Do you ever wish you could go back to all the relationships you had in the past and revisit them with the knowledge you have now? Of course, each teen and early 20s relationship you had served as a purpose to help you learn and become the person that you are now, but think about how much easier certain situations would have been if you had a guide to healthy relationships and what they should look like.
For Ali Drucker, author of Do As I Say, Not Who I Did: Honest Advice on Hookups and Relationships in College (released on April 12, 2022), working on a relationship guide for college girls while in her 30s was a sort of ode to her younger self. She hopes the book will inspire young women to be more in control of their relationships by arming themselves with knowledge. “College is the most turbulent era of our emotional dating landscape,” Drucker tells Bustle. “It’s a time when many (but not all) young women are out of the family home for the first time. That intersects with a moment of tons of new opportunities and freedom, and I think that’s what I think makes this time in someone's life ripe for guidance.”
But even if you’re long out of college, some of the relationship lessons in Drucker’s book are still good tactics to practice in your late 20s, 30s, and even 40s. No matter what stage of life you’re in, there’s always room for dating improvement — even if you’ve never experienced a healthy relationship in your 20s or even into your 30s and 40s. Here are some of Drucker’s tips for seeking out a healthy relationship, what red flags to look out for, and where to start if you’re feeling totally lost.
In the book, you talk a lot about relational self-awareness when dating, which is essentially understanding how past experiences influence how you operate in relationships now. Why is this concept important?
Ali Drucker: This is a psychological topic that Alexandra H. Solomon, Ph.D., teaches in her Marriage 101 course at Northwestern University. Relational self-awareness is the willingness to interrogate yourself. What I thought was interesting about this is that it can even draw back to the role you had in your family growing up. If you were a younger sibling and you're used to being the baby, underestimated, or having people take care of you, you can get used to that [and it] might start bleeding over to your relationships. Interrogate all those facets about yourself and the past and how they feed into your current relationship. If you find yourself in a pattern you don't like, having data to explain why those habits might exist can help. Remember, there’s nothing set in concrete and you can always adapt.
In order to find a healthy relationship, what’s a good place to start for someone who’s never evaluated their past relationships?
AD: It’s 100% OK to start exactly where you’re starting. No matter where you are, it doesn’t dictate where you’re going to wind up.
Just take stock of the relationships you’ve had, make a list of “these are the things of the last few relationships or hookups I liked” and “these are the things that made me feel good; these are the things the interactions or things that made me feel not good.” Even an old-fashioned pros and cons list can help you start identifying patterns and think about the things you’ll be screening for next time you’re considering a relationship with someone.
It feels like when we see other couples arguing on reality TV or in real life, we automatically assume they’re in bad relationships.
AD: Fighting is super normal and I think the worst thing we can do in a relationship is judge ourselves if fights arrive. Having moments of disagreement is one of the most boringly normal things that can happen to us and not a harbinger of relationship doom.
What’s the difference between healthy debating or arguing versus toxic?
AD: When it comes to healthy debating and arguing, it’s important to look for someone who isn't trying to convince you out of your feelings. You don’t want someone who’s trying to invalidate the point of view you’re coming from. You want to be debating or arguing with someone who can actively listen to you and who could easily summarize your point of view if you asked them to. They’re not just waiting for their turn to talk; they’re really processing and understanding the points you make too.
What do you do if you keep trying to talk things out with your partner and they remain silent?
AD: We have to leave room for neurodivergence in partners. It’s OK if something doesn't get addressed right away. We need to allow ourselves and our partners grace as humans, so try not to panic. You have to be aware that once you agree to be in a partnership that your actions are going to affect another person and you have to be comfortable with that. If they’re unable to make those adjustments accordingly, that’s probably a sign you shouldn’t be dating.
But if you are certain that they understand what you’ve asked for, there’s no more room for interpretation, and you’re still not getting what you need, then I think it’s either time for a real “this is it, all cards on the table” conversation. Sometimes that serious of a conversation — not an ultimatum — just a real statement of fact of “Here is my barometer for what’s tolerable and comfortable for me, and I’m not at it and won’t be until you do XYZ.” If that’s not met with a change, then it’s time to hit the road.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.