t is a truth universally acknowledged that dating in your 20s is kind of the worst. We have more ways to connect with people than ever before, and yet we’re lonelier than any of the generations that came before us. If your hand has ever cramped from marathon swiping or you’ve run out of friends of friends of friends to grab drinks with, you’re not the only one.
With 7 billion people in the world (and climbing), finding The One is no simple task at any age, but why is dating so especially hard in your 20s?
If you’re struggling to balance romance and education, a career, a social life, surviving an unfriendly economy, fear not. We’re unpacking the biggest challenges facing 20-somethings looking for love, and we’ve gathered the best advice our writers have for getting through it without losing your mind.
Reason #1: The Cult of Individuality
While the moniker “Generation Me” possesses the same note of condescension as complaints that today’s youth is ruining the diamond/housing/cruise/napkin industry, it’s a pretty apt description of how we interface with each other.
Among other factors ranging from parenting styles to political turmoil, the rise of the internet and online networking has made it easier for people to pick out and pursue their most obscure interests, resulting in a society in which we’re constantly trying to find or create a niche where we can be perfectly ourselves. Social media only amplifies this. In a world in which everyone has a platform to share their ideas, we have a staggering number of other humans to differentiate ourselves from.
On both the macro and micro level, there’s a lot of debate on whether this rise in individualism is helping or hurting, but one thing is for certain: our prioritization of individuality can make the prospect of finding someone to share our life with daunting. According to psychologist Leslie Bell, “There’s this idea now that identity is built independent of relationships, not within them.” So how do we remain ourselves even when we’re with someone else?
What to do:
- Recognize that you are always becoming. Growth isn’t something that happens once in your life and then stops. It’s important to realize that, no matter who or how old you are when you meet someone, you will both continue to evolve and need to navigate cultivating your identities as individuals and as a couple in order to thrive.
- Get comfortable with yourself. Who are you right now, in this moment? What defines you? How do you behave? Knowing who you are now and who you are (or want to be) becoming will help you maintain a healthy relationship with yourself, regardless of who else you’re in a relationship with.
Reason #2: There’s a Lot Going on in Your Life
Your 20s is a decade of change. You might be graduating from college, starting a career, deciding to change direction, finding ways to maintain relationships with old friends, getting to know the grown up version of yourself, filling new roles within your family, caring for pets or children, moving, traveling… not to mention less personal milestones like your first legal drink and getting kicked off your parents’ health insurance.
With so much going on, what you want and need (and what your partner wants and needs) may be changing quickly and continuously.
What to do:
- Don’t be afraid of change. It’s not necessarily a bad thing! In his book We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta Nehisi-Coates wrote of his relationship with his wife: “I had not been prepared for the simple charm of watching someone you love grow. I had not known to look forward to it, and I guess that is because so often it does not happen, or perhaps when it does people generally grow apart. I don’t really know. All I can say is [seeing this happen] has been one of the great pleasures of my life.”
- Do check in with your partner. Making time to get on the same page as your partner is the best way to navigate change effectively.
Reason #3: Swipe-culture Encourages Superficiality
What is Tinder, anyway? It’s marketed as a way to find dates and build friendships, widely used as fodder for hookup culture, but also the place where your coworker’s sister met her fiancé. When an endless stream of new faces is at your fingertips, you might find yourself experiencing the same kind of decision fatigue that plagues streaming service users the world over.
Having so many options can breed superficiality, which is hardly the foundation of a lasting romantic connection. According to New York University Professor Hanna Halaburda, “Having less choice forces you to look more carefully at the person. You don’t dismiss them as much.”
What to do:
- Limit your dating apps. People use dating apps for a variety of reasons -- from hookups to relationships to procrastinating to getting a quick confidence boost. But too much screen time is still too much. Limit temptation by keeping no more than two dating apps on your phone at a time.
- Start real conversations. No more waiting around for them to message first or sending generic greetings. Pick out something interesting about a potential match’s bio or pictures, and send them a message about it. Learning more about the person behind the profile helps you actually get to know them.
Reason #4: Common Ground Isn’t a Given
Once upon a time, most people met their spouses through school, work, rec league, a friend of the family, or a friend of a friend. Of course not every college relationship or office romance works out, but finding a date that way does give you a bit of common ground to start with. Your hobbies and your social circles reflect your interests and values, which means on some level you and your partner already know yours overlap. As meeting romantic partners online becomes more and more common, that initial starting ground becomes less of a given.
What to do:
- Try new things together. Exploring new interests and sharing experiences is a great way to bond with someone new.
- Ask questions. Whether via DM or in person, find out who your date is. What do they do in their free time? What would hanging out with them look like long term? If you don’t enjoy any of the same things, finding ways to share quality time will be difficult.
