Several months ago I was talking to my dad about a guy I’d gone on a few dates with. A few days later, our follow-up conversation went a little something like this:
Dad: So how’s your boyfriend?
Me: What boyfriend?
Dad: The guy you were talking about the other night.
Me: Oh, um. He’s not my boyfriend. We’re just hanging out, getting to know each other. I’ve only known him for like a month.
Dad: A month?? And you two haven’t at least discussed dating each other exclusively? Are you dating other people? Is he dating other people? What’s wrong with your generation?
I teased him about his old age and told him my generation has options; we weigh them and we get married later in life. He replied that after his second date, he initiated the infamous “Defining the Relationship” conversation with the woman who is now his wife and that was that. I said two dates was way too early. “Dad he could be a serial killer!!” He said that a few months was way too late. “Being in limbo is never good! Make a commitment and work through it!”
I’m inclined to believe that we’re both right in some ways. There isn't a hard and fast rule because everyone’s situations are different; some people need time to develop trust and others feel in their gut within days or weeks when they’ve met The One. (This could also be indigestion, but I digress…) The timing has to fit the (prospective) couple's goals and pace, and that's too subjective to define.
I’m still left with one very important question on defining the relationship though:
Speaking to heterosexual relationships, whose responsibility is it to initiate this conversation? The man or the woman? Or is it up to the person who thinks of it first?
Proverbs 18:22 says “whoever finds a wife finds a good thing”, which to me implies that it’s a man job to do the proposing, but that doesn’t necessarily provide clarity on what to do about a commitment prior to marriage.
So I did what I always do when my curiosity gets to me; I asked my favorite focus group, Twitter and the results weren't at all what I expected. The overwhelming majority responded by saying some form of the following:
@symfonikz: whoever thinks to… learn to be proactive
@ESSENCEinme: the person who wants a relationship title should be the initiator to avoid hurt feelings and wasted time
@Kenya_Inc: the person who has any confusion about their status in the first place. If you have to ask questions, ASK!!
@msrasberryinc: I’d say whoever thinks to talk about it. Shouldn’t depend on gender.
@GNAHHANG: I say whoever feels the need to discuss the status of the relationship should initiate the discussion.
Well, that caught me off guard! In my own relationships, I just waited for the conversation to happen or dropped hints to head it off if I wasn’t interested. My mom taught me the following:
1. When a man is interested in dating you, he’ll let you know.
2. When he wants you to be his girl, he’ll tell you.
3. When he wants you to be his wife, he’ll ask.
On the one hand, it sounds archaic, but on the other it seems practical. I mean what woman really wants to be in a relationship with a man that you strong-armed into one? Women are pretty good at saying, “No thanks, let’s just be friends. You can still change my oil/give me back rubs/escort me to events so I don’t have to go alone but I don’t want you to actually be my boyfriend. Cool?” Guys… not so much. Sometimes, they’ll go along just to get along and say "alright let's do this" just to keep things smooth and then later admit “I wasn’t really sure about this anyway but you pressured me so I just went with it.”
So where do I stand now?
I believe every individual brings into each (potential) relationship 3 things:
a. their personality, (gregarious or quiet, brave or hesitant)
b. their assumed “role”, which is often influenced by traditional gender roles, and
c. their own timeline for long-term plans.
As you get to know someone, you organically share these things over Chinese takeout and episodes of The Office. But there are some things you should make a point to be clear on. If you know that you don’t want to have kids at all, it’s pretty important to get that out there. And at two months in, if you’ve learned that she is the outspoken one who is comfortable having those potentially awkward conversations, it probably makes sense for her to start that conversation. “So babe, where is this going? Are you and I a ‘we’? Wait… can I even call you babe?” But if she’s like me, a little more traditional and unsure in these types of situations, he should put on his big boy pants and kick it off.
My thinking represents the ideal; the Twitter focus group responded with a more realistic point of view. I do believe there is a legitimate concern about wasted time and misconceptions. In some cases, you may have to step out of our comfort zone and bite the bullet to avoid a big confusing mess where the guy thinks the couple is headed down the aisle and the woman is just trying to have fun.
So here’s my question for you: In your current and past relationships, who popped the exclusivity question? How exactly does that conversation go? Should it be casual or serious? Over dinner? Over the phone? Via text or email? I wanna know!