Defining the relationship, commonly known as DTR, can be an anxiety-inducing topic for many people. In a world filled with hook-ups, casual dating, friends with benefits, open relationships and committed ones, it’s so important to be on the same page when it comes to where you and your partner stand. We know this topic can be tough to bring up and even harder to navigate the conversation once you do, so we spoke with Dr. Patrick Wanis, relationship expert and author of Get Over Your Ex Now! and The Breakup Test, about seven ways to define the relationship.
With these steps in mind, you’ll better navigate the rough waters of dating and DTR once and for all.
1. Make it clear what you want from the relationship.
One of the most difficult parts any relationship or sort-of-relationship for many is clearly stating what you want. However, Dr. Wanis really emphasizes that it’s absolutely necessary for you to speak up for yourself and say what you want out of the relationship. “I teach to get clear about what you want,” says Dr. Wanis. “So, in this situation, you’ve got to get clear about what type of relationship do you want?”
There are many types of relationships out there, but if exclusivity is something you want out of your current relationship, it’s just something that needs to be said. Emily Schmidt, a sophomore at Stanford University, offers her experience in speaking up about her expectations. “The last person I dated was someone who seemed to hate labels,” says Emily. “Despite asking me to be his girlfriend, he never introduced me as so when meeting his friends or even new people. I’ve dealt with people who were wishy washy before, so I made quite clear what I wanted from the relationship.”
It can be scary to speak up for yourself and ask for what you want at times, but you’ll never get what you want if you don’t ask for it! “In life, you can’t hit a target if you don’t have one,” says Dr. Wanis. “You can’t get what you want if you don’t know what you want. So, get clear about what you want in life, get clear about you want in a relationship, then ask for it.” Whether it be openness, exclusivity or somewhere in between, you’ll ultimately want to ensure that you and your love interest are on the same page. Taking a stand and making it clear from the get-go what you expect out of the connection you have can really save both of you a lot of headaches and heartbreaks later on.
2. Ask yourself what you’re not okay with.
While it’s important to make it clear what you want from the relationship right away, even when they’re not quite willing to define it. It’s also equally as important to be honest with yourself on what you’re okay and not okay with. Dr. Wanis explains that you’ll want to ask, “What am I willing to give to this relationship, and what will I accept or not accept from my partner?” in order to decide what is best for you.
Some examples of questions you can ask yourself include: Am I okay with us dating around, or sleeping with other people? Am I okay with not being labeled as a boyfriend or girlfriend? Am I okay with us just being casual, or friends with benefits?
“I really think the idea is to have a conversation,” Dr. Wanis continues. “If someone doesn’t want to define the relationship, they don’t want to commit. Nonetheless, you can still come to an agreement [on] what are you willing to give to this relationship, this friendship, that you don’t want to label.” If you feel that your relationship is not exclusive, then it’s a good indicator that you’ll need to be honest with yourself and ask the tough questions. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to figure out what you’re willing to give and accept—just don’t sell yourself short!
3. Discuss your terms.
Terms aren’t just for legally binding contracts! They exist in any and every type of relationship whether you know it or not, and they need to be discussed if you’re having trouble to DTR. “If you find that they’re not meeting the expectations you set for yourself, you need to ask yourself, ‘Am I willing to have this relationship on their terms?’ They are offering you terms, even when they choose not to define the relationship,” says Dr. Wanis. “By choosing not to define the relationship, they’re choosing not to commit, and now the relationship is on their terms.”
Just as asking yourself whether you’re okay with each other having multiple partners or not, for example, that also doubles as a specific aspect of a relationship that needs to be up for discussion. “Labeling isn’t the same as defining,” Dr. Wanis explains. “So maybe your love interest doesn’t want to label the relationship as boyfriend, girlfriend or exclusive, and yet nonetheless, you must define the terms. Because it’s the terms that will determine what type of relationship you’re actually having.” If your love interest isn’t willing to DTR, then you should at least ensure that you have agreed on a set of terms, including commitment, exclusivity or openness.
