Sad woman on a city street at night, lit with heart-shaped lights.
Sad woman on a city street at night, lit with heart-shaped lights.
Photo by Garon Piceli from Pexels

6 Lessons From My Dumb Relationships

I squandered two decades on unserious men, but learned a few things along the way.

They call it serial monogamy, but in my case it’s probably more accurately termed dumb stumbling. Reeling from one person to the next.

I’d been married in my early 20s, and when that fell apart I spun through several relationships. Although each of these relationships lasted a few years, I never felt safe or settled.

Looking back, I realize that I squandered my 20s and 30s on unserious men. And I have no one to blame but myself, because I ignored the obvious signals these men were putting out.

Nobody hid anything or pretended to be what they weren’t. I simply deluded myself into thinking things would change on their own.

Each relationship had its ups and downs, and seemed to simply “run its course.” If there was a bright side to any of this, I can say that except for my first marriage, I did the breaking up.

And I learned a few things:

1. You don’t have to be in a relationship.

The classic hallmark of the serial monogamist is that you always feel you have to be in a relationship.

Get that out of your head and you’ll end up with much better relationships. Maybe fewer relationships, but ones worth having.

You can be alone.

In fact, spending time with yourself might be the best thing you can do to nurture your independent personality, interests, and strengths as an adult. Too many people start leapfrogging through relationships in high school and never get the chance to live on their own.

If you hook up with somebody, that doesn’t mean you have to commit to a long-term relationship.

Don’t feel like you have to make a one-night-stand into a formal commitment. Don’t let anyone pressure you into it, and don’t let feelings of embarrassment drag you into a relationship you don’t need.

2. You have to save yourself.

This sounds like some kind of girl-power cliché, but it is true for anyone going through a crisis and realizing they lack the real emotional support they need in a life partner or even their friends and family.

If your partner is more of a fair-weather friend who lets you suffer hard times on your own, you don’t have a partner at all.

You have to protect yourself. My conclusion after each breakup was that I was on my own in this world, and no one was going to save me.

My companion was not going to suddenly sprout wings and swoop in. If he didn’t rise to the test when things were at their hardest, he wasn’t serious about me and he wasn’t going to get more serious about me.

Saving yourself is about valuing yourself.

You’re worth more than your fun times, money, or your looks — and those things should be worth a lot to you!

What happens when you get older, sick, or lose your financial position? Will the people who have a great time with your body and material things stick around for you? Don’t cast your pearls before swine.

3. You don’t have to rearrange your life to match somebody else’s.

If your life shrinks to the size of a boyfriend-shaped petri dish when you start dating, you’re in a bad relationship.

A person who loves you loves your life. They accept you and respect you as a person, independent of them.

You can and should still spend time alone, or go to social functions without your partner. And you should be able to do that without an interrogation. A loving partner doesn’t want you to ditch all your friends, stop going to see your family, change up your look, and rearrange your entire life for them.

If someone expects that of you, they don’t love you. They’re abusing your love. They’ve just got you hypnotized. Snap out of it!

4. There is no such thing as unconditional romantic love.

The more you recognize your own non-negotiable terms, the less likely you are to get into bad situations.

Your partner isn’t a newborn baby. They aren’t owed unconditional love, and it’s not possible to give it.

You aren’t “stuck” with that person just because you committed to be in a relationship. You are adults. And if an adult treats you poorly, you have every right to revoke your love for them. Exercise that right.

If the only reason you are sticking with someone is because of the years you’ve already invested, you’re using the wrong metric to measure your relationship.

5. Romantic love is a potent chemical reaction that you nevertheless have control over.

You may feel head over heels for a person. Romantic love is like magic. When they do something that really lets you down, though, it’s a bit like tossing the magic props out into the parking lot in the cold light of day. Magic is only effective if you buy in.

Romantic love is a powerful biological process that changes your physiology and psychology. It can make you feel intoxicated, euphoric, mesmerized. Taking it away can trigger withdrawal-like symptoms that make you feel utterly miserable, in pain, crushed.

But you are the master of your body.

You don’t have to try to deny your feelings. But you do have to own your own chemical rollercoaster — don’t let someone else control it.

Let yourself feel the ups and downs. Treat your heartbreak as a grieving process, and give yourself time to heal.

Do not treat your heartbreak as a tether to the person you need to get away from. These are chemicals in your brain. They are not mystical angels or fate or signs of your soulmate. Love is biology, not some kind of spirit world.

6. A healthy relationship makes you feel safe.

Your relationship should feel safe. What do I mean by safe?

Of course, you should never be in a relationship with anyone who deliberately hurts you or threatens violence. But I also mean, emotionally, you should feel that the relationship is solid, not about to explode.

In any relationship, whether romantic or simply friendly, you should feel secure.

You should feel accepted as you are.

You should feel comfortable enough to kick back and let down your guard around the people who say they love you.

To learn this one, I had to be in a healthy relationship and see the difference between that and where I had been.

When I was falling in love with my future husband, I experienced a novel new feeling — the sensation that I was safe in our friendship. It made me realize what a tightrope I had been on.

I also had the sense that he was there for me, intuitively offering his hand as I floundered. But he didn’t reach into my space to grab me. He was waiting for me to reach out. I had to learn from my dumb relationships and come to my own decisions. That’s safety.

A compassionate and opinionated human being. | Fiction author and visual artist in Central Appalachia. | Give my newsletter a try:

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