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Why you should have the ‘what are we’ chat sooner rather than later

PHOTOGRAPHY BY PAIGGE WARTON

WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

Don’t fall for red herrings. Trust your gut. Speak your mind. 

Feb 26 2021, 8.58am

Gen (me):

‘Hey xx I don’t want to come across as intense so early on but have just been thinking the last couple of days. I was in a casual thing recently and it didn’t really work for me. It left me feeling pretty shit so I just want to be clear about what intentions are here. I rlly like you and would love to keep seeing you but if you’re not after anything else I just can’t do a weekends thing with someone again x’

9.13pm (!!! PM !!!) 

Suitor:

‘Hey, yeh I completely understand I also like you too but i don’t think I’m really ready for a relationship at the moment, I really do enjoying hanging out with you but yeh don’t think I’m in that space right now. I’m real sorry’

Gen:

‘All g’

Haha. Yeah. That happened. It’s the kiss at the end of my outgoing essay for me. This exchange seems so drastic at first glance and I even cringe a little re-reading. I was disappointed. But this is why you should establish intentions early on in a something-ship, and a real-world (no edits, you have my word) way to do it IRL. 

When you weigh up the alternatives (going along with vagaries and being heartbroken months later) and look through the compendium of panicked DMs you’ve sent multiple girlfriends, sending a message like this becomes much more plausible. This dialogue brought me much relief. I thought, ‘Well thank god I’ve sorted that.’


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I’ve only recently – after last year’s romantic shortcomings – learnt it’s better to risk being too ‘forward’ and say what you want early on, rather than repeating patterns of waiting ‘almost’ things out for three, six or 12 months to still feel that sinking uncertainty about someone.

You could be having the most fun time ever, but the fleeting highs and lukewarm months will devolve into an all-time low when you realise you were never really on the same page. This isn’t an ‘easy-going’ message to send, but it’s something I vow to do from now on to avoid wasting my time. 

The truth (especially concerning matters of the heart) can be a hard pill to swallow. I bet you’re wondering what the context of the above textcapade is. Nothing outrageous, but I did think I was onto a good thing. 

I met this boy at The Swan Hotel in Richmond. (Note: this is where I probably went wrong). We spent a few weekends meeting up after nights out, eating Grill’d in his bungalow, going for brunch and twirling pasta with MY MUM at the kitchen bench. We walked my spoodle to the beach, he met my girlfriends. They liked him. I sent him to work one morning with bananas and hot crozzie buns. So, couple-y shit.

On the cusp of a big move-out, I was also in desperate need of a man with ute access. The timing was impeccable, and I really do believe our meeting was written in the stars, as this favour was a lifesaver at the time. The suitor drove me to collect and transport a second-hand washing machine, get bagels and then spend the afternoon watching The Girl On The Train in bed. Reader, this is where I got confused. These are very cute actions conducive to an ongoing entanglement, or so I thought.

The washing machine is now something I stare at on Sundays and feel a sense of amusement. It rumbles around and sits as a tangible reminder of this particular almost thing. The washing machine is a symbol of the situationship, and my houso and I get great amusement from its heritage. 

The above story has taught me this: even if they lug heavy machinery in a house move on a Sunday morning for you, morbidly hungover, they have not declared a genuine desire to pursue you seriously. Next time you should pay in cold hard cash for Man With A Van and avoid the pent-up anxiety.

Sometimes when I write this all down in such microscopic detail, I feel insane. But it’s a textbook scenario I know so many of us find ourselves in: that is, being in something and not fully understanding what that something is. I don’t know if this is a new phenomenon, exacerbated by last year’s enforced celibacy or whatever, but my mum finds it particularly hard to get her head around. 

It would be nice if dating/courting/flinging could be straightforward and transparent from the get-go, but you can’t exactly ask someone “So what are we?” over entrees on the first date. Imagine passing the butter and asking “What do you want from this?”. It’s just not going to happen.

In saying this, I do really, wholeheartedly, intensely believe that it is worthwhile to establish intentions in the early phase of something you’re starting to care about. While you’re risking losing whatever entanglement you’re in, not prolonging the inevitable (that you’re intuitively sensing) is something your future self will love you sick for.

An oracle I find myself turning to in moments of romantic uncertainty is writer and editor Melissa Mason, and the divine Ash Austen with who she shares a hilarious modern dating podcast with. (This feels like a good time to prescribe Jeans & A Nice Top to literally anyone who’s ever liked someone ever). I pester Mel a lot and this seemed like another good reason to. Mel’s got more years, heartbreaks and Elle love columns on me, so here are her two cents on having the intentions convo.

“I think it’s important to be clear about what you want from the relationship. If you coast along, you’re going to be more (or less) invested when you do reach the ‘what are we’ chat, and that leads to getting hurt. It doesn’t have to be intense, just a “Hey, are we just fucking around or is this potentially going somewhere?” works (I did this recently) and I think be clear if you want to keep being non-exclusive, because when I had that chat I simply wanted to know if the guy was looking for hookups only or if he was open to a relationship – because I was starting to feel feelings, basically.”

A mate of mine recently pursued a famous-adjacent-ish person. She saw him for a couple of weekends but grew uncertain as to his intentions when the mid-week messaging got slack (we’ve all been there). In Coles one night during this liaison, we chatted about the signs to keep in mind when deciding if someone is just a ‘weekends person’.

Telltale signs are if they’re only messaging from a Wednesday onwards, and you never hear from them on a Sunday or Monday. This alerts to a business day aloofness, and them most likely being keen for something casual. Which, by the way, is totally fair. It just means you might not want to keep pursuing them if that’s not what you’re looking for. 

This is not me making a case for criminalising casual encounters. They are fun, healthy, easy even, if and when they’re mutual. Just don’t let the fear of being rejected hinder your deep-down desires and wants. These are valid, sacred and must be honoured at all costs. Send the damn text. They might surprise you. Or you’re heading back to The Swan next weekend with the girls. Either way, it’s a win-win.

For more advice on dating with intention, head here.

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