Talking about the Future with Your Partner: Navigating a Pace-Discrepancy (Part I)

This article is based on the Reimagining Love podcast episode “Talking about the Future with Your Partner: Navigating a Pace-Discrepancy.” To listen to this episode, click here.

In this article, I am going to help you navigate what I call a Pace Discrepancy: one partner feels ready to move to the next step in a commitment sequence and the other partner does not. A Pace Discrepancy can arise at any point in the narrative arc of a love story:

  • I want to define the relationship (DTR), and you want to keep it casual.
  • I want to move in together, and you aren’t ready.
  • I want to get married, and you aren’t sure yet.

There’s a lot here, and I suspect we will come back to this topic in the future. Today we will use the tools of Relational Self-Awareness to focus on what might be causing a Pace Discrepancy in your relationship, and what you can do about it.


Pace discrepancies are wholly inevitable. You are not your partner. Your partner is not you. You come into the relationship with a worldview, a set of cultural identities, a particular set of experiences, and a unique blend of strengths and growing edges. The chances that you and your partner will be ready for the exact next step in your relationship at exactly the same time is slim to none. But this is tender stuff, and it’s so easy for the space between what I am ready for and what you are ready for to get filled with insecurity, impatience, miscommunication, and fear and doubt about the viability of the relationship. So this topic of a Pace Discrepancy warrants our careful attention.

Here’s our plan for this discussion:

In Part I, I will talk about the big picture: how cultural context shapes our hopes and expectations about how we plan for the future with a partner. In Part II, I will put a relational framework around this issue. Calling this challenge a Pace Discrepancy helps us move beyond a finger pointing stance where one partner says, “Why won’t you talk about the future with me?” and the other partner says, “Why are you putting so much pressure on me?” Then in Part III, I will talk about what might be coming up inside of what I am terming the Faster-Paced Partner and what might be coming up inside of what I am terming the Slower-Paced Partner. Lastly, in Part IV, I will talk about what to do, offering suggestions for the Faster-Paced Partner and suggestions for the Slower-Paced Partner. Part IV will be in a separate article. We have a lot to talk about!

Before I do what I love to do, all of the nerdy frameworks and tools and strategies, I do want to say a few things. In some cases, the simplest explanation is the explanation that fits. Your partner does not want to talk about the future with you because they do not see or want a future with you. They are here for a good time, not a long time. If your goal is to build a future with someone and their goal is to take it as it comes with you, you have mismatched goals. If that person is clear that they are comfortable staying in their current perspective and preference, your choices are to accept what’s being offered, or to leave. This can be especially hard if you are finding yourself squinting your eyes and tilting your head and seeing all of the ways in which you could be great together if they would only do x, y, or z. 

Although a Pace Discrepancy is wholly inevitable, where the rubber hits the road is here: Does my partner want to work with me to explore how we ended up with this Pace Discrepancy and how we can protect what is otherwise a great relationship from the impact of this Pace Discrepancy? I am going to spend the rest of the article giving you the tools you need to move from a perspective that is “my way versus your way” to a perspective that is “us sitting shoulder to shoulder looking together at the Pace Discrepancy.” Ideally, your partner will also read this or at least listen to whatever insights you glean from it. Reading this article on your own and creating shifts in your thinking and behavior will change the dance between the two of you. But your conversations are going to be super-charged if you both have read!

Part I: The Big Picture

You know that whenever we dive into one of these topics, we need to start with the big picture. We are subtly and profoundly shaped by the forces of socialization. What feels good, normal, right to us is shaped by forces that we cannot see. Socialization is the air we breathe. Socialization creates sets of expectations and beliefs about who we should be in our relationships… and how relationships should progress. I want us to consider three aspects of socialization here:

  1. Social anchoring
  2. Present vs. future mindset
  3. Gender 

Social Anchoring

The first aspect of socialization I want to explore is something I am calling social anchoring. Way back in 1977, Psychologist Bearnice Neugarten said that behavior is controlled primarily by a social, rather than biological clock. Our perception of whether we are hitting a particular developmental milestone in an on time way or an off time way is defined by social context. We anchor ourselves in community. We ask ourselves: Am I doing this too soon? Am I early? Am I too old for this? Am I doing this too late? We look around ourselves to get answers to those questions. And there are feelings attached to the answer we come up with…or the answer our family and friends give us! Ultimately, when we are seeking clarity about whether we are on time or off time, we are asking, “Am I normal?” We are asking, “Do I fit in?” “Do I belong?”

