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Unless you’re one of those super-rare humans who went on and married your childhood sweetheart, it goes without saying that the majority of our romantic endeavors don’t end with matching rings and a trip down the aisle. When we’re recovering from yet another Mr. Not Right Now or Ever, it can be easy to fall into the trap of ruminating about all the ways he wasted your time, you wasted your time, and all those involved wasted their time. After all, we’re only young and free once, right?

When the dust settles on those longer-term relationships, it can be tempting to feel vindictive toward the guy who took up all that energy and life space (“My prime dating years!” as a friend once lamented) or to berate yourself for not seeing the signs earlier. But this black-and-white way of dating isn’t just limiting your perspective—it can actually stagnate your personal growth.

When I was dating, I too fell into the trap of thinking of a past relationship as a waste of my precious time. I remember how quickly I moved on after one particular breakup. I resented the time I had spent with him—cynically telling friends that I had “wasted my youth.” On a trip to my old stomping grounds, I found myself thinking about this old boyfriend—a person who I hadn’t thought about in years. I realized that, although we weren’t meant to be for many reasons, his presence in my life had been a positive influence. At such a young age he taught me how men can be good and what a “healthy” relationship can look like. It was then—more than a decade later—that I realized, my time spent with him wasn’t a waste, but rather a gift.

According to Anita Chlipala, MA, M.Ed., LMFT, founder of Relationship Reality 312 in Chicago, feeling as though time has been wasted is one of the most common complaints among female clients. “My clients share their fear of wasting their time all the time.” She explains that women are especially prone to put themselves down if the relationship doesn’t work, “They think, ‘How did I not know better? How did I not get out of this relationship sooner?’”

Chlipala shares that this perspective isn’t only a twisted way of looking at the issue, as “there’s no opportunity to win with yourself if you look at it this way,” but it clouds the real questions we should be asking ourselves post-breakup.

So what should we be dwelling on post breakup, if not what a colossal waste of time that relationship was? Chlipala and relationships expert Laurie Davis, Founder and CEO of eFlirt in New York, suggest that relationships that have ended should be seen as a learning opportunity. As Davis shares, “The truth is, without taking the time to learn from the relationship, it can become a waste of time.”

So, instead of perseverating over the time we’ve lost in ended relationships, here’s a better way of thinking about a breakup instead. 

Get constructive about the good stuff. 

After breakups, we tend to wallow in the negatives. We do this because thinking about the good things can be painful. “Don't worry about idealizing the relationship when you’re thinking about the good things,” shares Davis. “Just think about what worked well for you.” She says to note the qualities he had that made you stay in the relationship for so long. Was it his sense of humor? Was it his sense of adventure? Was it the conversation? Was it his amazing ability to be organized?

Considering how he influenced your life positively can be a powerful tool in understanding not only what you want in your next relationship—but what you want out of life. But Davis warns us not to get carried away with all the good things, “Don’t dwell—but rather think about it as information you need to move forward.”

Stay constructive about the bad stuff.

“Be specific and realistic about the bad parts,” Chlipala shares. “You don’t want to bash the relationship—but you also want to point out the things that didn’t work.” Not only does this help enlighten what we’re not looking for, but this also helps us “get over” the relationship, as it brings it back down to reality.

She also suggests that thinking about not only what you fought about, but how you fought. “It’s the attitudes you had while you fought—not the fight itself—that you can learn the most from.” Doing such also helps us determine our core-non-negotiables.

From here, consider if any of those negative experiences point to a larger trend. Is this an issue that you often run into in relationships? Does it have to do with the kinds of guys you’re choosing, or is your own personality trait that you’ve noticed you might need to work on? Davis adds, “When a breakup is fresh, it’s good to step back and think about your relationships at large. Is there anything that you, personally, need to work on?”

I’m sorry, but finding authentic love takes time.

The more we date, the more we realize that those sparks can be rare. “So when we finally feel a connection—we get excited. It’s natural and normal to feel that way,” Chlipala shares. “But having a connection doesn’t mean it’s a fit. Remember, you need to balance those feelings with reality. Don’t get carried away.”

But this can be easier said than done. Those feel-good chemicals tend to hijack our brains, pushing us to jump on the train before we know where it’s going. Hence, this just-in-love feeling is one of the reasons we can overlook so many red flags in the beginning. Consequently—it’s important to realize that dating well takes time and patience. You’re not going to know whether or not he’s a keeper unless you put the time in. While this might be a stage where so many think they waste their time—remember that it’s a critical step in healthy dating and can simultaneously be a place of great personal growth. Sure, it’s a gamble—but it’s how we learn what we’re looking for.

As Davis adds, “You’re not wasting time when it comes to love—because the only way we can learn about love comes from experience.”

So while it can be tempting to put all our exes in an “ugh” category in our brains—labeling them as “mistakes” or “wastes of time” or even unnecessarily taunting ourselves for not seeing the signs sooner—remember that learning to love is a lifelong long game that we don’t just play with others but with ourselves as well.

Photo Credit: The Kitcheners