Sliding vs. Deciding

Observations on Love, Sex, and Commitment

3 Reasons why People Avoid Talking About "the Relationship"

Sometimes we push to define things too soon. Sometimes we don't want to know.

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In an earlier post, I wrote about the growing trend toward ambiguity in romantic relationships. I want to follow-up here (and in my next post) on why people avoid “the talk," also referred to as Defining the Relationship (DTR).

The Urban Dictionary defines the DTR as, "when two people discuss their mutual understanding of a romantic relationship (casual dating, serious boyfriend, etc).”

I believe this term has joined our vocabulary precisely because of the increased ambiguity in modern-day romantic relationships. The way most people use the term seems to be a bit more specific than the global definition in the Urban Dictionary. People commonly think about the DTR talk as something that occurs on the cusp between being regularly involved and being “official” about being in a relationship. For some, the aim of the DTR is to move the relationship from "hanging out" to “dating," especially in terms of what two partners are willing to tell others. The process, when it advances the relationship, seems somewhat like crossing the border between one country and another, when you have to produce documents about who you are and where you are headed. Indeed, for many couples, the talk will determine "customs" moving forward.

People were not so aware of this concept 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, people talked and clarified things, but there was less of a recognized need for a specific type of talk. There was, however, the idea of "going steady," among various other markers of an upgrade in mutual understanding of what was happening. Today, having the talk often leads to the same result as deciding to go steady once did. But as you can see by the Urban Dictionary definition, a DTR talk can lead to any sort of improved understanding between two people, whereas going steady meant a specific increase in commitment and exclusiveness. And while not technically what the person pushing for the DTR talk usually wants, it could lead to an increased understanding that there is not much in the way of a serious, mutual commitment between two partners.

Here are 3 reasons partners may avoid the talk:

1. It’s just too soon.

If one partner brings up the talk too soon, they are likely to come across as needy or even desperate in the other's eyes. A lot of people can chase partners off. Some never do it, some do it once or twice and learn not to keep doing it, but others feel impelled by a need for security to push too soon and tend to live more painful lives as a result. People in the latter group also tend to give way too much too soon, and too often, to people they are attracted to. (That’s a form of the terrible “toos,” I suppose.)

Other people avoid making things clear because they fear clarity might force the end of a relationship they otherwise want to keep, at least for the time being. After all, especially in earlier stages of relationships, some ambiguity can help two people keep seeing each other while they are figuring out how compatible they really are. Beyond those early stages, ambiguity can keep fragile relationships going that would otherwise not survive clarity. That’s exactly what some people want, of course. But the risk is spending ever more time in a fragile relationship that might keep one from finding a better match. It also must be true that, for some people, the fragile relationship they have now is as good as they could have, at least at this time. Their real choice may be between the present relationship and no relationship. Particularly before defining a strong, mutual commitment, everyone’s relationship dynamics take place in a broader context of what their alternatives are.

So some people push for the talk too soon, and some don’t push soon enough—but both carry risks.

2. Having a DTR talk takes both guts and skill. Many people do not have that combination and may therefore avoid it until circumstances force the need.

It’s hard enough for couples in relatively healthy and committed relationships to talk effectively about emotional or sensitive issues. Many people are just not well-equipped to have an effective DTR. This is where I can see some advantages to the older convention of "going steady." It didn’t take any big discussion to get to the point; one merely had to ask the other if she (or he) wanted to go steady.

Bill: Alice, I’ve been thinking. Would you go steady with me?

Alice: I’m not prepared for that. I don’t want to do that right now.

Ouch. That hurts, but now Bill knows where he stands, and it was not a very complicated conversation. Such a talk could have gone on, to define what not going steady really meant, of course, but if there was agreement to go steady, all the needed information about expectations were built into the term by common cultural understanding. The conversation did not demand a high level of skill: Asked and answered. Now, people need to have enough skill to build an understanding from the information coming from talks designed to DTR. I’m sure Bill does not feel any better than someone today might if they do not get what they were hoping for in a DTR moment. But at least the process was more efficient.

3. The most interesting reason people avoid the talk is that one or both partners have issues about commitment, which I define as a willingness to commit to the future and have some identity as a couple.   

When it comes to commitment, either partner A and B are nearly equally committed or they are not. At earlier stages of relationships, an imbalance is common, since one partner often becomes more committed sooner than the other. However, when this imbalance lingers, it can become a serious problem. And when it never ends, the more committed partner is a candidate for a mention in the new edition of He's [or She’s] Just Not That Into You. That book is humorous, brutal, and a bit coarse, but it deals directly with ongoing commitment imbalances and how people may put up with a lot to hang onto a little. 

The commitment complication provides one of the greatest reasons someone might avoid raising the issue even if it seems long past time to clarify things. When there could be an imbalance in commitment, the partner raising the question risks outright rejection, and so may avoid asking for the clarity he or she deeply desires. 

Next time, I will write more about what the less committed person can lose from a DTR talk. For the moment, ponder this: One of the biggest problems with ambiguity is that serious differences in commitment levels can be missed. The more committed person may be perfectly aware that he or she is more committed, but, in many other cases, the intense attraction felt for the partner can make it hard to register what really is a substantial vulnerability in the relationship.

Scott Stanley, Ph.D., is a psychologist and a research professor at the University of Denver, where he conducts studies on marriage, cohabitation, and commitment.

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