Confession: during my dating youth, no matter how much I liked a girl, no matter how much I wanted her and just her exclusively, I’d never tell her that purely for fear of looking weak and pathetic. If we were ever to move beyond the vague, undeclared status that characterizes every relationship in its early phase, well, that would be up to her. Most guys think this way.

The problem with this strategy is that sometimes, a guy likes a woman so much that he’d rather not wait for her to initiate The Talk. Or, if you’re like me, you’re over 30 and generally cranky and impatient, so you’d like to know where things stand before too many months of amorphous pseudo-commitment go by. The challenge is to share your feelings in a way that will help you get what you want and won’t make you seem like you’re groveling and/or desperate. Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Never just assume you’re exclusive
This should seem obvious, but guys can still be presumptuous and make all kinds of embarrassing mistakes. “I was seeing this girl and I changed my Facebook profile to say ‘In a Relationship,’” admits PJ. “And she was like, ‘Who are you in a relationship with?’ I was like, ‘You!’ I could tell she wasn’t exactly happy about it.” The lesson: You have to get her to say “yes” to the idea of dating exclusively before you are in fact dating exclusively. This brings us to our next piece of advice…
Browse Local Singles at Match.com
Make sure there’s a good chance she’ll say yes
The conventional wisdom is that women are always ready to have a boyfriend. And maybe that was true during the Eisenhower administration. But in the present day of Facebook and the near limitless possibilities of online dating, it is just as likely a woman wants to have what is euphemistically known as “having fun.” “Be really careful if she’s just finished a long-term relationship,” says James, a chef. “Or if she doesn’t return your phone calls right away. If your calls are going right to voicemail, and she doesn’t call you back for like eight hours, she doesn’t want you to be her boyfriend.”

Don’t go overboard
The guiding principle in asking a girl to be your girlfriend is to not appear desperate: No matter how good your intentions, you may never recover from it. “My boyfriend bought me a necklace and literally got on his knees and asked me to be his girlfriend,” says Shelia, a web designer. “I said ‘yes,’ but it was a little much.” Even less dramatic overtures can still feel over the top.

“I was at dinner with this girl, and I took her hand and said ‘You know I’m not seeing anyone else,’” says Zach, a lawyer. “I thought we’d have this romantic moment, but she just looked at me like I was crazy.”

Bring it up casually
Given that overboard gestures might make a woman uncomfortable, consider doing what most men do best anyway: asking in a more laid-back manner. Make sure the venue in which you’re asking is mellow as well — no fancy dinners, no propositions in front of family, and so on. Remember: You want to be in the kind of circumstances where her saying “no” won’t leave you feeling like a dolt for an extended period of time. “I think while you’re walking her home or driving her home is good,” says Eric. “That way you’re not stuck at some restaurant with this giant rejection hanging over you if she says no.”

So how should you cough it up? A simple “Hey, I’ve been wondering whether we should date each other exclusively. What do you think?” should work just fine. It reveals your intentions, and yet leaves the door way open for her to say no thanks, she’s not ready for that yet. Another natural segue is if introductions will soon be in order — say, she’s meeting your friends and you’re wondering if you can say she’s your girlfriend. Or consider my friend Rebecca’s story: for around six weeks, she’d been dating this guy who was on break from grad school. “Then one weekend he was about to leave to go back to school,” she recalls. “And right before he left he said, ‘By the way, when I tell my friends about you, can I call you my girlfriend?’ I loved that!”

Consider ending the relationship if she says no This is a good idea for two reasons. First, there’s nothing sadder than hanging around a girl who wants you a whole lot less than you want her. Remember high school, when you were in love with the girl who only wanted you as a friend? Well, it’s worse, since you’re getting enough relationship crumbs from the table to keep you involved, but not so few that you’re moving on with your life and trying to meet someone new. Second, by moving to end the relationship, you force her to consider life without you… and she has to decide if that’s doable for her. Women are stereotypically the ones who use this tactic: “Marry me or I’m out of here;” “We need to settle down or I need to move on,” etc. And the only time we realize how much we love and need them is when they’re out the door.

So learn from women. If you’ve done everything else right — you’ve asked her casually, you’ve made sure all the signs that she likes are there, and she still says no — tell her “I think you’re great, but I’m interested in something more serious.” You might leave with a heart that heals fairly quickly. Or you might get a call from her within a week or two, asking if when she tells her friends about you, she can call you her boyfriend.

Steve Hamilton is a New York City-based freelance writer.