We sat, just the two of us, at the cafeteria table. He produced a notebook and pen from his backpack as I pushed the pasta around on my plate. He tore out a sheet of paper and handed me the pen.
“OK,” I said, removing the cap. “Here’s what you need to do.”
I was on a mission. My brother needed my help.
I’d been observing his blossoming friendship with my best friend Anna since he’d started his freshman year at my college. Throughout the fall, I’d benefited from his efforts to impress her. Late-night mocha deliveries at the journalism house (which he knew I’d brag about to Anna). Regular phone calls to check on how I was doing (or what I was doing and with whom). And the kicker: a bouquet of flowers when I was sick. My brother is nice, but not that nice.
I’d first noticed romantic interest on Anna’s side during a group excursion to the Nutcracker Ballet (something I’m convinced men only do to see women dressed up). Anna laughed generously at Matt’s jokes and spent the whole evening by his side.
By my brother’s account, the all-school winter retreat in early January had sealed the deal as they flirted during endless games of mafia.
All that needed to be done, it seemed, was for Matt to profess his like and make his pursuit official. Tonight was the night. He’d invited her to coffee.
Enter my editorial skills. On a sheet of ruled paper, I constructed a detailed outline, complete with Roman numerals.
“First,” I said, “You need to point out the specific things you admire about her.”
It took a while for my brother to put this into words, as he seemed to have a fairly vague impression that she was the woman for him. To his credit, beyond “she’s cute,” he mustered: “She’s kind. She loves her family. I enjoy spending time with her.”
I wrote each statement below point No. I.
“After you’ve told her why you like her, you need to tell her what you have in mind,” I said.
We talked through the possibilities. Given Matt’s freshman status and fairly new relationship with Anna, we decided on, “I like you, and I am interested in getting to know you better.”
I thought this sounded very mature and told him so.
As we plotted exactly what he would say, I watched my brother’s excitement grow. He was catching the vision. He knew he was about to do something important.
What’s the Point?
When I attended Bible college, “defining the relationship” (DTR) was a regular part of the vocabulary. As soon as two members of the opposite sex had been seen hanging out together, oh, say two or three times, the buzz would begin. A girl in the dorm would giddily declare, “Chad and I are having our DTR tonight.” By the flurry of excitement that followed, you would have thought they were getting engaged — and often six months later they would.
A DTR became an expectation for men — the inevitable end to serial “hanging out” with one girl.
Once my friend Rob, who didn’t attend Bible college, visited me on campus.
“What’s a DTR?” he asked, when I casually dropped the term into conversation. I explained the concept, and he seemed somewhat mystified. That’s when I first became aware that DTR was a Christian buzzword.
After being exposed to countless DTRs during my college career, I began to lose respect for the term. It became what seemed like a generic exercise characterized by a woman demanding to know the man’s intentions, and a man dutifully carrying out the task.
Where’s the mystery or excitement in that?
Song of Songs relates a beautiful story about a betrothed couple — in their own words. We don’t get to witness their “DTR,” but their conversation is marked by beautiful, descriptive language and intentionality that seem to feed their love and desire for one another.
I don’t know that I’d be entirely flattered to have my nose compared to a tower or my hair to a flock of goats, but the point is the couple recognizes they have found something unique in the other person that is exhilarating and worth talking about.
I think my disillusionment with the DTR concept reveals my lack of faith in the value of such a transaction. But it helps to remember that the first talk, while perhaps not the euphoric experience described in Song of Songs, is a building block to something profound.
So profound that Song of Songs warns three times: “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” Clarifying the nature of a relationship opens the door for love.
Surviving the Bad DTR
Sometimes when that door is opened, a woman will slam it shut. There are many reasons for this, but two main ones are: a. She was not expecting (or desiring) it; b. The man’s delivery is flawed.
During college my friend Julie began getting to know Nate, a guy from one of her classes. When the class ended, Nate initiated a weekly meeting at the campus cafe to play games and talk. After a few months of this, Nate invited Julie out for dinner.
Suspecting the impending DTR, Julie was excited. But the day after, when I asked her how it went, tears filled her eyes.
Nate had taken her to one of her favorite restaurants. They talked and laughed easily, and it seemed to be the ideal evening. Then disaster.
“At the end of the meal, he pulled out this piece of paper,” Julie said. “He had drawn a graph.”
As Nate struggled to explain what he was feeling, he blurted, “I’m 97 percent sure I like you.” Sensing Julie’s dismay, he quickly clarified: “I mean, we could get married, or we may never talk to each other again.”
While Nate, a computer whiz, was trying to express something important, his clumsy delivery left Julie devastated. She was so hurt, in fact, that she told me she didn’t want to go out with him again.
As we talked, I reminded Julie that Nate was a logical thinker, and the fact that he was 97 percent sure of his feelings for her was probably a good sign. When Nate called her a few days later and requested a second conversation, she decided to give him a chance. A year later Nate proposed, using a beautiful acrostic poem that contained the words “Marry me, Julie” in code.
There is much to be said for a woman (or man) who does not make a snap decision in the face of an unexpected or disastrous DTR.
I remember hearing one woman’s story of being caught off guard when a man she knew from church told her he wanted to pursue her for marriage. Although he was clearly a godly man, he was not what she had been looking for. Instead of saying “no,” she chose to pray about it for a couple of weeks, even asking the Lord to “open her heart” to this man. The Lord answered her prayer, and the couple has been happily married for 10 years.
Walk the Talk
My brother’s implementation of my outline wasn’t perfect. He certainly didn’t deliver it in the poetic style of Solomon. At one point, he awkwardly blurted out the words during a hush in the coffee shop. From Anna’s perspective, they had only been flirting, so she was taken aback by his profession. That night she told him she was flattered but did not reciprocate his feelings.
Undeterred, Matt continued to spend time with the two of us, and Anna was soon asking me questions about him. By Valentine’s Day — a month after their DTR — she was hooked. They married three years later, and the story of Matt and I devising that first DTR was printed in their wedding program.
Like many single adults, I have long since grown weary of Christian relationship lingo. That doesn’t change the wisdom of such actions. My experiences as a DTR consultant have taught me that the first relationship conversation can be more than an exercise — it can be the beginning of true love.