08/13/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

4 Important Questions for the Future of Your Long-Term Relationship

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(This post originally appeared on This Is Quarterlife.)

A generation ago, the average age of first marriage for women was 22 years old; today, it's in the neighborhood of 26.

I am 26.

One look at my Facebook newsfeed will verify that I am right in the thick of the marriage swell. And watching a great many of the people I know tie the knot, I started to feel a kind of creeping competitive life-stage panic: How are my boyfriend and I, with only about $3,000 between us, living with three other people we're not related to in a walk-up in Harlem... and all these other people have their shit together enough to get married?! What am I doing with my life?! (Head explodes.)

For a lot of people -- obviously, myself included -- it's important to know whether a long-term relationship is in the marriage pipeline or on the sideline. And both are ok! But what's most important is that no matter the answer to that question, you're where you want to be and it's where your partner wants to be as well.

So we talked, my boyfriend and I. We talked a lot. And we came out of the other side of these murky, meandering conversations not with decisions, but with an understanding of one another's mindset and a synchronicity that we did not have before. Learn from our flailing around and answer these questions for yourself with your long-term partner if you're due for a relationship status check.

1. Can you see yourself getting married... like to me? Maybe this seems obvious, but wasn't to us. My boyfriend assumed that even though he had never said it, I knew that he wanted to get married someday. And I assumed that because he never said it, he didn't want to get married someday. We were both wrong. In any case, asking this question to your partner straight up might yield answers that surprise you and start a good conversation... or you might realize that you're not walking down the same path after all.

2. What do you want and when? A lot of couples don't talk about specifics. But one person's idea of getting married "someday" could mean two years from now and another's could mean 10. Knowing your partner's definition of "someday" might change what you're doing right now. Do you need to save money for a ring? Do you need to start thinking about relocating? Do you need to run out and freeze your eggs like yesterday because apparently no one over the age of 35 will ever naturally get pregnant ever?! Without being too prescriptive and perhaps setting unfair expectations for the future, having a rough timeline orients you both toward the same goals.

3. What's your order of operations? Similar to the above, what else do you want to do before you make it legal? For my boyfriend and I, that means being able to afford our own apartment. Maybe you want to go to grad school or get to a certain stage of your career. Maybe you're long distance and you both have to move to the same city. Maybe you know when you want to have kids or buy your first house so you can backtrack from there. Getting engaged and married aren't the only major decisions you'll make about your relationship, and knowing where in the complete puzzle of your life together those things fit can help you get on the same page.

4. Why aren't we agreeing? Presumably, you're dating a separate and distinct human being from yourself and not perfectly identical Future You who can't be trusted with a time machine. So you will disagree. You might even disagree in some big, important, Grown Up Shit ways. That you have divergent ideas is not problematic in itself, but you should figure out why you don't see eye-to-eye. Are you not getting married next year because you need to save up more money first, or are you not getting married next year because one of you is philosophically opposed to marriage? The answer to that matters much more than the answer to "Are we getting married next year?"

In closing, I offer this caveat on using the questions above: There is not a magic formula that, if solved, will make everything will work out. Things are going to change. You know what they say about the best-laid plans... they don't account for unplanned pregnancies or getting fired or a sudden and complete conversion to Scientology. Answering these questions isn't going to straighten the twisted path to marriage (or not marriage!). But not answering them is like driving that path blind.