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Why “defining the relationship” is key to a healthy love connection


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On the sixth or seventh date with my first boyfriend, I sat him down to discuss what terms commonly associated with partnering up meant to us: “committed,” “relationship,” “exclusive,” “love.” As it turned out, much to my intrigue, we did not define them the same way.

He didn’t distinguish between casual partners and committed relationships. He only saw one person at a time and appreciated each “relationship” for whatever it organically became. Meanwhile, I saw each romantic prospect as passing through specific stages, from “dating” to “exclusive” to “relationship.” I liked feeling, and then actively deciding on, each progression. Labels didn’t matter as much to my ex as they did to me, and he only applied “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” to our “relationship” at my request. I preferred—and needed—complete clarity.

Labels didn’t matter as much to my ex as they did to me, and he only applied “girlfriend” and “boyfriend” to our “relationship” at my request. I preferred—and needed—complete clarity.

This is the best-case scenario: You find a mutual language for what your partnership is and what you ultimately want long-term. Having that full night of discussion early on was incredibly powerful when it came to being on the same page in our relationship, and I always felt understood in my goals.

A couple of years later, after we split and I started seeing someone else, the sudden lack of a mutually-agreed-upon relationship language was a huge issue. The guy prematurely applied a label that I didn’t feel comfortable with yet—we had a “relationship,” sure, but not of the committed variety. I wasn’t ready to call him my “boyfriend,” and we got into an intense discussion about what it meant to “date.” He didn’t accept my definitions. For example, he couldn’t understand how a “relationship” differed from “dating” and why I thought “dating” was a phase along a romantic trajectory, instead of a destination in itself.

Our inability to agree on these terms made clear that we were not good at communicating and compromising with each other. And it would ultimately be part of our undoing.

So how do you get on the same page with your partner about what your relationship means? Scroll down for expert advice on having “The Talk”—with minimal awkwardness.

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Relationship labels: When definitions help
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Why “defining the relationship” is so scary

Agreeing on a common romantic language can be one of the most important acts you undertake with a prospective partner—especially at a time where we as a culture are completely redefining what a relationship actually is. Even among my friends, despite an earnest desire for more clarity, many are still hesitant to have “The Talk” with the person they’re seeing.

Many of us assume DTR (defining the relationship) puts a person under too much pressure, or opens a can of commitment worms too soon. “People worry that having these serious conversations may lead to conflict, which can prematurely end the relationship,” says psychologist Marisa T. Cohen, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at St. Francis College and the author of From First Kiss to Forever.

Because we have more romantic options than ever before, thanks to apps and online dating, we’ve also internalized the idea that love is a flawless state, says Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a psychology instructor and clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health. Singles today are quick to question budding relationships—the mere fact that one person’s feelings have moved faster than another’s can be enough to end it. “We live in a disposable society. Everything can be disposed of in favor of something new, including relationships,” she explains.

Unrealistic relationship expectations make conversation even more vital to your connection with your partner. “Some feel it’s better to not ask the questions than to face the rejection,” Dr. Ivankovich says. “This notion gives rise to a very noncommittal society, and the expectation is that things need to be perfect or you move on.”

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Relationship labels: When definitions help
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Why you should initiate the DTR conversation early on

Intimate relationships involve sharing “dreams, goals, and fears” with your partner, Dr. Cohen says. “This often happens gradually, meaning that when we first meet a person, we are slow to divulge things that may be very personal or that are potentially negative, as we wait for trust to build.”

Your hopes for a future partnership would definitely qualify as sensitive information. “If we share too much too soon, we run the risk of making our partner feel uncomfortable, because then they often feel the need to reciprocate,” she explains. “And they may or may not be ready to do that.”

But Dr. Cohen says that discussions should at least start early on, so you don’t cling to a person who will never want what you want. The point of your earliest conversation is to determine: Do we at least want the same things out of a romantic relationship? Do we have similar goals for each other?

The setup of this conversation doesn’t need to be scary. One way to make sure it isn’t? Don’t go into it with expectations. “The point is to decide if this person is worth your time,” says Dr. Ivankovich. “Not all people arrive at that decision at the same time. It’s kind of like sex. The fairy tale is to believe that you will both achieve a state of orgasm at the exact same time. It is far more realistic to understand that each of you will climax at different times.” The most important thing is the initiation—and from there, you can see where things go.

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Relationship labels: When definitions help
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How to define romantic terms

So, how do you DTR most effectively? Be direct with your partner and set up a time to discuss the issue at hand. “Make sure that your partner is in the talking mood. Nothing good comes out of a conversation where one person is not vested,” says Dr. Ivankovich. “Choose a place that is comfortable for both of you, and settle in.”

Define the terms “relationship,” “dating,” etc. like I did, and take turns. Which definitions match, and which don’t? “Finally, ask, ‘What are we?’” says Dr. Ivankovich.

Dr. Cohen says it’s important to be as honest as possible about what you want from your partner—now and in the future—but within limits. “Be open to creating a shared understanding, and avoid ultimatums and timetables,” she says. “Just because your partner doesn’t see eye-to-eye with you at the time of the initial discussion, [it] doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually. Rather, this may be the first in a series of discussions.”

And though it may sound cold, you could even think of the conversation like it’s a job interview or salary negotiation. “You need to be open to hearing things that are not aligned with your plan,” Dr. Ivankovich explains. “Look at the conversation as an opportunity for you both.” Because no matter if you ultimately decide to move on apart or together, it’s sure to be more fulfilling than the grey area of an un-defined relationship.

If you’re going to look for one trait in a romantic partner, Chrissy Teigen thinks it should be this. And these are the red flags that warrant a left swipe. 

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