Even if you have worked very hard to give yourself permission to live life on your own terms, there may be moments when you notice yourself slipping into comparison mode, wondering how you line up vis-a-vis the people around you. This idea of anchoring ourselves socially may happen in any domain—educational milestones, economic milestones, career milestones. Today, we’re talking about how social anchoring affects relationship milestones.

You likely also have some downloaded scripts living inside of you that give you a felt sense of how a relationship trajectory “should” go—the length of time you should be dating someone before you cross certain thresholds (becoming exclusive, moving in together, getting married), or the age you should be when you reach these milestones.

Let’s look at one big milestone: getting married. 

Age of entry into marriage varies widely when we look globally. According to, in Chad, Niger, Mozambique, Nepal, and Bangladesh, the average age of entry into marriage is 19. In Sweden, the average age of entry into marriage for men is 36 and for women is 33. In Chile, Iceland, Spain, and Denmark, the average age of entry into marriage is 33 or 34. There is certainly parental influence on when the next generation thinks they should marry. A 2020 study from Nepal demonstrated that parents and children’s expectations of when they should marry influence the age at which they actually enter into marriage. If a young person’s parents value older marriage, the child is much less likely to enter into marriage at a younger age. That is to say, parents’ attitudes about the timing of marriage influenced their child’s actual marriage behavior. 

If you are not already married, but are someone who thinks they may want to get married, you likely have a timeline of some kind inside of your head. My college students will say things like, “I don’t want to get married before 30,” and I respond, ‘You realize that you just tempted the universe to send you an amazing partner who is gonna want to put a ring on it!” As they say, if you want to make G-d laugh, tell her your plans. When people say things like, “married by this age, kids by this age,” what they are saying is something about their priorities, their communities of membership, and their identity. And at the same time, it’s an odd thing to say, because unlike running a marathon or making partner at your firm, milestones like marriage and (to some extent) parenthood are relational by nature. You can only be in charge of half of the equation.

Notice whether you have any resistance coming up inside of you about this notion that your definition of what is good/right/normal for you and your partner might be shaped by how you’ve been socialized. I think sometimes we can get a bit cranky about this idea. We want to believe that our intimate relationship unfolds along its own unique timeline, a timeline based on how we feel about each other, a timeline created within this little world of two. It can feel troubling to know that we are, in part, influenced by what we see around us. It confronts both a belief in free will and a romanticized idea that romantic relationships are propelled by love alone. So I really appreciate you hanging in there with me!

Relational Self-Awareness Questions:

1. What kind of timelines do you have in your head?

2. Which of your cultural identities (country of origin, gender, ethnicity, religion, race, etc) most powerfully informs your timelines? Why? How? 

3. In what ways has your family of origin shaped your timeline?

4. In what ways have your friends shaped your timeline?

5. How has the media shaped your timeline?

You can also use these five questions to guide a conversation with your partner. My hunch is that you are going to find out that your partner has internalized a different social clock than you have. My hope is that unearthing this difference will create curiosity inside both of you rather than judgment. 

The bottom line here is that socialization is neither right nor wrong. It just is! The question becomes, “How can our relationship honor and accommodate our different social clocks?”

Present vs. Future Mindset

The second aspect of socialization or cultural context that I want to address is present versus future mindset. In a 2008 article in the American Psychological Association, Stanford professor emeritus Philip Zimbardo says, “every decision we make is governed by our internal time perspective, a sort of unconscious cognitive response style that’s shaped by such factors as family, economics, geography, education and culture.”  Each of us needs a healthy balance of past, present and future orientations. He argues that living exclusively in one time “zone” can be risky for our health, our relationships and our finances.

People who are present-oriented tend to be energetic, friendly, creative, and spontaneous. However, research conducted by Zimbardo in 1997 found that being present-oriented is also linked to gambling, risky sex, binge drinking and driving under the influence. People who are future-oriented tend to be successful, save money, and make healthy choices. Zimbardo studied women in Rome who had regular breast cancer screenings and found that a majority of those women were future-oriented. However, people who are future-oriented are at risk of isolating themselves socially and forgoing relationships, sex, and sleep for work. Each of us has an internal time perspective that we have internalized from the culture around us.

In some cultural contexts, there’s a heavy focus on living for today, taking each day as it comes, and not looking too far ahead. In other cultural contexts, there’s a heavy focus on looking ahead, creating goals, and preparing for the future.

Check in with yourself and your partner. To what degree is this Pace Discrepancy reflective of the fact that the two of you have internalized pretty different internal time perspectives? If this feels like a eureka moment, and you realize that it’s not just that your partner won’t talk about a future with you, they just don’t really talk about or plan for the future at all, you’ll have to figure out where you go from here. 

