When many of us think about past relationships, we often do so in terms of emotional baggage, broken hearts, and wasted efforts. You blame the ex that never quite managed to get their shit together and yourself for putting up with it for so long.
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We hate ourselves for the promising relationships that went down the drain, particularly the ones you gave up on too soon because you were too myopic. Everyone has stories about a past relationship, whether it was an epic romance or an absolute disaster.
However, what we don’t dwell enough on are the positive aspects of each one – the lessons. There’s always something to learn no matter how great or terrible the relationship, although the most profound ones tend to come from those that rock us the most.
On that note, here are some pretty handy lessons I learned in my past relationships, from best to worst and the ones in between.
I started out dating people who were generally unavailable, and as such, I had a warped perspective on the need for space in a relationship. I hardly got to see enough of my partner, so every chance to meet up always felt fresh and exciting. Gotta admit I used to think the longstanding advice about giving your partner space only applied if you didn’t love them enough.
However, in my current relationship (which also happens to be the longest I’ve been in actually), I got to see what clashing schedules and commitment issues had shielded me from. Between both of us being full-time remote workers, living less than 30 mins apart, and the pandemic, let’s just say my partner and I see a lot of each other.
The transition was a little overwhelming at first, but in the process, I realized how important it was to leave some room to miss each other. I never had to pace myself with my exes but I also found I romanticized doting men a little too much. Now, having had a taste of both worlds has helped me attain a much better love-life balance, which is something many people struggle with.
I remember my very first relationship if you can count high school puppy love as one. We liked each other, people liked us together, all was well in the world. Then issues started coming up like pet peeves and someone wanting more than the other was ready to give. But we never discussed them because we never fought.
In retrospect, it all feels so silly now because we could have probably managed without conflict with a couple of open conversations. But we didn’t, because we were naïve enough to let the fear of offending the other person. It’s like daring to let the other person see they aren’t perfect, would ruin things.
As you can imagine, the agitations piled up, until we eventually went our separate ways at the time feeling undervalued and resentful. Never again though, lesson learned.
If you still can’t categorically say you know all there’s to know about love, you’re in good company. I’m not sure anyone does, but I’m certain that I do not. What I can tell you though, is what love isn’t. It’s not some magic eraser or makeover app that makes the past okay. You still have to live with the person you choose to love, not the idea you fall for.
So, I learned not to get into a relationship hoping it’ll fix what I don’t like in a partner, and to set boundaries early for what I absolutely cannot accept. My last relationship particularly taught me (someone’s love for) you can only encourage them to grow or do better, not force it.
I don’t know what it is about people, especially young ones, and rushing relationships. Hype aside, love is actually not overrated when it’s right, and from the early stages to the final (whatever that is), it’s worth relishing. This future we are always so anxious to secure is eternal in the sense that we never stop worrying about it.
I look back at those days and even though I’m learning not to regret things I once wanted, I wish I could have more fun. Being so worried about having future-worthy relationships didn’t leave much space to be present at the moment. As a result, there was less spontaneity, unnecessary sacrifices, and generally less room for such relationships to flourish naturally.
More lessons I learned from past relationships? Well, let’s see; I know now that I am the core catch, the only person in any relationship I’ll ever be solely responsible for. They’ve taught me to stop mistreating myself on account of feelings, and have ultimately changed my view on self-love/worth for the better.
I’ve learned that I don’t have to shrink myself to accommodate anyone’s inadequacies and that whatever requires you to feel less isn’t love. Relationships (bad and good), have made me realize that investing in my own growth, in whatever aspect, is not selfish.
A lot of behaviors feel or look like love in their early stages but actually aren’t. I mean as flattering as it can be for someone you love to be in constant need of you, there’s just too much dependence there to make for a healthy relationship. As someone who tends to get hooked easily, this was a particularly hard lesson for me.
My obsession with feeling needed kept drawing me to people I thought I could fix. And until I learned to break that toxic cycle, I couldn’t really focus on working on the underlying cause. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m moving forward steadily enough to spot and promptly address the signs of codependency in new relationships.
I already touched on what pet peeves and not setting early boundaries can do to a relationship. However, when we talk about the small things between partners, it’s not just the negative or even necessarily the positive, just stuff. When you're insanely attracted to someone, you’ll take whatever you can get in the way of compatibility.
“Can’t make small talk? Who cares, she’s hot!” “Poor sense of humor, I’m funny enough for both of us, it won’t matter.” Unfortunately, more often than not, it turns out that it does. It’s these little things that accumulate to overall happiness in a relationship, the romantic gestures and whatnot, no matter how grand, are just excitements. No more than icing on the cake.
