In your 20s, you dated around, kissed a few frogs, partied with your girls, survived school and got a firm grip on your career (finally!). The twenty-something decade is full of exploration and change—but then, you blow out 30 candles and something feels decidedly different.
“There’s this really unique thing that happens in your thirties,” says psychologist Kristen Carpenter, PhD, Director of Women’s Behavioral Health at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center. “You really begin refining and enriching your life, and gaining career traction so you are where you want to be in your forties.”
According to Carpenter, this is where work-life balance starts to become the top priority. Women who want love and family tend to start wondering how they will fit it all in, while still killin’ it in their careers.
With a few mindset changes, it’s possible to have it all (even if it’s not all at once)—but this starts with tweaking your approach to dating and relationships. Here’s how to take stock of your goals, make some strategic changes and get long-term satisfaction out of love and life.
In your 20s, you were probably dreaming up what would be the pinnacle of your career life, because, why not? CEO of a successful start-up, with your young-adult novel trilogy being turned into movies by your 35th birthday? Sure! It’s great to, well, lean in—but many thirty-something women will admit that time seems to rapidly accelerate when in your 30s.
So while you should keep those sky-high goals close to your heart, you also have to hold yourself accountable for not missing out on something else you really want—like marriage and kids. “You have to decide how much time you can give to each of your priorities, and how much of yourself you want to give to each priority,” says Carpenter. “As professional opportunities start to arise, you’ll have to make decisions. Maybe you’ll take a slightly lesser position to be closer to family, or scale back on those 60-hour workweeks to devote more time to your relationship life.”
Carpenter says pick one or two categories or goals that you really want to devote yourself to, and put the majority of the emphasis there.
Hold on to your phones or computer mouses because you’re about to get a little tough love.
Most of us are probably a bit romantic about potential partners in our 20s. Maybe we’ll meet a brooding, handsome stranger in a coffee shop, or some witty guy will approach us at the neighborhood bar one night. You could even have some sort of “list” for what you want in a guy. But after a decade of missed connections or random encounters, it might be time to get real.
“If a woman is interested in marriage and biological babies, it’s time to really take the reins of your love life,” says Boston-based dating coach Neely Steinberg, author of Skin in the Game. “You can’t wait for serendipity to intervene or simply say, ‘It will happen when it happens.’”
What does that look like? A heavy dose of soul-searching, and then pushing past roadblocks that threaten your success. “You have to put in the time, effort and energy—even when you feel like throwing in the towel or avoiding it altogether,” says Steinberg. “And that means not just getting out there dating, but really understanding what and who you are looking for on a deeper level, and not the superficial stuff.”
Translation: You might think “not settling” means holding out for the tall, dark-haired Gosling who runs his own company and is perfect in every way, but what do you really need? That’s the question to meditate on. Chance meetings might be romantic in the moment, but a guy with attributes to complement yours is romantic long-term.
Sure, you could theoretically meet your future life partner anywhere. But you’ve probably been there and done that with the bar and going-out scene, and might not have many opportunities in your current job—where you spend the majority of your waking hours. That means your best bet is to maximize the most highly-datable options in the least amount of time, says Steinberg.
The best way to do this is to approach this part of your life with as much intention and effort as you would, say, your friendships or career. Actively position yourself to meet like-minded guys who are likely looking for legit, long-term relationships.
Steinberg says this might mean: getting online or taking online dating more seriously (really read those profiles!); actually putting yourself out there at events and activities where you’re likely to meet people; tapping into your network of friends for set-ups; and so on. “It’s about taking action, in more ways than one,” she says. “Doing so will help you create what you want to create in your life—instead of just passively waiting for him to find you.”
You’ve probably met your fair share of men who would qualify for your own personal What Was I Thinking? file. Maybe you took a risk on that guy with the emotional issues, or that supposedly-reformed player with a laundry list of ex-flames. Don’t beat yourself over those mistakes, says Steinberg. “I think you can afford to do that in your twenties,” she says. “Those relationships, in fact, can teach you a lot.”
Now that you (hopefully) know a red flag when you see it, don’t let that knowledge bank of toxic partners go to waste. If you’re looking for marriage or biological babies, says Steinberg, your job is to recognize these zero-potential guys early and often. “Don’t spend years, or even months, with guys who are clearly commitment-phobic, wish-washy or emotionally unavailable,” says Steinberg.
The less time you spend with a dead-end dude, the more room you’ll have to pace the relationship with a guy who seems like a potential winner. “You don’t want to rush the process with him,” says Steinberg. “It takes time to discover your feelings, for him to discover his, to build an emotional bond, and to see he’s consistently trustworthy, reliable, kind, emotionally available and sensitive to your needs.” If a guy obviously isn’t? Don’t try to change him. Let him go.
Make a date with yourself for a cup of coffee or glass of wine, grab a notebook, and take stock of your behaviors in your 20s. Think about what didn’t work in terms of fostering personal and relationship growth. Think about what did. Get specific about the choices you made and what might need to change.
Specifically, the key is in establishing smart boundaries. “For instance, if you’ve been really career-focused, spending time with other people might be tough,” Carpenter says, noting that many women can’t resist the allure of putting work first or solving problems outside the office. “Eventually, you have to decide how reachable you want to be.” This could mean anything from stopping all work communication at a certain hour every night to finally calling your city “home,” instead of always having one foot out the door.
Steinberg’s bottom line for single 30-somethings is that they can do themselves a big service by owning up to what they want in life and committing to it. “You may wake up at thirty-five and think, ‘Wait, where did the time go? Why didn’t I spend more time focusing on this aspect of my life?”
You can have it all, whether or not it’s all at once. Seek out and nurture a new balance, especially as you progress into that third decade of adulthood.