We partner across all kinds of differences. There can be benefits in a relationship between a present-oriented partner and a future-oriented partner. The present-oriented partner makes sure the future-oriented partner stops and smells the roses, and the future-oriented partner makes sure the present-oriented partner contributes to their 401K! The work here becomes the work of acceptance and remembering that a difference brings both challenges and opportunities. However, if the present-oriented partner insists on viewing the future-oriented partner as a stick-in-the-mud, contempt is going to creep in and erode connection. Or if the future-oriented partner feels chronically afraid that the risks of living with a present-oriented partner are too great, they will struggle to exhale and feel safe in this relationship.

The bottom line here is that a Pace Discrepancy may reflect, to some degree at least, a cultural difference between the two of you that has created a difference in orientation to time and planning.


The third aspect of socialization that we need to look at is gender role socialization. Although some of us live beyond a gender binary today, the vast majority of us were socialized as a boy or a girl. This means that the world has been projecting personality traits, preferences, talents, and abilities onto us based on our genitals since our first breath…or before our first breath if our caregivers threw a gender reveal party, which is really a sex-assigned-at-birth party because gender is a social construct, but I digress. This also means that the world has been creating systems of access and restriction, power and marginalization, based on our genitals. This is clearly a huge topic, but for our purposes today, what I want to say is that gender role socialization and systems of sexism impact our intimate lives and impact how we behave with our partners. Let’s look at two stereotypes. 

Stereotype #1 is that women pressure men into commitment. Longtime followers of my work may remember an Instagram post I did in the summer of 2021. I posted a photo of a cake topper I saw at Party City that was a bride dragging her groom presumably down the aisle. There’s a stereotype in the heterosexual community that women trap men in marriages. This is a grossly unhelpful characterization, one that apparently some people find funny. But if we hold open the idea that it is a stereotype based on a kernel of truth, let’s look at why there may be times when a woman might have exerted influence over her male partner regarding getting married. It was not until 1988 that federal law in the US ensured that women no longer needed a man to cosign on a business loan. 1988! When you create macro systems in which women need men to participate fully in public life, you’re going to see some less-than-ideal behaviors in private life! We all need and deserve agency.⁣ 

Stereotype #2 is that men fear and dread intimacy. This is also a grossly unhelpful characterization, but to the extent that some men display relationally-avoidant behaviors, let’s widen the lens here too! By the time they are three years old, we touch our boys less than our girls and we talk to them less, creating the conditions whereby their internal emotional worlds feel confusing/overwhelming. If a man cannot contain and work with his own messy interior, how the hell can he sit with the messy interior of another? That’s the heartbeat of intimacy, so, yeah, some fear and dread make sense!⁣ 

When a couple is experiencing a Pace Discrepancy, I want them to be curious about how gender role socialization may fuel a desire to accelerate the commitment timeline or a need to slow it down. Not as an excuse, but as a context. The bottom line here is that feminism, particularly intersectional feminism, is about liberating all of us so that we can love from a place of wholeness and freedom, not need and desperation.

Part II: Interpersonal Dynamics

I talked you through the big context that puts couples at risk for a Pace Discrepancy and that shapes how couples experience that Pace Discrepancy. Now let’s tighten our lens and look at the interpersonal dynamics that arise in the space between partners when one is ready to talk about the future and the other is hesitant or reluctant.  

We are going to put a big juicy relational frame around these kinds of problems so that we can use our tools of Relational Self-Awareness to understand how a Pace Discrepancy can take on a life of its own—how partners may unwittingly and unintentionally end up confirming the their worst case scenarios. Meaning that the more the Slower-Paced Partner avoids conversations about commitment and the future, the more the Faster-Paced Partner pursues those conversations. And the more the Faster-Paced Partner pursues those conversations, the more the Slower-Paced Partner avoids them. 

This dance of pursue-and-distance keeps each of them from understanding whatever tender/vulnerable/valuable complexity may be hiding out behind the behavior. Without understanding that tender complexity, each partner is left to assume, to project, to import their own meaning. 

  • Worst case scenario: The Slower-Paced Partner perceives the Faster-Paced Partner as controlling and needy.
  • Worst case scenario: The Faster-Paced Partner perceives the Slower-Paced Partner as unreliable and commitment-phobic.

Because we’re focusing on this relational framework, you aren’t going to hear me talk about someone being commitment-phobic, or gamophobic, which is the technical term, meaning someone who has a phobia of long-term commitment or marriage.

