response
“If your partner isn’t interested in having a monogamous relationship, don’t freak out at them,” says Engle. “Remember that everyone is allowed to have their own reaction to this choice. If someone doesn’t want to be monogamous with you, move on. Go find someone who is interested in that.”
What to Do After Your DTR Convo
If Your DTR Conversation Goes Well
If the conversation ends with you both agreeing that you want the same thing, you’re pretty much in the clear.
Congratulations! Whatever shape or type of relationship you agreed to, knowing you’re on the same page and that you understand each other is a big step (and hopefully somewhat of a relief.)
Caraballo notes that a successful DTR conversation doesn’t mean your work is done.
“It’s good to check in with your partner periodically to reassess and re-evaluate the boundaries of a relationship,” he says. “This is one of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re in a committed relationship; they take each other for granted and don’t check in with one another.”
“No matter if you’ve been dating exclusively for three months or together for 10 years, it’s important to do relationship check-ins periodically to make sure that you’re on the same page, or can resolve any issues before they become longstanding sources of resentment,” Caraballo adds.
A strong relationship is a communicative one; and starting good communication habits early will benefit you both as the relationship progresses.
Engle, meanwhile, suggests working out the finer details once you’ve agreed on the main points — particularly with regard to your sex life.
“Discuss what that means for you and how you’d like to move forward. Are you now boyfriend/girlfriend/partners? Are you monogamous? Figure out the details and be sure you’re on the same page. Get tested for STIs before engaging in sex without a condom. Be sure both of you are on the same page about STI status,” says Engle.
Barrett suggests you celebrate by doing something that will make both of you feel good about your newfound relationship definition.
If Your DTR Conversation Goes Badly
Sometimes DTRs don’t go the way you’d hoped.
What do you do if you bring your feelings up and ask your partner to meet your level of engagement and they can’t or won’t? What if the conversation turns into a fight, your partner accuses you of being emotionally controlling or something similarly unpleasant?
As Engle noted above, it’s important to respect their response. You can’t force someone to want to be in a relationship with you — as painful as it can be to accept. In the immediate aftermath, Sullivan suggests taking some time apart to think things over might be the best move.
“It might be best to take some time to think about what it is you are looking for and if you are ready to get involved in a committed relationship,” she says. “You never want to make a decision if the other person isn’t 100% on board and ready to take that next step.”
Barrett notes that it is possible to make something work even if you’re not on the exact same page — providing that what you want isn’t too far apart.
“For a good relationship, two people must be traveling in the same direction at a similar speed,” he says. “If the disagreement is tectonic, and you’re totally at odds — one side wants a committed relationship and the other one wants something casual — then end it, and move on so that you can get what you want elsewhere.”
If you do choose to stick around regardless, Caraballo warns, make sure you’re not just doing it out of desperation or a misguided hope that the other person’s desires will change over time.
“If someone is not ready and you are and you stay anyway, make sure it’s a well-informed choice reflective of your needs and preferences, rather than out of ease or dependency,” he notes.
Ultimately, however, what the two of you have might not be worth saving, Engle says.
“If you can’t decide on how the relationship should look and can’t compromise where you can both be happy, it’s probably best to end the relationship and move on,” she argues. “If someone can’t agree to be in the relationship you want to have, you’re going to disagree on a whole lot more. It’s not worth your emotional energy on someone who isn’t willing to give you what you need.”
Caraballo agrees. “It doesn’t always mean the absolute end, but for now it is likely healthier to not move forward together if you can’t agree on the direction of your relationship. Incompatible goals for a relationship is a deal-breaker, and you shouldn’t force what isn’t going to work in the first place.”
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