March 22, 2023

Getting married, buying a house, having a baby. Those three traditional “life milestones” – often seen as markers of having reached adulthood – are striking fear into the hearts of many people across the UK in their 20s and 30s who have not got those things or reached that point.
Having children is the number-one milestone that millennials feel pressure to reach, a new poll of 2,000 people by relationship charity Relate found.
More than a third (35 per cent) currently feel or have ever felt under pressure to have children, compared with just 17 per cent of baby boomers (55 to 74 year-olds) and 13 per cent of over-75s who said they felt pressure to have children when they were younger.
Counsellors say they are seeing a rise in people in their 20s and 30s talking about their worries around milestones during sessions. i spoke to two people feeling the heat, and asked a counsellor for advice on how they can handle the issuesthey’re struggling with.
One of the millennials feeling this way is Laura, 33, who works in publishing and rents a two-bed flat with a friend in south London. She came out of a seven-year relationship in 2020 and is dating someone who she likes, but isn’t sure whether it’ll become serious or not.
“I know this probably sounds overly dramatic,” she says, “but the pressure I feel to get a husband, buy a house and have a baby does actually keep me awake at night. It’s not that I think I have to have this stuff right now, I know I have time, but it’s the fact I feel so far away from it all.
“When I was in my relationship I felt more relaxed about all that because we talked about getting married and having kids one day when we both felt ready, but now that I feel so uncertain about my future I do sometimes struggle to sleep because I feel like time is ticking and I should have done some of the things I’m meant to.
“Day to day I enjoy my life and know I should appreciate having fun and freedom and be happy with how my career is going right now. But it can be hard to hear about another friend getting engaged or having a baby when I feel worlds away from that, and feel I’m trailing behind.
“People who are settled down sometimes seem to be envious of my more seemingly carefree life, but that’s easy to say when you’ve got the family and property that everyone thinks is the ultimate achievement.
“It can also make me feel like my life isn’t serious somehow, like I’m still a child. I sometimes feel a bit like I’m failing. I do want those things but sometimes I think if I felt less pressure to have it all soon, things would be so much better and I’d be enjoying life more.”
Counsellor Natasha Silverman, who works at Relate, told i that she encounters people in Laura’s situation all the time. “While Laura might feel that she’s in a very different situation to a lot of her friends,” she says, “she’s not in a unique situation at all in terms of what I’m seeing.
“We inherit a lot of expectations about how life should look, and in actual fact, Laura may be moving forward in so many ways that she doesn’t even realise, and is probably acquiring new experiences.
“These milestones have been around for a very long time, and particularly for women, the aim would be for most to get married and to have children. We still, despite working great careers, despite cultivating wonderful friendships, and connections, feel these traditional pressures.
“It’s unfortunate that as a society, we’re not yet at that place where we’re better able to congratulate people or more untraditional ways of moving your life forward. When you feel this way, it’s good to try and think of other meaningful milestones you’ve achieved.
“Did you progress in your job? Did you develop or strengthen a new friendship? How else are you changing your life and also working on creating a life that really matters to you that makes you feel fulfilled?
“Instead of ‘I need to have achieved this by…’ maybe it could be reframed into ‘I want to feel x, y and z by this time, and then the focus will be on how you can feel as content as possible. Less goal-based, more feelings-based and as a result, more fulfilling.’”
The top 10 life milestones Britons felt should be better recognised
While we have engagement parties, weddings, hen dos, stags, baby showers – things that celebrate traditional milestones – Silverman says we should be thinking about rituals and traditions for alternative milestones that shape our lives “because we underestimate the extent to which they do that”
She adds: “They are just as important as the more traditional milestones. Deciding that you want to have a party to celebrate other things in your life like leaving a job you hated, leaving a bad relationship, whatever it is in life.”
Three months ago, Nahara, a 29-year-old charity worker in Nottingham, left a two-year relationship as it was making her unhappy. She has found it tough, but knows it was the right thing and has the support of her friends. However, her family wishes she would get married soon and she knows how much they value her settling down. Her older sister and older brother were both married in their mid-20s and have had children and bought their own homes.
“I find going on Instagram and seeing all the babies and engagements and houses quite stressful now,” she says, “and I think it’s because I’m about to turn 30. I see so many people on social media with their keys outside a place they’ve bought – and I have honestly no clue how they’ve done it.
“I have a decent job but I can’t save enough for a deposit anytime soon, no way. I am glad to be out of my relationship but at the same time, I don’t want to upset my family by not achieving the things they want me to.
“Obviously, I know they want me to be happy but I know they were disappointed when I broke up with my boyfriend at 29 because in their minds, we could have maybe saved for a deposit together, or got engaged.
“I don’t even know whether I want those things, but the pressure from family and from my own mind is getting to me. I feel constantly compared to my siblings and I know my parents mean to be subtle about it, but let’s be real, they’re not!
“I just feel quite confused because I like my life but feel the weight of all the pressure bearing down on me. It’s really not fun, I want to just forget about all that stuff for a while and not be smashed over the head by it.”
“These milestone birthdays put things in perspective and make us really panic,” says Silverman. “I see that a lot. It’s important to remember that the sky is not going to fall because you’ve had another trip around the sun, and that it’s not healthy to expect everybody to reach the same milestones at the same time, if at all.
“I work with a lot of people who are leaving a toxic relationship, and it feels like such a huge step back. [But] getting out of a relationship that isn’t serving you, that isn’t reflective of your own values, that isn’t going to give you the kind of long-term happiness that you want, is a huge success. It will change the entire direction of your life, potentially.
“When it comes to familial pressure, it’s tough because they’re projecting a lot of values from their experiences and from a time that may be less relevant now. What they say can hold a lot of power and influence over us and expectations of others, particularly from a cultural or religious perspective, can be very difficult to break free from. Open conversations with your family are worth trying to have, to explain how you’re feeling.
“But it’s not just about what you say to your family. It’s about the belief that you’ve internalised as a result, because on some level, you still think you’re not doing something right, you’re fighting those old beliefs that have been instilled in you. It might be that you need some help to work through that with a counsellor, perhaps, a safe place to talk through ideas.”

Silverman highlighted how social media is adding to the pressure. “Social media is making all of this much worse. You’re bombarded with pictures of people’s hen dos, baby showers, weddings. It’s very difficult to avoid that, and you’re going to compare yourself against what other people are doing.
“Do whatever you need to do to protect yourself, and if that means taking a break from Instagram or mute or unfollow people, that’s ok.
“We all realise, logically, what social media is and that we’re only getting the highlights, but if you feel that you’re lagging behind, it can be hurtful to see other people achieving what you wish you could.
“Also, it’s good to remember that just because someone is moving their relationship forward with an engagement or hen do, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a successful or satisfying relationship, or one that would make you happy.
“Finally, for anyone experiencing this stress, remember to celebrate others. It might sound radical because their successes can be a painful reminder that you wish your life was slightly different in one way or another, but actually, congratulating and celebrating others can feel gratifying and that can help you focus on your own gratitude, love and support.
“Hopefully, that can water down some of the painful negative feelings. And as you go through life, remember there are so many other ways that we can shape our lives, so many things we can do to feel fulfilled and to create our own milestones. Life doesn’t stop and start with marriage.”
Relationships Week runs from 5-11 September. Relate has various content around dealing with milestone anxiety and following your authentic path in life.
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