Here’s What It Means To DTR, According To A Clinical Psychologist

Plus, when to do it.

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The getting-to-know-you phase of dating can be pretty awesome, thanks to the butterflies and excitement of falling for someone new. But there definitely comes a time when feelings get involved. And that's when things can get confusing.

“If one partner is looking for a more casual experience, while the other is looking more for a monogamous relationship, that can cause certain expectations on either partner that they may not be able to fulfill,” says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, MSEd, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in Manhattan. But if you both keep seeing each other—whether that’s in the talking stage, hooking up, or friends with benefits—it can cause more anxiety in the long run, since you’re not really sure if the relationship is going anywhere.

That’s where having "the talk" comes in, otherwise known as defining the relationship or DTR.

“Actual, honest, difficult conversations are the best way to determine whether you’re on the same page as your potential partner,” elaborates Lundquist. Still, let’s be real: Actually sitting down to discuss your emotions and needs can be pretty daunting. And it’s no wonder why most people shy away from putting themselves in uncomfortable positions such as these.

“When in doubt, it’s best to talk about it, as transparency and clarity are helpful,” adds Lundquist. “Vagueness and guessing increase the chances of hurt feelings and surprises. If you’re especially nervous to raise the conversation, it’s worth considering what that might be saying about the relationship or how you approach relationships.”

But don’t worry. Lundquist is here to help you figure out what DTR really calls for, how to do it in the best way, and yes, even how to deal with the aftermath of DTR if it doesn’t go the way you want.

What does DTR mean?

It means "define the relationship." DTR basically calls for having a conversation in which you determine the nature of the relationship you share with someone, according to Lundquist. But it doesn’t need to be as black and white as deciding whether you’re choosing to be an exclusive couple or not.

“DTR can be as broad or as narrow as you need,” says Lundquist. “Often, it’s seen as setting rules about sex and flirting, establishing monogamy, or setting shared terms for thoughtful, transparent non-monogomy, if that’s something you desire.” It can help couples figure out whether they’re exclusive or not, and if they aren’t, then what rules govern those interactions.

“I encourage couples to think more broadly about how they share time, how they represent the relationship with others outside of it (using terms such as friends, partners, or primary partners, for instance),” adds Lundquist. “It can even include things like sleepover schedules, or how friends and family are folded into the relationship.”

When it comes down to the crux of it, DTR can help you express your needs and boundaries, figure out your expectations, and help you see if the other person is aligned.

When should you DTR?

This is a personal decision according to Lundquist, because it all depends on when you feel it’s important to express your needs and desires. “I would suggest doing it earlier rather than later, and you can do it as often as you need to,” he says.

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Basically, don’t wait to have it because you’re scared, especially if you already know what you want from the relationship. “Remember that this isn’t just a negotiation of terms,” reminds Lundquist. “It’s about talking openly about what feels good, fun, and safe—both in a relationship and with sex.”

How do you DTR?

While there isn’t a magic formula that’ll help you DTR in the “perfect way," you can follow some basic guidelines that could create a better environment for a serious conversation such as this one. “Pick a time that's conducive to a discussion—so not bedtime, and make sure you’re both sober,” says Lundquist. “In person is best.”

In terms of what to say and how to say it, be sure to remain calm, considerate, and curious about what the other person might be feeling. Aka, try not to come across as too aggressive or needy. Be direct and as specific as possible, so that there’s no confusion about what you want.

Below are some key phrases Lundquist has helped prepare, in case you need some extra guidance:

  • “We've been spending a good deal of time together. I think we should talk about where we stand, where we're headed, and how we want to approach dating other people.”
  • “Our relationship has changed, and I think I’m wanting some new things, to change how we've done things.”
  • “We've been doing things [in this particular way]. I'm realizing I like that, but I feel we should make sure we're both on the same page.”
  • “I want to open up the relationship, I'd like to talk about why…”

    Lundquist stresses that it's most important to be true to yourself, your desires, and your needs.

    What happens after I DTR?

    So usually, two things can happen: Either your potential partner agrees with what you’re saying and is on the same page as you (the ideal scenario!), or they need some more time to figure things out or just want something different. Whatever the case may be, though, it’s important to understand that their reaction has nothing to do with you. You’re also not obligated to wait for them to get to the same place you are if that isn’t something you’re willing to do.

    “The conversation, in spite of whatever nerves may be present, usually goes well and is a meaningful moment in the relationship,” says Lundquist. “But if it doesn't go well, don't panic. This isn't just a ‘show your cards’ moment—it's a conversation, one where you're inviting the other person to hear where you're at and explore the relationship.”

    What it means to label a relationship:

    If the person you’re having the conversation with just isn’t on the same page as you, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, you could use that feedback as a chance to ask whether you see that person getting to the same place you are with time. Then, see whether you’re willing to explore waiting.

    “Relationships are dynamic. Often people don’t know what they want or have conflicts about what they want, and people change their minds,” says Lundquist. “There’s bravery here in asking for what you need and what you want, and you shouldn’t forget that.”

    If that’s the case where your potential partner just needs some time, you can have regular check-ins and conversations. (Fact: This will be much easier for now that you've had the DTR convo.) However, if you feel the person you’re seeing isn’t ready to explore something more down the line, it’s probably best to move on. But only you can make that decision for yourself.

    And don't forget to be proud of yourself. You just had a hard conversation, and that’s something to be celebrated. “In relationships of any sort, uncomfortable conversations increase in importance and frequency: You’re not just learning to talk about sharing time and fidelity,” says Lundquist. “Instead, you’re building a relationship infrastructure to be able to talk about all kinds of hard things down the line.”

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