4. Understand their perspective.
While it can be extremely frustrating to be involved with someone who won’t budge on defining the relationship, understanding where they’re coming from can typically shed some light on the situation. Chelsea Jackson, a junior at Iowa State University, offers up her advice as someone who’s afraid of commitment.
“Seeing as my hatred for that dreaded DTR talk stems from my phobia of commitment, I feel like having a discussion about why the person you’re seeing doesn’t want to DTR could be helpful for both parties,” says Chelsea. Do you catch a running theme here?
“I feel like a lot of people think that just because someone refused to DTR means that they’re a jerk, but that isn’t always the case,” Chelsea continues. “Understanding why someone doesn’t want to DTR could help explain whether they never want to DTR or whether they just aren’t ready to DTR at that moment.” Everyone has their own story, so really taking a moment to stop and understand a different perspective can help ease some frustration that you probably have. Life happens, and commitment can be scary, especially for those who struggle with it or have had bad experiences with a past relationship. After all, we’re only human, and our own thoughts and perspectives are what make us individuals!
5. Decide whether the commitment is there.
Commitment – it’s the C word that can send many running for the hills. If you still can’t decide whether your love interest is committed or not, even without your definition, you’ll want to consider what exactly avoiding that definition could actually mean. “When a person says, ‘I don’t want to define our relationship,’ usually what they’re saying is, ‘I don’t want to commit,’” Dr. Wanis explains. “Because as soon you define the relationship, then the other person is forced to make a decision and to commit or not commit.”
As Chelsea mentioned, commitment can even be considered a phobia for some. So if your love interest isn’t willing to define anything, it may be safe to assume that they’re struggling with the commitment aspect of it all. “I really sincerely believe that if someone refuses to define a relationship it’s not because they don’t want to be labeled, it’s usually because they don’t want to commit,” Dr. Wanis continues. Commitment is a major, if not the most, important component of a relationship, so if you can pinpoint your love interest’s commitment, or a lack thereof, it can become easier to decide if commitment is what you’re looking for.
6. Consider ending the relationship if you are unhappy.
Okay, so, you’ve spoken up for yourself. You’ve asked yourself the difficult questions. You’ve discussed terms. Ultimately, how do all these steps help you deal with someone who isn’t willing to DTR? Essentially, this process is the key in deciding on whether it’s time to stay together or walk away.
“Get clear about what you want, and if [they don’t] want to give you what you want, then you have to be willing to walk away from the relationship,” Dr. Wanis advises. Although it’s super tempting to stick around and hold onto the hope that maybe they’ll change or eventually want to define and label an exclusive relationship, that doesn’t always happen.
“If a relationship (whatever that relationship may be) is important to you, then you should stop seeing that person,” says Chelsea. “Not only is it immensely stressful for you to pretend that you care about having the DTR talk, it’s also super stressful for the other person if you lie and say that you’re alright with not having an official title (because nobody wants to be nagged about having that awkward DTR discussion).” Walking away from a relationship that probably won’t change will not only spare your feelings in the end, but it’ll also allow you for more time to seek out what you truly want from someone else.
“Personally, I say run. I was once seeing someone who didn’t want a title, so I thought if I proved I was worthy of a title that he would change his mind,” says Kayla Düngee, a junior at Georgia State University. “Wrong. They will take all of your kindness for granted and leave you wondering why you’re not good enough. Save yourself the headache and go for someone who actually sees your worth.”
Your happiness is everything, so if the stress of defining your relationship is weighing you down, you do have options.
“Never accept second best,” says Dr. Wanis. “Never accept mediocrity. Go for what you want. And if this particular person isn’t willing to give you what you want, then go through another relationship with someone else.”
Defining the relationship is not something that comes easy, and that’s okay! Relationships are messy, and rarely anything that is worth your time is easy. Just always keep in mind that there are actions you can take when you find yourself lacking definition in your current relationship, or whatever you’d like to refer to it as, and if you find that your needs aren’t being met and that you’re not happy, then walking away may be the easiest way to deal of them all.