Why The 'DTR' Conversation Is So Hard To Have In Modern Relationships

How to pony up and ask, "What are we?" already.
"So... what are we?"
CSA Images via Getty Images
"So... what are we?"

Defining the relationship (or DTR, for short) is all but a rite of passage in modern-day dating, but up until recently, I’d somehow gotten through life without having to experience it.

I spent the bulk of my 20s in a relationship. In college, my S.O. and I happily slid into a relationship, neither of us ever having to utter those three dreaded words: What. Are. We.

Currently single, I find I’m still dodging the question. I don’t like to ask. The last almost-quasi-relationship I was in ― a situation-ship, if you will ― was lovely but ill-defined and maybe short-lived because of that.

I wanted to be the cool girl who could live with ambiguity. I was genuinely busy at the time, and fine with whatever we were, even if what we were was uncertain and vague. As for what he wanted, well, I never did quite get a handle on that because I never explicitly asked.

As it were, we danced around defining the relationship until there was seemingly no chance of a relationship at all. Turns out, calling a thing a thing helps.

It’s a common scenario, especially among millennials, said Aimee Hartstein, a psychotherapist who practices in New York City and over Skype.

“I’ve seen so many people avoid the question and end up really upset and hurt when they realize that they are on a very different page from the person that they’re dating,” she told HuffPost.

You want things to evolve without a timetable, but dictating the terms of the relationship is essential, especially if you’re already a little wary of where you stand.

“I tell my clients, once you find yourself dating someone and after a few weeks or months you start to really like them, it’s time to have the conversation about what this is and where this is going,” Hartstein said.

Some of us don’t DTR because we’re confused by the ‘paradox of choice’

Swipe culture isn't helping our relationship prospects, experts say.
Westend61 via Getty Images
Swipe culture isn't helping our relationship prospects, experts say.

DTR is nothing new. It’s always been a struggle to figure out where you stand, but it’s a much murkier consideration today. With dating apps, finding love in 2019 is both easier and harder than it was 20 years ago. Hinge, Bumble and all the other apps give us almost endless choices for who we can date. While that’s not inherently a bad thing, the breadth of choices has made us pickier and less decisive.

The resulting “paradox of choice,” as social scientists call it, convinces us that well-suited matches are always around the corner. We’re swipe happy. You may have found a great match, but the fact that you’ve found them implies you could find one more ― or dozens and dozens more.

“Some find it difficult to settle down with one individual because of the fantasy that an even better person is just one swipe away,” Hartstein said. “And I think that people are a bit wary of having a conversation about commitment because of fear that their partner might be thinking that there is someone even better out there.”

“Ambiguity in our relationships happens because we allow it to happen. Most of the time we know what we want, we are just afraid to ask for it. If you’re on Bumble searching for the love of your life, say it.”

- Nadia Dalbani, life coach

Clearly, we’d all benefit from a little radical honesty while dating. Be upfront about what you want out of the relationship ― or hookup situation ― and ask the same of who you’re dating.

If you’re actively doing that, there will be no room for the “What are we?” conversation to crop up in the first place, said Nadia Dalbani, a life coach currently residing in Dubai.

“Ambiguity in our relationships happens because we allow it to happen,” she said. “Most of the time we know what we want, we are just afraid to ask for it. If you’re on Bumble searching for the love of your life, say it. It sounds simple, but it’s a problem that many of my clients face.”

It’s a rookie mistake to expect people to come into your life with a full understanding of what you’re looking for, but we do it anyway. That’s why Dalbani thinks we’re all so prone to “what are we” conversations.

How do you have the conversation, anyway?

Your defining the relationship conversation doesn't have to be scary.
Cavan Images via Getty Images
Your defining the relationship conversation doesn't have to be scary.

Unless you’re blissfully instantly both certain you want to be together, DTR isn’t likely something you can table. Don’t wait for your partner to dictate the terms. Do it yourself, when you’re ready to take the relationship to the next level.

Steel your nerves, be transparent about your feelings and ask open-ended, nonconfrontational questions to determine your S.O.’s thoughts.

“Coax them with reflective statements like, ‘How do you feel about the time we spend together or the past few months or how much we hang out?’” Dalbani recommended. “The best approach is soft and subtle.”

Be proud of what you want and make it known. Ideally, they’ve also wanted to have this conversation and are just as giddy to get things off the ground as you. If you anticipate them getting annoyed, antsy or rejecting you and they follow through on that, you have to be OK with it.

“It’s sad and upsetting, but better to rip the Band-Aid off, move on, and meet someone who wants something closer to what you’d like out of a relationship,” Hartstein said.

On the bright side, you’re developing healthy relationship habits for the future. Check-ins are beneficial at all stages of relationships: Think of those long-term couples who renegotiate the terms of their relationships and “monogamy contracts” every few years and seem so highly evolved because of it.

Ignorance really isn’t bliss, especially in relationships.

“Look, this is going to be a tough conversation to have even in the best of circumstances,” Hartstein said. “You’re really putting yourself out there while dating. As hard as it is to hear, you are so much better off knowing early on if they want the same things as you.”

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