Dear Jumbo: DTR

This phrase caught on in my mind like a meme when a friend taught it to me a few weeks ago. I would tell people, “I just learned this really cool phrase: DTR!” to which they would ask, “What does it stand for?” The moment I said, “Define The Relationship,” everyone’s eyes lit up: “Oh yeah, I know exactly what you are talking about.” I soon figured out that it is one of those things that everyone talks about but few people do. Let me share my experiences with DTR.

I used to hate DTR. I remember my first relationship in high school, which most people didn’t know about until much later because I resisted every attempt to ‘call it a thing,’ much to the frustration of my then-partner. Being too serious was my problem. I asked myself constantly, “What is the point of dating if we most likely would not marry each other?” Worse, the potential of mislabeling scared me much more than the uncertainty of the relationship itself. I’d rather not have anything at all than have something that was not quite right. Unsurprisingly, the relationship was doomed from the start, but at least it taught me about the messy nature of relationships. Alas, what a nightmare to the analytical nerd who later became attracted to computer science and philosophy, two fields where nothing can ever get done without a clear definition.

Since then, I’ve also learned to accept the ambiguity of human relationships and even thrive in it. Ambiguity could be full of risk or possibility, depending on how we look at it. At the same time, the old part of me that strives for a crystal-clear understanding is still there. Running on top of my Realistic Operating System is a new romantic theme.

DTR = Describe The Role

Recently, I’ve been doing a relationship mapping exercise with my close friends, in which we describe the main role that each serves for the other. It was a revealing experience to see what I specifically meant to someone as well as articulate what they meant to me. For example, the main role I play for one friend is to listen to her, while her main role is to charm me. (It’s a real role by the way. People really need to be charmed. Otherwise, social life gets too boring, and I’d dive into books instead.) The beauty of the exercise is in illuminating the misalignment between what I think I do and what she wants me to do. I highly recommend doing it regularly with people you care about. As each of your relationships keeps evolving over time, its definition needs to be regularly updated.

But wouldn’t defining something so clearly kill all the joy of a relationship?

Not really. As my experiences revealed, many of us may shun DTR because we are afraid of boxing something inaccurately or prematurely. But defining something doesn’t necessarily mean putting it in a box. Rather, it can be making the box itself. By DTR this way regularly, we can both rejoice in understanding the relationship more deeply as well as shape its future together. So go ahead, spice up the dreaded DTR talk. And don’t forget to keep me posted at bit.ly/dearJumbo.


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