When And How To 'Define The Relationship'

A step-by-step guide for how to DTR.

happy couple smiling Getty

There comes a point in a relationship when you start asking yourself: “Is this going somewhere? What are we? Are we exclusive?” and you need to know how to DTR.

These relationship questions are universal ones. No matter your age, stage in life, background, or culture, getting to “we” for a couple must happen at some point — or not.

This is called defining the relationship (DTR).

What does it mean to define the relationship?

Urban Dictionary says the DTR talk is the moment "when two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship (casual dating, serious girlfriend-boyfriend)." It's the kind of conversation that's used for defining a friendship, a hookup, or a new relationship.


This questioning often takes place after about a month or two of regular dating, but it depends on the frequency and intensity of your time together. Some relationships move at lightning speed.

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Why is defining the relationship important?

Some experts suggest avoiding defining your relationship altogether. They say, let things evolve and if you’re meant to be an item, one day it will be obvious to you both. Why put pressure on the situation by having an uncomfortable DTR talk?

Sometimes you can completely avoid the DTR convo if you get to know someone well on the first few dates. Talk about your values, get a sense of past relationships, what a committed relationship looks like to them and what they want this time around.

The bottom line is, don’t feel afraid of defining the relationship and let it paralyze you.

As my boyfriend explains, “Women need to really consider why they need to put a label on the relationship. The real clues about how a guy feels about you are in the listening, not in the labels,” he says. “Try to connect with him deeply, show him how much you appreciate him, and you’ll get your clarity.”


When To DTR

If you’re planning to get intimate, or if you’ve already been, it's the perfect time to define the relationship. The order is up to you, but hooking up can certainly complicate things! And, of course, never assume that if you’re intimate that you’re exclusive.

You also might try to define the relationship when things feel off balance, if you feel like you’re giving more, feeling more than they are — or if you’ve accidentally called them your boyfriend or girlfriend. That’s the time to clear the air or get clear.

If you’re happy with the way things are evolving, there may be no need to DTR.

But, if you’re the type who lives by clarity and structure, this “wait and see” approach likely won’t work for you. You are going to need to get reassurance on whether you're exclusive or not.


And, as frightening as it might seem to define your relationship, you don’t have to botch the conversation.

Perhaps you’ve been going on dates every weekend for a few months and you’ve noticed your person is still on the dating site you met on. You wonder if that means they want to date other people or aren't into you enough to delete the app.

If you’ve been spending large chunks of time together for a couple of weeks, that might be the time to DTR and confirm how things are progressing with you two. If you want to be in a committed relationship with them, then it's best to DTR.

If you take the pressure off and allow your connection to unfold, you may experience the best feeling of two people falling into coupledom after you start dating.


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How To DTR

If you feel compelled to have the talk, here are some constructive ways to go about it to get the answers you need:

1. Consider what you hope to get out of the DTR conversation.

Get clear about your purpose for having the chat and ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the outcome I want?
  • How do I feel about this person? Could they be the one? How do I know?
  • Do I have any reservations about this person and our relationship so far? Do I trust them?
  • What is it prompting me to want to define the relationship now?
  • If I don’t get a clear signal after this chat, how much am I willing to invest to see where this will go?
  • What are my boundaries? Am I ok with them seeing other people?
  • How am I likely to react if I don’t get the outcome I’m seeking?
  • Are they introverted or extroverted? Will they need time to process the DTR chat?
  • What do I know about the relationship already, including my intuition about how they feel about me?

Only by honestly exploring what you want and need from this relationship and how you feel — plus the clues you’ve been given about how the other person feels, you won’t know for sure if you even need a chat.


You might even reconsider your own position on defining the relationship. Maybe you’ll be convinced that it’s not even required, or you need more time to assess if they are right for you. If that’s the case, why invite awkwardness? Leave it alone, and either enjoy the status quo or let things naturally fizzle out.

2. Prepare yourself for the conversation and get your emotions in check.

Even though you may be tempted to ask questions over text, beware: This could lead to even more of a misunderstanding and could seriously backfire.

In-person, you are able to connect on a deeper level, break down his walls, and read body language.

3. Start the talk when neither one of you is strapped for time.

For some reason, important talks seem to go better in the afternoon. Avoid the midnight hour unless they're a night owl, as they're bound to be overtired and anything seemingly pushy will be overblown.


Ask their thoughts on monogamous relationships and you can get an idea of their thinking.

4. Pick a location that's private and relaxed to chat.

Avoid restaurants or public places — not that it’s going to go badly and you’ll have to worry about staring faces, but you do want limited distractions and no time pressures. Usually, at home works well.

Consider DTR while you’re doing something nice together afterward, such as watching TV, playing a game, or taking a walk.

5. If you’re sitting down, sit beside or right across from each other so you can read body language.

Whether it’s an interview, a performance review, a relationship conversation — or any potentially difficult conversation, you’ll avoid a "me vs. you" attitude and you’ll be psychologically on the same side of the problem.


