How to Get Clarity in Your Relationship

Jan 12, 2012 |Candice Watters
How to Get Clarity in Your Relationship

Does he have marriage in mind, or is he just a buddy? There are some practical things you can do to clear up ambiguity in your relationship.

I'll never forget Paul. We'd been spending lots of time together and even, dare I say, flirting. I was dying to know what he thought of me and decided to ask him. I didn't want to put him on the spot, though, so I did the next best thing: I wrote him a note.

It was simple. I slipped it to him during class. All he had to do was check one of the boxes.

  • I like you
  • We're just friends
  • I'm not sure

I signed it with much bravado and some flair, "More-than-a-friend, I hope."

Not bad for a grade schooler.

Though I don't remember exactly how old I was, I do remember feeling nervous. And giddy with excitement waiting for him to return the note. But that evaporated with his disappointing answer. So much for being his date at the upcoming roller skating party.

Things didn't improve from there. Throughout my single years, Define The Relationship talks (DTRs) felt like a necessary evil. Necessary because I never wanted to spend too much time with one guy in a go-nowhere relationship. Evil because they always seemed to end badly. I'd say, "Is this something that could be more?" and he'd say, "No." Still my need for clarity outweighed my fear of losing yet another shot at marriage.

The Necessity of Knowing

You may be having fun with the guy you're dating, but if you're unsure of where you're headed as a couple, what's good today can undermine where you hope to be long term. Kelly and Mark were a great couple. They'd been together a long time, and everyone assumed they'd eventually marry. So did she, hopeful that he would pop the question, soon. But he never did. By the time she got clarity about the relationship, she'd spent six years with him. Now she worries that she wasted her childbearing years on a relationship that was "fun but had no future."

When what has been a good thing drifts on for months and even years, the DTR can seem like an unwelcome threat to your relationship's equilibrium. But it's essential. For a relationship that has marriage potential, it can be a timely accelerator. For a relationship that has been more about convenience and consumption, it can be a timely course correction.

As hard as it is to hear "no" in the moment, if that's the inevitable outcome, it's better to hear it in year one than year six.

So what does this essential conversation look like? It can take several forms. For the bold, a straight up question has the benefit of efficiency. For others, a more subtle approach can cultivate clarity without an ultimatum. And for those of you with an involved dad or mentors, you can have someone ask the questions on your behalf.

Cultivate Clarity

There are surprisingly many opportunities to discuss your future, naturally, in the course of conversation. In "Dinner and a Movie" I wrote:

Dr. Scott Stanley, a lead marriage researcher at the University of Denver, says that since we no longer have societal norms and expectations for marriage in place, what a woman needs are some tests; ways she can discern where a relationship is headed without initiating the conversation-stopping DTR.

Her task is two-fold: find out if her man is interested in, and capable of, moving toward marriage and re-establish marriage as the purpose of dating.

One of the best ways to do that is to head to the movies.

Why movies? Because they create an opportunity to discuss things that might not otherwise come up till months into the relationship; things like parenthood, marriage, finances, faith amidst trial, commitment to work, moral certainty under pressure, and more.

If you choose your movies wisely — for more than sheer entertainment — looking for stories that have something useful to say about real life, you may just get the chance to ask some questions of your date that on their own would seem pushy, forced or simply out of place. A good movie puts these issues on the table.

In addition to movies are books, news stories, passages of Scripture, sermons, music lyrics, holiday traditions, family pictures; the list is endless. It's never shameful to want to know, in a dating relationship, where things have the potential of going. Of course you'll want to bring things up tactfully ("What Not to Say About Marriage") being sensitive to your timeline (avoid the temptation to measure him for a tuxedo on your first date), but to avoid the subject altogether, in this culture, is foolish.

He needs to know that you only have so much capacity to give him the things he enjoys about your connection (within biblical parameters) while he determines if you're the one. It shouldn't go on indefinitely.

Enlist Help

In another day, a woman's father was responsible for finding out what a man's plans were for his daughter. And he typically asked at the beginning — not years into — the relationship. The question, "What are your intentions for my daughter?" and how a young man answered it, set expectations all around. There was little doubt about where the relationship was headed.

That conversation between Dad and boyfriend is virtually unheard of today. But what woman wouldn't relish having it asked of her boyfriend by someone? I wish I'd thought of this back when Steve and I were in relational limbo. I suspect if I'd thought to ask our mentors to sit down and have a heart-to-heart with Steve about our relationship, they would have. It would have saved me having to ask him myself a few weeks later.

Don't think you're the only one who can ask the hard questions. One of the best benefits of enlisting help from your pastor or mentors is that if the man does respond to their challenge by stepping up and taking the relationship to the next level, it preserves "your story." The less you have to do on your own behalf, the better the tale is when you tell your grandchildren. And that's no small thing. Who wants to feel like she made her relationship happen?

There's a fine line you should observe if you are the one to ask for clarity. On one side of the line, he's the leader. On the other, it's pretty tough to maintain your respect for him.

Ask Him Yourself

Still, as much as we women want a man to sweep us off our feet, there's nothing about the passage of time that is likely to change a man who's dragging his. But don't take that to mean it's OK to propose to him. Far from it. Women have the ability to motivate a man in ways that show they respect his leadership. It's one thing to ask him to marry you, quite another to ask him what he intends for the relationship and where he plans to lead it.

Appealing to the leader in a man has a profound way of influencing his behavior and decisions. That's how Abigail approached David, a man on a mission to kill her foolish husband, Nabal (1 Samuel 25). She knew that such bloodshed would be devastating for David's calling and career. So she related to him as king, saying,

When the Lord has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the Lord has brought my master success, remember your servant.

Her wisdom was greatly rewarded. Not only did David do an about face, God struck the wicked Nabal dead and Abigail became David's wife.

If you don't have the benefit of someone asking on your behalf, you can still appeal to your boyfriend like Abigail did with David. You can ask clarifying questions, rather than making relationship-defining statements. "Where do you see us headed in the next year?" is a lot more attractive than, "I think we need to decide if we're going to get married or not. And soon."

I asked Steve to define our relationship. "I really want to get married," I said. "And I hope it's to you. But if it's not, then we have to stop spending all this time together."

I knew it was an all-or-nothing proposition and that there was a good chance I'd walk away with nothing. But my desire really was marriage, and hanging out as buddies indefinitely wasn't going to get me any closer to that calling.

Thankfully, it turned out even better than I'd hoped. After spending that day apart praying (at Steve's suggestion), Steve stepped up and made his intentions known. "Let's call this what it is," he said. And six months later he stepped up again when he asked me to marry him.

Copyright 2007 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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