About four months into casually dating my now-boyfriend, I started itching for clarity on what we were. My friends urged me to just “have the talk,” as if the DTR conversation is the same level of NBD as running across the street for a quick manicure. 

It’s not that I’d never attempted this elusive talk before; it’s that I never quite did it right. The first time I tried, I was in college, and I was so nervous that I wasn’t able to tell the guy how I felt until after he left my place. That’s right: I sent him a text explaining everything the next morning — and he promptly ghosted me. 

The second time I tried it out, just a few months after graduating college, it was again over text. The guy replied telling me that he really liked me but couldn’t handle a relationship at the moment. I replied that we had to end things then took him back a week later, a decision I soon regretted.

So it’s little wonder that the minute I knew I had to have the DTR talk with my current boyfriend, I panicked. In fact, I got so nervous that I threw up before I managed to say anything. 

Thankfully he took it upon himself to initiate the conversation, or we most definitely would not be here today. Looking back, I wish I had a guide that told me exactly how to go about having the talk — I was partially so nervous (and clumsy) because I had no idea what I was doing. And that’s exactly why I’ve created this foolproof guide to the talk, the one I wished I would have had a few years ago. 

1. Think it through. 

Yes, it’s just a talk. But, let’s be real, it’s also not just a talk. You’re not mindlessly asking your grandma what she did last night while browsing the produce aisle at Trader Joe’s. You’re having a potentially life-changing conversation with someone you have strong feelings for. You’re going to want to do some mental prep work.

Emmalee Bierly, LMFT, suggests starting by considering what you truly want. “People get really hung up on keeping and wanting someone to want them as opposed to thinking, Is this really the best person for me? Is this really the healthiest decision for me? How is this going to impact my life?

If you come to the conclusion that you really want to be with this person, explore all the ways your talk could possibly go, and prepare a response for each scenario. Doing this is a vital part of making sure your emotions don’t get the best of you in the moment. “If you just base [your response] on an emotional reaction, you’re not going to feel great about yourself and you may burn a bridge [unnecessarily],” warns Bierly.

2. Pick the right time.

This question of when has kept me up for way more hours than I’d like to admit. Needless to say, if you’re terrified of having the talk, no time is going to feel right. But some times are definitely better than others. 

According to Match’s 2019 Singles in America Survey, the average single wants to have the DTR conversation after four months of dating. But there’s really no hard and fast rule, says psychotherapist and relationship expert Rachel Sussman, LCSW, though she does generally recommend waiting at least two months. “If two busy people are trying to date, even over the course of two months [there’s a chance that] they’ve only seen each other four times,” she says. 

Rather than focusing on the number of weeks or months you’ve known someone, make sure you’ve taken enough time to really get to know the other person. “You’ve got to have [significant] facetime and, for some people, you have to be physical as well,” says Sussman. “Let’s say everything’s going really well, you’re developing feelings for this person, and you think he or she is developing feelings for you as well. That is when you could bring it up.” 

3. Muster up the courage. 

Deciding you want to take things to the next level with someone can be terrifying, and while nerves are unavoidable, you can strategically combat that. Bierly recommends considering the root of your concerns. “Feelings aren’t facts,” she says. “Fear doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person doesn’t feel the same way.” Instead of accepting your fear at face value, Bierly take a deeper look at these three areas:

  • Your past: Have other DTR talks not gone well?
  • What you’ve been taught by society: Does initiating the talk make you feel less feminine or masculine?
  • How you actually feel when you’re with the person you’re seeing: Are you worried because deep down you know the other person isn’t that interested?

Once you’ve come to terms with the root of your anxiety , it’s up to you to decide how to combat it. If you’re the type of person who enjoys a trial run, Bierly suggests playing out the talk with a friend. But if prepping too much will only amplify your nerves, don’t force it. 

Sussman also suggests looking at the DTR talk as practice for other difficult conversations. “You have to develop this muscle anyway,” says Sussman, who puts asking for a raise or confronting a friend who you don’t think is treating you well in the same category. Why not start building your skills now?

4. Get to the point.

Anyone who’s ever tried to have the DTR talk knows the hardest part is getting started. First and foremost, there’s no need to warn the person ahead of time that you want to have this talk, Bierly says. In fact, she strongly urges against any sort of warning, which will only freak the other person out. Instead, both she and Sussman recommend bringing up the topic naturally and clearly.

“There’s no perfect way to do it, but there are things not to do,” she says. “Don’t come at it with attitude, do it while you’re insanely intoxicated, or do it in a group.” Don’t make a joke of it either. Be direct by going right in with a line like “hey, have you thought about making this exclusive?”

5. Be abundantly clear.

Once you’ve gotten this far, there’s no need for confusion. “Just because I say that we’re dating doesn’t mean that you automatically know I mean we’re not sleeping with anyone else,” Bierly says. “Do not assume. Define what a relationship looks like for you, because we don’t all have the same idea.” Try to remember that even if something seems totally obvious to you, it might not be so clear to your partner. 

Specifying terms and conditions doesn’t necessarily sound like great fun, but there are ways to make the talk feel (more) natural. “It doesn’t have to be done in this really annoying, weird business way,” says Bierly. Explain in detail what you want, then turn the conversation over to them by asking them what it is that they want. 

6. Wait for an answer.

Patience, let us remind you, is a virtue. If you’ve initiated the talk, you’ve had plenty of time to think about it, but it might take a little longer for the other person, who wasn’t necessarily expecting this conversation, to process. Once you finish explaining exactly what it is that you’re looking for, Bierly suggests telling your partner that it’s cool if they want to take some time to think things through before they get back to you. The only caveat here is that you actually have to be cool with it. 

That’s not to say that you should let them string you along for as long as they please. “If someone is keeping you on the back burner for weeks or months, they’re not going to commit to you,” Bierly says. At that point, she recommends saying something along the lines of, “Hey, I wish this had turned out another way, but I’m going to see other people.” 

7. Proceed accordingly. 

If the two of you are on the same page, then congrats! You got what you wanted! From here on out, Bierly’s chief piece of advice is to maintain a sense of independence, despite your new relationship. 

If your partner doesn’t want to give you exactly what you’re looking for, then it’s time to go back to what you thought about when determining your plan. “We teach people how to treat us,” says Bierly. “So take your stance. You do not have to adjust and assimilate to what someone wants just to keep them in your life.”