he “WHAT ARE WE?” talk (otherwise known as “defining the relationship”) is an infamous rite of passage for couples determining where they stand and what their expectations are going forward. My boyfriend and I have had this conversation a grand total of three times over the course of our 12-year, on-again-off-again relationship. The first time, when we were 14, he asked me if I wanted to be his girlfriend, and after a few days of thoughtful teenage consideration, I agreed. The second time, when we were 16 (and one week into rekindling the flame after a six-month-long break), he asked me if we were officially back together, and I said yes — immediately. The third time, when we were 22 and started dating again after graduating from college, he asked me what exactly we were doing and I said, “I don’t know, what do you want to be doing?”
Despite the fact that it ended happily, my recollection of this trajectory makes me cringe a little, because there was a very clear pattern at stake: he asked, I answered. That’s not to say I didn’t think about asking, especially during our third go-round, because I did. Ultimately, though, I made the decision — conscious or not — that I wanted to let him dictate the terms of this turning point.
I spoke with him about it recently, wondering aloud if it was weird I was never the one to bring it up. He suggested it might have had something to do with my personality, which is a fair consideration (I’m cautious by nature), but even so, a small part of me knows there was more to it than that. I’ve alway been keenly aware of the common stereotype among heterosexual couples that women are more eager to “define the relationship,” whereas men dread it. By letting him introduce the conversation, I knew I would avoid falling into that trap.
Looking back on it now, it all seems kind of silly. As an equal participant in the relationship, why shouldn’t I be the one to ask what, or if, we should label it? And yet, I understand why the conversation requires a leap of faith, especially if one person is ready to broach it and the other isn’t, or if two people want two different things. I’ve spoken about “defining the relationship,” or DTR, in depth with my female friends, but I was curious to hear from other men, so I put a callout on my Instagram stories. Read the responses I received below, and meet me in the comments to discuss.
“When I was ready to bring up the conversation to my current girlfriend of three years, I took an entire day to prep. I went to the New Museum to get the creative juices flowing, bought her a necklace with her favorite animal on it and practiced my speech. She said no…but we’re together today, and I’m so thankful she changed her mind!”
“In my relationship, my girlfriend brought up the topic, and it was a regular conversation. It made me nervous, but knowing what it was made me excited, and luckily we were on the same page.”
“I ask myself, ‘How would I feel if this person I’m dating is seeing other people?’ If I feel like it would bother me, perhaps we should talk about becoming more serious.”
“As someone who very much enjoys being in a relationship (when I’m really into someone), I look forward to having the DTR talk once I’ve gathered up enough data to convince myself that the relationship would be worth pursuing further. I proceed with the conversation knowing that the outcome will likely be 1) thrilling or 2) really disappointing. Despite the risk of the latter outcome, I’d rather know than not, and I’d rather know earlier as opposed to later.”
“My current girlfriend and I didn’t really have ‘the talk’ as much as I accidentally called her my girlfriend to her face and then we decided to roll with it.”
“I started hooking up with a guy in college, and our relationship quickly developed into something that was more than just casual. But because I was still in the closet, each time he mentioned any sort of label or action that was a step beyond what I was comfortable with (such as calling me his boyfriend or wanting to go on dates), I would ghost him for a few weeks. Eventually, he got tired of that and moved on. Now that I’m out of the closet, I wish I’d been ready at the time to try moving into something more serious with him.”
“My girlfriend might say I was hesitant about having this conversation, and she would be right, but my hesitancy came from being methodical rather than reluctant. I was ready to define our relationship once I was confident in my feelings. I did not want to ask prematurely only to realize that a relationship was not want I wanted. It would have been unfair, even cruel, to her. Still, there is a strange traditional pressure that the guy is supposed to ask out the woman. Shouldn’t either side be able to gather up the courage to ask out a partner? It takes a tremendous leap of faith to ask, and if you are sure of your feelings I think you should ask the other person regardless of gender. Lastly, I think there is something to be said for enjoying each step of a romantic journey. The fulfillment from discovering intense reciprocated feelings for another person is truly incredible. But it is also exhilarating to actively wonder how the other person feels about you in the early stages. Where could this go? Where will this go? Curiosity about the future still exists once the relationship has been defined, but the thrill of the unknown morphs into something closer to the comfort of stability.”
