“Dating” in 2022 — 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 “So, what are you looking for right now? I’m looking for a serious relationship long term but having fun meeting people and getting to know them in the meantime” isn’t hard — 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 conception 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?
Once you feel clear(er) on this question, you can share those thoughts with your date to help equalize the dynamic and set you both up for success. You can use this simple formula: 1. Set the purpose of the conversation, 2. Share where you’re at, and 3. Inquire in an open-ended way about where they might be at (with the possibility to continue this conversation at a later time if they need time to think). Here’s what that might look like: “Hey, I’ve been having so much fun getting to know you, and wanted to talk about where we both see this going so we can make sure we’re both getting what we need. I feel like we’re really compatible and could see this being a serious relationship, and I’d like to give that a shot, but I’m happy to keep doing what we’re doing right now if you’re not available for that. How are you feeling about where this is going?”
Be intentional about how you choose to respond with next steps
While of course, we hope our dates will want exactly the same things as we do — and be able to follow through on them! — ultimately the responsibility for making sure that we don’t end up in a situation where our needs aren’t getting met is on us. Before (and during, and after) a conversation about “what we are,” it’s crucial to think through for yourself what finding out your partner’s feelings will mean for you.
What action(s) are you willing to take in response to what they share? If they share that they’re only available for more casual connections, are you going to be able to scale back your expectations to match that — or make the choice to stop dating them? Or are you going to tell your date and yourself that you’re okay with that outcome, and settle into a dynamic where you try to subtly influence them to change their mind and resent them if they don’t? All the direct communication in the world, unfortunately, can’t help us if we aren’t willing to be accountable for taking action as a result of that communication; don’t let that be you!