The Scariest Part of a Relationship

For partners to make it “official,” they have to survive the period between acquaintanceship and closeness. But that’s when people tend to be especially bad at communicating.

A couple sits facing each other in the sun, holding each other's waists
Brook Pifer / Gallery Stock
A couple sits facing each other in the sun, holding each other's waists

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The beginning is all fun and games. You go on a few dates with someone—no big deal, you’re not invested. Then you go on some more, and some more after that. This, whatever this is, is kind of nice. Maybe you mention it to your mom, and then she won’t stop asking about it. Next thing you know, you’re wearing your retainer when you stay over and texting them every time you see a cute dog. Are you … are you in a relationship?

Every couple has, at some point, crossed the creaky, swaying bridge from “unofficial” to “partnered.” But when you’re still in between, it’s not always clear how to safely get to the other side. You could step on one of a thousand broken boards and fall clean through. Doubts might crowd your head—about how much they like you, what they want, whether it’s too soon to ask.

The good news is that researchers are studying this journey, looking at how daters know when to “define the relationship”—DTR, if you will—and why having that conversation is so hard in the first place. The strange mix of familiarity and ambiguity in the early phase of a courtship, they’ve found, is a perfect storm for misreadings and hurt feelings. But people don’t tend to ask for clarity until they’ve done some amateur detective work themselves.

Relationship-status uncertainty, you might be thinking, has an obvious solution. Communication! You just need to clearly, honestly communicate what you want. How hard could it be?

Extremely hard, actually. The period between acquaintanceship and closeness is, experts told me, when good communication is most crucial—but ironically, that’s also when we’re likely to be particularly bad at just that. “We tend to be pretty direct in non-intimate relationships, because we have to be,” Denise Solomon, a communication scientist at Penn State, told me. Acquaintances probably don’t know us well enough to interpret hints. And we’re direct with people we know well because we can be. In the middle, though, people commonly waffle on how to express things and end up speaking vaguely—especially when they feel they’re at risk of rejection. Talking about the relationship itself is even trickier. “There’s strong evidence that people who are more uncertain about the definition of their relationship are more reluctant to talk about their relationship,” Leanne Knobloch, a communication professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me. “There’s so much risk involved.”

Even worse: In this time of uncertainty, we tend to be emotionally reactive and pessimistic, quick to blame the other person for misunderstandings. “If we aren’t sure why something is happening,” Solomon told me, there’s “a nice safety function in assuming the worst.” If our ancestors weren’t positive whether a thin shadow in the distance was a snake or a stick, it was safer to assume it was a snake; in the same way, if you aren’t certain whether someone intended to hurt you, you might want to protect yourself by assuming they did.

The water seems too rough for casual partners to sail smoothly into long-term love. For anyone to bare their feelings in such a state of doubt and insecurity would be amazing. And, as it turns out, many people don’t. When they’re uncertain whether someone wants to be in a relationship, people don’t typically just ask. They are too afraid, or maybe too strategic. Instead, they often try to assess things by indirect means, such as monitoring nonverbal behavior (Does he touch my arm in public?) or analyzing other variables: how long you’ve been dating, how much time you spend together, whether you’ve met their family.

Many people, whether they’re fully aware of it or not, also practice something called “secret tests”: little, indirect ways of measuring someone’s feelings. Researchers gave me a few examples. Maybe you mention a concert six months from now, and see if the other person responds as though you’ll be together at that point. Or you don’t text back for a while and clock how long it takes them to reach out again. The beauty and the danger of secret tests is that the verdict is never totally clear. You can tell yourself that your love interest just doesn’t like that artist, or that they want you to text them. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s not.

People often wait to broach the DTR talk until they’ve evaluated enough indirect information to reach a tipping point. For her Ph.D. thesis, Sarah Varga, a communication researcher now at Baylor University, interviewed people in relationships about this conversation. She found that 63 percent of subjects reported feeling certain of their partner’s feelings by the time they had it. These partners were just double-checking what they had already figured out. Really, as Jennifer Theiss, a communication professor at Rutgers University, told me, this discussion is “not where the decision starts. It’s where the decision ends.” But it can still be a meaningful marker—a way to finally acknowledge and celebrate a shift that has already happened.

These conversations can also serve a kind of meta function: They teach people to communicate directly, rather than being sneaky little weirdos for the rest of their relationship. Studies have shown that explicit talk about the state of the relationship increases partner satisfaction, so getting practice is big. Just the willingness to DTR, Theiss pointed out, signals that you’re invested enough to have hard discussions.

Ultimately, though, relationship status isn’t just about the couple in question; it’s about the social unit of the couple in the world. Varga’s subjects reported that after the talk, they started spending more time with their partner among other people; they could finally act like a we rather than a you and a me. And that might change how people interact with you: Perhaps you’re invited to join as a plus-one at weddings or holiday parties, or to attend family gatherings. Maybe you’ve been fielding questions: What are you guys? Are you exclusive? Defining the relationship doesn’t just give you labels; it gives you answers.

Those labels are arguably less important today than in the past. For instance, Logan Ury, the director of relationship science at Hinge and the author of How to Not Die Alone, told me that Gen Z is generally more open to fluidity in relationships—exploring nonmonogamy, for instance, or switching up the order of traditional milestones. But her research has also shown that though the majority of Gen Z daters still do want a “defined relationship,” they feel particularly anxious about having that talk. A relationship today can look so many different ways, and that’s a beautiful thing—but it makes it harder for daters to assume they’re on the same page. In one Hinge study, 62 percent of users reported feeling disappointed about their last “situationship,” or undefined romantic relationship.

It seems that even as relationships evolve, a clear decision point still has value. “Sliding” into a relationship through inertia can cause trouble down the line; studies show that couples who talk about relationship transitions directly tend to have a higher relationship quality later on, are more dedicated to their partners, and are less likely to cheat.

Of course, not everyone comes out of “defining the relationship” as a happy couple. Some people quietly gather intel for months or years, just to find that the secret tests, the public hand-holding, and the meeting of friends have all deceived them; when they’re finally ready to talk explicitly, they learn that the other person doesn’t want what they want.

The DTR talk is difficult for the same reason relationships in general are: You can’t control how the other person reacts. All you can do is be honest yourself, and no amount of sleuthing will change that. But there’s real power in throwing up your hands and telling the truth—and if your relationship goes the distance, it will likely be the better for it. Solomon hopes that encourages “everybody to be a little bit more brave.”

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