In the past two years I have been in a few romantic relationships that lasted several months, all with feelings and expectations that went beyond sex, and in some cases approached commitment. Inevitably, at some point in each relationship, we reached a moment when we had to DTR: Discuss/Define the Relationship. Coming off the break-up of an 18-year marriage, I am neither averse to commitment nor eager to begin another 18-year gig. Thus, I approach the DTR as I would approach a guy with a fabulous face, who has a mass of gold chains and dark hair peeking out from his crisp collared shirt. With extreme caution!
My pattern has been to avoid the DTR until the guy actually forces it to happen. Yes. The guy asks ME where we stand. Many men are like me, they prefer not to DTR. Typically, those men are happy living in the moment, know that my presence on their couch speaks to their irresistibility, and are not future-tripping on what tomorrow may bring. Other men invite the conversation full-on. Those men, even when I lay it on thick to impress their boss or lay naked in their bed, are not fully convinced that I am “into them.” They want me, perhaps need me, to express commitment verbally and offer reassurance that I am not searching for the next best thing.
Though my dislike for the DTR is genuine, I have found that NOT forcing the discussion reverses roles in a way that gives me power. And I like that.
My lovely friend Keiko called me Saturday night. After six weeks of dating a Georgetown-educated advertising executive, she invited him into DTR-territory. Their shared intellect, busy work, and cultural backgrounds made for great potential. Initiated by her, the THREE-HOUR DTR may have killed the relationship. Her curiosity and relatively reasonable request for setting firm, immutable, times for dates pushed him away. At a core level, perhaps she needed him to state her worth to him. When he indicated his reluctance, her need for clarity kept the conversation going for two hours too long. By the end of that particular DTR, the lovely golden crust on the crème brulee had burnt. Ending the call, he declared their wants were too different. Her preference for “let’s meet Friday night at 8:00” derailed in agonizingly-slow fashion into “you want something I don’t.” Ouch!
Committed relationships take work and a lot of it. Amid shared interests, supportive deeds, and great sex – ongoing communication makes for creamy mashed potatoes with no lumps. I wish I had a chance to discuss DTR rules with Keiko before she approached her now-ex. Had she known the rules, she *might* have saved herself a relationship. And Keiko is not alone. Another guy friend, Jay, told me last night that he too has caused a different DTR: Demise of the Relationship. In the interest of helping those like Keiko and Jay who are allured by the sweet taste of the DTR, and helping others who avoid the DTR like burnt toast, what follows are general rules to prevent DTR disasters.
Rule 1: Wait until you are really clear about what YOU want out of the relationship before you initiate the conversation. If you don’t know what you want, it is unreasonable to expect that your partner will know what they want. Almost certainly the question “where are we?” is met with “I don’t know, where do YOU think we are?” If you don’t know, don’t challenge your partner to know. The conversation will end up a jumbled mess.
Rule 2: Try not to be naked. If you are fortunate enough to be naked, enjoy being naked!! Why kill the moment?
Rule 3: Be ready to accept what your partner has to say. If you have already placed limits on what you’re willing to accept as the relationship status, you’re not ready to have the discussion. A key lesson I have learned from Arthur, a man with whom I have successfully DTR’d, is that my acceptance of him exactly where he is at relationally is better than any gift I could provide. Few of us are accepted for who we are; being our true self in any relationship is liberating. After a few (read: two) very brief DTRs (read: 12-minute dialogues while on a walk), Arthur and I decided we have “unique circumstances” and our connection is far from textbook. It is not “just sex,” nor “just friends,” it is some chemical attraction that keeps us enjoying each other’s company without glimpsing into tomorrow. For now, my acceptance of him as he is and his hot body (and smile I can’t resist) scratches some itch for us both. If I wanted him to conform, or vice versa, game over.
Rule 4: Be thoughtful about timing. Avoid days that end in the letter Y. Wait, not really. Just don’t DTR during meaningful moments. The wife of a male colleague announced the end of their marriage after she found a female lover. It was New Year’s Day 2011. My friend will forever equate 1/1/11 with the day his love of 15 years declared her lesbian identity. Similarly, avoid birthdays, anniversaries, and when you are on your way to see friends. Truly, your friends will appreciate it.
Rule 5: Don’t DTR over the phone or in a public place. Please. Non-verbal behaviors, like smiles and smirks, add clarity. If you find yourself starting the conversation by phone, cease and desist. It’s a great reason to ask to meet for coffee or a run or a shot of tequila. Give the relationship the best shot it has by DTR’ing in person. And pick a private place. Lots of us have been trapped on a plane and the couple next to us is hashing out intimate details. He apologizes; she throws a drink at him. It isn’t pretty. Curiosity and voyeurism make it impossible for others to avoid eavesdropping. My ex-husband and I used to DTR on the local high school lawn, which was lush and always empty on a random Saturday. Find a quiet spot to sit as a couple. Preferably not in bed (see Rule 2).
Rule 6: Don’t DTR too early in the relationship. Sure, it is important to get clear about your relationship, for example whether you are exclusive or not if you care about that. But avoid negotiating the future of your relationship when your relationship has just begun. None of us has a crystal ball. Six-weeks-in is too early!! Young romance mixed with emotionally-loaded conversation is like a peanut butter and sardine sandwich. Why pair something lovely and luscious with a dead fish?
Rule 7: Don’t DTR if you don’t have to. Be sure that you have evaluated the benefits of DTR. In some instances, it may be better to postpone the DTR and allow nature to take its course. Rest assured that over time, through words and actions, you will come to know exactly where you stand.
Rule 8: Be prepared to meet your partner’s needs to DTR. Relationships are bi-directional. In spite of Rule 7, it may be that to keep the relationship progressing, you have to DTR because your partner wants to DTR. Be respectful and listen as well as you can. Take time to formulate a genuine response. A successful DTR can maintain an already good relationship and when done well, can bolster a struggling one.
Rule 9: Have an exit strategy. I once ended up DTR’ing with a man I liked during the first hour of a three-hour car ride. Fortunately the conversation ended well. Imagine two hours trapped in the car if we had decided the relationship was over. Brutal! Pick a moment when you have a way to end the conversation and move along to another activity. Preferably something more pleasant!
Rule 10: If you know the outcome will be the end of the relationship, it may be best to sweetly end the relationship and minimize conversation altogether. Why put either of you through the drama of rehashing every relationship detail if there is no hope of repair. If you find yourself in this situation, state simply and clearly two reasons the relationship is over for you, acknowledge genuine appreciation for what you have gotten from the relationship, apologize for missteps, and get the hell out. Loose ends like “maybe we can be friends” or “let’s see what happens in the future” prolong the agony in situations where it isn’t true. As with avoiding DTR in the first few weeks (see Rule 6), don’t wait until the relationship smells like a rotten sardine before you initiate a gracious end.
Ultimately, every couple must DTR. Consider this a caveat of the serious nature of such a conversation. Misunderstandings abound. People cry. You know the drill. Unless partners are on the same page, (how often are we actually on the same page!?), the imbalance in wants, needs, or power, can end in hurt feelings. Know what you want from the relationship. Prepare yourself to hear what your partner has to say. Gently approach him or her with an open-mind at the right moment. Following these rules gives you the best chance of shifting from a dreaded DTR to a DGT: Damn Good Time!