How to have the “exclusive” relationship talk (even when it’s really, really scary)

So you’ve been on a bunch of dates. You’ve held hands, you’ve smooched, you’ve cuddled, you’ve watched Netflix and chilled, maybe you’ve even met their mom or petted their dog (both important relationship milestones).  It’s even possible that the two of you have made vague futuristic plans to go to a concert or catch a movie that doesn’t come out for months, and yet you’re still living in dating limbo.

It’s all very confusing, especially if you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to test boundaries for fear of scaring the other person off. I get it, having the “defining the relationship” talk is terrifying, you have to be open and honest and vulnerable and ugh I’m sweating just thinking about it. But fear aside, it’s important to know where you stand and what the future looks like, because if you’re going to invest valuable time in someone and open up your heart and your Netflix account, you deserve some clarity. So here are some tips for making the exclusive talk a little easier and a lot less scary (and sweaty).

1. Go in having a general idea of what you’re hoping to get out of it.

Sometimes we start important talks with an attitude of discovery. We’re not really sure what we’re hoping to get out of it, we just feel like the talk needs to happen. This is a very good strategy for not getting hurt, because if you start off with no expectations your hopes can’t be crushed. But having expectations and hopes is good, it means that you care and that what you’re doing is worthwhile. It also means that you’re setting your own agenda and not just agreeing with what the other person wants because you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself. Make a mental list of what you want from the relationship and what you need to find out to feel comfortable. Maybe you want to be in an official post-pictures-of-each-other-on-instagram-relationship, or maybe you just want to know if your bae is baeing someone else while you’re turning down dates. Just start with a goal and see it through, and make sure it’s what’s right for you and your heart.

2. Set your own time frame.

Every relationship is different and evolves at a different pace. Maybe it takes three months for you to care about whether or not you’re exclusive, and maybe you’re smitten after two dates and can’t stand the thought of seeing someone else. It’s a wide spectrum of intimacy and time and comfort levels. It’s important to set your own time frame for exclusivity talks based on your own feelings. This is not going to please your friends who are worried about you and want to protect you from broken hearts and STIs. I know because I am one of those friends, and I want you to feel comfortable and safe always and never have to worry about what your partner is thinking or doing when they’re not with you. But you can’t always listen to me or to your very well-meaning friends, sometimes you have to follow your heart and ride it out for a while before you feel compelled to label it for whatever it is. Just be safe and speak up the moment you feel uneasy, because your feelings matter.

3. Do it in person.

I know that it is so, so temping to get into a feelings talk over text. You have time to figure out exactly what you want to say, you can start crying or screaming without your partner ever knowing, and you can check your email  while you wait for a response. But don’t do it. Trust me on this one because I’ve made this mistake and it doesn’t end well. It’s important to have the talk in person because words are only a part of what goes into being really open and honest with another person. You can’t judge facial expressions or body language via text, and you can’t react organically to what is being said, because you have time to filter it through the lens of what if’s and maybes. This means that miscommunications are more likely and you or your partner might overthink it. Do it in person and don’t be embarrassed if you cry or get angry, it’s okay to show your feelings.

4. Frame the conversation in a way that makes you feel comfortable

You don’t have to start an exclusive talk by laying it all out there. You don’t have to say “I want to be your girlfriend” or “I really like you and I want to be exclusive.” You should definitely say those things if that’s how you’re feeling, but you don’t have to go in guns blazing. A really safe way to begin is from a health perspective. If you’re having sex, it is perfectly understandable and very responsible for you to want to know whether or not your partner is having sex with other people. Even if you don’t want to be in an official relationship right now, it’s important to know what you may be exposing yourself to. So start with that. If you’re not having sex, you can approach it from a “hey I’d like to know what to say when people ask me” line of logic. Say that your mom has been pestering you or that you’ve been asked out a couple of times by other people and you want to know what to tell them. You can usually tell based on their reaction how seriously they’re taking it and can then decide how much more you want to open up.

5. Be prepared for the ghost

Sometimes people freak out and run away when they’re faced with the possibility of a real relationship with real responsibilities and feelings. They may react really well when you talk to them and then slowly stop texting and trying to see you. It’s the good old “don’t want to hurt your feelings but don’t want to really date you either” ghost treatment and it sucks. But take heart in knowing that if someone really cares about you, they’re going to stick around. You can’t make someone want to be with you, and isn’t it better to know than to wonder? Ghosting is in fact the worst because it makes you question every little action you took—but know that there is NOTHING wrong with expressing your feelings. If someone can’t handle that, then you’re just weeding them out. You’ll be better off in the long run.

6. Practice what you want to say before you say it

Winging it can get you pretty far in life, and if you feel confident in your improv skills then ignore this tip and carry on. But if you’re feeling anxious and nervous and kinda want to die then it may be worth your time to sit down and think out what you really want to say. A lot of times having a game plan and a strategy can make something that’s really scary a lot more ordinary. Sit down with a pen and paper, or with your BFF, and compose a rough outline of what you want to say. You don’t have to write it or memorize it word for word, but sketching out your ideas and needs can help immobilize the butterflies in your stomach and may just give you a better idea of what you want.

7. Try to take it seriously

As a nervous joker, I tend to fall back on humor or what my friend calls “Chandler Bing syndrome” and make jokes about things that should be serious. It’s a coping mechanism for when my feelings get too big and I’m worried I’ll get hurt if I show too much of myself. Sometimes laughter and humor are effective tools in solving problems, but if you’re using them as a shield, you should probably drop the rubber chicken and do your best to be real and honest without looking for a punch line. If your comedic guard is up, you may get the last laugh, but you probably won’t get a lot of answers.

8. Remember that you’re worthy of love and deserve to get what you want

It’s easy to fall into the modern day dating trap of hookup culture and end up doing and saying things you don’t really want or believe in because you think it might lead to the real thing. . .eventually. It’s totally okay to want a relationship and stability, and you shouldn’t ever feel guilty for not wanting to be the “cool girl” anymore. You deserve love and trust and clearly defined relationships if that’s what you want, and anyone worth your time and energy is going to respect that. If you have the exclusive talk and end up alone, then at least you’re one step and one ex-Netflix buddy closer to finding your person, and that’s pretty cool, even if it hurts right now.


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(Image via Fox)

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