Relationship Milestones Are Arbitrary, So Why Do We Care So Much?
My first anniversary celebration was a total bust. I had put a lot of pressure on the arbitrary relationship milestone to be perfect, but here I was: caught in a hail storm without an umbrella, stranded 45 minutes outside Niagara Falls, New York, holding nothing but a container of off-brand blended cheese and a soggy gift from my optimistic partner. The weekend wasn't supposed to go down like this, but a series of unfortunate events led me here. I was more head over heels in mud than in love.
For this particular anniversary, my partner and I had planned a trip to Niagara Falls, determined to live out all of our wildest "Jim and Pam's wedding" fantasies (I am 100% serious). I had strategized every single aspect of our itinerary to a T, leaving no room for unwanted surprises: We'd stay at a Victorian-era Airbnb a short walk away from the Falls. Our day would be spent riding the infamous Maid of the Mist, and our night would conclude at dinner with a view of the city. We'd visit a nearby vineyard for a wine-tasting the next day before boarding our flight back to New York City. It was a storybook romance, one I had literally written myself.
But like all fairytales, ours was met with extreme adversity. Our quaint getaway abode was filled with creepy porcelain dolls, and a giant stuffed giraffe in a baby carriage. As it turned out, Maid of the Mist was closed for the season due to weather conditions, so we had to cross over to Canada and wait in line to board its version of the attraction, the Hornblower. Our candle-lit dinner with a view was blocked by construction, and our wine-tasting was rained out, so we retreated indoors to sample a selection of exclusively blended cheese dip instead of actual cheese. The entire time, I tried to maintain that the weekend was flawless by remaining positive and cheerful. But on our way to the airport, I finally broke down in front of my partner.
"This weekend was a disaster," I wailed, wiping the snot from my nose with my sleeve, the official sign of having zero f*cks left to give. "Everything is ruined!"
But my partner assured me that he didn't care about the relationship milestone — all that truly mattered to him was the state of our actual relationship. And he was right: I was so nervous the entire time that I hadn't taken a step back to realize how each hurdle brought us closer together, working as a team. I felt comforted by his confidence in our bond, but at the same time, was still annoyed with the universe. Why did I care so much about something so arbitrary? By putting so much pressure on myself, I had given an irrational amount of power to the weekend.
"If a [certain] milestone is important to you, it signifies [that you care] about something deeper," Dr. Annie Hsueh, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Southern California specializing in couples therapy, tells Elite Daily. "People seek to define things in their lives — like relationships that are tricky to navigate — and a milestone can be a very tangible way of [doing so]. A milestone gives them a sense of control and that things are indeed headed in the right direction." Dr. Hsueh goes on to explain that placing an irrational importance on an anniversary, for example, may mean that the individual wants to feel like they've “made it,” or that the relationship is going down the “right” path.
"If an individual always stresses a specific milestone, I would be really curious about what the significance of that milestone holds for them," Dr. Hsueh adds. "Perhaps there were past experiences that have shaped the person’s views on that particular milestone or what that milestone symbolizes."
I can relate to Dr. Hsueh's analysis. I have always been obsessed with anniversaries of everything and anything — birthdays, friendships, the start of a new job. Celebrating is second nature to me, mostly because I struggle with crippling anxiety that can prevent me from living in the moment. Whenever I'm experiencing happiness in real-time, my brain goes into overdrive, immediately informing me how fleeting this moment could be.
I had never celebrated a one-year anniversary before because I had never been in a serious relationship that lasted long enough to do so. So, I channeled a fear of being abandoned into celebrating the present instead of freaking out about the future. I was terrified that, like my previous relationships, it could all be over at the blink of an eye, which led me to place an insurmountable load of pressure on my first anniversary. I was determined to make its celebration as special as possible. That way, the memories would last forever, even if my relationship didn't.
Jessie,* 24, agrees that past experiences with certain milestones can dictate the way we see those landmarks play out in the present. "My first kiss was so bad," she tells me. "It was very awkward, dry, and prickly. And after, the guy I kissed never spoke to me again. It's been over 10 years, but I still get nervous whenever I'm about to kiss someone for the first time. Though I know it's not actually a big deal, and I'm just making it one."
Major milestones, like first kisses and first anniversaries, aren't the only events to cause stress. Our own unique past experiences can drudge up anxiety that affects our ability to start new relationships with a clean slate.
"My ex never invited me to go with them to work events," Amy, 25, says. "I guess I didn't realize how much it hurt my feelings at the time. But now, whenever a date wants to bring me to a work function, I think it's this huge deal and lose my sh*t."
How can Jessie, Amy, and I work toward not allowing our past experience to place unnecessary pressure on our new relationships? According to Dr. Hsueh, the key lies in being patient with yourself and communicating with your date or SO. "Allow [yourself] to feel what you're feeling, stress and all," she says. "And communicate your expectations concerning what’s important to you, which can help lessen the pressure of a milestone going wrong. It’s important to get on the same page as your partner."
So, the next time Jessie is on a great first date, acknowledging her anxiety around first kisses can help alleviate some of the pressure. And whenever Amy gets to attend a work event with her SO, allowing herself the space to embrace her excitement around the ritual can eventually lead to normalizing the practice.
I just celebrated my third anniversary with my partner, and although it was far less disastrous than the first, I still caught myself stressing the small details — like a cloudy weather forecast, or a too brightly lit dining room. But from this day forward, I vow to take Dr. Hsueh's advice more seriously and afford myself the space to acknowledge this anxiety, both internally and with my partner. I hope by giving my fixation with this particular milestone a name and a face, I'll be able to absolve it of its power. Because I know that sometimes, in order to take in the present, you have to be willing to let go of the past.
*Names have been changed.
Dr. Annie Hsueh, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Southern California specializing in couples therapy.