For better or worse, our early relationships give us foundational information about how to relate to others, which we tend to carry with us into romance. Our adult relationships can mimic those lessons, ingrain in us other bad habits, break harmful cycles, or give us a whole new framework for how to approach love. Your first "real" partner, whatever that means to you, has the power to teach you a lot, both good and bad. And what we learn from our first adult relationships can inform us for a long time to come.
Most importantly, our first relationships can leave us burdened with intense emotional attachment, which can be difficult to move past. It's hard to imagine, sometimes, how the singular magic of a formative experience can ever be captured again with another person. Or, conversely, it can be hard to trust that a bad experience won't repeat itself in every subsequent relationship. It's helpful to remember that all emotions pass eventually, and it is possible to process even the thorniest experiences. You won't be hung up on your first love forever, and there are plenty of resources to help you work through it if you feel otherwise. But if you're striving to find the lesson in your first breakup, here are nine women on what they learned from their first adult relationships.
1Learning What's 'Normal'
"My first adult relationship was a long one but the most important learning experience of my life. What I learned is what I didn't want and it took a lot of heartache to realize that. Being only 17 and [with] my first love, I didn't have anything to compare it to. So what I thought was normal, now looking back, was, on many occasions, disrespect and emotional abuse. Sometimes you need to experience what doesn't work in order to know what does. That's why I believe it's so important for women especially to date, so they are able to discover what they want out of life and love." —Dr. Nikki Goldstein, author of Single But Dating: A Field Guide to Dating in the Digital Age
2You Need More Than Love
"I dated someone from 17-22 and what I learned from it was that even though you love someone, if you don't grow together, it will never work. Love alone is not enough." —Jackie, 36
3There's A Difference Between 'Fun To Hang Out With' And A Good Partner
"I learned that just because someone is fun to hang out with and be around doesn’t mean that they’re a good person or that they’re good for you. That lesson that took a while though!" —Melissa, 23
4'Ride Or Die' Is Not The Healthiest Relationship Mantra
"I learned the value of myself. I never had been in a relationship throughout college and high school. I literally went through life having long-term crushes and never seeing them play out how I wanted. My first relationship ended quickly (8 months) and at the conclusion, I realized that love is not about how much abuse you can withstand until the person understands you love them. It's about both sides choosing to be in love with each other, which in my opinion is much harder for people. We glorify riding with someone through emotional, psychological or physical harm if they seem happy. However, it's about the choice to fight for something made by both people. It is about being responsive and accommodating to your partner's needs and insecurities. Every time. Not having to be asked to be in love, but choosing love. My first relationship taught me that we didn't have that kind of love at all." —Stella*, 25
*Name has been changed
5Sometimes, The Incompatibility Is Very Simple
"I broke up with my ex because I knew he wasn't willing to compromise on how we would eventually decorate our house together. He was very vanilla and wouldn't budge on anything." —Meghan, 31
6You Will Survive If It Ends
"After my first relationship, which lasted about three-and-a-half years (from age 19 to 22), I realized how resilient I am. I started dating my ex while I was going through a really difficult time. I'm so grateful for the relationship and the stability it gave me. But after a few years of spending every day together, I became completely dependent on him. Externally, it didn’t seem that way — we were both making time for our individual friend groups and, you know, "doing our own thing." But internally, I felt that if I lost him, I would lose everything. My emotional stability was completely tied to the health of our relationship.
So when the relationship started to fall apart, I bent over backwards trying to make it work, even though I knew our dynamic was no longer healthy. In the process, I lost myself. I became so consumed with making my ex happy that I didn’t demand the respect I know I deserve. I didn’t make time to get to know myself, and grow. Once we broke up, I was shocked by how quickly I bounced back. More than anything, I felt relieved that I could finally explore who I am. It was like I was breathing for the first time." —Katia, 26, founder of skincare startup Mirra
7It's Not Always About You
"My first adult relationship came far after law school and graduate business school, meaning I was well into my late 20s. He taught me to view the world outside myself. Like any person moving from the egocentric childlike view of life, I learned that I’m probably wrong, selfish, and should be open to change sometimes. Ultimately, he taught me about self-transformation." —Jessica
8Don't Stay In A Bad Relationship Just Because You've Put A Lot Of Time Into It
"I learned that sexual compatibility is not the same as partnership compatibility. The economic concept of sunk cost can be applied to personal relationships to extract oneself (mentally) from those that are unhealthy or even abusive." —Wendy
9Don't Carry The Relationship Just Because You Can
"The biggest lesson I learned from my first adult relationship is to remain strong in your boundaries, communicate your needs, and take care of yourself in the process. I dated a guy for over three years whom I poured myself into, but the relationship was completely volatile and exhausting. We fought constantly and I fully expected him to anticipate my needs without me ever communicating them to him. I was too scared to ever voice my opinion because of a deep fear of our relationship failing.
"So often, women (and some men!) throw ourselves 150 percent into the other person, overlooking their flaws and compensating with our own enthusiasm. This road never ends well, and the over-giver in the relationship ends up filled with a lot of resentment and a general feeling of being unfulfilled in their relationship." —Carley
Whether your first adult relationship is now a fond memory or something you wish you could forget, there's no denying how much our first relationships can teach us.
Editor's Note: If you need help getting out of your relationship or figuring out what to do next, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233.