When is the Best Time to Define the Relationship?

A newly married couple shares hearts while lying on the floor.

Commitment-phobic people instantly recoil at the idea of defining a relationship, but in almost every romantic engagement, some kind of expectations are actually quite helpful. If you are certain that you want a casual relationship, you are less likely to have hurt feelings and cause the heartbreak of your romantic partners if you let them know. At the same time, making it clear that you see long-term relationship potential in a way that doesn’t make it seem like you are rushing a relationship forward can be helpful.

Here are some “defining the relationship” elements to consider doing at different times.

Pretty Soon After a First Date

Nothing specifically needs to be said right after a first date other than pleasantries. There is something kind about making your feelings pretty clear in the days or week following a first date. Especially if the hookup was unexpected for at least one of you, it is good to specify if you are feeling strongly inclined toward being just friends, keeping it casual, or future dating.

This is not the time to declare your love or even express long-term intentions. If you want to avoid hurt feelings, it is better to break things off early if you know you aren’t interested at all. For anything less clear than that, this can be a good time to avoid relationship conversations and just see how your time together progresses.

A newlywed couple sit on the steps of their home together

After Two to Three Months

If you consistently see each other or communicate frequently for two or three months, you are into the territory where it is completely reasonable to ask the question: “Are we exclusive?” Some people ask this question much sooner, some just don’t mind one way or another. For clarity’s sake, after a few months in can be a good time to make sure there is a mutual understanding regarding being exclusive. If your relationship began casually and you are both seeing a future together, this is a good time to decide to become exclusive.

Within a Year

After a year together, it is helpful to have a strong idea about the trajectory of your relationship. This is different for every couple, but after being together for a year, there is a good chance that one or both of you may want a new job, to live in a new location, or to move in together. A year of dating makes it pretty clear that something is going on, and if you have specific expectations about how soon you would consider engagement, marriage, or just long-term cohabitation, you probably should voice them now.

It is wise to avoid one partner waiting for the other to talk about marriage or other serious steps. It’s great to explain that those questions aren’t currently on the table. However, not having the conversation at least once in a year about where you see the relationship headed is a good way to hurt someone’s feelings, and possibly waste each other’s time. This time frame might be more like three years for some couples, especially very young couples. For those who are marriage-minded, it could be less than a year. Most people can tell when their significant others are waiting on pins and needles to have “the talk” about marriage, even if no one is planning on proposing for a long time yet.

Newlywed couple stands on the beach looking at the rides on a pier

Opportune Times as You Continue Your Relationship

Many people think that once they talk about the relationship and get the “marriage” word out in the open, the need to define the relationship goes away. As your relationship grows and changes, there will be times when there is a needed change. Whether change means occasional times apart, a chance to be non-monogamous, or just a major change in the way you treat each other, there are many levels of health in a relationship that can be addressed in a variety of ways.

Rather than waiting until your partner is fed up to the point of wanting to break up, find the courage to discuss what is going on in the “state of your relationship,” even if you’ve been together for years. The best time to define the relationship is when one of you feels like there is a need to do so. Being receptive to talking about the relationship is one of the ways you can show your care, concern, and confidence.

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