Bad Relationships Train You for Good Ones

There’s no such thing as wasted time.

There you are again, watching him flirt with another girl. At another party. With his friends. But as he explains later, he was just mingling. You know, for an hour. With one girl.

Alexa, please define mingling:

To move freely around a place or at a social function, associating with others.

Others, as in plural? Thank you. See, you’re always right.

Anyway, he does that. Makes you the jealous girlfriend. Nobody wants that role. Stains your dating resume.

So you see two options here. Dump him. Or let things slide, with a little chat. You go with Plan B. Maybe you’re making a huge mistake. But you’ve dumped guys over nothing for the last two years.

Time for a different strategy.

You’ve been judgmental. Picky. Now you curb your unfair expectations. As in, maybe you should give someone a second chance. Maybe you’ll try talking before you dump their crap on the street and burn their favorite shirt. That’s what the jealous girlfriend does.

Dating isn’t a linear path to marriage.

You meet someone. Go out for coffee. Then drinks. Kiss. Fall in love. Have sex. Move in together. Propose. Get married. Right? That’s how it’s always supposed to happen. And usually, it does.

But you have to plan for unhappy endings. Sometimes a relationship just turns into a textbook chapter.

That’s all it was ever meant to be. Because you find out, in the end, that you don’t fit together that well. It takes a while to find out.

So with this guy, the hopeless flirt... You try hard to see things from his end. Except you go too far this time. For a year, you try talking. But you find yourself having to explain too much. Things you shouldn’t have to. Things a normal person should already know.

At least, you’re pretty sure he should. Like, he can’t hang out with a girl who keeps telling him they should hook up.

That’s weird, right?

And yet, he continues full steam ahead. Even meets these girls through your social network. Starts having drinks with them. Watching movies. Going to the zoo. Buys groceries with a friend of a friend of a friend, who thinks he’s cute. All of this while you’re in a library, studying for your PhD exams. You’re such a book worm.

He makes you feel weird for confronting him.

Dating is about making necessary mistakes.

Mistakes are inevitable. You might make your biggest mistakes when trying to avoid a mistake. I mean, look at what happened to Oedipus. He was actually trying to avoid killing his dad and sleeping with his mom. That’s exactly what the fates were counting on.

Lucky for us, our lives aren’t Greek tragedies. Our mistakes don’t get us killed, just alone on Friday night.

This explains why you give the hopeless flirt so many chances. Previously, you’d refused to compromise on anything. Now you’re not just compromising. You’re doubting yourself. Turning up the couch cushions of your mind to find excuses, like so many quarters.

It’s fine. You spend most of your 20s learning the true meaning of words anyway. Alexa, define compromise:

To settle a dispute by mutual concession.

Thanks again. Sometimes you really wish this girl had been around back when you were dating.

Every relationship trains you for the next one.

We like to write off failed relationships as a total loss. Kick ourselves for wasting time on something that doesn’t work out.

Someone who wasn’t good for us after all.

Someone who took advantage of us.

Someone who never loved us. Or just thought they did.

But you can’t think of relationships like that. Not even the shitty ones. It’s not about remembering the good times. More about picking through the debris to find out what happened. What went wrong?

Also, what did you do right? In this case, you actually can’t fault yourself too much. You were trying to figure out how to work through problems in a relationship. You might’ve been misguided. But you also developed a ton of patience and understanding. You learned how to forestall judgement. That’s huge. It’s serving you well now, when you catch yourself getting worked up over trifles, or displacing your anger from work.

You reflect on the hopeless flirt. Sometimes you think you should’ve dumped him sooner. Could’ve saved you a lot of time and money. And yet, maybe you dated him just long enough.

Dumping someone teaches you about yourself.

Remember the weekend you dump the hopeless flirt. See, while he’s out chasing other girls, other guys are chasing you. Looking back, you wonder if that wasn’t the whole problem. He made others feel jealous to distract himself from his own jealousy.

Slowly, you realize that you’re not trying to compromise at all. You’re just trying to prove to yourself that you can commit.

That you can go the distance.

This is the mistake you’re making. Then again, you proved that you can do it. And that counts for something.

One random afternoon, a guy you met at a conference sends you a selfie from a backpacking trip. You start flirting. Somehow it makes you see everything wrong in your current setup. Everything you’ve ignored.

You realize now. The hopeless flirt offers a safe, linear path to a moderately happy marriage. One where he might cheat on you one day. You don’t want that. You want to be in that backpacking selfie.

So you do the bold thing. Break it off. Your decision crushes the hopeless flirt. He begs you to come back. The whole time, he was scared that you would leave. Just like you’re doing now. That’s why he was flirting with those girls — out of insecurity. His worst fear has come to pass. Just like you, he screwed up by trying not to screw up. Both of you had to.

Dating is on the job training.

It would be great if you could learn everything about relationships in a seminar. Or from a book. But you can’t.

You have to learn from screwing up. Getting your heart broken. Breaking hearts. And dating the wrong person.

Look at you now. All of those mistakes laid the groundwork for a healthy relationship. You meet someone. This time, you know what you want. You can communicate that with confidence.

You understand how compromise works. And boundaries. You know when and how to talk about problems. You know how to read moods. How to broach a sensitive issue.

How to talk about sex. How to discuss your hangups. Even how to apologize. Plus, you know how to ask for an apology. How to tell a real one from a fake. And how to accept the real one.

You know when you need to be alone.

And when he needs to be alone.

And that it’s nothing personal.

You can figure out someone’s triggers, and their comfort cues. You know how to focus on the present. What to forgive, and how. You know just how much of yourself to share. What to keep a mystery. You’re not perfect, but you’re good enough. And you’re getting better. You learned most of this by getting it wrong the last hundred times.

Take ownership over the wreckage.

Maybe you did get engaged to an asshole…twice. But part of you probably knew up front. You saw warning signs. Even if you ignored them. Why? If you want the next relationship to work, maybe spend some time assessing the burnt crisp of the last one.

That doesn’t let your ex off the hook. He’s still an ass. But he’s one you chose to date. Why? Real growth calls for ownership.

Do more than just demonize your ex. Remind yourself what drew you to them in the first place. There was something about them, sure. But there was also something about you that wanted them.

This isn’t about blaming yourself. Just understanding. Your dating history is more than a pile of steaming garbage.

It’s a story. You’re the main character. Think about what you carry from one to the next — both good and bad.

Simply regretting failed relationships leaves you in the backseat. Or even worse, tied up in the trunk — trying to kick out a tail light. Relationships don’t happen to us. We make them happen. We write our own romance novels, even when we don’t know we’re doing it.

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