This blog is about romantic relationships and marriage, with insights from relationship science about how relationships develop and what makes or breaks them. This is a substantial update on the first of those two pieces. I write about ambiguity often because I think it's important. For example, I recently wrote about the confusion people often feel about dating.
The way most people use the term seems to be a bit more specific than the global definition in the Urban Dictionary. The process, when it advances the relationship, seems somewhat like crossing the border between one country and another, where you have to produce documents about who you are and where you are headed.
Indeed, for many couples, the talk will determine customs moving forward. Does that make the one pursuing the talk a customs official? People were not so aware of this idea 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, people talked and clarified things, but there was less of a recognized need for a specific type of talk back then. There was, however, the idea of going steady, among various other markers of an upgrade in mutual understanding of what was happening.
Oftentimes, today, having the talk leads to the same result as starting to go steady did in the past. But as you can see by the Urban Dictionary definition, a DTR talk can lead to any sort of improved understanding between two people, whereas going steady meant a specific increase in commitment and exclusiveness. Technically, while not what the person pushing for the talk usually wants, a DTR talk could lead to increased understanding that there is not much in the way of a serious, mutual commitment between two partners.
Here are some reasons for avoiding the talk. If one brings up the talk too soon, they are likely to come across as needy or even desperate in the eyes of the other. A lot of people chase others off. Some people never do this, some do it a time or two and learn not to keep doing it, and others feel impelled by a need for security to push too often too soon and tend to live more painful lives as a result. People in the latter group tend to give way too much too soon, and too often, to people they are attracted to in life.
Some people avoid making things clear because they fear clarity might force the end of a relationship they otherwise want to keep, at least for the time being. After all, especially in earlier stages of relationships, some ambiguity can help two people keep seeing each other while they are figuring out how compatible they are for a possible future. Beyond earlier stages, ambiguity can keep fragile relationships alive that would otherwise not survive clarity. The risk, though, is spending ever more time in a fragile relationship that might keep one from finding a better match.
It also must be true that, for some people, the fragile relationship they have now is as good as they could have at this time. Their real choice may be between the present relationship and no relationship. Having at DTR talk takes some guts and skill. Many people do not have the combination and may therefore avoid the talk until circumstances really force the need. These days, many people are not well equipped to have an effective DTR.
This is where I can see some advantages to the older convention of going steady. Would you go steady with me? That hurts but Bill now knows where he stands, and it was not a very complicated conversation. The talk could go on to define what not going steady really meant, of course, but if there was agreement to go steady, all the needed information about expectations were built into the term by common cultural understanding.
There was no need for a high level of skill to ask or answer the question. Now, people need to have enough skill to build an understanding from the information coming from talks designed to DTR. But the process was efficient. I think the most interesting reason people avoid DTRing is that there are issues about commitment in one or both partners. By commitment, I mean having a willingness to commit to the future and have some identity as a couple.
When it comes to commitment, either partner A and B are nearly equally committed or they are not. At earlier stages of relationships, an imbalance is common since one partner often becomes more committed sooner than the other. However, when this imbalance goes on and on, it can become a serious problem. The commitment complication provides one of the greatest reasons someone might avoid raising the issue even if it seems long past time to clarify things.
When there could be a possible imbalance in commitment, the one raising the question is risking outright rejection, so may avoid asking for the clarity that he or she deeply desires. One of the biggest problems with ambiguity is that serious differences in commitment levels can be missed. The more committed person may be perfectly aware that he or she is more committed, but, in many other cases, the intense attraction felt for the partner can make it hard to register what really is a substantial vulnerability in the relationship.
That's the biggest risk in avoiding clarity, indefinitely.