“I don’t think it’s ever been a comfortable conversation as an adult, but that’s mainly because the relationship I am currently in happened while we were studying abroad. We weren’t planning to fall for each other like we did, but after about a month it became clear that we had deep feelings for each other and this was not going to be casual for much longer. One night we left a bar and — I cannot remember how it started but — we veered into a conversation about what we were doing. It turned into an argument of sorts. Do we want to see other people? Do you feel how I feel when I hang out with you? Are you going to feel this way when we go back home? Does it matter if we don’t feel this way in a couple of months? At some point she crossed the street and sat down on the sidewalk and I frustratingly yelled to her that I loved her. This is generally not advisable, right? But in that moment it’s how I felt. Admitting it was a risk, not because I thought my feelings were invalid but because I knew it was possible she didn’t feel the same. Luckily she did. We are still together five years later, and I love her even more now than I did then.”
“Do I dread it? Not if I like the person. I’ve only had this sort of conversation with people I like. I’ve instigated it about half the time. It’s not exactly something to look forward to, it’s just something that should happen. By the time you get to the conversation or by the time the conversation feels necessary, I generally think both parties are in favor of defining the relationship, officially changing the label from dating to BF/GF. So nothing in the relationship changes, only the label. You still like each other the same. I’m not sure if this is making any sense. It’s sort of hard to put into words. I don’t think DTR is just saying, ‘What are we?’ I think it’s deciding to accept the label, as opposed to just discussing it.”
“From what I’ve seen, it’s a false stereotype that men avoid DTRing and that, conversely, women are eager to DTR. I’ve known plenty of guys who’ve been obsessed with a girl and really wanted to DTR because they felt like they were being dicked around by her. Then again, maybe all my guy friends are extra sensitive!”
“I kinda knew I wouldn’t be the one to bring it up. The moment she asked, a flood of relief went through me and all the ‘what ifs’ went away. I told her I wanted to be in a serious relationship.”
“She laughed and said no, then she realized I was being serious, paused (for too long) and then said, ‘I guess so, we can see how it goes.’ That was four years ago! (And we’re still together).”
“I was the one who asked my current girlfriend to make it official (after about three weeks of dating). I knew I liked her and didn’t want her dating anyone else. I think if a guy is avoiding the conversation or is hesitant it’s just cause he doesn’t fully want to commit to that relationship. If you want the girl you’re seeing to be your girlfriend, you have no qualms about bringing it up first.”
“The relationship defined itself when I first farted in front of my girlfriend. Disgusting, but that’s the truth.”
“From my experience, women are not more eager. Men (me included) are just as neurotic and go in circles on the mental merry-go-round when the status of their relationship is in question. Our understanding of masculinity needs to be re-examined. It’s okay for men to be eager to have the talk, too.”
“I try to keep things casual until I can gauge how she feels about me. If I sense that we both want to be something ‘more than casual,’ I become serious and dedicate myself to a relationship. Sometimes signals get crossed though, or feelings aren’t reciprocated, and then I find myself being more cautious the next time around. In the process of reflecting on this and writing it out, I realize these situations would be a lot easier if I just communicated how I felt and asked girls outright what their intentions are, but I don’t want to come off as desperate or commit myself too soon.”
“Men assume that women pine for a definition because of the stereotype that women are more inclined to be committed and less inclined to be promiscuous. In reality it’s completely different, if not just the opposite. Honesty is the real desire. While I have upheld my end of the stereotype and rarely introduced the subject with a woman I’m seeing, when the DTR happens, it’s a relief. It forces you to confront and verbalize thoughts and feelings. You both get on the same page, you know where the other stands. It saves time and head space. I think men don’t introduce it because we’re cowards who avoid intimacy. And that ultimately costs us clarity, and wastes the other person’s time.”
“I know I would be upset if I was hanging around and sleeping with someone for like a month and they slept with someone else. I think the onus is on the person who doesn’t want to be exclusive to make that clear.”
“I’ve never found the right approach. I’ve introduced the subject too early on, which led to the relationship’s swift downfall. I’ve introduced it too late, without knowing we weren’t even on the same page. I’ve refused to introduce it altogether and found myself having the ‘what AREN’T we’ talk instead. A handful of the women in my life said that their current or former flames simply introduced them as their girlfriend to a group of friends without ever having discussed the subject, and eventually it stuck. Maybe that should’ve been my approach all along?”
