Defining the relationship

By on April 11, 2012

For fans of MTV’s hit show “Awkward,” the acronym DTR may not be a new thing, but for those not in the loop, DTR, or “defining the relationship,” is making an appearance in relationships across college campuses. From hooking up, to dating, to forming serious relationships, how does one know when to push toward the next step?

Junior Melissa Mullaney met her boyfriend Brian Bertrand while attending North Quincy High School in Massachusetts, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year at Quinnipiac University and his junior year at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, that the two became anything more than friends. During Thanksgiving break, they ran into each other, and he asked for her number, but Mullaney sent the first text. After five dates, Bertrand initiated the first move toward becoming more than friends.

“Although we went on a few dates, we didn’t ever talk about it being official ever,” Mullaney said. “He did it so unromantically by asking me if we should make this thing Facebook official — not my ideal way, but hey, I said yes! I think since winter break last year was coming to an end, we wanted to make sure we were official.”

The end of a school break pushed Mullaney and Bertrand to define their relationship, but that is not the only reason two people may decide to put a label on their romantic interactions.

“[The desire to define a relationship] is part of what it is to be human,” said Keith Kerr, an assistant professor of sociology. “I suspect that a desire to define a relationship is a sublimated way to push for commitment. If one is having sexual encounters with another with no commitment and asks to ‘define the relationship,’ well, it is defined: a casual sexual relationship. To ask to define that is likely a way to try to define the relationship as committed and hence change the expectations and roles of those involved.”

The push to define a relationship often comes from the female part of the pair, according to both Kerr. Gender roles cause this, Kerr said. Women are expected to express their desires and feelings more than men.

A study done by the Institute for American Values’ 16-member Courtship Research Team, which surveyed 1,000 college-aged women nationally over an 18-month period, agrees.

“Because they can hang out or hook up with a guy over a period of time and still not know if they are a couple, women often initiate ‘the talk’ in which they ask, ‘Are we committed or not?’ When she asks, he decides,” the study says.

The talk of commitment often leads to the discussion of what to call one another. Are they just friends, friends with benefits, or are they now boyfriend and girlfriend?

“Our thoughts are largely thoughts of labels that we have created,” Kerr said. “We understand everything based on the labels and categories we create. This gives the appearance of order, predictability and, most importantly, control for us.”

Mullaney, who has been with Bertrand for a year and a half, feels that labels help others know that a person is taken and in a committed relationship, therefore not open to dating anyone else.

Junior Alex Leinwand believes that terms such as boyfriend and girlfriend help bring a couple closer together.

“I feel that we need to put labels on things such as girlfriend or boyfriend because it makes the people in the relationship feel a sense of connection when in reality there should be a connection regardless of what you make the label,” said Leinwand, who is single and waiting for the right girl to come along before he chooses to commit.

The need to define a relationship and determine where it is going is being delayed until further in life, though. According to Kerr, the fact that young adults are remaining in a period of extended adolescence longer than their parents or grandparents did, affects the way college-aged students see relationships. By not needing to enter the workforce or act as adults as early as past generations, students can spend more time focusing on things other than commitment. The fact that the median age at first marriage increased to 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, also delays students’ desire to enter into a committed relationship.

“Since people live longer, and hence hold jobs longer, there has been a need to keep the newer generation out of the adult sphere longer, since there is not enough space for them, especially in the economic sector,” Kerr said. “I would argue that this is linked, to some extent, to changing relationship patterns in college. The emphasis is less and less on committed relationships. We are seeing a change in our psychology on this issue prompted by a change in the structure of our society.”

Kerr, Mullaney and Leinwand agree that committed relationships are hard to come by on college campuses.

“I think hooking up is more popular on college campuses mainly because many people are scared of the ‘C word:’ Commitment,” Leinwand said.

In the Institute for American Values’ 16-member Courtship Research Team’s study, researchers found that 40 percent of women had experienced a hookup, and 10 percent had done so more than six times. Meanwhile, only 50 percent said they had been asked on six or more dates by men since their freshman years, and a third had been asked on two or fewer dates.

“I do think commitment is hard to come by. These college years don’t last long and everyone just wants to have fun without having to worry about another person,” Mullaney said.

This could possibly be because of the role that sex plays in a relationship these days. It is the main reason two people enter into a relationship, according to Kerr.

“Sex plays a huge role in relationships now. Even the term hooking up implies some sort of sex,” Mullaney said. “Our society is highly sexualized now and I think most people in college feel like they should be having a lot of sex because they think everyone else is too. Sex is the big elephant present in the room for every relationship. Some people choose to ignore it, while others don’t.”

Men and women have different views when it comes to sex in any sort of relationship. In a 2009 article from Psychology Today, Michael Bader, D.M.H. writes, “After sex, women need the reassurance that they, themselves, haven’t abandoned themselves to it for its pleasure. Men need to pull away so as to not feel any risk of merging with the woman or having to take care of her.”

Regardless of how sex is viewed, Mullaney says there is always the possibility of a hookup turning into something more.

“On college campuses I think most people casually hook up which sometimes turns into casually dating,” Mullaney said.

The change in any relationship can be credited to Steven Stosny’s Laws of Attachment in a 2011 article in Psychology Today, which state that vulnerability and a threat to the couple’s bond can push for defining a relationship. When some sort of factor forces people to feel limited in their relationships, such as a lack of trust, decrease in love or an avoidance of intimacy, one part of the pair feels some sort of guilt, according to Stosny.

“Attachment guilt is a kind of distance regulator whose function is to motivate more emotional investment in the attachment bond,” Stosny writes. “Get close (invest more interest, trust, compassion, love, protection) and the guilt subsides; distance further, and it gets worse.”

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About Cassie Comeau

Copy Desk Chief
Email: copy@quchronicle.com
Twitter: @ccomeau22
Year: 2013
Major: Print journalism
Hometown: Gardner, Mass.