The two of you have been “talking,” “seeing each other,” “hooking up,” “in a relationship” or “dating” for weeks, months or years. But what do those terms really mean? Couples typically discuss decisions such as whether to live together or become engaged. But relationship markers such as being friends with benefits, dating casually, practicing celibacy and the decision to become sexually exclusive also need to be negotiated. Such talks usually are about moving forward.

To delay defining your status is to give up your power and your voice. It could keep you from finding out whether your partner is just shy with words, is quietly manipulating you or is ambivalent about you and the relationship. You also risk filling in the blanks with your own wishes rather than reality. You are likely to become angry and resentful, which might manifest in ways that make you less appealing to yourself and to your partner. Head games don’t lead to lasting love.

So why do many couples fail to put their cards on the table? Maybe one of these sentiments feels familiar: Actions speak for themselves; let’s enjoy the present; can I handle the truth?; I’ll keep my options open; what if (s)he breaks up with me?; I’m not sure what I want.

When you are both clear, you both get your needs met. But don’t tell your partner, “We need to talk” unless you want his or her guard up! Share why you dig being with him or her and let things flow from there. Do this during a leisurely walk or dinner together. This is not pillow talk: If you ask right after having sex or in the middle of making out, the response will be clouded by hormones.

Now, choose your talking points:

Talk about your life paths.

Ask your partner to describe his or her ideal life one, two or five years from now. Don’t interrupt. Just listen. Then without judgment against his or her vision, describe yours. Do they match? Did only one of you mention marriage? Relocating? This question opens up an important dialogue about lifestyle, love and more.

 Talk about casual dating/sex.

Often, compatibility on this issue is aided through online dating profiles and filters. Otherwise, bring it up after two dates if you sense mutual attraction. Be honest about why. For example: “Grad school is my whole life right now. Casual hanging out once in a while is all I’m going to be up for. That OK with you?” If you just want a friend with benefits or recreational sex, you may not be able to stay as casual since sex can accelerate attachment.

 Talk about sexual


You might say, “I like so many things about you [name a few]. Another thing I like is people checking things out with each other instead of making assum-ptions. I don’t know if you’re still seeing other people or are still open to doing so. Are you?”

Then stay calm and quiet and give him or her time to respond fully. Share where you stand on the issue. If (s)he isn’t sure, that’s a valid answer. Thank him or her for being honest, then ask if (s)he’ll let you know when (s)he is sure. And don’t nag! If (s)he doesn’t volunteer more after a few months and you are very sure of your own stance, let him or her know that this ongoing ambivalence, desire to play the field or lack of transparency is not working for you. Be willing to say goodbye. You may get verbal promises or mixed signals if your partner is a player. Does (s)he prioritize time with you? Freely volunteer how (s)he spends his or her time apart? Remember things you’ve said about yourself? Support you emotionally? Don’t believe the talk if the actions contradict it.

 Talk about celibacy.

If you plan to remain abstinent, speak up early. A potential partner who has different sexual values will want to move on. And (s)he will likely feel confused or misled if you continue to reject advances without explanation.

Talk about marriage.

It will be many months or even years before you bring this up. Avoid pushing for quick commitment because your biological clock is ticking or because you want to be married by a particular age. If you treat your partner like an object, (s)he would be wise to retreat from the relationship.

 Talk about taking things slow.

You can say, “I need more time to know you and my own feelings better. I promise to not keep you in the dark once I’m clear.” Then follow through.

Hear your partner’s truth—and honor it. Your talk may take things to the next level or signal the need to let go. If a breakup is in the cards, tell your partner how much you appreciate his or her honesty. It shows (s)he respects you enough to let you make healthy choices. You’ll be free to seek a relationship in which the level of intimacy and expectations are mutual or to spend time with yourself enjoying life.

Linda R. Young, Ph.D., is a psychologist and relationship coach. Visit her at