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How to Have the “What Are We” Conversation

“Dating” in 2023 — or really in the broadly contemporary era of the last few generations — is a concept that’s grown to encompass many things. In general, this is a good thing; I think we’re all glad we aren’t still stuck with a Jane Austen-esque courtship model, where we’d need relatives to chaperone us or else be considered damaged goods forever. However, that does mean that the exact type of “dating” we’re doing — casual? exclusive? serious? friends with benefits? situationship? — feel a little unclear, especially in the early weeks or months.
The price we pay for a more dynamic dating culture that allows for a greater range of options outside of marriage for the purpose of ensuring property inheritance is that we need to communicate directly if we want to be on the same page. While direct communication is ideally an everyday part of any dating dynamic, from deciding the restaurant for dinner to sharing your thoughts and feelings, communicating about the exact nature of your dating dynamic is a specific project — a “what are we?” conversation. It’s a time to check in about a) how things are going now and b) where they’re going in the future: is this a serious relationship? Do we want it to be? Are our wants and needs for a relationship aligned? These can strike fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned daters, but they don’t need to! Here’s my advice for making a “what are we?” conversation go as smoothly as possible.

Pre-empt the conversation altogether by stating what you’re looking for

If you’ve ever used a dating app and seen a bio (or written one!) that reads “Not really sure what I’m looking for…” you can easily see how you could end up consistently having conversations with your dates about what you’re doing a few months in. As difficult as it can feel, the easiest way to have a successful “what are we” conversation with someone you’re dating is by having it before you even start: by being clear about what you’re looking for and asking them directly what they’re looking for, and only moving forward with people who have desires that match up with yours.

What does this look like? It helps to clearly state what you’re looking for if you do have any kind of dating app practice: adding “looking for my life partner” or “not looking for anything serious right now, but would love to go on dates 2-3 times a month.” If you’re meeting people in other contexts (or realistically, even if you are meeting them on dating apps), it makes a world of difference to just ask them directly. I know this can seem scary, but I promise it’s helpful to ask something like this, “So, what are you looking for right now? I’m looking for a serious long term relationship ultimately but having fun meeting people and getting to know them in the meantime” this isn’t as hard as it may seem — just remember to share where you’re at if you’re going to ask someone a vulnerable question about themselves. The key with this strategy is that if someone shares they’re looking for something very different than you are, you have to commit to gracefully walking away — “It was so great meeting you; it sounds like we’re looking for different things so I don’t think dating is on the table right now, but best of luck!”

Be clear about what your goals for the conversation are

Often, our concept of the “what are we” conversation revolves around the other person’s feelings, putting them in the position of almost giving us a verdict. We imagine asking someone “so, where do you see this going?” and hoping that they give us the “right” answer — the one we were hoping for.
This isn’t a recipe for success — putting the other person on the spot like this puts a lot of pressure on them, and also puts us in a position of giving up our agency and power; we’re helpless as we wait for their response. This sets both people up for stress and resentment, which doesn’t bode well for a productive conversation. Instead, think about what you actually want out of this check-in. Is there a specific response you’re hoping for from the other person? What outcome do you want from this relationship? Do you know? Are there multiple directions the relationship could take that you’d be okay with? How important is this to you? If the other person isn’t on the same page as you, is that a dealbreaker?

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