Surely, in some cases that a person is genuinely incapable of, or uninterested in, making a commitment. However, I suspect if you have gotten this far into this episode, it’s because you are someone who is curious about but struggling with talking about the future with a partner or because your partner is struggling to talk with you about building a future together.  Further, calling someone commitment phobic also does not tell me much about that person. The label doesn’t have much explanatory power, and it does not give us a lot of maneuverability. So we stuck them with a label. Now what? And it divides us up into two buckets—those who fear commitment and those who embrace commitment, and I work hard to avoid binaries. I’d rather explore dynamics.

Instead of labeling your partner (or yourself) as commitment-phobic, I’d rather a couple get curious about what is blocking the Slower-Paced Partner’s willingness or excitement about moving forward with your relationship and what is driving the Faster-Paced Partner’s eagerness to progress. When we move beyond labels and assumptions, we are able to learn something new about each other and we open up new avenues for how we might move forward. 

Part III: Intrapsychic Dynamics 

When a couple is struggling with a Pace Discrepancy, each partner is struggling. It’s tough being the Faster-Paced Partner and it’s no walk in the park to be the Slower-Paced Partner either. The Faster-Paced Partner may feel deeply misunderstood. They may want to yell, “It’s not fair! I am not racing to the altar or trying to move in together next week. I just want to talk about where this is going! I feel like you’re making me seem so unreasonable! Please listen to me, not your fears about me.” The Slower-Paced Partner may feel unappreciated. They may want to yell, “I’m going as fast as I can. I’ve spent my life in the kiddie pool, and because I like you so much, I am taking the chance to swim in the deep end. But it’s not easy, and it feels like nothing is enough for you. Please remember that I am trying.”

We know a dynamic has gotten off track when people feel unseen, unappreciated, and misunderstood. The goal is to help each of you identify and hopefully express what is going on inside of you. I am going to talk through some questions and reflections for each of you:

Faster-Paced Partner

What is it you are wanting/needing from a conversation about the future?

If it is that imagination and intimacy are tied for you, how else might you and your partner play with your imaginations together? If you feel you need clarification that your partner is committed to you, in what other ways do you feel that or might you be able to feel that (at least right now while your partner is reluctant to talk about the future)?

What are the specific fears that come up for you when your partner avoids a conversation about the future?

Perhaps you have been taken advantage of before and you’re understandably afraid it will happen again. This is really legitimate for your partner to understand and to empathize with, even if it is not an experience they have had before. Perhaps you are worried that you’re being foolish or not seeing the writing on the wall. It may be helpful to remember that a Pace Discrepancy is a chapter, not a story. This is where the two of you are right now. If there is a lot that feels good and rewarding about this relationship, can you be patient and curious as you muddle through this? Can you feel proud of your patience, rather than ashamed of it? It’s so hard to hold steady when you don’t know the outcome, but remind yourself that you’re not gonna languish here forever. The goal is clarity and momentum in one direction or another. 

Slower-Paced Partner

What is keeping you from being available for a conversation about the future?

I often find, especially when the Slower-Paced Partner is a man, that his head is chock full of stories about what his partner, especially if his partner is a woman, wants and needs from him. Stories that are not true or accurate representations of what lives inside her head and her heart, but rather stories that represent his fear of coming up short, or not measuring up, of being a disappointment. The work here is to listen to the partner who is standing in front of you versus the assumptions that rattle around inside of you. Perhaps what keeps you from being available for a conversation about the future is that you don’t feel on track with your own personal or professional goals, and there’s some shame there. Perhaps it feels hard to imagine building toward a future with a partner when you are experiencing anxiety and self-doubt about your own future. What might it be like to share some version of that with your partner as a way of helping your partner know that you are BOTH excited about the relationship the two of you are building AND experiencing some shame about the status of your own life right now.

What do you want your partner to be able to remember about you?

It is often the case that the Slower-Paced Partner feels like they have been sort of flattened out, like their partner has stuck a commitment-phobic label on their head and seen it as the end of the story. That can feel terrible…and it might be leading you to retreat even further or become more defensive. So, think about what is getting left out. Perhaps you want your partner to remember how far you have come, not as an excuse but as a context. Can you share with your partner how much your mindset or behavior has changed or is changing? Perhaps you want your partner to remember how invested you really are. If that lands for you, think about how you could demonstrate your investment in behavior rather than just in words.


We’ve discussed how a Pace Discrepancy is a relational dynamic, rather than binary of one person being more or less ready for something. I’ve given you some helpful information about the ways Pace Discrepancies can develop over time and the contexts for where they come from. I’ve also provided some Relational Self-Awareness questions to reflect on to help you identify and express what is happening inside you. In Part II of this article, I’ll give you some helpful tips on what to do about a Pace Discrepancy. So stay tuned! 

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