What Are We? Here’s How to ‘Define The Relationship’

If you want a relationship, it's important to be direct.

If it looks like a relationship, acts like a relationship, smells like a relationship… it isn’t always a relationship.

That’s the reality of American dating — a relationship isn’t official until you define it.

“I try to keep things casual until I can gauge how she feels about me,” Matty, 25, told Man Repeller. “If I sense that we both want to be something ‘more than casual,’ I become serious and dedicate myself to a relationship.”

It’s sort of like the modern version of “going steady.”

While millennials are less likely to be married than generations past — just half of 25 to 37-year-olds were married in 2018 — it doesn’t mean they’re turned off to serious relationships.

Still, if you’re seeing someone you really like, asking “What are we?” can be nerve-wracking.

“I think a lot of people try to go into it sly like, ‘Hey, so what are you looking for?’” said Nick Notas, a dating and confidence consultant. “Both people secretly want a relationship, but they’re afraid of being too eager, too quick, and nobody’s getting what they want.”

Notas said if you want a relationship with that person, it’s important to be direct in bringing it up.

Something like, “I’ve had a good time getting to know you. I want to keep pursuing this, and I’m looking for something serious.”

One person has to jump in the deep end, or you’ll never get there.

“One, it avoids miscommunication,” Notas said. “But two, it then encourages your partner to also have the courage to open back up and say what they want.”

When to bring it up

The right time depends on the couple.

You have to feel ready to take the step. Sometimes, you know that right away — due to age, or experience, or both.

couple talking. Rewire PBS Love RelationshipCredit: Adobe
Whether or not you believe in “love languages,” talking to each other about how you give and receive love — and on the flip side, how you handle anger — can make the relationship work more effectively.

A 30-year-old might have more intuition than a 22-year-old. They might have dated enough people that they know what they’re looking for.

But not everyone does. If you started seeing the person unsure what you wanted, it might take you longer to come to a consensus.

Notas said it could take as little as a few weeks for you to decide you want to make things serious. But most couples tend to fall between two and four months.

The setting matters, too. This isn’t a conversation you should have over text, or even on the phone.

In-person is best.

“Texting is too impersonal, and it’s too easy to lie,” said Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author of “Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today.” “After all, if you’re going to have a real relationship, you need to learn to talk to each other about what’s going on between you. If you can’t do that, your relationship will not go far, no matter what you call it.”

Sure, it might feel uncomfortable. But if you want a real relationship with the person, you’re going to be talking about much more uncomfortable things than “are we in a relationship?”

Don’t forget practicalities

Feelings aren’t the only thing to consider here.

If you want the relationship to last, you’ll have to think a little logically before you take the plunge.

Notas said you don’t necessarily have to get into the weeds about whether you have the same immediate goals. So much of that is going to change over time, and won’t matter in the long term.

What you should consider are the unchangeables.

“Do you feel like you respect this person and want the best for them?” he said. “Then of course I think there’s other things like, are there big hurdles of religious values? Children, do we want that or not?”

If you’re sure you want children, and the other person is sure they don’t, you should give the relationship extra thought before committing. Not that it’s a factor that very day, but it could be someday.

You might want to talk about your definition of commitment. The label of “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” might mean something different to your partner than it does to you.

And whether or not you believe in “love languages,” talking to each other about how you give and receive love — and on the flip side, how you handle anger — can make the relationship work more effectively.

“If you are usually good at diffusing each other’s anger, and being supportive through times of grief or pain, your emotional bond will deepen as time goes on,” Tessina said.

Going forward

If you’d eventually like to live with this person, you should probably get a good sense of each other’s living styles and organizational levels, as well as their financial habits.

You’ll naturally be spending more time together as the relationship becomes more serious. Before you move in together, it’s important to communicate personal boundaries and needs your partner might not know about yet, Notas said.

“’I sometimes like to decompress by myself, sometimes I want a night out with my friends, are you OK with that?’” Notas said. “Setting the expectations of what you need personally… and allowing them to say, ‘Hey, that’s not a problem.’”

Social media should be part of the discussion. You should know how your partner feels about their photo being posted on Instagram or Facebook.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to police what they post about themselves. But if personal privacy is important to you, you should talk about it.

Talking is sort of the endgame here. Your relationship won’t be “solved” with one grand talk at the beginning. Instead, you should be talking seriously regularly — Tessina recommends weekly — to keep communication open and resentment at a minimum.

“Basically, couples need to lower their expectations of romance and glamour and raise the level of fun they have together,” Tessina said. “In a successful, long term relationship, passion becomes a shared sense of humor and goodwill toward each other.”

As you talk, you’re building the infrastructure of the relationship.

Make sure you do it right.

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.