Relationships change us, even if we don’t like to admit it. Whether our memories of whirlwind flings or long-lost loves are pleasantly tidied away in boxes (digital or otherwise) or worn on our sleeve like a fresh wound, those few that we let into our hearts can certainly leave their mark.
I don’t believe we should ever regret love or being single. Still, I can’t help but cringe at some easily avoidable blows that took me down hard. Often, I spent far too long with the wrong guys and far too little time with the right ones. I acted aloof when I was interested and acted attentive when I couldn’t have felt more blasé. Admittedly, my early twenties were a confusing era, but when I think of the time, energy, and emotions that were spent on fruitless endeavors and mediocre dates—man, it makes me wince.
I can’t be the only one who has fantasized about going back in time and screaming at my past self, "RUN NOW!" or just giving her a reality check. In fact, I know I’m not. I spoke with more than a dozen women and asked them what they would tell their younger selves about dating, if they could. Interestingly, we were all saying the same things.
01. Dating, especially now, is supposed to be fun.
“As my Grandma says,” Nicole shares, “dating isn’t social work.” While we’ve all heard that relationships can be hard, some of us take that to mean that we should stomach bad behavior. In the beginning, and especially in your twenties, dating should actually be a ton of fun, not a charity project for the emotionally needy or wounded. If you're with someone who is proving to be harder than your 3000-level college classes—ask yourself, why? You have your life ahead of you. This is not it. “It's true that relationships take work, but ‘work’ doesn't mean you should be slaving to make the relationship function,” Alexandra says. “The relationship worth being in—worth waiting for—is the one that makes you feel like you are thriving!” When you meet people who are worth your time, dating won’t feel like you’re fighting a losing battle.
02. Love does not mean a relationship should continue at all costs.
Lighting that “spark,” that intangible electric connection, doesn’t just happen with anyone. It’s rare. But that doesn’t mean that it exclusively exists with just one person. The person has to be the right personality fit and share the same values too. And while you might enjoy each other’s company and have moments of deep connection and discovery, you both need to be wholly accepting of each other in order for it to function in the long-run. “Don't compromise what you know to be good and right in your choices,” Lisa advises. “Don't change your personality, don't give up those things you like about who you are, to accommodate someone else.”
03. If you’re in a relationship, please let it be social.
There's nothing wrong with finding yourself a one-and-only at a young age, but if you do, make sure you're the kind of couple that brings people together—the kind of couple that people want to be around. In other words, you shouldn’t be in a relationship that’s so caught up in itself that you can’t spend time with anyone else. Likewise, you do not want to be in a relationship that’s a “secret” amongst friends and family. In fact, all the couples I know who (happily) married the person they met at a young age naturally had this social balance. They were inviting and warm—you never felt like you were intruding when you interacted with them, and at the same, they weren’t shamefully hiding their love for each other either.
04. Take things slowly: you don’t need to label everything immediately.
Of course, if things progress to a certain point of seriousness, there should absolutely be a label, otherwise you're not doing your feelings justice. That being said, it's also really healthy to allow a certain amount of chemistry to exist in a relationship without prematurely labeling it. A couple of women shared that, in their experience, drawing attention to an attraction before it bloomed killed the romance before it took root—while letting a flirtation fade on its own might have been a more graceful way of enjoying an interest and a natural way of letting it go. Sure, calling him "a boyfriend" might be nice in theory, but forcing "the talk" to bring on exclusivity prematurely isn't worth the energy. If he really wants to be your boyfriend, he will make it clear. Just don't let yourself be a "girlfriend" unless you're also really interested (I made that mistake, too).
05. See romantic failure as a learning experience.
Anita Chlipala, LMFT, and author of First Comes Us: The Busy Couple's Guide to Lasting Love, told me that through dating, we can learn more about ourselves than we would through isolated introspection. “Learning to love someone else helps us understand ourselves better,” Chlipala says. So, if it doesn't work out, don't lament too much. Learn what happened, and grow from it. “It's OK to admit you're completely wrong and do things differently. You may have invested a lot in something that has no good future,” Genevieve says. “Do something else . . . you have lots of time.” Lisa adds, “Also, dating is only successful once—all the dating leading up to finding the man you'll marry is practice.” So let’s not be too hard on ourselves.
06. Savor your independence before you are married.
“Travel, stay out late with friends, further your education,” Mollie suggests. “Do it now so that when that time comes to be married and have kids, you can enjoy the new chapter without regrets.” There's no other time like your early twenties. Whether you’re in college, or out in the “real world”—readily at your fingertips—be it social, intellectual, or creative. And use your time wisely, choose to spend your energy in relationships that bring you joy, not ones that add unnecessary stress.
07. The dating scene will get better . . . I promise.
There is no shortage of young, available guys when you are dating in your twenties, trouble is, just like you, many are struggling to find their place in the world (aka they have no idea what they want). Depending on the guy, it's not uncommon for this to translate into perpetual texts that maybe lead to hangouts that sometimes lead to make-outs that can then lead to . . . no dates? Not one? Really? It can be easy to despair if this happens to you—over and over—but don't. “If it doesn’t feel right, then it probably (definitely) isn’t,” Elizabeth says. “Trust your instincts.” This might be hard at first, but you’ll learn and become smarter, and they’ll get better. The wiser you grow and the wiser guys become, the better dating gets, I promise.
Photo Credit: Taylor McCutchan