Before I started dating my partner of eight years, a quiz on his Myspace profile (this was 2007, okay?) said that he liked blondes, redheads, and women with green eyes. I was a black-haired, brown-eyed teen who was crushing hard on him. His preferences were a small obstacle.
Today, I have “Adult” things like an apartment and the freedom to buy whichever type of cereal I want. I also know a little more about the realities of love and relationships than I did when I was fifteen. And when I think back to the way I acted as a lovestruck teen, I cringe for many reasons — but one of those reasons is that I had no idea how to deal with relationships.
If I could hop into Doc Brown’s Delorean and travel back to 2007, here’s exactly what I would tell my younger self about love:
1. It’s okay to trust your significant other.
When I met the guy that would eventually become my go-to buddy for midnight french fry runs, I was in the middle of some Major Family Drama. I had major trust issues at the time, and I was afraid of getting hurt. More specifically, I was afraid that he would leave me.
It makes sense for people to keep their guards up at the start of a new relationship. But there’s a nasty side effect to guarding yourself — I was so absorbed with my “what ifs” (What if he’s lying? What if he thinks I’m ugly? What if he cheats?) that I didn’t give myself a chance to recognize all the good things my boyfriend was doing for our relationship.
I believe that actions speak louder than words, but it’s difficult to take actions seriously when you don’t trust your partner’s intentions. It took some time to quiet those “what ifs.” But when I did, my relationship became a true friendship. I was able to move past my insecurities by finally recognizing one big thing: my boyfriend had proven his character from day one, and getting in my head would only distract me from the present.
2. Speak up and listen.
I used to get mad at my boyfriend for stupid reasons. If he didn’t text me back quickly enough, I would assume he was uninterested in me. If he didn’t seem excited enough to talk to me on the phone, I would take it personally. At the same time, though, I had a big problem with speaking up — I wanted him to know why I was upset, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by saying anything was wrong.
Here’s the thing: that mentality is both ridiculous and a surefire way to give your partner the cold shoulder without quite understanding why. I used to do this frustratingly often, and it’s probably one of the biggest behaviors of my teendom that still makes me cringe. I want to go back and shake my younger self by the shoulders and scream, “He’s not psychic! How is he supposed to understand your needs if he never knows why you’re upset?”
I understand not wanting to spark an argument. But you can’t just wait for your partner to pick up on “signals,” and you can’t yell your frustrations at your partner and expect things to change; you also have to listen. Loveisrespect, an organization that raises awareness on healthy dating behaviors, offers a number of great communication tips — including the necessity of mutual respect. We all want to feel like we matter and like our feelings can be safely shared. Listening allows us to tell our partners that we’re trying to keep their ideas in mind. Once my boyfriend and I started taking time to listen to each other, I was able to learn way more about him — and our communication only improved because of it.
3. Actions speak louder than words.
This phrase is worth repeating because it’s JUST THAT IMPORTANT. Words are nice, but they can also be trash. Actions are gold. Genuine actions are worth everything when you’re trying to figure out if your partner is “The One” or just “One-and-Done.” When I was younger, I had this image of what romance should be — love notes, long phone calls, excessively romantic gestures (I blame ’90s rom-coms for that perception). However, I was so focused on those ideas that I never stopped to consider how my partner showed his affection: through his actions.
You may have heard that love is expressed through different “love languages.” My younger self thought that love could only be expressed verbally, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to understand that neither my boyfriend nor I want big, grand gestures. We just want quality time together, bumming around the couch with milkshakes and Netflix — and to us, that’s completely romantic (and delicious, because milkshakes). Not everyone shows their love in the same way, and that’s okay. What matters is that you and your partner communicate your needs to each other, making an active effort to show each other your love, care, and attention.
4. It won’t always be easy, and that’s okay.
Throughout our eight years together, my boyfriend and I have shared heavy relationship talks, have felt frustrated and hurt, and have dealt with different life trials. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with rough patches as long as you and your partner are both working toward one ultimate goal: maintaining each other’s happiness. This is why my boyfriend and I have never outright screamed at each other or called each other names — the last thing either of us wants is to hurt each other’s feelings. Instead, we speak up and listen (see #3).
Sure, sometimes you’re going to have arguments that feel impossible. But in those moments, you really have to ask yourself what you’re feeling, what your partner might be feeling, and what needs to be discussed in order to move on. By speaking up and listening, I’ve learned the power of compromise, of agreeing to disagree, of expressing emotions calmly and rationally — and those lessons are vital parts of maintaining a healthy relationship.
5. First, you must love yourself.
This one is vital. You can’t love someone else if you don’t love yourself. You can’t tell yourself you deserve a great relationship unless you actually believe it to be true. And most importantly, it’s hard to act like yourself in a relationship unless you actually enjoy who you are as a person.
At this point in my life, after therapy, time, and lots of talking, I’m comfortable with who I am and where I’m headed. I wholeheartedly believe that I deserve a relationship that fulfills me. This wasn’t always the case; my younger self was defined by my relationship, which still makes me cringe. Today, I know that having a relationship does not make or break my life. Instead, my relationship adds to it. My boyfriend and I agreed early on that we didn’t like the phrase “I need you” because it’s absolutely untrue. I don’t need a boyfriend in order to feel validated or whole, and I don’t need to depend on anyone else in order to feel happy.
Instead of saying, “I need you” to my partner, I say other things that carry more meaning to both of us. I say, “ I love spending time with you,” “I can’t wait to see you,” and, of course, the most important of all: “I love you. Let’s get fries.”