How to Define the Relationship (And Live to Tell About It)

The tldr; on DTR.
Couple discussing their realtionship
Photo: Stocksy
Jamie Cuccinelli the knot writer and wedding expert
Jamie Cuccinelli
Jamie Cuccinelli the knot writer and wedding expert
Jamie Cuccinelli
Senior Editor, Sex & Relationships
  • Jamie is a Senior Editor for The Knot where she oversees all sex and relationship editorial content.
  • Before joining The Knot Worldwide, she worked with an array of digital publications that include Brides, The Zoe Report, Bustle and MyDomaine.
  • Jamie graduated with a degree in English and Media, Culture & Communications from New York University.
Updated May 13, 2024

To get to the good stuff, you sometimes have to go through the uncomfortable stuff first. (Olympic superstars don't get the glory until after countless hours of training, ya know?) Take relationships: To get to the good stuff—like love, support, weddings (!), etc.—you'll probably first have to define the relationship. Can it be an uncomfortable convo? Sure. But with so much coming back to the value of communication in a relationship, the defining the relationship talk can set you up for success when it comes to future important discussions and compromises.

We know, we know—you were nervous already. But defining the relationship doesn't have to be a high-pressure event, even if it's scary to verbalize your feelings and express vulnerability. The key is knowing how and when to approach it, as well as being confident in your own wants and needs.

In this article:

What Does It Mean to Define the Relationship?

On its surface, it's not that complicated: To define the relationship (or DTR) means to determine the boundaries and expectations around the connection you share with a romantic partner, usually through a thoughtful, clear discussion with them. But that's easier said than done, right? Firstly, how partners choose to define their relationship can look vastly different. That's because you don't have to define the relationship by any certain parameters.

Defining the relationship doesn't necessarily mean putting a label like "boyfriend," "girlfriend," or "partner" on it. Relationships aren't all long-term or monogamous, after all. For people practicing monogamy, it could be agreeing to become sexually and romantically exclusive. For those who are non-monogamous, it can be giving thought to the boundaries you have around non-primary partners.

The tldr; on DTR? It's all about coming to a shared understanding between partners—and that's not so scary, after all.

Why Should You Define the Relationship?

Situationship, who? Defining the relationship can be seen as an opportunity for the both of you to express your desires for the relationship, as well as any needs and expectations you may have—and if they could possibly be met within your partnership. Settling any unclarity and avoiding miscommunications (and the hurt feelings that often accompany them) are the benefits and usual results of having such a convo.

Moreover, you'll be able to better assess if you can find happiness and satisfaction with one another in the long- or short-term. If you aren't aligned or in agreement, you'll also be able to thoughtfully decide if you'd be better off seeking that satisfaction elsewhere.

You'll also be flexing your communication skills: Think of this defining the relationship talk as the foundation on which you and your potential partner will build how you communicate as you move forward in your connection.

When to Define the Relationship

When should you define the relationship is up to, well, you. There is no exact time frame here, nor a set date marked on a calendar—say, exactly one month since you first swiped right. The conversation should be had on no timeline except your own, when you're comfortable being vulnerable and sharing your hopes for the partnership.

That being said, if you're lying awake at night wondering the dreaded question of "What are we?" it may be time to define the relationship. But you're encouraged to give it time: It often takes more than just a few dates or a few weeks to determine whether you're compatible with a person or if a longer-term relationship with them is something you'd like to pursue.

How to Define the Relationship

Who doesn't love some actionable steps? A little prepwork can help decrease anxiety and quell some nervousness. So before you have the defining the relationship talk, see our guidelines and advice below.

1. Time It Well

While we can't give you an exact time frame to have the conversation, we can advise you to choose a time when you're both calm and sober and not tired physically or emotionally spent. Avoid having important conversations before bedtime, and in-person is usually best (though not always possible if you're in a long-distance relationship).

2. Assess What You Want

Have an idea of where you want the relationship to go. Do you want to be monogamous with this person? Are you curious if they'll consider an open relationship? Do you want them to be your boyfriend, girlfriend or partner? Have an idea of how you'd like that to look and the expectations that go along with it. If your partner isn't ready or able to give you what you want, consider how you'd like to proceed.

3. Keep Things Positive

Try your best to keep things light. Kicking off the conversation with a "We need to talk," is anxiety-inducing. Instead, start with the positive: Consider beginning the convo by discussing things you love about your connection and how fun your time together has been.

4. Honesty Is the Best Policy

It's a cliché saying for a reason right? Be straightforward about what you're looking for and your hopes for the future. Using "I" statements (like, "I'd like to spend more time with you," or "I'd like to delete my dating apps and focus on this relationship,") can be especially helpful when trying to be as straightforward as possible. Asking for what you want is something that should be celebrated!

5. Focus on Feelings

Check-in with your partner about how they're feeling. "I'd like to spend more time with you. How do you feel about that?" is a natural way for the conversation to flow, and focusing on feelings opens up the space for a healthy dialogue. On the other hand, yes-or-no questions like "Do you want to be exclusive?" don't leave as much room for discussion and can make someone feel cornered or caught off guard.

6. Take a Beat

The DTR discussion doesn't have to come to a resolution at that very moment. If either of you needs to take a beat, do so. Let your potential partner know that they can think about all that's been said and revisit the conversation after reflection. However, be prepared to follow-up if they do not.

What to Do When the DTR Chat Doesn't Go As Planned

First of all, congratulations on surviving a potentially nerve-racking situation. Even if your conversation didn't go as you would have liked, you still advocated for yourself—and that's a big deal! If the two of you aren't aligned though, first assess if more time is what's necessary to get you on the same page. If that's something you can give to one another, commit to future check-ins to ensure that you're both satisfied and still see potential in the relationship.

If you choose to walk away, know that you're walking towards someone who can better provide what you want in a relationship. There's no rush though: Feel free to take the time to date yourself before others. Be vulnerable with yourself about what you're looking for, indulge in self-care and invoke your support system. Though you're likely dismayed, you can also let go of the stress over not knowing where your connection is headed. (No more laying awake wondering "What does XYZ mean?!" or sending screenshots to the group chat.)

Plus, you'll be able to take your refined communication skills to your next relationship. Now that's something worth adding to your dating bio.

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