A Generation Of Millennial Women Are Experiencing The Painful Outcome Of Being A Long-Term Girlfriend

In modern dating, two years can quickly turn into five, and five years can just as easily turn into ten. This sliding into long-term relationships without a life-long commitment is damaging, though. Here’s why.

By Rebecca Hope4 min read
Pexels/Jefferson Palomique

Modern dating is a minefield. Long gone are the culturally enforced norms of dating with the intention to marry and staying together until death do us part. Instead, we’re left with situationships and 10-year relationships that end once marriage and kids are brought to the forefront, a whole decade seemingly wasted on the wrong person.

Women (and men) are finding themselves in their mid-thirties, single, and realizing they don't want to be alone as they approach their forties. Maybe they spent their twenties in a string of casual relationships, swiping from one match to another, or maybe they recently ended a long-term relationship with a man they thought was Mr. Right after he revealed he's not the "marriage type." Their dating pool has shrunk significantly at this point, and they have missed out on growing alongside someone they love through the ups and downs of life. They wonder if they've missed their opportunity to have kids because of declining fertility or feel as if they now need to settle for the next Joe Shmoe that comes around in order to get pregnant as soon as possible.

As there are no set rules to dating anymore, marriage-minded women are finding it difficult to navigate the sexual marketplace. Casual dating, mixed in with cohabitation, can often lead to unhappy – but comfortable – relationships that consume a woman’s fertile years. This has potentially left a generation of millennial women scrambling to find a suitable partner to have kids with when their long-term relationship eventually ends.

What’s causing this, and what can women do if they find themselves in this situation?

Why Are Millennial Women Struggling To Get Married?

Many people are quick to blame feminist ideology that encourages women to never marry and settle down. However, this is only half the story. 

Previously, women had to rely on men to provide for them. But as women have become better educated and gained more rights, most women don’t need a man’s financial support to survive anymore. With more financial independence, a woman’s priorities have changed. No longer do women need to settle down quickly. Instead, women can take their time and select a partner who truly complements them, rather than just opting for the person who is readily available.

But just because women don’t need men to survive anymore, doesn’t mean marriage doesn’t have its merits. “Marriage is a social rite of passage that receives much validation from friends, family, and society in general. It allows us to feel as though we belong to a community, which is further reinforced by financial and legal benefits,” says Lisa Lawless, Ph.D., a clinical psychotherapist with 20 years of experience and founder of Holistic Wisdom, Inc.

The other half of the story of why millennial women are struggling to get married is because dating expectations and relationship trajectories have changed. As casual dating has become more acceptable, marriage-minded women may have become afraid to state what they want from a man upfront, namely commitment in the form of marriage. Maybe she wants to be the "cool girlfriend" who assures her man she's not like every other wedding-obsessed girl society complains about. She hopes that he'll just come around with time and feel the same way she does about spending the rest of their lives together. She certainly doesn't want to be the one to give him an ultimatum or bring up her ticking biological clock. Ultimately though, this may leave some women “stuck” in a relationship with someone who doesn’t truly want the same deep commitment.

According to Lawless, “Dating without the intention to marry isn't inherently a problem, but it can depend on whether or not partners are on the same page. When there's a mismatch in intentions or poor communication, most couples find things rocky. Typically, this occurs when one partner is content without a commitment or plan, and the other secretly hopes for a deeper commitment.”

Will Cohabitation Lead to a Happy Marriage?

Cohabitation – living together before marriage or just living together as the end goal – is far more common than it used to be, but is it a one-to-one replacement for marriage? On the plus side, cohabitation enables couples to build a deep understanding of one another before making a legal bond together. By living together before engagement or marriage, couples can better understand one another’s habits, lifestyle, and conflict-resolution styles.

But there are clear and well substantiated disadvantages to cohabitation. “Research indicates that couples who live together without a clear intention and plan for their future, such as marriage, children, and career goals, may face 'relationship inertia,' where neither partner is truly happy, and their relationship falls into a rut. These couples tend to stay in their relationship longer than they would have if they hadn't lived together, even when it is clear they are not compatible because they feel stuck,” says Lawless.

Research shows that the cohabitation effect can’t be fully explained through characteristics such as a person’s religion, education, or politics.

Studies show that couples who wait until marriage to live together are far more likely to work out. People are quick to assume that this is most likely because those who live together before marriage may be more open to divorce in the first place – i.e. they aren’t religious and have no moral reason for not moving in with their partner. However, research shows that the cohabitation effect can’t be fully explained through characteristics such as a person’s religion, education, or politics.

Another problem with cohabitation is that people tend to have lower standards for a live-in partner than for a spouse, meaning many women and men are living with people they have no intention of ever marrying. When you're dating with the intention of getting married, you tend to be a lot more serious about the questions you ask each other and whether your visions for the future are aligned. It becomes clearer whether a relationship is right for you or not, so you're able to cut ties and move on, as opposed to living together for years on end without any serious commitment.

What Can Women Do if They Find Themselves in a Dead-End Long-Term Relationship?

Women who find themselves in 10-year relationships that end without marriage or kids often feel as if they’ve “wasted” time on the wrong person. However, it really is important to remember that each relationship we have teaches us more about who we are. Feeling that you’ve “wasted” time with the wrong person is a very negative mindset that won’t help you move on. Instead, reframing your thinking may be more productive. “Instead of seeing a past relationship as lost time, consider it an enlightening chapter of your ever-evolving story,” says Lawless.

Despite changing your perspective on a long-term relationship and the time spent, this doesn’t alter a woman’s biology. For a woman in her mid-thirties hoping for children one day, this change in mindset may not heal those deeply painful feelings of regret. Perhaps the best approach is to not give up hope and be open to embracing another avenue for becoming a mother.

“Every journey to parenthood is unique, so adoption or fostering is also an option if our biology isn't an ideal option. Both are beautiful paths to experience and are just as meaningful as having a baby biologically,” continues Lawless. “If you find it hard to move past the feelings of regret, it may be helpful to see support through therapy. It's never too late to embrace a new beginning filled with the wisdom of your past and the excitement of your future possibilities.”

Closing Thoughts

I started this article by saying that modern dating is a minefield, but really, it’s quite simple. If you’re a marriage-minded woman, be intentional in your dating life. Even if you’re in your early twenties, two years can quickly turn into five, and five years can easily turn into ten without you realizing it. As clinical psychologist Meg Jay says, “The best time to work on your marriage is before you have one,” especially considering couples who marry in their mid-twenties are far more successful than those who marry later in life. And just because everyone else is hooking up, doesn’t mean you have to as well. Keep your standards high (but reasonable) for the kind of man who’d make a great husband and father.

But if you do find yourself in a long-term relationship that’s unfulfilling and won’t give you the kids and marriage you desire, there’s still hope. There are many success stories of women having babies after 35, so don’t rush to settle for a man who won’t make a great father.

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