Define the Relationship
Odds are, most of us will find ourselves in a dating relationship at some point in our lives. As much as that may sound exciting (or terrifying) to us, the reality is how you enter into a relationship is just as, if not more, important as how you actually work out that relationship. This is where so, so many of us fall short: we’re totally cool with dating someone, we just don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to ever be put on the spot, to define our relationship status. Or maybe we just don’t know how to talk about. It just happens, right?
No it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, “it just happens” is the strategy most of us will employ when it comes to relationships. It often goes like this: You’re going to a movie with a group of friends and you do everything you can to make sure you’re right next to that girl you like when you all file into the row of seats. Score. You’re sitting next to her. As the movie goes on, all you can think about is how your arm is barely touching her arm on the armrest. Then, suddenly, somewhere in the middle of the film, probably when Spiderman finally figures out who killed Uncle Ben, she slips her hand into yours and, UHHHHHHH are we holding hands?! Oh man, we’re totally holding hands. And now you have no idea what’s going on in the movie because all you can think about is “is this really happening?”
So I guess we’re dating now?
Yep. That’s usually how it happens, because most of us cringe at the thought of that juvenile, childish, “I like you. Do you like me?” moment from elementary school. It’s so forced, it’s so awkward, and it’s terrifying because what if they say no? And yet, ironically, that kind of childlike simplicity is the most mature thing you can do for a relationship. Not stumbling around in the dark (movie theater), but clearly offering definition and expectation. All this is in an effort to consider the other person’s needs ahead of your own. Their need for emotional security and relational clarity over your desire for excitement and thrill:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
What does this mean in this context? It means as Christians, we’re called to do relationships a different way: and it all starts with a Define The Relationship talk or DTR.
A Clear Beginning
Brandee and I had been friends for a few years before our big DTR in September of 2007. We had lived in the same dorm together, and we served in a ministry in inner city Bryan together every Friday night. We often studied together and, well, you get the picture. Multiple times we had found ourselves spending so much time together we had to stop to have quick conversations establishing where we were in relation to each other. We always ended up acknowledging we were good friends, she was a sister in Christ whom I appreciated and respected, and while we enjoyed spending time together, we had to guard each other from slipping into misplaced affections and expectations.
It wasn’t until my junior year, however, when I realized that nearly all our friends were either moving off campus or graduating, that I had to decide whether Brandee and I were going to continue growing closer to each other, or we had to hit the breaks and establish some boundaries to protect each others’ hearts.
I was absolutely committed that while I had stumbled around in high school, causing confusion and chaos then, I would be intentional and clear with Brandee. I asked her to hang out on campus because I needed to ask her something. As much as that might sound intimidating, that conversation, that DTR, was probably the most important moment in our dating relationship.
So, who am I to you?
**A quick word: I believe women can be just as bold and just as decisive as men. I’m married to an incredible, strong, beautiful woman, and I have three daughters who we want to raise to be women of God, clear on their calling and bold in their pursuit of God’s will for their lives. However, I’ve seen so many young men fail fail fail to take any kind of initiative in relationships; it needs to stop. Men, if you’re spending significant time with a woman, I can almost guarantee that she’s wondering where your head and heart are. Don’t be a coward. Take the first step and initiate the conversation.**
Okay, so what does a DTR look like? Here are six quick steps for you to prepare yourself for a good Define the Relationship talk:
1. Know what you want – This first step may be the most important. Unless you have a clear understanding of your own hopes and expectations, any attempt to communicate with another person just becomes a confusing, jumbled mess. Knowing what you want means spending time in prayer, seeking wise counsel, and wrestling with possible consequences. The work you put in for this first step doesn’t just set you up for a good conversation, it demonstrates that the relationship is important to you. If you don’t care enough to put in this kind of effort, you shouldn’t be dating at all.
2. Set a clear and definite time to talk – How often does this happen: it’s late after a night out, you’re dropping off a friend at her house but you end up sitting in the car talking for an hour. Suddenly out of nowhere she says, “so, people are asking if we’re dating…”
Don’t let it happen to you.
Being intentional in a relationship means being intentional with how it starts. If you find yourself at a crossroads with someone, be intentional and set up a time to sit down and talk.
“Hey, do you think we can talk later tonight about where you and I are at? I just want to be 100% open with you so there isn’t any confusion.”
Doesn’t that sound more… mature? Grown up?
3. Be honest, not dramatic – I told a teenager once a few years ago that he was thinking about his dating relationships all wrong. “You’re life is not a movie,” I said, “you need to make decisions that are honest, not what would make a good twist in a chick flick.”
