Dating in Your 20s: Is It Worth It?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Defining Decade" by Meg Jay. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is dating in your 20s important? Should you seek to find love in your 20s?

Dating in your 20s can be a challenge. Even if you aren’t looking for love right now, this is an important time to learn about what you might want in a relationship and a future partner.

Read more about dating in your 20s.

Dating in Your 20s: Advice and Steps

We get much less information and training on how to find a long-term partner than we do on how to find a career. And yet, choosing a marriage partner arguably has a more lasting effect on your long-term happiness. Giving the topic serious thought now, in your twenties, will decrease the chances you’ll have to settle later. The following sections are some guidelines that can help you approach dating in your 20s mindfully.

Don’t Date Down

When you date down, you date people you’ve outgrown in maturity, experience, and insight, and in doing so, you prevent yourself from finding a person you have a more meaningful connection with. A person often dates down when her identity stories reflect difficulties from her past: Someone who was neglected as a child or bullied as a teen often harbors negative beliefs about herself that cause her to make poor decisions as an adult.

Fortunately, you can change the stories you tell yourself about yourself. Listen carefully to your identity stories and recognize which parts of them come from other people’s judgments, evaluations, and advice. Examine those elements and decide which ones you can disregard. Then find a new story to take its place. If you’ve been raised by emotionally abusive parents, and now find yourself having serial one-night stands, look at who you are now and what you’ve accomplished, and focus on where those traits can lead you.

Seek a Similar Personality

Relationships are far more likely to be successful if the two people involved are fairly similar in personality. Personality is the overall way you interact with and react to the world: your outlook. It’s not about the experiences you’ve had but how you’ve handled them. It’s not about what you like but why you like it. 

The “Big Five” personality model outlines five major personality traits that a person can have. A person has each of these characteristics in either low, medium, or high levels, and learning this can help you with dating in your 20s. They are:

  1. Openness: Are you practical, conventional, skeptical, and reluctant to try new things? Or are you open to new experiences, intellectually creative and curious, adventurous, and insightful?
  2. Conscientiousness: Are you easygoing, sometimes careless, spontaneous, and a bit prone to addiction? Or are you disciplined, organized, and responsible?
  3. Extraversion: Are you shy, independent, cautious, and recharged by alone time? Or are you outgoing, active, chatty, and energized by others? 
  4. Agreeableness: Are you combative, suspicious of others, and contrarian? Or are you cooperative, trusting, flexible, and affectionate?
  5. Neuroticism: Are you secure in yourself and emotionally resilient? Or are you moody, anxiety-prone, and easily triggered? 

There’s no “right” or “wrong” personality on any of these scales, but we are often more compatible with people who lie somewhat near us.

Don’t Cohabitate, or Do It Wisely

Many young adults think that living with a partner before marriage will allow them to “try out” a marriage before committing and will result in a stronger union. Unfortunately, the statistics don’t back this up: Couples who live together are actually more likely to divorce down the road than those who do not. 

The effect seems to be a result of the fact that when people cohabitate, they often end up passively and reactively sliding toward a marriage, rather than proactively deciding on one. This can result in two people getting married for reasons like sunk costs rather than because they are actually right for each other. 

Interestingly, the cohabitation effect does not hold for couples who move in together after becoming engaged, most likely because they’ve consciously chosen the marriage rather than slid into it. If you are considering moving in with your partner before marriage, get clear about their long-term goals and commitment level before you move in and keep an eye on the costs of leaving. Make sure the constraints keeping you in the relationship don’t get so burdensome that you would be unable to walk away. 

Pick Your Partner With Your Family in Mind

When choosing a life partner, it is easy to forget that the decision involves more than just the two of you; it involves a future family that includes your partner’s family as well as the children you create. The family you create and adopt with your partner will define your life in the decades ahead. 

Of course, you shouldn’t settle down with a partner just because you love her parents and siblings. However, you should give your situation serious thought if you are considering settling down with someone from a family you don’t feel comfortable in. Marrying into a family you don’t fit into will affect your happiness down the road. It may also reflect values in your partner you’ve overlooked or convinced yourself not to worry about: emotional distance, for example. Examine these values closely.

This is, again, not to say that you should reject someone based only on her family. But her family must factor into the decision. 

Don’t Delay Marriage to Prevent Divorce

Young adults today are putting off marriage not only because of the societal expectation to but also because of a fear of failure. People believe waiting until they are more mature and settled in their careers will prevent them from marrying someone they’ll later grow apart from. 

However, delayed marriage is not the protective element against divorce that people imagine it to be. Although marriages between very young partners (like teens) have high rates of divorce, after age 25 the divorce rate stabilizes at around 40 percent. And putting off marriage creates other difficulties and risks:

  • As the pool of available singles decreases, the quality of those available may also decrease. 
  • Older spouses may be more set in their ways and have a more cynical view of love, making it more difficult to establish a healthy and lasting marriage in the first place. 
  • Delaying marriage exposes you to the risk that at age thirty, you’ll feel immense pressure to partner with someone right now

Dating in your 20s can help you learn about what you need from a life partner, and how to find them.

Dating in Your 20s: Is It Worth It?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Meg Jay's "The Defining Decade" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Defining Decade summary :

  • Why the twenties are your most important decade
  • How you were fooled into thinking it was an extended period of youth and freedom
  • Why you should use this decade to find personal and professional success

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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