Another lesson I’m grateful to have learned in my experience so far with relationships is the need to be more expressive with my partner and vice-versa. Not just of my emotions, but also my needs, wants, intentions, and what have you.
A better attitude to communication could have saved my first relationship, and probably made certain subsequent ones less toxic. It seemed too good to be true to think all you basically have to do to keep the peace is talk things out, see from your partner’s perspective and watch your tone.
Until I met someone who would eventually open me up to the idea and I got to witness firsthand all the ways my poor communication skills had been holding me back. I’m talking better sex, less meaningless fights, increased sense of trust, stability, and, I dare say, happiness.
I say love notes because who doesn’t like to get one of those? But then, this point is reiterating what I mentioned earlier regarding spontaneity. Infusing some randomness with your partner’s specific love language might just be the relationship holy grail we’ve all been looking for.
Don’t get me wrong, some people don’t make pleasing them easy. But I realize a lot more people just want someone to shower them with what they like without them asking. From there, I learned not to generalize how I show love.
For instance, two different individuals can appreciate surprise gifts. But if one of them has affirming words as their primary love language, unwrapping to find an unexpected love letter may pack more punch for them than a gifting guy. It’s the way it is, a little more attentiveness can make anyone boyfriend or girlfriend of the year.
If I grew an inch every time I heard a variation of “men need respect in a relationship and women need to feel loved”, I’d probably be taller than you. The idea used to make sense to me, even though I found it somewhat inflexible but over time, it’s become one of the lessons I had to unlearn.
Not internalizing the fact that I didn’t somehow deserve less respect in a relationship just because I was female made me put up with a lot of nonsense, ngl. Likewise, the notion of wanting love being exclusive to women didn’t help matters with my inexpressiveness with male partners.
But looking back, thanks to my experience dating both genders and some self-reflection, I know now that everyone needs these things, and that’s been helpful since.
A failed relationship taught me love grows in sharing the good, bad, and the weird, not just one or the other. I was so busy perfecting and showing only my glamorous sides and all I got in return was generic hype. Since people tend to mirror your vibes, they didn’t quite see me as someone they could be unguarded around.
As such, I didn’t really get to experience intimacy on such a profound level. Not until I learned that vulnerability wasn’t my enemy, people who exploit it for their own advantage are. Being vulnerable with someone with no motive other than to know and accept you wholly though scary, is actually quite invigorating. But the catch remains you gotta try to find out.
Growing up, we all had an “ideal” type to describe at slumber parties. Tall, dark, and handsome, specific personality traits, being financially stable was a plus, and even more points if he worked in certain professions – that was mine in a man.
And so I would fumble a potential new relationship just because he didn’t meet one or two items on my checklist. I always found some sort of noble excuse of course. But going out with girls changed my perspective on all of that.
Maybe because I’m mostly straight, but there was no pressure on the women to meet any criteria other than we clicked, and I found I had more fun with them. So I figured qualifying potential by how the person and my relationship with them make me feel rather than meeting some predetermined conditions was the way to go. Haven’t looked back ever since.
Another important lesson I would say relationships have taught me so far is the importance of being friends with your lover. I used to think what could possibly transcend the intense feeling that is the early stage of a chemistry-driven affair?
The feeling where a single whiff of someone’s scent sends your body and mind into overdrive. That kind of intense love where you’re so sure you’d do anything they ask just to be with them. Where some people would argue whether that is true love or just infatuation, my own is not to rely on such feelings alone.
I find I have more freedom to be myself in a relationship based on friendship than one solely powered by emotions. Experts also say being friends with your partner equates to better outcomes in a relationship, from the bedroom to your overall happiness.
People are so quick to point to compromise as one of the great hacks of successful relationships. As long as you’re willing to bend and meet your partner halfway, you should go wrong. Technically, this isn’t bad advice, because you can’t always be right, and your s/o won’t always be wrong.
But then, even good advice should be taken with a pinch of salt because while some compromise is required, too much of it is where passion goes to die. With excess understanding comes a tendency to let go, which is how you end up losing touch with the stuff you used to look forward to or get excited about.
Its role is to improve compatibility, but not so much that it becomes an excuse to lose your zeal.
Another upgrade I’ve had since childhood is the mindset shift concerning romance and relationships. I really believed once you found your soul mate everything just has a way of falling into place, and it would require zero work, except maybe be in the sack.
