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When and How to Define Your Relationship

By Danielle Kam 

Knowing when and how to define the relationship can feel stressful: Should you stick to the “three month rule?” Should you wait for the other person to bring it up? Or maybe it’s best to just follow your feelings? 

Unfortunately there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to a DTR (define the relationship) talk, but here’s what experts say about how to approach this conversation with a partner. 

First things first: are you ready to commit?

“Every person and relationship is different, so the timeline and expectations can vary,” says therapist Leah Aguirre. “However, it may be a good time to initiate this talk if you feel like you’re in a space to commit to this one person versus continuing to date.” If the thought of either of you seeing other people makes you uncomfortable and you’re starting to feel more bonded emotionally, this could signal that it’s time to discuss the future of your relationship. 

Get clear on exactly what you want 

Once you know that you’re ready to define the relationship, think about how you’re feeling and what you want from your partner. “If you’re the one starting the conversation, be clear with yourself about what you need emotionally for next steps,” says therapist Elizabeth Marks. It’s helpful to ask yourself what you want to get from the talk and what kind of commitment you’re looking for in the relationship. Do you want to have full exclusivity? You want to be more integrated into their life? When you have an idea of what you need for the future, it’s easier to start this conversation with confidence—and you’ll be less likely to compromise on your values and goals. 

Your connection is more important than the time you’ve spent together 

Pop culture seems to have deemed the point at which you should be having the DTR conversation. While three months can certainly be a good time to have the talk, “the depth of your connection is more important than the length of time you’ve been dating,” says dating coach Benjamin Daly. “As a rule, it’s best to have the conversation when you feel a relationship is an appropriate next step.”

Although your connection is a better indicator than the amount of time you’ve been dating, Aguirre still notes that the three-month mark can be a good marker for a relationship check-in. “By this point, you most likely know more about one another and have formed some sort of bond or closeness,” she says. This level of connectedness should allow for clarity on what both people want in the future.

It doesn’t have to be one conversation, but it should be face-to-face

Details can often get misconstrued via phone or text, so it’s best to have this conversation when you’re in person and free of distraction, suggests Aguirre. She adds that it’s helpful to choose your words carefully, so you know you’re clearly stating your intentions. Saying something like, “hey, I just wanted to see where we are at in terms of our relationship—are we a couple? Exclusive?” or “I wanted to make sure we’re on the same page about this relationship. I want to be a couple. Is this something you also want?” can help avoid confusion on both sides. 

Marks also notes that this doesn’t have to be the first time you’re talking about the relationship. “Communication and exploration of feelings should be a continued process,” she says. “Continuously sharing what you’re enjoying and how you’re feeling instead of waiting for the ‘big talk’ can allow your dialogue to be more fluid.” 

If they’re not on the same page, investigate or let it go 

If the two of you aren’t initially in agreement, it’s worth exploring why that is and what your connection could look like longer-term. Is there a possibility that commitment is something they’ll want in the future? Have their past relationships made it hard for them to commit? Whatever their answer is, make sure you’re considering whether you’re happy with the circumstances and current dynamic, says Agiurre. 

On the flip side, if you find that there’s no way forward, you need to part ways, says Daly. “It’s not worth investing more time, energy, and emotions into something that’s not going in the direction you want.” Severing ties can be really difficult, but it’s important to think about what’s best for you. Invest in your future self and find someone who wants the same things that you do. 

Whenever you decide to sit down and have the DTR conversation, make sure to pay attention to your emotions so you can continue to have an open and honest dialogue with your potential partner.