[Dear readers, Years ago I had written a couple of pieces on DTRs that I had re-posted earlier this year. This is a substantial update on the first of those two pieces.]
As you probably know, DTR means Define The Relationship. The Urban Dictionary defines the DTR this way: “When two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship (casual dating, serious boyfriend, etc).”
Doing the DTR is often referred to as having "the talk." I believe "DTR" has joined our vocabulary precisely because of the increased ambiguity in modern day romantic relationships. I write about ambiguity often because I think it's important. For example, I recently wrote about the confusion people often feel about dating.
DTRs exist as a process in order to bring some clarity to what’s going on between two people.
The way most people use the term seems to be a bit more specific than the global definition in the Urban Dictionary. People commonly think about the DTR talk as something that occurs on the cusp between being regularly involved and being “official” about being in a relationship together. For some, the aim of the DTR is to move the relationship from hanging out to “dating” in terms of what two partners are willing to tell others. The process, when it advances the relationship, seems somewhat like crossing the border between one country and another, where you have to produce documents about who you are and where you are headed. Indeed, for many couples, the talk will determine customs moving forward. (Does that make the one pursuing the talk a customs official?)
People were not so aware of this idea 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, people talked and clarified things, but there was less of a recognized need for a specific type of talk back then. There was, however, the idea of going steady, among various other markers of an upgrade in mutual understanding of what was happening. Oftentimes, today, having the talk leads to the same result as starting to go steady did in the past. But as you can see by the Urban Dictionary definition, a DTR talk can lead to any sort of improved understanding between two people, whereas going steady meant a specific increase in commitment and exclusiveness. Technically, while not what the person pushing for the talk usually wants, a DTR talk could lead to increased understanding that there is not much in the way of a serious, mutual commitment between two partners. I’ll come back to that below and in the next post I write.
Here are some reasons for avoiding the talk.
Reason number 1: It’s just too soon to have the talk.
If one brings up the talk too soon, they are likely to come across as needy or even desperate in the eyes of the other. A lot of people chase others off. Some people never do this, some do it a time or two and learn not to keep doing it, and others feel impelled by a need for security to push too often too soon and tend to live more painful lives as a result. People in the latter group tend to give way too much too soon, and too often, to people they are attracted to in life. That’s a form of the terrible “toos” I suppose.
Some people avoid making things clear because they fear clarity might force the end of a relationship they otherwise want to keep, at least for the time being. After all, especially in earlier stages of relationships, some ambiguity can help two people keep seeing each other while they are figuring out how compatible they are for a possible future. Beyond earlier stages, ambiguity can keep fragile relationships alive that would otherwise not survive clarity. That’s exactly what some people want, of course. The risk, though, is spending ever more time in a fragile relationship that might keep one from finding a better match. It also must be true that, for some people, the fragile relationship they have now is as good as they could have at this time. Their real choice may be between the present relationship and no relationship. Particularly before defining a strong, mutual commitment, everyone’s relationship dynamics take place in a broader context of what their alternatives are to the present relationship.
Overall, some people push for the talk too soon and some don’t push soon enough. Both carry risks. It’s complicated.
Reason number 2: Having at DTR talk takes some guts and skill. Many people do not have the combination and may therefore avoid the talk until circumstances really force the need.
It’s hard enough for couples in relatively healthy and committed relationships to talk effectively about emotional or sensitive issues. These days, many people are not well equipped to have an effective DTR. This is where I can see some advantages to the older convention of going steady. It didn’t take any big discussion to get to the point; one merely had to ask the other if she (or he) wanted to go steady.
Bill: “Alice, I’ve been thinking. Would you go steady with me?”
Alice: “Bill, I’m not prepared for that. I don’t want to do that right now.”
Ouch. That hurts but Bill now knows where he stands, and it was not a very complicated conversation. The talk could go on to define what not going steady really meant, of course, but if there was agreement to go steady, all the needed information about expectations were built into the term by common cultural understanding. There was no need for a high level of skill to ask or answer the question. Ask and answered. Move on. Now, people need to have enough skill to build an understanding from the information coming from talks designed to DTR. I’m sure Bill does not feel any better than someone today does when they do not get what they were hoping from in a DTR moment. But the process was efficient.
Reason number 3. I think the most interesting reason people avoid DTRing is that there are issues about commitment in one or both partners. By commitment, I mean having a willingness to commit to the future and have some identity as a couple.
When it comes to commitment, either partner A and B are nearly equally committed or they are not. At earlier stages of relationships, an imbalance is common since one partner often becomes more committed sooner than the other. However, when this imbalance goes on and on, it can become a serious problem. When it never ends, the more committed partner is a candidate for a mention in a new edition of the book, He’s Just Not That Into You. (Or She’s Just Not) That book is humorous and brutal and a bit coarse, but it deals directly with ongoing commitment imbalances and how people put up with a lot to hang onto a little.
The commitment complication provides one of the greatest reasons someone might avoid raising the issue even if it seems long past time to clarify things. When there could be a possible imbalance in commitment, the one raising the question is risking outright rejection, so may avoid asking for the clarity that he or she deeply desires.
One of the biggest problems with ambiguity is that serious differences in commitment levels can be missed. The more committed person may be perfectly aware that he or she is more committed, but, in many other cases, the intense attraction felt for the partner can make it hard to register what really is a substantial vulnerability in the relationship.That's the biggest risk in avoiding clarity, indefinitely.