Friday, June 13, 2014

(Blast from the Past) The DTR Dance: Avoiding the Talk

[I've been a little preoccupied lately with some stuff and have not gotten a new, substantial post out for a bit. So, I decided to re-post a couple of my favorites that many of you will not have read. These two posts appeared first in March 2009.]

I wrote in prior posts about ambiguity and how that is one of the defining features of romantic relationships in this day and age. The motive for keeping things not quite clear about what a relationship is and where it is heading is simple: ambiguity gives couples a way to avoid breaking up in a relationship that is desirable for now, but where one or both senses the future is unclear.

Ambiguity can protect fragile relationships. There’s some good and a lot of not good in that.

The acronym, DTR, stands for Define The Relationship. It means having The Talk. DTR is a modern day antidote to ambiguity.

I have some thoughts about why people avoid DTR. There are a number of possibilities.

1. It’s just too soon to have the talk, and bringing it up too soon makes one look desperate.

2. It’s hard for one or both partners to talk about things that are emotional or sensitive because the most important conversations often don’t go well. In this case, the issue is communication not commitment. In the work I have done with colleagues such as Howard Markman, Natalie Jenkins, and Susan Blumberg, we focus a lot on helping couples to learn how to talk openly, clearly, and with emotional safety. Stuff for another day, but if you need help there, now, try one of our books listed on the left of this site (except the commitment one).

3. The big reasons why people avoid DTRing is that there are issues with commitment.

When it comes to commitment, I merely mean important dynamics such as the willingness to commit to the future, interest in marriage, etc.

When it comes to commitment, let’s assume two possibilities about hypothetical couple AB, which is made up of person A and person B.

One possibility: A and B are nearly equally committed.


Second possibility: A and B are not equally committed.

In this second case, either A is more committed to B or B is more committed to A. Let’s just focus on A being more committed to B. It happens all the time. It’s pretty much a normal part of couple development, except that if it goes on and on and on, it’s a serious problem. In fact, the problem version of this now happens so commonly that bestselling books have been written about this painful dynamic: He’s Just Not That Into You, comes to mind. (The title is a link if you want to read more about it.) It’s an excellent book—humorous, brutal, a bit coarse (that’s a warning if such things bother you)—describing these dynamics of differences in commitment.

I think situations where there are serious differences in commitment levels between two people are the situations where DTR talks are most likely to be avoided, and for some pretty logical reasons.

I’ll give you my sense of those reasons in my next post. For the time being, think about the possibilities in the reasons people avoid doing the DTR talk. I suppose the DTR talk is then a DTR dance.


In my last post, I left off with the question of why people might avoid the DTR Talk. If you have not read that post yet, I encourage you to read it before going on with this one.

To reset the scene, I’m assuming some things about a relationship with person A and person B. I’m assuming that partner A is either more committed to the future than B or is, at least, thinking a lot more about the issue. Hence, person A is the one who wants to know now or soon where person B is at on the whole matter of a future. This is not something that usually (or should) happen early in the relationship. It’s something that becomes more and more of an issue over time. That’s because most people want to marry eventually. Most adults who are “in the market” for life-long love (the aspiration) are going to be less inclined to spend a lot of time with someone if they know that this someone does not see a future together.

So person A wants to know what person B is thinking and intending. While it’s easy to think of person A as a female and person B as a male, there are doubtless many situations that go any which way. The key is that one person, A, is more ready than the other, B.

Questions and Ideas of Answers

Why might person A avoid having The Talk? Person A might avoid having The Talk because person A has a hunch that person B either sees no future or that person B would run from the relationship if person A pushes it.

By the way, this relates to a painful reality about commitment: The person who is most committed has the least power. This is true, at least at this stage of a relationship, where the future is not nailed down.

Since person A loves person B, and knows he/she wants a future with person B, pushing the matter is scary. People tend to avoid scary things until they can’t put them off any longer.

The reasons why person B might avoid the talk seem more complex, in my view, but they all boil down to a sense of potential loss. Essentially, what I’m defining is a situation where person B likes the status quo. Whatever the relationship is right now, person B is happy not to rock the boat. It’s working, at least for now, so why mess with anything?

The Talk can bring person B the loss of something in one of at least three ways.

1. If person B is quite a bit less committed than person A, The TALK can lead to a break up. Person B’s answers can lead to person A to realize that what she or he wants is never going to happen. B avoids The Talk because of a desire to hang onto the present arrangement.

2. If person B is somewhat less committed than A but a future is at least possible, the talk leads to ongoing negotiation. One Talk will lead to other Talks because A sees the possibility of getting somewhere and will keep pressing it. B might not want to be in what starts to seem like a series of Talks because B does not like negotiating about change B really does not want, yet. The status quo is groovy for B and it’s not fun for either A or B to keep talking about something so difficult, tricky, and important.

3. Person B might avoid The Talk because the end result will be that B has to up the commitment. It’s sort of like playing poker. Both have their cards (their commitment cards and their attractiveness cards). Person A is throwing all in, and person B is being called to pony up or fold. Person B has to match the bet of person A and lay em down.

To put it briefly (something you may have figured out I don’t do easily!), person B avoids The Talk because it can lead to one of several types of loss:

Loss of the relationship due to break up.
Loss of peace in the relationship due to ongoing negotiation.
Loss of freedom due to having to match the bet of A or leave the game.

If you are counting, that’s three “dues” and it’s time to pay them.