The question first came up three months after Dan and I met. He lived outside of London, where he’d been raised. I lived in New York. The distance was acceptable at first, aided by novel-length email messages and webcam communication, but we soon got antsy.

With both of us considering graduate school, it made sense to aim for programs in the same country. But there was no U.S. equivalent to Dan’s fully funded doctoral program, so the decision rested with me. I could reasonably acquire my degree in either country, but I was nagged by a twinge of insecurity. At 26, wasn’t I too young to be taking a romance into account when making a career-related decision?

I wasn’t alone in my concern. As my friends faced their impending 30s, the power struggle between career and romance seemed to be on everyone’s minds.

Part of the dilemma, it seems, comes from our generation’s emphasis on putting ourselves first. “This might be the first generation whose parents told them to think about success first and worry about relationships later,” says Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before.
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Why work typically comes first for singles in their 20s
When a promising new job or graduate school requires a cross-country move, we are encouraged to take advantage — no matter what we are leaving behind. If getting ahead means working 24/7, leaving little time for romance, we shouldn’t fret. We can worry about that in our 30s. Right?

According to Dr. Twenge, this new attitude partly explains why twentysomethings are hooking up more and settling down less, focusing instead on career aspirations. For some young people, this happens by accident. “I never made a deliberate effort to put my career first,” says Florence, 26, of Cleveland, OH. “But that ended up happening. I don’t regret it, but I am definitely conscious of being single now more than ever, since we’re getting to the age group when people typically begin to find their long-term mates.” Plus, our twenties are a time to be new in our fields — and that only lasts so long. As Uyen, a 27-year-old New Yorker, noted: “If you don’t try to solidify your career, you’ll end up in your 30s with no real track record or foundation.”

Can you retrofit romantic opportunities down the road?
With this kind of tunnel vision, it can be hard to share your life with another person. Alexis, 27, of Los Angeles, who’s pursuing a career on the stage, says that while her work helps her meet people, it also makes her relationships more volatile. “Most of my boyfriends have been fellow actors and dancers. But the instability of our careers can sometimes hinder relationships. We’re always hunting for the next job and don’t know when or where it will be. Our 20s are a time of discovery, which means instability is inevitable.”

So what’s a single person under 30 to do? That sense of discovery is the hallmark of the “quarter-life crisis.” We have to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, but this makes it tough to forge lasting partnerships. Adulthood, it seems, doesn’t unfold in a neat series of boxes to check off. We want to believe we can have it all, but can we really?

Uyen, who works in sales strategy, believes we can. “I think a balance between work and romance is possible, but you must be realistic about what balance means,” she says. The bottom line? “Your iPhone can only keep you company for so long.”

Dr. Twenge agrees: “The culture tells you that you have to love yourself before you can love someone else,” she says. “That’s not true. Of course, it’s a good thing to have found your way a little bit in a career before you settle down, but you don’t have to be perfect to go out and date. We learn so much about ourselves through relationships.”

Finding balance is crucial to maintain your sanity
The key is knowing when to adjust your priorities, says Alexandra Robbins, author of Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis: Advice from Twentysomethings Who Have Been There and Survived. “Sometimes you’re going to have to put other things aside to make a deadline at work. And sometimes you’re going to realize that you’re not going to meet anyone unless you carve out time in your schedule to put yourself out there.” Robbins advises young singles that “a healthy balance is one in which you have the ability to swing back and forth between career and romance as needed.”

Easier said than done, right? For me, achieving balance meant applying to those Master’s programs in England. I reasoned that, with the later deadlines that were available for U.S. applications, I still had time to give myself options closer to home. But in the end, I didn’t take those options. In London, I can have my education and my relationship. That’s the best for me. And like any good twentysomething, I’m putting myself first.

Kate McGovern’s writing has appeared in the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column and the Random House anthology, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers.