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What We Should Know By Our Thirties

manToday’s post is inspired by the second movie in the Richard Linklater trio, “Before Sunset.”  In the movie, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s characters meet again, ten years after their one magical night together.

They are in their early thirties, older and perhaps wiser; he’s married with a child.  But their night together has imprinted on their consciousness, and perhaps made real life seem inferior to magic.

It makes me think about that transition from young adulthood with its idealism (tinged with cynicism though it may be) to full adulthood, with all its compromises and concessions.  Developmentally, what are the early thirties?

The early thirties can be a time of disillusionment for a lot of people.  We’re not young, we’re not old, but we’re most acutely aware of the “not young” part.  It feels weird to be a sir or a ma’am; we might have spouses and mortgages and kids.

But even if we’re single, we still feel the difference from our twenties.  We might do the same things (stay up too late, drink too heavily), but we feel it more the next day.  I hear a comedian say that when you’re young, you never “sleep wrong”; you bounce back from things easily, you’re Teflon with youth.

In the early thirties, the expectations shift.  We might not own a house, but we’re supposed to be on our way to stability.  We might not have a spouse, but people wonder when we’ll meet the right one and “settle down.”

The twenties are about exploration; by the early thirties, we’re supposed to have narrowed the field.  In the twenties, we’re learning who we are; by the early thirties, we should know.

That makes it something of a high pressure time.  We have to think in terms of success and failure rather than just trying.

In terms of relationships, we make decisions that are more practical perhaps.  We might think less about finding a great love and more about compatibility.  Who can we live with companionably, with whom can we raise a child without a lot of friction.  Because with great passion often comes unsettling conflict, and our tolerance for that in our early thirties may be depleted.

We might have had great loves flare and then flame out.  We might be gun-shy about passion.  The criteria for a love that lasts changes through experience.

And that’s okay.  Growing up is about synthesizing information from our experiences, refining our criteria, maybe searching for contentment rather than happiness.  The thirties are when many of us first feel like full grown-ups.

Though it’s also okay to have mixed feelings about that.

Young man image available from Shutterstock.

What We Should Know By Our Thirties

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). What We Should Know By Our Thirties. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 14, 2019, from


Last updated: 3 Jul 2013
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