The concept of being “ready for a relationship” is now so trite that this may be hard to fathom, but it doesn’t seem to have been around that long. In the corpus of books cataloged and searched by Google Ngram, the phrase doesn’t appear at all until the 1950s, and from then it’s just a blip until the 1980s, when it really takes off.
According to Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College, this is likely because of a reversal in how people think about marriage and commitment that occurred over the course of those decades. “The timing of the word is just about perfectly aligned with a sea change in people’s conceptions of marriage,” she wrote to me in an email. “It used to be that you got married IN ORDER to grow up, settle down, start saving up for a future home, move away from your teenage preoccupation with [yourself] and learn how to handle a relationship.” In other words: You didn’t need to have your life figured out to be ready for a relationship. A relationship is what made you ready for adult life.
Then, in the 1960s and ’70s, more women started arguing for—and attaining—greater financial freedom. As a result of this, and of the gay-rights movement, one societally acceptable path to family life branched into many. Now many see marriage as a capstone, a cherry to be placed on top of the sundae of all the other ways you have your life together. There’s room to ask yourself what you want, and whether you’re “ready” for it. This has led to a new way of thinking about committed romance: as something that requires certain prerequisites.