How to deal when your relationship timeline doesn’t fit the mold

relationship timeline
Illustrator: Lily Lambie-Kiernan

See if this sounds familiar: You’re scrolling Instagram one night before bed when you stumble upon a new post from your college friend, Sarah. She and her partner started dating 18 months ago, moved in after one year, and are newly engaged. Naturally, you’re happy for her, but there’s a part of you deep down that feels insecure about your own relationship timeline.

You and your partner have been together for about three years. They’re incredibly kind, communicative, and giving, and you love spending time with each other. But you’ve always been tentative about marriage and kids, so you’re taking things a bit slower than the rest of your friends and family. Normally it doesn’t weigh on you, but every so often, the insecurity of not fitting the “mold” seeps in.

In light of prevalent societal expectations and the constant inundation of “happy” couples on social media, it makes perfect sense why anyone might question their relationship timeline (or lack thereof). But thankfully, many experts agree that even though it can feel strange not to follow the prescribed societal script, it is perfectly healthy to be in a relationship that plays out in its own time. 

Flipping the script

For many Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, following the well-trodden path of going to college, meeting a partner, getting married, buying a house, and having children worked well as a means of building stability and security for themselves and their families. However, the state of the economy has shifted, and “ever after” often looks drastically different for Millennials and Gen Z-ers. 

“Realistic financial goals have changed dramatically for Millennials and Gen Z, so buying houses and having children is coming much later in life, and impacting whether or not that timeline is realistic—or even feasible—in the same way as it was generations before,” explains marriage and family therapist Ariel Hirsch.

Today it is much more common for an individual to pursue an education, career, and financial stability before committing to a long-term partner, which ultimately shakes up the relationship timeline that has existed as the norm for decades. But even as times change, rom-coms still end with marriage and children on the way, and social media posts still reflect the “happily ever afters” of those who met, got engaged, and tied the knot in due time. 

While there’s nothing wrong with depicting this path, it can leave the rest of us—and those around us—questioning whether or not our “timelines” are just as valid. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever been at a family event when a well-meaning relative asks, “So, when are we going to see a ring on your finger?”) Comments like these can make us second-guess even the happiest and most committed of relationships, and while friends and family usually mean well when they question our relationship trajectory, it’s important to remember that these expectations stem from deeply-ingrained societal norms that just don’t work for everyone. 

“Big decisions about commitment, homeownership, child-rearing, etc. should be discussed when you’re personally ready to discuss them,” says relationship expert Dr. Brenda Wade. “And no one could or should be telling you about your own timeline.”  

Finding the Relationship Timeline That Works For You

It’s not uncommon for people to get engaged, get married, or have kids, purely because they feel it’s what is expected of them. Letting go of these expectations and leaning into what you truly desire takes work, but getting clear on what we want for our lives—outside of anyone else’s expectations—may be the most important thing we can do. 

While “letting go of expectations” sounds much easier than it usually is in practice, couples therapist and relationship coach Rachel Elder says that it starts with taking inventory of your emotions, thoughts, insecurities, and personal biases when it comes to relationships. Once you’ve been able to do that, you’ll then be able to have more open and honest conversations with your partner and move forward together without external pressures.

“I encourage anyone in a partnership, especially those who may be questioning their ‘timeline,’ to explore how they are feeling and ask themselves, ‘Am I feeling insecure? To what is the insecurity connected? What would it mean to be engaged or married by a certain timeframe?’” says Elder. “We have to explore and reflect to know what we need and what we can do to support ourselves.”

Over time, things may change and your desires may shift, but learning to separate your personal desires from what is expected of you is a practice that will serve you throughout your entire life—as will the act of opening the lines of kind and honest communication between you and your partner. 

Embracing a non-linear path can enable you and your partner to grow together, build trust, and strengthen your relationship in a way that conventional timelines may not allow. 

“When we pressure couples to get married or engaged by a certain time that we as a society feel is appropriate, we don’t allow the couples to build their own relational instincts and intuitions that they will use to help build their relationship stronger year to year,” says Elder.

So go ahead, revel in your one-of-a-kind relationship timeline, and tune out the noise that tells you that you need to conform. Some of the best real-life love stories are written that way.

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