Like many of my fellow music lemmings out there, I have been rocking out to Taylor Swift’s new album (or at least the only two songs they will play on the radio) over and over and over again. So far the common theme in both songs—"Shake It Off” and “Blank Space”—is Tay poking fun at her “serial dater” reputation created by a long string of exes.
Swift is not the only woman in her mid-20s with a rap sheet that stretches back to the seventh grade. Trial by fire is the expected protocol for all young women who want to fall in love, so bouncing from relationship to relationship has become the approved dating narrative for a woman who is wise about love.
But how much do you really learn from hoarding heartbreak T. Swift style? I would argue—and I think Swift’s humorous psycho-themed music video backs me up—that “experience” does not make a lesson. Unless a more studied approach to dating is taken, a woman on boyfriend number 10 is just as likely to make the same rookie mistakes as a woman on boyfriend number one.
There are many women who—whether by choice, distraction, or late blooming—do not fall into this serial-dating norm and worry that their lack of experience might prove detrimental to finding lasting love in the future. But that worry is unnecessary. Women in their mid-20s who don’t have a laundry list of ex-loves, or the nasty scars that come with it, are not behind the curve.
I can testify to this. Contrary to the assumptions of my nervous dates, I didn’t start writing about relationships because I had a little black book with a “blank space” that still needed to be filled. In fact, I really haven’t had very many relationships at all. Most of the dating wisdom I have absorbed over the years has been from observing other people’s relationships—learning what works and what doesn’t—and internalizing the lessons learned. I watched my sisters’ and friends’ boyfriends come and go, I saw the dynamics of my parents’ marriage, and yes, I dated a boy or two here and there. But I didn’t need a long queue of suitors to figure out what to look for and how to be in a relationship.
The psychological definition of the word internalize is “to make (attitudes or behavior) part of one’s nature by learning or unconscious assimilation.” But the pressure to date often has atrophied this ability to internalize the data we gather about ourselves and about love. Maybe it's time to appreciate being a little more thoughtful, and a little less frantic.
Too often our nerves get so damaged from trial and error that our sensitivity to relationship data and our ability to internalize it is somewhat impaired. Beginning our dating careers as wide-eyed adolescents, equipped with only the desire to love and be loved and raging hormones, we throw ourselves into one “relationship” and on to the next. And for many of us, this pattern continues into adulthood with very few breaks in between. By the time we reach our mid-20s we have learned that fire is hot, but we still haven’t figured out how to avoid getting burned.
I’m not advocating to swear off dating until we are all fully grown dating-savvy adults—for most men that would be somewhere around the age of 35 and that hardly seems fair. And certainly people can and do learn from mistakes, but it can be a more inefficient way to learn about love. But taking time to study relationships, observing and empathizing with the people and relationships around you, is crucial to internalizing good dating practice and attitudes. When you take this approach you can learn from your own relationships, but you can also learn from others’ relationships as well. Learning what doesn’t work, what does work, who you are, and what you really want doesn’t have to happen moving from your “next mistake” to another.
So for those of you who might feel insecure about your “inexperience”: Take heart. Know that you have an equal opportunity to grow in dating wisdom, without all the baggage that comes with serial boyfriends—and you can be thankful for that.