Illustration by Jordan Moss
It's normal to be nervous about defining a relationship... but feeling genuine anguish about the conversation could be a bad sign.
Getting Along is a column about taking care of yourself, setting boundaries, and having difficult conversations, for people who struggle with all three.
This week, a reader writes:A little about me: I'm 19 years old, I'm from northern Canada, and I live alone with my cat. I moved to a new city almost a year ago, right when the restrictions started. So it's been very difficult to meet people. I downloaded Tinder and relied on it a lot for social interaction. I met many boys and now I'm only talking to one guy, Kyle. Our snap streak is 91 days. Our relationship started with sex and Kyle has said many many times he "doesn't do relationships." I blocked him a couple months ago because I wanted a bf, and he reached out to me and said he likes me and he's "not completely against relationships." He has hinted several times since that we will probably end up dating. We've hung out at least 15 times in person. We've hung out in completely non sexual ways. We have gone shopping, we've gotten food. Yesterday I got the balls to ask him if he still had Tinder, he said "yes I do, but it's not like I use it." It made me pretty heartbroken because I've invested so much time and money and feelings into our relationship. My question is can I ask Kyle to delete Tinder? Or when can I ask him to delete Tinder?
It would be perfectly reasonable for you to ask him to delete Tinder now! But I'd gently encourage you to consider a couple of other-and, I'd argue, better-options: Have a define-the-relationship talk now and/or just... break up with Kyle, because you deserve better than Kyle.
First: After 15 hangouts that include getting food, going shopping, and having sex-with a person you met on Tinder, who you've already told that you're looking for a relationship!-there's absolutely nothing wrong with asking them how they are feeling about everything, where they see this going, how they feel about being monogamous with you, whether they want to be their boyfriend and vice versa, etc.
While "are you still on Tinder?" is a perfectly OK lead-in to a conversation about what you both want, I do think it's important to not get stuck on that particular point. Being in a relationship is about more than just saying no to other people; it's about saying yes to this person, and wholeheartedly signing on to be Something More, whatever that means to the two of you. So even if you were to start with Tinder, I'd suggest quickly moving on to the bigger conversation-to clearly expressing what it is you want.
While there's no magic number of hangouts that need to happen or weeks of dating that need to pass before you can have this talk, one good rule of thumb is to bring it up once you feel pretty sure about what you want. That is, once you feel like you want to delete your apps, call the person your boyfriend (or girlfriend, or partner), not see other people, etc., it's totally fine to ask the other person if they want to do the same. I wouldn't generally recommend having it after, say, two dates... not because it might "scare them away," but because it simply takes time to genuinely get to know someone well enough, and to have the sorts of experiences together that'll help you both feel confident you want to make it ~official~. And even if you have a pretty good sense early on that you would like to to be in a relationship with the person, I think it's still worth taking the time to make sure there's more going on than just good chemistry, or having surface-level things in common, or just really wanting to be in a relationship with someone.
(A couple of exceptions to this: First, dating in a pandemicis very different than dating regularly, and right now, people are, out of necessity, having "Are you seeing anyone else?" and "I don't want to date you if you're dating anyone else" conversations much earlier than they might otherwise. These discussions are often less about being confident that you want to date this person exclusively and more about doing your best to experience human touch without dying of COVID. And even as dating becomes safer this summer, my personal feeling is that it's always reasonable to ask someone if they are having sex with anyone else before you have sex with them, and to not want to have sex with someone who is having sex with other people. Yes, that might mean your pool of partners ends up being smaller, but not wasting your time on people who have very different values than you do isn't the worst thing in the world.)
So, that's my general advice to anyone who is thinking about having this conversation, and it's not not my advice to you. But beyond the above, I think it's time for you to have the conversation with Kyle.... not because you've had 15 hangouts, but because you're at the point where you're counting the number of hangouts you've had as a way of justifying asking for what you want. If this thing with Kyle was meant to be, I don't think you'd be feeling such anguish about it.
To be clear, a lot of people who are very into the person they are dating might still feel nervous about introducing the "What are we?" conversation because they are worried about moving too fast, or because they feel a little anxious about it, or because it's just a bit awkward and there's not exactly a script for it. That is fine! What is more concerning is when someone doesn't want to have the conversation because they know on some level that bringing this up directly will put an end to whatever it is they are doing with this person.
If you're not sure which it is, here are some things that I'd call Good Signs that someone you're dating is not just open to this conversation, but is genuinely excited to have it:
- They actively try to spend time with you and regularly initiate dates, making plans, etc. If you ask them to, say, go to a house party with you and they can't for some reason, they'll go out of their way to provide an explanation for why they can't and communicate that they wish they could. Then they'll either try to make some other plans with you, or offer up an alternative, e.g., "I have to work on Saturday night, and then I promised I'd hang out with my sibling, but maybe you and I could get together on Sunday if you're around."
- You feel like you can reach out whenever without feeling like you're "bothering" them-or, put another way, in the time it takes you to decide if you're "allowed" to text them, they've already texted you.
- They are nice to you-they are excited to see you, they compliment you during dates, they laugh at your jokes, they show an interest in the kind of work you do and the hobbies you enjoy.
- They say things like "I had so much fun hanging out with you, let's do that again," and they don't let a lot of time pass before they try to make plans.
