There are a few three-word phrases that are like kryptonite for casual relationships: "I love you," "This isn't working," and "What are we?" While the sentiments behind all of these are completely reasonable, there's a misconception that you're supposed to happily float in purgatory instead of defining the terms of your relationship. And that's not fair at all.
If you're seeing someone, and the guidelines are hazy or were never clearly discussed in the first place, at some point you're likely to wonder what's up. So why do we dance around having a "defining the relationship" talk?
Why is it so scary to define a relationship?
"In general, people enjoy ambiguity because it feels safer," says Kayla Knopp, PhD, a clinical graduate student who studies facets of commitment in relationships at the University of Denver Center for Marital and Family Studies. Relationships used to be more linear, with clear-cut "commitment phases," Dr. Knopp says. Couples dated, got engaged, and then married. Now, there are lots of different trajectories for relationships: Certain couples want to get married, others just want to keep it loose, and most settle somewhere in between. But people aren't always sure what they're aiming for, so they avoid labels altogether, she says. "It feels kind of scary to make a decision about [your relationship], so people feel a lot of anxiety," she says.
Some couples procrastinate making it official because they're scared that the outcome of the talk won't be what they wanted, Dr. Knopp says, adding that we should get over that fear. "My argument there is that it's always better to know," she says. Calling it quits can be a bummer, but at least you can stop investing so much of your time and energy into something that's not right, she says. "The end of that relationship won't mean that you failed, and it won't mean anything bad," Dr. Knopp says. "It just means it's run its course."
So, when should I define the relationship?
Being sure you're ready to define what you're doing doesn't mean you're being high-maintenance or demanding (as long as you're not going about it with an ultimatum). It means you know what you want, and you don't want to waste anyone's time on something that isn't that.
Dr. Knopp says the goal of defining a relationship isn't always to be monogamous, and that's often misunderstood. These talks are really just two people or more figuring out what their arrangement is going to look like, she says. So even if monogamy comes up in conversation, you can still make a mutual decision to go another way, she says. You can define the relationship as open, for example.
As counterintuitive as this may sound, it's extra important for non-monogamous couples to "DTR," so they can have a clear understanding of what their setup is going to look like, Dr. Knopp says. For example, you might decide to try an open relationship, with the caveat that you agree to not share details about your other partners with one another. "One of the strengths of non-monogamous relationships is often better communication about your expectations for what the relationship is going to look like," she says. These topics don't always come up naturally in conversation, which is why having these conversations can be so important.
For people who are already in a monogamous relationship, these conversations can still be useful, but they serve a slightly different purpose. When couples make intentional and mutual decisions about commitment before they take a big step together, it can be "protective against some of the negative impacts that transition might otherwise have," Dr. Knopp says. For example, if you and your partner are about to move in together, you might want to take some time and talk about how you see your relationship progressing. "Relationships that have DTR talks tend to be associated with a lot of positive qualities for the most part," Dr. Knopp says.
What should I say when defining the relationship?
To make sure your convo goes well, present your feelings without lobbing accusations, blame, or judgment. "Good communication skills are especially important here, and can make it feel safer to have a conversation that otherwise feels scary or threatening," she says. Lead with "I" statements instead of "you," and you can try mirroring what your partner says, so you're absolutely sure you understand what they want, she says.
If you're not getting anywhere with the conversation, that might be a sign that you should table it. According to Dr. Knopp, many couples wish they had defined the relationship sooner, but that doesn't mean rushing these talks is the answer, either. If throwing out a "so, what are we?" still freaks you out, just think about it this way: "In general, it's better to decide about something than it is to not decide about something," Dr. Knopp says. Ultimately, it's your relationship and your choice.