1. Always trust your gut.
You stopped saying “I love you” on your own, then sometimes even when I said it first, then altogether. I tried to talk to you about it, I asked you what was wrong, but when you brushed the conversation off, I convinced myself I was being paranoid. Less than two months later, we were done.
Always trust your instincts. Your brain knows you. It has seen and felt all experiences you’ve ever had, and many that those close to you have had. If it’s setting off alarms, pay attention. Above all, do not lose faith in yourself, or your ability to know yourself.
2. Unconditional isn’t unrealistic.
“But nobody’s perfect!” is something you regularly tell yourself when you’re settling in a relationship. Of course we all have flaws, and it’s cool that you recognize some of your own areas for improvement, but not all flaws are compatible with each other. You want someone who has flaws that mesh with yours, and who you can not only help but be helped by. There’s definitely a quote to that effect somewhere on the interwebz (= validity).
I used to think it was unrealistic to expect someone to love me unconditionally—if I told them about my history of depression, or just how much I loved my dog (aka too much), or some weird, irrational judgement about something—they might think we weren’t compatible, or they might think I’m angry, or difficult, and not someone they want to be with. Is that a sustainable way to live in a relationship?
3. Fireworks are nice, but not necessary.
Our first date was magical, and I thought that was a sign of compatibility. My current boyfriend seemed like a hipster douche the first time I met him, so I had no intention of pursuing a relationship with him. It would be nice if things were always so black and white, but this love shit is complicated. Depending on where you are in your life and what you are emotionally looking for, someone may set off bells and whistles, but not actually be good for you. In other words, they may be what you want, but not what you need.
My current relationship, which took months of acquaintance-ship to get going, is by far the most supportive, caring, and mutually-beneficial partnership I’ve ever had. It took me a long time to get past the lack of fireworks, but now I know—for us hopeless romantics they’re nice, but they aren’t a necessity.
4. Notice signs of emotional immaturity early on.
We weren’t able to talk about religion, philosophy, differing opinions, or difficult societal topics without you changing the subject or laughing uncomfortably. When it came time to have that last, difficult talk about our relationship, you waited for me to come forward, then only offered, “I’m just confused…” as an explanation.
I hope this is obvious to most of you and I was just naive at the time, but remember: Not being able to talk about difficult topics is not a quality of a sustainable relationship. It means you can’t have meaningful conversations, successfully handle relationship bumps, and (probably) that they feel like they can’t talk to you when they have difficult feelings.
It also makes #2 very hard, because you start to wonder if some difficult topic will push them over the edge, and trying to talk about it will make them not want to be with you. You should never feel that you can’t talk to your partner about absolutely anything.
5. Lookers never stop looking.
You’ve probably heard this about cheaters, but there’s another category I’ll add to the mix: Lookers. Those guys and gals who never stop looking for a potential mate, because for whatever reason, their brain is trained to do so. Getting very emotionally involved with other people, flirting (digitally or in real life), or feeling as though this partner is great, but the guy that just walked on the train could be your soulmate (You never know, right?) isn’t normal. Why isn’t your current partner totally and completely fulfilling you? Why don’t you think this relationship will last?
The hard part about this is that “looking” is not only hard to detect, but harder to have a conversation about, because it’s technically not taboo. It’s not cheating. Get asked about an incident, tell them they’re being silly, repeat. I don’t have an easy answer for this issue… See #1, and do what you think is best for you.
6. “Crazy” isn’t fair.
Women are all too familiar with being called “crazy” for no good reason. During this relationship, I was also struggling with mental health issues that I knew nothing about, so comments about being “crazy” were doubly painful. It’s not shameful to be emotional. It’s not bad to cry if you’re upset. If, when snuggling on the couch, he gets a phone call from a drunk coworker who says, “Amy is great, but it won’t last. I love you.”—and that makes you feel angry or upset, that’s not unreasonable.
Maybe all of this sounds obvious to you, and I hope it does, but if you’re used to being told you’re “being crazy,” or you “need to calm down,” even in jest, something isn’t right. Calling someone “crazy” is the simplest, slyest way to manipulate someone by letting them know that their feelings are unreasonable or unimportant. It’s not something that should be said in a healthy discussion (or even fight), between two adults.
