Don't be so quick to dismiss the undefined relationships of your life . . .

Like many women in our day and age, I’ve “not dated” more men than I’ve dated. You know the kind—running the gamut from a coffee-date setup to a three-year undefined high school relationship, I’ve often been in the position of having a man in my life who’s significant without the label of “significant other.”

As women looking for love, it can be easy for us to dismiss the undefined relationship. Whether these encounters are short and sweet or long and convoluted, we sometimes prefer to leave them, and the men we got to know because of them, in the forgotten corners of our minds. If he didn’t put a ring on it (or even get up the guts to ask me out to dinner), it never really happened, right?

Wrong. After suffering through a rough breakup, I realized something about all those undefined relationships: they also deserved the kind of closure and processing that a more formal relationship did, and I could learn from them, as well. Leaving friendships like these in the dust can, over time, lead to bitterness and resentment, partly because of a failure to acknowledge the heartache that an undefined relationship can bring, but also because of a failure to be grateful for all the wonderful things that another human being brought into your life. The men I brushed shoulders with on my path toward love are also part of my story, and they deserve to be treated as such not just swept under the rug. They might not have had the courage for commitment—or maybe the time just wasn’t right—but those relationships were still real, and I look back on what I learned from those encounters with the same gratitude that surrounds the lessons from my breakup.

So here’s why I’m grateful to all the men I never dated. They made a contribution, big or small, to who I am today, and that deserves to be acknowledged.

They taught me more about myself.

One of the men in my life was a friend who resurfaced out of the blue when I was just starting to emerge from a period of depression. A peer mentor who had always been a little more than just a friend, he meant a lot to me—and even though the friendship didn’t culminate in a relationship, he was pivotal in helping me remember who I really was. The respect he had for me as a person was so clear, even when I wasn’t at my best, and explicitly and implicitly he told me what I needed to hear the most: “You are strong enough for whatever life has in store.” His encouragement recalled me to who I was, and even though that path ultimately led me away from him, it would have been harder for me to recall my own identity without that stirring reminder from a trusted friend.

He wasn’t the only one, either. Over the years I’ve had many male friends with whom I had long, beautiful conversations and real moments of inspiration without the formal support of a relationship. There’s something about a male-female relationship in particular that opens up possibilities for conversation and communication, and these friendships helped clarify for me what I most wanted and what my dreams and visions were for the future. Recently I paged through some old emails (ah, the 2000s) with my high school crush and realized that the young woman who wrote them in the context of a relationship that crashed and burned was the same woman I am today: idealistic, optimistic, driven. Feeling that connection to a relationship that was in other ways somewhat unhealthy reaffirmed for me a basic truth: that relationship still helped me discover who I really am.

They taught me more about other people and the world.

He was just a coffee date. A friend had been dying to set us up for a while, and in the strange intimacy of an out-of-town setup with no strings attached, our conversation got deep fast. Before I knew it, he was offering me his perspective on the world: get out there and make friends. Love the people who are there, even if it’s just a temporary community and you’re about to be uprooted. As someone who had just been uprooted and was contemplating a move to a brand-new place, I found his advice inspiring, and it was a lot to live up to. Though my friend’s suspicions proved unfounded, I never forgot his advice or the beautiful perspective on the world he offered.

Life is full of sudden and beautiful encounters: the kind next-door neighbor, the checkout lady who’s a great conversationalist, the open-hearted family who welcomes you into their home. A number of these encounters, for many of us, can seem charged with romantic potential and therefore valueless if nothing comes of it. It’s easy to fall into the “what ifs”: what if I had gotten the number of the British man who escorted me across the street under his umbrella? What if the guy I talked to for two hours on the plane had asked me out?

But the fact is, I never dated those guys. And those beautiful encounters were valuable in themselves—not just because of the romantic potential. Rather than being necessary steps on a predetermined road to romance, random encounters like these remind me that anything can happen. We live in a world full of possibilities.

They taught me more about what I was looking for.

It’s one of those things people always say about dating: “You learn more about what you’re looking for.” It’s a cliché that I never really understood until a big lesson from my breakup hit home: the breakup set me free to imagine something better. From within a relationship, it’s so hard to see the flaws and so scary to imagine that something better might be out there. But one advantage of these non-dating relationships was that I could value the experience and the friendship while remaining open to the possibility that this might not be the perfect relationship for me.

After a college, a friend of mine and I reconnected and started exchanging messages and long phone calls. A little romance began to spin between us without any formal commitment, and my story-loving self delighted in making connections with the old days of my college experience and how much he meant to me then and now. At the same time, I saw red flag after red flag, and I knew that in college the sparks didn’t fly for any number of reasons. I felt more comfortable with the friendship after I acknowledged something to myself: I’d rather have the right guy with the “wrong” story than the “perfect” story with the wrong guy.

As I think back on the men I never dated, there’s one common thread that runs through all the stories: he wasn’t the man for me. While there’s definitely something to be said for formal dating, there’s also something so valuable about just getting to know a man as a friend (even a friend you’re a little bit in love with!). Set free from the pressure of dating expectations, it can sometimes be easier to have clarity about what values are truly non-negotiable for you. Seeing what theoretical personality traits or beliefs actually look like in someone’s life can help clarify for you what you’re looking for, and even help you realize that someone isn’t right for you before you’re formally committed to one another.

Most importantly, though, you get to spend time with another intrinsically worthwhile human being. I’m so grateful to the men I never dated. What I learned from those relationships helped me to become the woman I am today. When a relationship never really gets off the ground it’s so easy to focus on the annoying lack of definition or the heart-rending story of how one thing or another caused it to fall apart—but thinking about these relationships in positive terms helped me to see what a gift each and every person in my life has been.