Reason #5: Ghosting
We’ve all been there -- talking to someone new, thinking it’s going great, and then poof. They fall off the face of the earth. The relative anonymity of online dating culture means that people can ditch with little to no accountability. If you don’t know them and your social circles don’t overlap outside of the digital world, the added anonymity can lead to people being ruder than they would be otherwise because they have no concrete incentive to be kind.
What to do:
- Consider going on a blind date. Your cousin’s roommate has a reason to not be a jerk -- if they are a jerk, your cousin won’t be too happy.
- Seek out ways to meet people in person. Ever considered joining a book club, a rec league, a young professional’s group? Finding new places to meet people offline helps cut down on the effects of anonymity.
Reason #6: Social Stalking Undermines Opportunities to Connect
Our ability to type someone’s name into Google and pull up a catalog of every facet of their life from their professional network (LinkedIn) to their vacation photos (Facebook, Instagram) to their random shower thoughts (Twitter, Tumblr, and on and on…), we can learn a lot about someone without ever speaking to them. While convenient, in doing so we lose out on something essential -- the voice, the body language, the expression that breathes life into their story.
There’s something important about face to face connection. Psychologist Silvan Tomkins went as far as to suggest that “emotion was the basis of human motivation, and the seat of emotion was in the face.” When we talk to someone face to face, we are more engaged, more empathetic, more effective communicators, which helps us to build stronger relationships overall.
What to do:
- Decide not to look them up. If you’re hoping to truly get to know someone, avoid looking them up online. Let them tell you who they are, at least at first.
- Remove the temptation. Struggling with the temptation not to look up every person they’ve ever dated on Facebook? Consider taking a brief social hiatus and deleting the app from your phone. Without having the opportunity in your purse or pocket all day, it’s much harder to give in.
Reason #7: Instagram/Tiktok/Youtube Couples
Rom coms and tabloid gossip have been putting grand romantic gestures in front of us for decades, but lately relationship goals have been coming at us from every direction. Videos of cute couples buying houses and puppies, completing dance challenges, or even just delivering life updates wrapped up in each other’s arms can be a nice distraction from all of the chaotic and terrible things that happen in the world, but are they making it harder to find love for ourselves?
What to do:
- Don’t compare someone else’s stage production to your behind-the-scenes. Dating can be awkward, vulnerable, and uncomfortable. Just because you might not see that side of your favorite internet couple doesn’t mean it isn’t -- or wasn’t -- there.
- Set realistic expectations. We don’t expect our partners to scoop us up in a rainstorm after rowing us across a pond to feed some ducks just because Ryan Gosling did it, and if someone snuck into our home to watch us sleep à la Edward Cullen, we’d be justifiably creeped out. While the gestures we see online feel somewhat closer to reality, we have to realize that public scrutiny has a huge impact on how people present themselves and set our own expectations accordingly.
Reason #8: All sorts of dating fatigue
Dating is emotionally draining. Putting yourself out there is nerve-wracking, not to mention time consuming and often expensive. From getting yourself cleaned up to shelling out money for coffees and movies and drinks, dating takes a lot out of you. If the thought of going out to meet up with someone this weekend makes you feel more burned out than excited, you may be suffering from dating fatigue.
What to do:
- Take a break. You can’t draw water from an empty well, as the saying goes. If you need some time to recharge and focus on yourself, take it! You are your number one priority. Plus, future dates and relationships will turn out better if you’re able to engage with them authentically and enthusiastically, anyway.
- Know your limits. Different people have different thresholds for dating fatigue. If you can meet up with every person who messages you and feel great, then great! But if the constant turnover is wearing you down, take a step back and figure out how much of yourself and your time you honestly feel comfortable devoting to dating right now.
Reason #9: It’s getting harder to hit the milestones other generations took for granted
Financial stress is repeatedly cited as one of the biggest stressors in romantic relationships, which puts an extra burden on the 20-somethings trying to have a successful dating life. This generation is struggling to make enough money to get by, let alone to invest it in themselves or their relationships. That means that many of the milestones previous generations were able to achieve with relative ease -- marriage, houses, cars, children -- feel frustratingly out of reach.
What to do:
- Define milestones that don’t have a big price tag. It’s hard to save money for a wedding or build a home when the economy is barely staying afloat. Finding meaningful milestones that aren’t tied into your finances can be a good way to combat feeling stuck where you are or unable to move forward.
- Prioritize building a future. In other words, start saving now. Even small changes -- putting $5 a day into your savings account instead of towards a cup of coffee, for example -- add up.
Dating in your 20s isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either. There is hope. Many have been there, done that, and made it to the comparatively greener pastures of dating in their 30s or found someone wonderful to share their life with. Hang in there, and good luck!