When The Paths To Marriage And Self-Discovery Collide

‘Emerging adulthood’ is a time of internal conflict.

Twenty-seven-year-old Alisha arrived on time for her weekly therapy session. She sat down squarely on the familiar pink couch, and looked at her therapist. Her therapist noticed the sense of urgency in Alisha, evident from her tapping toes and hair twirling. Alisha recounted the week gone past, the quiver in her voice reflecting her emotional state. “Another failed relationship,” said Alisha about her break-up with the man she had pegged her hopes on to be her future husband. It was a pattern that Alisha had come to realise through the course of her therapy sessions. In the past two years, she had been in three romantic relationships, with the singular aim of settling down. If he wasn’t the man of her dreams, she made him just that, envisioning her future replete with noisy first birthday parties for her still-to-be-born children. Every time the dream came crashing down, Alisha was pulled into a vortex of existential questions. “When will I settle down? Everyone I know seems to be getting engaged or married. I want to focus on my career but I don’t want the ship to sail on my love life. Will I be considered too old for marriage in a few years?”

If Alisha’s nagging doubts sound familiar to you, you are most likely experiencing the infamous existential crisis that most emerging adults do.

Emerging adulthood is a time of exploring one’s identity, experiencing instability, focusing on oneself, and feeling in-between…

The idea of “emerging adulthood” is a relatively recent developmental construct, with the term being coined by developmental psychologist Jeffrey J. Arnett in 2000. It is the period between the ages of 18 and the late 20s, which is distinct from the preceding adolescence and the ensuing adulthood. A distinguishing facet of this phase is its separation from expectations and social norms. Adolescents are dependent on their caregivers, and adults are bound to persistent responsibilities; emerging adults, on the other hand, have the unique recourse of exploration. People no longer have to follow the antiquated route from adolescence to adulthood; instead, emerging adults can individualistically traverse through possibilities. It is a time of exploring one’s identity, experiencing instability, focusing on oneself, and feeling in-between, all of which have the potential to be negative or positive.

The conundrum, then, is the conflict between embracing the phase of self-exploration and the pressure of dropping the anchor into adulthood. The running cultural joke that parents and elders can look at someone in their late 20s and say, “By your age I was married with two children” is a classic example of the changing social milieu. The reduced stigma of premarital sex, contraception, cohabitation, and solace of medical advancements leading to reduced pressure of the “ticking body clock” have all contributed to the delay in “settling down’ and starting a family. What’s peculiar about emerging adulthood compared to other developmental phases is that there is no premeditated sequence in which milestones have to be reached.

Now, more than ever, emerging adults are reaching career goals before committing to marriage, leaving stable jobs to pursue higher education, or taking sabbaticals to travel alone. However, since emerging adulthood is an unfamiliar concept within our cultural bounds, there are generational challenges associated with navigating this uncharted territory.

At this age, the all-too familiar marriage mix-tape often plays on repeat, with voiceovers by well-meaning members of society.

Societal pressures and expectations are not easy bullets to dodge. At this age, the all-too familiar marriage mix-tape often plays on repeat, with voiceovers by well-meaning members of society. Culturally, marriage is considered a rite of passage into adulthood. It is a tradition, which has acquired new meanings and connotations through the years. Marriage embodies a sense of permanence, companionship, and deep commitment. Conversely, emerging adulthood is characterised by unpredictability, self-focus, and feeling like one is in limbo. The irony of the situation is hard to miss; we are conditioned by society to seek a permanent companion, while developmentally it is the age where the wind catches one’s sails, and choppy waters are to be braved like a lone sailor on a maiden voyage. We receive constant encouragement to march in a linear path through life, because historically that denotes progress; but emerging adulthood is what happens when we meander off the course, through uncertainty, towards self-discovery.

So which path should we choose? Should we pick the somewhat turbulent but exciting grace period that emerging adulthood offers, or should we follow the tried and tested route down the aisle? Eventually, whichever choices we make in this period of our lives, mindfulness and self-love should be the mantra to guide us.

Emerging adulthood should not be used as an excuse to procrastinate over impending responsibilities; rather, it should be a mindful choice. On the flip side, traditional trajectories should not be followed mindlessly either. Finding a partner, settling down, and starting a family are consequential in nature, and should be backed by the right reasons. For some of us, based on our circumstances, societal pressure, or lack of resources, this fork in the road might not even exist. We might be forced to settle down and start a family, or conversely those who feel ready for full-blown adulthood might involuntarily find themselves in the throes of solitary self-exploration.

Whichever choices we make in this period of our lives, mindfulness and self-love should be the mantra to guide us.

Those who disembark into emerging adulthood, begrudgingly or by choice, might experience the fear of hindering a secure future with a partner. While these distressing doubts and anxieties are not unfounded, they can potentially cause us to hasten decisions, leading us to blindly scurry past this stage of emerging adulthood, which Arnett so beautifully calls the age of “idealism, enthusiasm, a willingness to experiment, a lack of encumbrances, and a desire to learn and grow.” The excitement in this phase goes hand-in-hand with instability and doubt. How can we possibly confront self-doubt successfully without self-love?

Self-love is the nonjudgmental appreciation and regard for one’s own happiness and wellbeing. It is only when we truly love and accept ourselves that we can authentically give love and unapologetically receive it. Accepting ourselves in our choices or circumstances can prevent toxic feelings of regret and resentment, and allow us to truly stop and smell the roses. Self-love also embodies the affirmation that life will fall into place if we trust ourselves and have patience in our actions. Allowing kindness and compassion to flow inwards while we find our individuality, can guide us through a tumultuous phase of uncertainty, setting the stage for stable and lasting relationships.

As a twenty-something person with doubts and concerns, like Alisha who was mentioned earlier, a little mindfulness and a lot of self-love will go a long way in turning this ambiguous and unpredictable phase of life into the most exciting and enlightening one.