“People have different definitions of readiness, like, I have to wait until I move out, or having a stable career, but sometimes those people will also feel later in life like, Now I don’t have any experience or mental capacity to know how to date, because they waited so long,” says Richard Luo, a 31-year-old paralegal who lives in Chicago. Luo says he doesn’t think the idea of getting “ready” for relationships is practical, because life will bring opportunities whether you’re ready or not.
This “social stunting” came up in my colleague Kate Julian’s Atlantic cover story on “the sex recession,” as one potential reason why intimacy has decreased among younger generations. “Many students,” Julian writes, “have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success—or, at any rate, is best delayed until those other things have been secured.” But when other aspects of your life line up, when the timing feels right, you might not feel equipped to deal with something you haven’t experienced before. Putting off relationships, it turns out, is a lot like putting off going to the dentist—it becomes more daunting the longer you wait.
Read: Why college students need a class in dating
“Most of the time when I hear people say, ‘Now’s not a great time,’ it’s been a way to avoid a tough situation or something scary emotionally, by putting it off,” Natalia Burt, a 30-year-old graphic designer who lives in British Columbia, told me in an email. After all, there may never be a great time—romantic relationships always have to fit in around other life obligations. It may be that these external factors are an easier thing to cite than a more subjective internal sensation that a person just doesn’t feel ready.
Burt said she’s definitely told people she “wasn’t ready” for a relationship at times when she perhaps couldn’t have defined what she meant. Analyzing readiness now, she described it as: “Mentally, you really have to be on the ball, ready to resolve both personal issues and relationship issues. You can’t be someone that shuts down or lashes out during arguments or when confronted. You need to be ready to be vulnerable.”
There’s no doubt that these sorts of skills are helpful in relationships, but Schwartz Gottman isn’t convinced they should be prerequisites, qualities people need to bring to relationships, rather than developing within a relationship. After all, it’s only through practice that people will get better at communicating, for example. If we all waited until we were perfectly well adjusted before entering a relationship, the human race would die out.
And yet, what is perhaps the most commonly cited advice about relationship readiness counsels the opposite: You have to love yourself before you can love someone else. RuPaul says it. Memes on social media say it (usually on a floral background). Where did this idea come from? I feel as if I’ve had it in my mind all my life, and yet its origins are impossible to trace. It seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of the god of misguided empowerment. “That’s one of those all-American myths—that you have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, that you have to be really strong, healthy, and independent in order to be capable of a successful relationship—and it’s absolutely not true,” Schwartz-Gottman says. “In some cases, relationships can help with coping with things like depression or PTSD. People are never in perfect condition for a relationship. People are always bringing in old baggage and past experiences that are painful, that are part of the beauty and truth of their nature. With all of that, relationships can be even deeper and more meaningful.”