Watching rom-com movies and sappy love stories on TV will often reinforce the same narrative: Two people should meet, flirt, date, fall in love, get married, and start a family. Even since dating app culture has changed so much about the way people meet now, there is still a common dating-to-marriage-to-children pipeline in most heteronormative and monogamous relationships. This kind of relationship timeline has been around for generations... but is it really beneficial anymore?
Across countless cultures and communities, there are hundreds of different ways that romantic relationships and their traditions can look, depending on who you ask. Some encourage partners to get married and start a family while still young, while various forms of non-monogamy are more widely recognized in others. In much of Western culture, the aforementioned pipeline still seems to be the norm. According to experts like licensed clinical social worker Sarah Brock Chávez, however, this really shouldn’t be the case anymore. “Just as our limits and expectations for our achievements have evolved, so should our measure against an antiquated relationship timeline that doesn't reflect all of the varieties of modern relationships,” she tells Bustle.
If you’re in a relationship, think about the influence your community has had on it. Has anyone in your family pressured you to get married or have kids? If you’re newly dating someone, do your friends tell you that you should DTR, like, now? If you and your partner have been living together for a few years, do you feel the looming outside pressure of an engagement? All of these examples demonstrate just how deep-rooted the concept of the “right” way to handle romantic relationships has been. So, this begs the question: Should relationships really follow a timeline?
Is There A Timeline Relationships Should Follow?
Getting unintentionally caught up in the milestones of your relationship is totally normal. From the first date, the first “I love you,” and even talking about ring sizes, it’s easy to put internal pressure on yourself or your partner to reach each goal post in a certain time frame.
Experts, however, don’t prescribe the same concept to the couples they work with. “I don't believe there is a standard timeline that relationships should or do follow,” Chávez says. “Each individual within each relationship has different needs and goals as well as a different relationship history. As such, each relationship necessarily follows a different arc in moving toward its agreed upon goals.”
The main focus in any relationship should be its health and how fulfilled each partner feels, according to licensed clinical social worker supervisor Neathery Falchuk. “There is no set ‘timeline’ that predicts whether a relationship will be happy and fulfilling,” they tell Bustle. “The focus on age and length of time being determinants of relationship milestones places less importance on the true quality of a relationship. There are certain stages that are typically present in the majority of relationships that are more important than an arbitrary timeline.” For example, enjoying the honeymoon phase, or the period of time when you first move in with your partner and begin figuring out a living dynamic that works for both of you, can prove to be much more beneficial to the health of your relationship than following expected steps in a certain timeframe.
Why There’s Pressure For Couples To Follow A Relationship Timeline
Although it’s easy for anyone to be affected by the societal pressure to follow a certain relationship timeline, it’s important to analyze and understand exactly where that comes from. For Chávez, the answer is pretty clear. “The societal pressure for relationships to follow one goal is rooted in cis-hetero-patriarchy and the assumption that all relationships are monogamous by default,” she explains. “Assuming that all relationships look like a cis man and cis woman, seeking out ‘the one’ to ‘spend the rest of their life with’ and make babies, is a standard that doesn't even apply to straight cis people anymore. Folks have needs beyond procreation that take priority, delaying the timeline for many different types of couples.” More and more Millennials and Gen Zers in partnerships are choosing not to have children, going against the grain of society’s pressure to walk the traditional path.
Falchuk also points out that the dominance of religion in Western culture has certainly had an effect on how the “proper” steps in a relationship are viewed and enforced. “The idea of courtship (i.e. dating) was established for the one purpose of securing a marriage and in turn status and moral standing in society,” they say. “Unfortunately, these ideals are still woven into the fabric of our modern culture and continue to perpetuate these oppressive beliefs that relationships are supposed to look one certain way.” While marriage-minded dating does benefit some young adults today, that pressure can be harmful to others who may not be ready for that commitment or who would prefer a different type of partnership.
Can This Pressure Hurt Relationships?
Struggling with the expectation from family and friends to hit certain milestones in your relationship is enough to make anyone encounter stress and frustration. Dealing with the stereotypes often promoted by entertainment and social media only adds to that experience. “The pressure to follow a timeline within a modern relationship creates unrealistic expectations as well as an internalized sense of ‘not being enough’ in some areas of one's life,” Chávez says. “These measures have the potential to amplify self-criticism where instead self-compassion and pride should exist.”
Placing more emphasis on the timeline of a relationship rather than the satisfaction of the partners involved can have long-term damaging effects, Falchuk says. “The hyper-focus on relationship milestones only being based on length of time disrupts people from connecting to what they truly want and need in a relationship,” they explain. Focusing on a timeline in your partnership instead of building a safe, joyful, and loving relationship with your S.O. can begin to cause stress, resentment, and even the end of your connection altogether.
How Couples Can Navigate The Pressure To Follow A Timeline
As with any issue in your relationship, Falchuk says that communicating with your partner about your needs, where you’re at, and your shared goals can help alleviate the external pressure to check certain metaphorical boxes off your relationship laundry list. “The important first step is to get on the same page about each others' relationship values, needs, and wants,” they suggest. “Explore how you measure satisfaction in a relationship and plan ahead of time to agree to regular check-ins on how the relationship is going.”
The pressure to follow a certain timeline is definitely a long-standing systemic issue, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be perpetuated in your relationship. For some modern couples, marriage will never be in their future — but children are. Other couples might choose a non-monogamous lifestyle in which they share a home with multiple partners. It truly depends on what makes all partners involved feel loved and fulfilled in their needs.
According to experts, there are some concrete ways you and your partner can try together to strengthen your bond against societal stress. “Partners can deal with the pressure of these timelines by first being aware that it exists and what it was sprung from — likely, a relationship standard that doesn't at all reflect the current partnership,” says Chávez. “It's also important to create room for a new and individualized timeline for your specific relationship based on your shared goals and needs. Also, give yourselves permission for your wants, needs, and goals to change as each person in the relationship individually evolves.”
Sarah Brock Chávez, licensed clinical social worker
Neathery Falchuk, licensed clinical social worker supervisor