“Do you want to be my boyfriend?” my friend says, lying on my bed and tossing her hair back in mock seduction. This, she claims, is the most direct method of asking the person you’re dating whether he wants to be exclusive.
The talk is also known by a three-letter acronym: DTR, short for Define the Relationship — fittingly, also the name of Tinder’s official podcast.
For a dating milestone so universally acknowledged that it’s spawned more than one cringe-worthy nickname, few of my friends can agree upon the right way to approach it — or whether it’s necessary at all. Have the conversation too soon, and it could signal an awkward end to an otherwise good thing. Have the conversation too late, and you might realize the person you’ve been spending every other night with will never introduce you to anyone outside of his Netflix account. (Maybe you’re being stashed.)
I decided to consult dating coaches about how, when and where to DTR. While every relationship is different, here are some general guidelines:
The talk can start before you even meet the person
“In my profile online or in my first meeting of a person, I want them to know I’m looking for a relationship,” says author Susan Winter. “That eliminates 90 percent of the nonsense that we go through.”
To her, dating is a little like hitchhiking: You may get sick of the driver along the way, but you at least want to know that he’s heading in the same direction as you, taking as few detours as possible. “Somebody is maybe going to the West Coast, but somebody [else] is going directly to L.A.,” says Winter, who wrote “Allowing Magnificence: Living the Expanded Version of Your Life.” “You want to go with someone who’s going directly to L.A.”
Often the lack of communication stems from a fear of “getting kicked off the ride,” says Winter. “Men and women have been so afraid to say what they want. Saying what you want is more powerful than asking them what they want.”
Don’t assume you’re in a relationship without talking about it (people do this)
“What’s really interesting about the relationship talk is that a lot of people these days, especially online and app daters, don’t feel that they need to do it,” says Laurel House, a dating coach who worked with celebrities on E!’s “Famously Single.” “That leads to a lot of confusion.”
At least partly to blame, says House, are online dating apps, which have created a more casual dynamic riddled with guesswork. She cites clients who assumed they were in a committed monogamous relationship for months or even years, only to find out their partner was still dating other people.
“Every single dater has a different experience-based perspective,” says House. “There are a lot of daters out there who feel like, ‘I like you and you like me enough to go on a date and possibly a second, and therefore, let’s dedicate time to see if this develops. While I agree with that, that conversation has to be had. It cannot be assumed.”
Think of “the talk” as a series of talks
If you’re using an online dating app, you might want to bring up a preliminary discussion with your partner: Should we delete our dating profiles?
“That doesn’t mean that we’re putting a label on this,” says House. “That just means we like each other enough to explore this without being distracted by other love interests.”
Laurie Davis Edwards, who founded the coaching service The Worthy One, suggests one way to bring up the topic is to frame it as a personal assertion rather than a question for your partner. “Mention that you are going off the app or the site that you’re on, and just make it a statement and get their reaction to that statement,” says the author of “Love at First Click: The Ultimate Guide to Online Dating.”
House, nicknamed “the man whisperer,” advises her clients to be prepared for all possible outcomes during this conversation. “You have to be okay with them saying they’re not there yet,” she says. “And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that they don’t like you.”
It also doesn’t mean you have to stop seeing other people: “If someone else comes in, you’ll welcome them in,” says House. She likes to think of these conversations as traffic signals with red, yellow and green lights for various stages of a relationship. “Having the ‘get offline, exclusive’ conversation” is the yellow light, she says.
When you actually get to “the talk,” there’s no one right time or way to do it
“There’s something called the three-month rule,” says Winter, referring to the assumption that the talk happens around then. Winter believes this so-called rule is total garbage.
“Sometimes it happens after a good first date. Sometimes it happens after a third or fourth date,” says House. “Sometimes it happens after several months. It totally depends on the couple and it depends on the types of conversations you’re having on your dates.”
So now you’ve started the talk. When in doubt, ask questions. “Are you open to the possibility of a relationship?” is a good one to start with, says Winter. “If they say no, ‘Are you dating casually?’ ‘Are you looking to have a good time?’” Of course, not every conversation will end in exclusivity; nor is that the goal of every relationship.
If you’re really feeling bold, one way to test the waters is to schedule what House calls a “make-or-break vacation date” — a short day trip or weekend away — which she typically recommends on the fifth date because it can help gauge the future of a relationship before you’ve invested too much time. “At the end of the trip, you know yes or no,” she says, recommending this strategy only if you’re looking for a committed, monogamous relationship.
Don’t force things
Not all dating coaches agree that “the talk” needs to happen at all. Edwards’s husband, Thomas Edwards, who founded the coaching service The Professional Wingman, says there are more subtle ways to define a relationship that don’t involve having a three-hour conversation. One client, he says, “was introduced to [his girlfriend’s] friends as her boyfriend but they never really had the talk about it,” he says. “His reaction to that was basically the beginning and the end of the talk.”
(We should note that one great time to have a traditional talk is right before meeting friends or family together — because they’ll ask what your deal is.)
Above all, Edwards says, be flexible and open to having all kinds of conversations without rules or expectations. Defining a relationship “is a milestone for sure that I think a lot of people reach, but it should never be forced,” he says. “I think the most successful transitions with dating someone to being exclusive with someone happen naturally.”