- They don't seem distracted when they are with you, or hesitant to bring you around other people.
- They offer to help you move or accompany you on some other garbage task that basically no one wants to do.
- They want to be physically near you-whether that means grabbing your hand when you're out in public, or simply texting you or calling you when they can't see you in person.
- Your nervousness about having the DTR conversation is more about the awkwardness of initiating what can be an awkward convo and less about your fear that this specific person will judge you/react badly/reject you, based on how they've acted in the past.
(By the way, if you're into someone and want to be sure they know it, or find that people are often confused about how you feel about them, doing some of the above is a great way to communicate interest!)
Here are some Not Great Signs that the person you are dating is not going to be excited about defining the relationship, or is going to give you a weaselly not-quite-no-but-definitely-not-yes answer when you bring it up:
- You're regularly nervous to ask this person for too much time and attention.
- You're always the one initiating plans, or following up with them about plans they suggested and then seemed to... immediately forget about.
- You find yourself doing a lot of texting math-i.e., "It's been X days since I last texted them and got a one-word answer, so I need to wait Y more hours before I initiate a new conversation with them, and if I don't hear back within Z more days, then I'll know it's over."
- The person has told you, in so many words, that they don't want to be in a relationship right now.
- Even if they are spending a decent amount of time with you, you aren't totally sure, based on their behavior, if they actually like you.
- They don't seem particularly interested in you, or they are only interested in the specific things you can do for them-they want you around when they are horny, or lonely, or when they should actually be talking to a therapist.
It brings me no joy to say this, Letter Writer, but I'm not sure this thing with Kyle is going to work out the way you want it to either. After all, Kyle told you from the get-go that he "doesn't do relationships," which is a big red flag. Sure, he's been "hinting" that you two "will probably end up dating." An optimistic read of that is that he means it-he is dropping hints to communicate that he's into you, and is hoping you'll pick up on that and communicate the same. A more pessimistic read is that he's saying what you want to hear in an effort to keep you around.
I lean pessimistic, in large part because when you broached this topic, he replied with, "I have Tinder, but it's not like I use it." He didn't follow this up with, "I'd be happy to delete it, if you'd like me to" or "but now that you bring it up, what are your feelings on... things?" while looking like the eyes emoji. You opened the door to this conversation-truly the dream scenario for someone who wants to DTR but is feeling a bit shy!-and Kyle slammed it in your face. Even if he did agree to be your boyfriend after you bring it up yet again, I'm worried that he probably wouldn't be a very good one.
So, should you still have the conversation with him, just to be 100 percent sure you're on the same page? Eh, maybe. On the one hand, you kind of already have your answer. As a person who has been through this sort of thing a lot, I totally understand how someone saying they're "not completely against relationships" can give you hope. But to those of us who have seen how these situations basically always play out, it... does not inspire much optimism, I have to say!!! It's also pretty gross of him to think that's an OK thing to say to you, who he knows is interested in a relationship with him. Because of this, I worry that he'll use this discussion as yet another opportunity to string you along or convince you to settle for less than you want.
On the other hand, you care about him and are invested in him, and will probably find it easier to move on if you get an unequivocal no. I also think it's really good to practice saying what you want out loud to another person who you love a little bit. If you don't do this regularly, and instead just languish in silence or pack up your stuff and leave without having to be vulnerable, your "having hard conversations" muscles will never get any stronger.
I don't want to make it seem like it's easy to have the define-the-relationship conversation, or to bounce back after getting rejected. I know how hard it is because I have been in your exact same position before: clearly communicating what I want and even exiting when I realize the other person doesn't feel the same way, only to have them come back around a month later without ever really acknowledging that we'd hit an impasse; speculating on why someone would want to sleep together and do all the non-sexual relationship things if they didn't want to be in a relationship with me; feeling like I shouldn't upset the delicate balance of a quasi-relationship by breaking the fourth wall and talking about said quasi-relationship; worrying that the whole thing will fall apart if I express a single need; making excuses for why it's OK for me to avoid this conversation. I've been in these situations more times than I care to admit, and they simply never worked out the way that I wanted them to.
You might not believe any of what I've said here-that it's possible to find someone who you like who also happens to be excited to be your boyfriend; that being alone is truly better than being with someone who doesn't want you the way you want them; that you really can handle the sting and heartbreak of being officially rejected by someone who has already unofficially rejected you a few times over; that Kyle would be so cruel to you after you were open and honest about what you were looking for. And honestly? It's OK if you don't believe me! I didn't believe any of this when I was in your shoes, or at least I didn't believe it in a way that was more than theoretical. This doesn't come naturally to a lot of people, so we have to get out there and learn by doing and not get too caught up in what it "says" about us when it feels hard.
If your journey is anything like mine, you'll experience quite a bit of ignoring the signs, asking for advice and not taking it, holding onto hope that maybe this person or this time is different, and, eventually, realizing that wow, nope, this person is not the one, no matter how much you wanted that to be true. I wish none of us had to fuck around with Kyles to learn to stop fucking with Kyles, but I truly don't know any adult who can honestly say that they've never let a Kyle bulldoze their little heart against their better judgment. Kyles are the way so many of us learn to be emotionally honest and vulnerable, and to recognize the not-Kyles when they come along-which, I promise you, they will.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.
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