7. Promise rings don’t promise anything.
A promise ring is a “promise” that… what? That they’ll someday propose to you… which is a promise to marry you. So a promise ring is essentially a promise to promise to do something, and that something is love related. No matter how many layers of promise-ception are in the mix, the person’s feelings for you may change at any time. Hell, even if you’re actually married, they may change. Promise rings don’t accomplish anything, they just give both parties a false sense of relationship maturity, and a perceived sense of security that easily leads to taking each other for granted.
I had no idea what this whole thing even was (I actually mistook it for a purity ring, a la Jonas Brothers) and so accepted your promise ring long before I realized you weren’t ready to give it. Honestly, when would someone our age be able to make that kind of pre-pre-committment? Lesson learned.
8. Manipulation isn’t always big.
Most girls have had a friend that was with a “GETOUTNOW!” SVU-level manipulator. Somewhere along the way, I decided that the term “manipulative” is reserved for obvious, sociopathic possessiveness. Not true. Little comments about your legs being unshaven, your panties being too granny, or your tears being silly chip at your self esteem and manipulate you into changing your behavior or appearance. It’s slow, but after two years, it’s tangible. I never really thought about why I have a drawer full of uncomfortable thongs, or feel guilty when I cry, until talking this out with a professional and realizing just how deep these beliefs went. It may not be intentional, it may not be malicious, but it’s manipulation and it’s not part of a good relationship.
9. How he talks about women is important.
If he calls other women, especially women he’s been involved with in some way, things like “sluts,” “whores,” or “crazy”—that’s a huge red flag. As a self-proclaimed feminist, it made literally no sense for me to stay with someone like that. But even if you’re lower on the Steinem scale, you have to think about what these terms reveal about his views of others. Likewise with girlfriends: If she talks about other men in a way that you wouldn’t want her to talk about you, what does that say about her view of men? Are they disposable? Are they untrustworthy?
If the way they talk about the opposite gender makes you uncomfortable, it probably means their core views and values don’t mesh with yours. Even if that unsettled feeling doesn’t make a lot of sense, it’s there for a reason. You need to think about what makes you uncomfortable, why, and how that is going to work in the long term. You can’t ignore the difference in opinion forever.
10. Jealousy isn’t a personality trait.
I used to chalk jealousy up to those relationship personality traits that everyone attributes has. Me? I’m nurturing, spontaneous, cuddly, and the jealous type. Him? Also jealous. Great! He’ll understand my weird, jealous personality thing!
No. If you feel jealous in your relationships, it’s because your emotional needs are not being met, or maybe they’re not accustomed to being met. You need to try and understand why you feel this way, and what things could help change that feeling. For me, the combination of not being able to have deep, meaningful conversations (see #2 and #6), and confusion about my partner’s attraction to me (see #5 and #8), led to me feeling insecure, unhappy, and unnurtured. That’s no way to spend a relationship.
“Jealous” isn’t a type, or an inevitability.
11. You can learn something from everyone.
Whether the relationship is two weeks long or two years long, you can learn some important things about yourself and your preferences. Recognize that, take those lessons, and don’t be all “but good timesssss.” Just move forward.
12. Change isn’t their responsibility, but evolution is yours.
If you’re head-over-heels for someone, it’s tempting to believe their shortcomings will change. Whether for you, or because they wake up with a surge of self-awareness, someday things will be better. Right? Unfortunately, you can’t count on that.
When you realize that your relationship has some problems, even if you think they’re 100% the fault of your partner, you have to make the decision to either live with them (is that healthy for you?) or move on. Waiting for the other person to change, or worse, confronting them and asking them to change, is just going to make things much worse. Suddenly you’ve set up a weird power balance and someone feels “wrong.” It’s not your partner’s responsibility to change, it’s your responsibility to do what is best for you, and move forward learning from the mistakes of yourself or others.
The first version of this article’s title was “12 Things I Learned From Dating An Asshole.” Although I’m obviously still working on the bitterness thing, I realized that was wrong. He had some bad qualities, and many qualities I didn’t like in retrospect, but in the end, the only person with a responsibility to change is myself. I learned, so now it’s time to live like I did. He wasn’t an asshole, or a dick, or a jerk. He was a guy that was not right for me. He may be “right” for someone that is less introspective, or is at a different point in their life, or on a different emotional plane. Maybe he actually learned from our failed relationship, and is trying to change some of the things about himself that I mentioned.
Either way, we’re both with different people now, and it’s been two fucking years. I have flaws, he has flaws, our flaws couldn’t coexist. He wasn’t a bad guy, he was just the wrong guy.