6. Figure out what you’re going to say or ask ahead of time.

If it helps you to organize your thoughts, write them out. Then, practice your top three messages. When the time comes, you will be more confident, and you won’t stumble from nervousness.

Remember, though, that as prepared as you are, the chat is unlikely going to go as planned. it’s not a one-way speech after all; it’s a dialogue. Expect the unexpected.

7. Get your head in the right place to have an open conversation.

Before you get together for your DTR chat, make sure you set aside some time for yourself. Meditate or do some deep breathing for a few minutes, go for a walk, exercise, or do something that you enjoy.

Get yourself in a mental place to communicate at your best and be ready for the outcome.


8. Start the conversation casually.

Ease into the conversation, without any announcements that it’s a talk about the relationship.

The best way to start is to talk about how you feel about what’s been happening between you and see what happens.

“I’m having a lot of fun with you” or “I really enjoy spending time together.” Pause. Then wait for a response. If they freeze up, or say, “thank you” ask a follow-up question: “What do you think? Or, “How do you think things are going?”

Make the conversation as relaxed and sincere as it can be, and you won’t come off as pushy.

9. Be flexible enough to let them think about it and continue the conversation later.

If you’ve lobbed the ball by announcing how you feel about your relationship and you don't get a response right away, it may just mean they need more time to think.


Perhaps they were caught off guard. They may be so into the flow of your relationship that they haven't stepped back to think about classifying you guys.

Another option is that they're introverted and need to think it through before sharing their thoughts.

Asking to regroup doesn’t mean there's no interest there. It’s an important conversation, so don’t rush it. If you push them into a corner to respond now on the spot, they just might say no thank you.

Ask about a good time to continue your chat, and in the meantime, stay positive and focused on building a strong bond.

10. Communicate your feelings clearly.

Share how you view the situation, and your feelings using “I” statements, such as “I like where this is going,” which leads to “I want to see only you.” Or, “It feels like we’re boyfriend/girlfriend.”


From there, the discussion may go deeper and it's best to continue with the “I” statements. Avoid starting your sentences with “You,” which could come across as accusatory.

Since some people get freaked out by the words “exclusive” or “commitment,” steer clear of these, too, and instead state the behaviors you’re looking for.

11. Be honest and authentic.

If seeing them interacting on dating apps or online dating websites stresses you out, say so. Say, “It’s important to know that I’m the only one you’re dating.”

Be forewarned, if they have reservations about being exclusive with you right now, and feel pressured by you in this conversation, they're just going to continue with the apps.


Explain how you've been burned before so that they understand your context. They will get you a little more, but ultimately, they must communicate their truth to you also.

12. Really listen and be curious about what they have to say.

When they talk, really listen to how your partner feels. Listen to the words that they say and listen to what they don't say — and the body language. Listen for what’s important to them. Listen with compassion and your whole self.

Be sure to pause after each statement or open-ended question you make. Let them process it and then allow them to respond in their own time. A little silence can be your friend in the DTR chat!

If they say they're just looking to have fun, believe it. At the same time, be careful about making assumptions. If you’re unclear or want to go deeper, ask follow-up questions that start with “How?” or “What?” “Why” questions imply judgment and they are definitely on the ‘do not ask’ list.


Acknowledge their comments so they know you’re listening. For example, “That’s important to you,” or “From what you’ve told me…” They’ll see how open and considerate you are, and that will go a long way in building the kind of relationship that’s sustainable.

13. Consider a compromise.

You may not get the confirmation you want right now. If you really like this person and think you could have a future together, put on your problem-solving hat.

Recap the situation. For example, “You really like spending time with me and you are not ready to stop seeing other people just yet. At the same time, I need to know that I’m the only one you’re sleeping with. What can we do to meet halfway?

Hopefully, as you prepared for this chat, you’ve already thought about what you can live with.


14. Maintain your boundaries.

If you’ve given them a chance to share their views and there isn’t room for compromise on your part, that’s ok. Explain what you’re not willing to budge on.

For example, if they refuse to stop seeing other people (and the thought of it makes you sick to your stomach), explain that won’t work for you. Suggest that you take a break or remain as friends.

Don’t ever put their needs ahead of your standards and self-respect.

15. Remain unattached to the outcome.

Stay focused on why you wanted to have the chat in the first place. Getting answers means just that; not the answer you want but the actual answer. As uncomfortable as it might be, put your heart out there and be ready to accept the outcome of this DTR chat.


And if they end up not being able to give you the things you want, realize it’s time to move on. After all, life’s too short to waste your time on a person who isn’t able or willing to meet you halfway.

In the end, it’s better to be clear now than get hurt later. Heal now and get ready for the next person who wants to make it official with you.

Follow these tips and make the discussion a non-event, that is, a non-disruptive event in your relationship. You’ll get the answers you’re seeking — no matter the outcome. Put your doubts to rest and move forward.

Who knows, maybe they were secretly hoping you would bring it up!

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Lisa Petsinis is a certified life coach who works with resourceful women to achieve healthier relationships with themselves and others.