Of course, reality had something different in stock, and I lowkey blamed failed relationships due to my lack of effort on them not being the one. In time, I would learn that understanding, patience, maturity, and the occasional changing it for each other matter universally in a relationship, irrespective of how epically the romance began.
This one I only recently learned. While it’s always recommended to temper expectations to manage disappointments, and not to close yourself off blindly to anything outside the familiar, it’s also okay to hold on to your standards.
In the end, a relationship is only as good as you feel in it. I’ve tasted settling, and I can assure you it doesn’t inspire much in the way of happiness. On the contrary, it makes you feel less the longer you’re forced to compromise your values and desires. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy.
Therefore, I’ve taken the lesson to discern between being open-minded enough to dip my toe in an unfamiliar pool, and negotiating must-haves out of desperation or pressure.
On the flip side, I have also learned that entering a relationship shouldn’t be where you stop doing things on your terms. It is still as imperative as ever to hold on to your individuality, even if in a healthy relationship with no immediate threat of losing yourself.
I know now that a person’s behavior can rub off on you, but you don’t have to become them to prove you love them. It may not seem so threatening at first, especially if they generally make you a better person, but even positive results can feel stifling when it’s not your idea.
When it comes to relationship goals, everyone has their ideal target. Generally speaking though, many of us mistake longevity for success in romantic relationships, including myself, for the longest time. We are quick to ask grandmas and grandpas who have been married forever for their secrets to romance.
While there’ll always be some wisdom to gain from what the elders have to say, being with someone the longest shouldn’t be all the criteria they take to qualify. I learned to measure relationship success in terms of the quality of time spent together, and whether or not it serves the purpose you want out of it.
If you’ve heard stories of people who remained for decades in unsatisfying relationships, you’ll probably agree with me it’s not by the number of anniversaries.
I have been privileged to mostly get with people who are highly sought after in their world. If I’m being totally honest, I let some of these relationships go on longer than they should have because I was afraid of trading down. I couldn’t imagine dealing with someone who couldn’t match up with the energy I was used to, so I stayed with the devil I knew.
More truth, it’s never clear-cut knowing whether you’ll truly get someone who outdoes your best or when. This is where a healthy sense of self-worth is important because it’s your best chance of overcoming your anxiety, and sticking it out until you find you’re ‘better’.
Call me vain but dating has also helped me realize that I am 100% that bitch! That I deserve to be loved as I am, not as I may sometimes become. That there are people out there whose ultimate find would be me, in all of my imperfection, as opposed to settling for being tolerated.
I learned to get comfortable with having someone love and accept me without first having to earn it. Nevertheless, I never stop working at the things I consider hard to love about myself, which is perhaps the greatest lesson I took from these positive experiences.
Finally, all my previous relationships have collectively taught me that it's more than okay to let go if it’s your best chance at happiness. That, even though breaking up always feels like the end of an era, it can also herald something better.
I am who I am today because I’ve learned to process my failures as teachable moments and eventually pick myself up. It doesn’t mean having to break up doesn’t hurt, it does. But having held on to one too many affairs long after they’d expired, let’s just say I’m more open to throwing in the towel when staying poses more harm than leaving.
My last relationship taught me to remember to live my own life. That no one should ever be a higher priority to me than myself. I learned that I can be with someone without essentially reducing or having to inflate them to fit. But also, that I’ll only keep repeating the same mistakes in relationships until I work on what needs improving.
Failed relationships remind me that love is no excuse to not set healthy boundaries. My last one specifically opened my eyes to all the ground I’m yet to cover in terms of personal development. But I also got to learn that moving forward from something good so better things could come my way wasn’t necessarily selfish.
Everyone has what they deem important in a relationship that is subjective to them. Generally speaking, however, your chances of running a healthy ship improve with the following five things communication, boundaries, acceptance/support, trust, and respect.
By taking as long as you need to mourn the love you lost, taking lessons in the failed relationship, and improving yourself wherever you feel a need. Then get out of your head, reevaluate your wants and needs, and focus on glowing up.
Failing at relationships may not necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong, it could just mean you haven’t found your person yet. But it could also be that you’re not doing enough in terms of your communication and other interpersonal skills. It’s not enough to just fall in love, it takes work too, to actually succeed at romance.
As far as I am concerned, the first sign of a good future relationship is mutual respect. More so, it’s not every love you fall into that’s worth exploring or even the real thing. But the long and short of it, as far as I'm concerned, remains to never stop seeking sustainable happiness and to do your darnedest to hold on to it when you find it.
Now, your turn. Let me know what the hardest lesson you have learned is. Also, feel free to share tips of your own in the comments if this article was of interest to you and feel free to share it.