“This past fall I started dating my girlfriend. After several amazing dates I kinda sorta fell in love with her. She had just gotten out of a four-year relationship and she, for good reason, was reluctant to enter another so soon. I told her that I loved her in November, she followed suit in early December, and we DTR as girlfriend-boyfriend in late December. Defining our relationship was incredibly important to me because it validated my feelings towards her and what she told me hers were towards me (love). Words have power and definitions carry context and connotations. By defining the relationship I knew what to expect from her and she from me. I think it’s important for both parties to know where they stand. It helps avoid one person getting too invested while the other doesn’t care. It makes everything easier because you know what you’re dealing with. I’m definitely rambling here, but yeah, long story short, defining the relationship is important to me and I was the first one to push it in my current relationship.”
“I almost exclusively (and incidentally) date older men, which leaves me feeling like I do not hold enough power in the relationship to assert my desires to ‘define the relationship’ because of an age gap that is often multiple decades. I often avoid these conversations for fear of rejection or taking the relationship past the point of no return. Most of my fears are self-inflicted, however, and I do not feel an imbalance of power in other aspects of the relationship.”
“I don’t dread it. It can be awkward for sure, but awkward is where a lot of learning begins. The best experiences I had with DTR was early on in becoming sexually active. I tried to be honest with girls before it ever got physical. I knew full well I was basically a child (still working on that) and there was no way I could have committed myself to anyone at that time. I literally said that to girls. The reaction for the most part seemed positive. I did this because I always knew where I stood, whether it was ‘Hey I really like you’ or ‘Hey I’m just trying to have fun.’ And if that didn’t work for the other person they deserved to know the truth. I’m a sensitive dude, I’m a Virgo, I’ve wanted DTR and didn’t get what I wanted, I get it. Since this is my diary now I’ll end with saying I didn’t always practice this type of honesty and I truly wish that I had. There are girls who would probably call me a jerk because I didn’t DTR and I’m sorry for that. It took me longer then I am proud to admit to DTR in the relationship I’m in now, but I can’t be mad because I’m the most in love I’ve ever been. She fucking fought for what she wanted, and I’m so glad she did, because because I would not where I am today without her. Sorry that took so long, Olivia (and to whoever has to read this).”
“My current girl and I simply deleted our dating apps from our phones. We’ve only been dating a couple of months, so I think we’re probably due for a more detailed conversation, but as of now things are great and we’re really enjoying being exclusive to each other without having to formalize the process.”
“I think that in relationships between young queer men (I am one!), there is a stereotype of a lack of commitment in relationships, and a lack of DTR. I’d say that instead, because the LGBTQIA community overall sees love in a more liberal light, many also feel less pressured to define their relationships. I see this as a healthy way to live, as it is a way of removing the stress of labels from modern life.”
“In my more committed relationships, I don’t really remember having a big talk where we decided what to call each other. Instead, there’s usually an acknowledgement of the growth of our feelings about each other, not a discussion or negotiation. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think the DTR conversation should only happen once. In my current (hopefully, last) relationship, we decided to get engaged when boyfriend/girlfriend no longer felt like an adequate way to describe the place we had made for each other in our lives. In past relationships, feeling uncomfortable about continuing those conversations has been a good sign that the relationship isn’t meant to last.”
“My last boyfriend and I were together for about three months. We did everything couples would do from dates to ‘dates’ 😉 but to me it never felt like he was my boyfriend until we decided to label it. About a few weeks after putting that label on it we broke up because the entire atmosphere of our relationship changed and it was no longer working for me. I should have told him I didn’t want to label things, and because I didn’t, it became toxic. Honesty is the best policy in these situations. So be honest with your partner!”
“Having been on both sides of the conversation, defining the relationship has always been a topic approached cautiously. The older I get the less I focus on defining the relationship and the more I care about the overall direction. Labels are an afterthought.”
“When I was younger there was definitely a sense of wanting to put it off. However, as I got older and wanted to settle down more, I actually became more proactive in having the conversation. Once I understood what I was looking for, I became less hesitant and just wanted to put everything out there to know where we both stood.”
Collage by Madeline Montoya.