I know it sounds a little patronizing, but how many of us are guilty of that: playing out the scene in our heads of having this big emotional conversation, the lighting just perfect, the music ebbing and flowing in the background. The camera zooms in on her face as you say the words, “hey girl, I just want you to know that…”
It may win Ryan Gossling an oscar, but it won’t do anything good for your relationship. Be clear, be honest, and consider the other person’s needs ahead of your need for a cinematic moment.
4. Ask the question. Shut your mouth. – Quite simply, ask, “where are we in our relationship?” Often times we sabotage our efforts for clarity by being overly wordy. We try and dig ourselves out of a difficult moment by throwing in more “explanation” of why we’re having this conversation. Take a breath, ask the question, and jump into the pool. You’ll live. I promise. But once you’re in the pool, let the other person respond.
“I really enjoy and value our friendship, and I want to explore how deep the Lord wants to take this relationship. I’d like for us to start dating. What do you think about that?”
“I really enjoy and value our friendship, and I don’t want to risk crossing any emotional expectations or boundaries. I want you to know that I see you as a great friend, but just as a friend. What do you think about that?”
It’s terrifying, I know, but be of good courage! The small bit of discomfort you feel now will save you from the devastating consequences of ambiguity later.
5. Have an exit strategy (set boundaries) – This is huge. Where ever you and the other person land, be sure to set some boundaries (think expectations) on your newly clarified relationship. When Brandee and I would have DTRs during our college years, we always made a point to talk about what that meant for us practically. “I think it’d be best for us not to have lunch one-on-one every week”, or “hey, I think we should probably spend more time in groups.” Whatever the case may be, figure out how you want to conclude the conversation with a clear understanding of what your relationship looks like moving forward.
6. Go tell someone – Finally, go tell someone. Not the guy behind the counter at Taco Bell. I mean someone you trust. Hopefully the same person (people) who have been serving as wise counsel to you through this whole process. After Brandee and I had our big DTR in All Faith’s Chapel where she told me that we would not be dating, and after we set up our new boundaries as friends, just friends, I immediately called a mentor in Houston to process the experience with him. I told him that I felt like the Lord had given me a clear answer to my big question, and I felt so much peace and joy in knowing I was going to be okay. He affirmed my feelings, and asked what I wanted for my relationship with Brandee in the future. I told him that I would like to ask her again someday, if the Lord opened that door for me. “Let’s pray that he does,” he said.
DTR: beyond dating
Finally, let’s address something really important: you need to have these conversations your whole life, with all the most important people in your life. DTRs aren’t just about defining a dating relationship, they’re about defining any relationship transition. Now I’m not saying that you need to declare your new friendship with everyone you meet (it’s awkward, trust me) but it is true that sometimes even friendships get confusing. I was talking to a young adult at our church the other day about some stuff that went down between him and his roommate, one guy wanted to spend time together, the other didn’t. “We’re just not that close!” the latter exclaimed. Sometimes even friendships need a moment of “hey, let’s make sure we’re on the same page here.”
Ironically, Brandee and I had more DTR conversations before we started dating then during our season of dating. Most were quick, simple, and straightforward. After a prayer meeting on Thursday night, for example, she and I walked over to the McDonald’s on University Ave to grab a bite to eat before heading back to the dorm. I opened the door for her and said, “hey, this isn’t a date. Just so we’re clear. I want to buy your dinner though.”
“I know. And you don’t have to.”
“I know. I still want to. You’re my friend. That’s what friends do.”
That’s it. Nothing super dramatic. Just a clear statement of where we stood in relation to each other. We’re friends. We feel the liberty to share and give to each other, but we’re not pursuing anything deeper than friendship. No need to read into things beyond what was spoken. No hidden messages. No drama.
While we were dating, we constantly needed to check in with each other to make sure we were on the same page. The last DTR Brandee and I had as a dating couple was probably the easiest one we ever had up to that point: it was after dinner the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving. I walked with her to the courtyard of All Faith’s Chapel on campus, got down on a knee and asked her to change our relationship status: I asked her to marry me.
She said yes.
Finally, on the other side, married couples would do well to remember that even though that ring on your finger may be a physical symbol of your “relationship status,” your husband or wife still needs to know every day where you stand. Remember “I love you,” is a declaration of your relationship. As a married couple you need to define your relationship to each other, affirming the love you have for each other, every day.
Dating doesn’t have to be a forest of mystery where we’re constantly finding ourselves lost and afraid. Trust is built on good communication. It’s like a flashlight in the middle of the night. Being able to see where you are, and where you’re going, can make all the difference. Talk to each other! Be clear, be honest, and define your relationship.