9 Things I’ve Learned About Relationships In My 20s
When I entered my 20s, I was dying to experience a serious relationship. I met my first boyfriend that year, and it was the epitome of a first love. He posted Xs and Os and hearts on my Facebook wall and got me roses for Valentine’s Day. We had a day-long breakup followed by a tearful reunion. Then, after nine months, we had an actual breakup, and I thought my life was over. But clearly, it wasn’t, because I was dating someone else within two months.
Those first two relationships were not exactly what I would call healthy. My first boyfriend had some pretty significant psychological challenges he had to work through, which were way more than I could handle. His habit of breaking up with me then getting back together left me constantly scared he’d do it again. And he said some things that were downright hurtful.
My second one started off a little better, but it evolved into its own form of toxic relationship. My partner would put his own needs before mine, gaslight me, and take very little interest in my life. But the thing that really did us in was his borrowing habits. He’d constantly ask me for money and guilt me if I tried to say “no.” I started to feel like a bad person. But part of me knew I didn’t deserve to feel that way, so I ended it.
Both those people probably have versions of those stories that make me sound more at fault. I’m sure I wasn’t an A+ partner either. But I’m learning. At age 27, I’ve been in my first healthy relationship for a year and a half. And let me tell you, I had no idea a relationship could be this drama-free. It has some unhealthy aspects, but overall, it improves my well-being rather than compromises it. Here are some things I’ve learned over the course of this journey.
1. If You Want A Happy Relationship, Start One When You’re Already Happy
I began my first few relationships desperate for a partner. I hoped they'd provide the happiness my life was missing. After my second relationship ended and I struck out on my own without much luck in the dating department, I finally asked myself what else would make me happy. I had to admit that I wanted a career change. Then, even in the midst of that career change, I realized there was something else I really wanted: to be a digital nomad and travel the world.
I’m so glad I had that time single, because it motivated me to lay a foundation for happiness that was independent of anyone else. Only then could I find happiness with someone else. My partner doesn’t need to do much to make me happy because I already am. And because I don’t need much from him, he rarely disappoints me.
2. A Temporary Relationship Can Still Be Worthwhile
Experts are split on the question of whether a relationship that will one day end is worth your time. I used to think not. I wanted to get married one day, and anything that was not furthering the goal of finding my spouse felt like a waste of time.
Now, I’m not so attached to that outcome. I don’t know if I want a life partner; I just want to be with whoever’s right for me at each life stage. I frankly have no idea if my partner and I will still be together a month or a year down the line. That’s OK. I think of it this way: You wouldn’t avoid getting pets just because they'll probably die before you. Things that end can be worthwhile while they last.
3. You Need To Talk About Things
Relationships would be so much easier if you could just avoid talking about every difficult issue. But they’d also be less fulfilling, because you wouldn’t truly know each other on a deep level. The more vulnerable you get, the closer you get. When you keep things to yourself, you deprive yourself and your partner of emotional intimacy.
I’m still not great at this. But when I have gotten up the courage to confront my partner about something that’s been bothering me, it's paid off. Instead of wondering “Would he still be with me if he knew…” I get the reassurance that he knows who I really am and still wants to be with me.
However, that doesn’t mean any and all emotions should be aired. I’ve found that if I’m angry about something, it’s best to talk about it after I cool down so that my partner doesn’t get defensive. There’s always a risk that your partner won’t respond well when you bring up a difficult topic. But it’s often just as bad to keep it a secret and always be worrying how they’ll respond.
4. Chasing Love Is So Worth It
I’m all about being independent and not giving up yourself for someone else, but when you find something you really want, life is too short not to chase it. I learned this twice.
Before my second relationship, we were friends, and I wanted to be something more. I was terrified that he didn’t. Eventually, the weight of wanting more became too much for me to carry, and I wrote him a long, emotional email confessing my love for him. It paid off, because he told me he loved me too and invited me on a romantic trip. I had been scared to take the initiative, thinking he’d step up if he really wanted it. But I think He’s Just Not That into You is BS. Sometimes he’s just not that aware that you’re into him, and you need to be the one to step up.
Before my current relationship, my partner and I fell in love on vacation and assumed we’d never see each other again because we lived across the world from each other. Then I thought, why not try? I invited him to visit me, and he surprisingly said yes. Once again, if I hadn’t sent that email, he probably wouldn’t have done anything, and I would’ve let him go. It’s not that he wasn’t into me; he just (understandably) wasn’t sure if it could work. I had to be the one to take that chance, and I’m so glad I did.
5. You Don’t Need To Spend Lots Of Time Together For Your Relationship To Be Real
I get a lot of crap for “neglecting” my partner because I go months at a time without seeing him. As I mentioned, I’m a digital nomad, and I travel non-stop. He’s not. That’s OK. There’s no rule saying you have to see your partner every day, every week, or even every month. If you both agree that you’re in a relationship, you are.
This has been important for me to learn because spending a lot of time apart doesn’t just not harm my relationship — it helps it. Having my own active life makes me dependent on my partner for very little. Like I said, when you’re happy on your own, it’s hard for others to disappoint you. If I were with my partner all the time, I’d be resenting him for preventing me from living my dream. Being able to live it out and be in a relationship is the best of both worlds.
6. Even The Worst Breakups Are For The Better
My first breakup (or, er, my first three with the same person) absolutely devastated me. I’m talking unable to eat or get out of bed. I really thought I’d lost the love of my life and we were meant to be together forever.
Now, I see this couldn’t have been farther from the truth. We were so far from meant for each other, it’s not even funny. Yes, we were deeply in love, but love is not always enough.
In fact, I don’t know anyone who felt, years later, that their breakup was ultimately for the worst. Usually, people either find someone better or realize they were better off single. That can take years, but it always seems to happen. After all, if the relationship really were the best you could do, it probably wouldn’t have ended.
7. It's OK For Your Sex Life To Change
When I noticed my sex life go from once a day to once every other day to a couple times a week, I initially tried to fight it. But then I wasn't enjoying the sex as much because I didn't even want it all. It's common to have less sex as the relationship goes on and it doesn't make you less close. The important thing is not how often you do it but whether both people are fully into it.
8. Loving Others Helps You Love Yourself
In my current relationship, I fell into a pattern where I was taking more than I was giving. To be honest, I'm still working on this. When your partner goes above and beyond for you and asks very little of you, it's tempting to take advantage of that. But it comes at a price: You feel bad about yourself for doing it. Generosity isn't just nice for others; it's good for your own self-esteem.
9. You Need To Be Specific About What You Want
That said, you deserve the chance to receive just as freely as you give. And the only way you can do that if your partner knows exactly what to give you. They cannot read your mind. I've had too many situations where I told my partner vaguely what I wanted because I felt too guilty to be specific, and then he went out of his way to give me something I didn't actually want.
Now, I will be extremely detailed in my requests. Last time I got back from a trip, for example, I told my partner to please clean the apartment and buy specific foods that I wanted in the house (including not just tortellini but cheese tortellini). If things like this make you feel demanding, remember: They want to please you, because then you'll be happy enough to want to please them.
Part of me wishes I didn't have to learn these lessons the hard way. Except, the thing is, the hard way is also the fun way.