As a child, I imagined I’d be a married homeowner with three kids by the time I turned 27. Now that I’m actually 27, my reality couldn’t be more different. I’m single, planning to travel the country in an RV sometime this year, and cringe at the thought of having children anytime soon. But that sure doesn’t stop (older) people from asking when I’m “finally” going to find a partner, settle down, get married, and start a family.

This culturally constructed template for our romantic lives is called the “relationship escalator.” And like many other social constructs, it doesn’t work for (nearly) everyone. Despite our varied lifestyles, interests, and goals, “there’s this pressure to have your shit all figured out with plenty of time to procreate, which can really detract from one’s quality of life and hinder enjoyment of the process of meeting people and dating,” says psychotherapist Emmy Crouter, LSW. “The relationship escalator assumes that those in relationships want to live together or plan to have children. [It also] seems to exclude those who identify as poly.” So if you don’t agree with this malfunctioning relationship escalator, you’re hardly alone. I don’t either. Instead of hopping on board, I’m vowing to start dating in a way that is authentic to me — and you should, too. 

I’ll take the time to focus on my relationship wants and needs.

“Taking things at your own pace and being thoughtful about your wants and needs will lead to greater contentment, compared to subscribing to the social constructs of dating and marriage,” says Crouter. “Focusing on one’s general wellbeing and goals is more important.” 

Throw that ticking clock in the trash, and start counting time on your own watch.

Allison, 29, is doing just that. “My priority is to do well at my job,” she says. “Because of that, relationships are definitely on the back burner. It’s important to me to be independent first, to build a life that I want, and if someone comes along who fits into that, then great. I’ll give it a shot when the time comes.”

“Your 20s is a time to figure yourself out, including what you want career-wise, relationship-wise, and [in terms of] your friend circle,” says psychotherapist Vienna Costanzo, LMHC. Reflecting on your motivations and beliefs can help you figure out what you actually want and need in your intimate relationships. Are you more interested in focusing on your career than meeting romantic prospects right now? Are you looking for a serious relationship or do you want something more casual? In my case, work comes first, dating comes second, and kids aren’t even on my radar right now. Answering questions like these will guide you toward the dating journey that makes the most sense for you.

I’ll allow my relationships to progress at the timeline that works for me.

Despite family members, religious leaders, and other authority figures preaching at you to act one way or another, you, not them, have the freedom to control the pace of your dating behaviors. If you have thought carefully about it and want to move in with someone you started dating a month ago, do your thing. If you’re down to have sex on the first date instead of waiting for marriage like your religious parents hoped you would, all the power to you. If you don’t agree with either of those statements, that’s OK, too. 

And as for anyone telling you to hurry up and settle down, Crouter has a solid rationale for ignoring them. “If you want a forever partner or monogamous marriage that lasts until someone dies, taking your time in finding that person is much wiser than settling down with the first person who wants that, too,” she says. What’s most important is to openly communicate your desires and preferred timeline to anyone you’re dating in order to see where you do and don’t align. From there, you can agree upon the relationship framework that works best for those involved, regardless of how anyone else feels about it.

I’ll keep in mind there’s no firm deadline on having kids.

Reminder: Reproductive organs don’t immediately stop working once you hit a certain age. “The notion of the ‘biological clock’ just causes anxiety and might even contribute to having children before one is financially and emotionally prepared,” says Crouter. “[Putting together timelines that follow the relationship escalator] can lead to anxious dating behaviors and hasty choices.” Solution: Throw that ticking clock in the trash, and start counting time on your own watch.

“Humanity encompasses a wide diversity of ways of relating, living, and loving. No one way is right or wrong. It’s about what’s right for you.”

It’s not uncommon to begin having babies in your late 30s and early 40s nowadays. This is hardly surprising when you consider that we are living longer, working longer, and hitting all kinds of traditional milestones later. “There are actually a lot of benefits in waiting to have children,” says Crouter, citing financial stability, stronger emotional resources, and increased self-awareness among those perks. 

“I want kids, and I definitely feel anxiety about having them before 30,” says Kodi, 27. “I want to be super stable before that happens.”

And if you don’t want kids at all, that’s cool, too.

“Let’s say [a lot of] your peers are getting married and having kids, and you’re the odd one out,” says Costanzo. “If you feel upset or ashamed that you’re not at that stage yet, then ask yourself, is this what I truly want, or am I just feeling pressured?” She recommends checking in with yourself on a regular basis, whether it be by talking with someone you trust, journaling, or meditating. 

“Humanity encompasses a wide diversity of ways of relating, living, and loving,” says Crouter. “No one way is right or wrong. It’s about what’s right for you.” The next time someone imposes their beliefs onto you, she suggests politely rejecting them by using a template like, “It sounds like that is important to you. I happen to have a different idea about [fill in the blank] for myself.” Standing up for and holding firm in your choices will enable you to shut down anyone who pressures you into living one way when you know you want to live another. 

Now excuse me while I disregard the relationship escalator by planning which national parks to visit in my RV, with or without someone who wants to come along for the unpredictable ride.