My learning process
This was written in February 2016.
Love yourself. Be yourself. Say what you're thinking. Communication and teamwork are critical, but trust is king. Care about your own feelings. Avoid uncomfortable situations. Embrace like-minded people. Don't hold grudges.
These pieces of advice seem simple, clear-cut, perhaps even obvious. But I didn't always follow them...I had to go through a learning process first. And this process was a difficult one for me.
I was different from your typical kid. Computers and video games interested me more than, well, just about everything else. I was ahead in reading and math, but behind in social skills. Social cues were never my strong suit; in fact, it's only been a few years since I actually started to put in real effort there.
I spent the majority of my high school experience with a crush on one girl. My stomach, which I inherited directly from my father, gave me problems almost every morning. The crush continued until she told me off at the end of my junior year. This was well-deserved, but still shocked and floored the 16-year-old version of me.
For my senior year I decided to forget about crushes, feelings, relationships, etc. and just enjoy myself. I had an amazing year, and the stomachaches disappeared. (It wasn't until years later that I realized that--just as with my father--my stomachaches are tied to my level of stress.) I even became good friends with my former crush, as well as many other great people. But as I was not looking for a relationship, it's something I never experienced in high school.
I didn't really "catch up" in college, either. For many, college is a time to experiment, to mess around, to get to know various types of people, and to get to know oneself, all in the context of relationships. I, on the other hand, was mostly content to hang out with my dorm-mates and play video games. The levels of physical and emotional complexity of my (two) college relationships were relatively low, and I believe it's mostly my fault. Why? Because I had no experience, no clue as to what I was doing, and no idea how to progress.
My belief is that my learning process actually began just after my 30th birthday, when my over-seven-year relationship--which had begun around my college graduation--abruptly came to an end. Once again, I was more shocked than I should have been. The relationship had not been progressing. It had become more "comfortable" than anything else. There were long-term, unresolved issues, and we had never been good at communicating about those issues (and others). How could they be resolved if we couldn't even talk about them? Both of us were grossly inexperienced going into it, and ultimately, we had no idea how to move forward.
What followed was a very intense experience that turned out to be full of joy, pain, and ultimately, learning. I began a relationship with someone who was much more experienced than I was, and I had done so on a whim. I wasn't even certain of my true feelings at the time I jumped in. But jump I did, and I took all of my inexperience with me.
This person was very intense. Always thinking, always challenging both herself and others. She was always talking, and was proud of her communication skills. Keeping up with her was sometimes a real challenge; I was used to people who were more easygoing. I sometimes felt intimidated, as I believed that she was more intelligent than I was. But she was passionate about the people and things that she liked, and I was no exception. I was always trusting of my friends and partners, so I trusted her completely.
The year-and-a-half or so that we dated was just as intense as she was. But I learned a lot during that time. I felt that I now had a much better idea of what an equal partnership looked like. She taught me that a full, open line of communication is critical to a partnership. She always put lots of effort into our activities, and I'd try my best to match that. She took the effort to get to know my family and my friends, which excited me because they were my favorite people. My feelings, which had been uncertain at first, became real and genuine, then got stronger with time.
And then, just as my previous relationship had, it ended suddenly. Once again, I was shocked...I hadn't seen it coming. But things were different this time. In the conversations we had over the following months, I learned that this person--who had taught me that an open line of communication was critical to a relationship's success--had closed that line of communication, and had stopped voicing her true feelings to me several months before she broke things off. Instead, she had been voicing them to others in her life, including my friends...one of whom she began a romantic relationship with just two months later. But the worst part of all was that, over the year-plus that followed, when social gatherings among my circle took place, she was almost always present. The choice between isolation and just having all of this in my face was too much for me, and I'd plunged into a depression unlike any I'd ever felt before. This was, to date, the single most difficult experience of my life.
I am a firm believer in the theory that we are the sum of the moments that led us to now...all of them, whether they're good, bad, or in between. Ultimately, this turned out to be a critical part of my learning experience, and the catalyst for several tough, but good lessons.
I'd always heard "you have to love yourself before you can love someone else." That is true. For the 18 or so months that followed, I was single and (for the most part) NOT looking. This was the longest period of time that I'd not been in a relationship since college, and looking back on it, I know that it was necessary. I would recommend to anyone in a similar situation--newly single, but used to being in a relationship--that they try spending some time alone. It is awkward and painful at first, but an empowering confidence-builder later. It helped lead me to where I am now. Because when you approach a relationship saying "what's the worst that could happen? Being by myself isn't so bad," you are more likely to represent the best version of yourself, rather than act desperately because you really want to be in a relationship.
That leads me to "be yourself," which is another big one. It sounds so cliche and so obvious, but many don't seem to completely understand the meaning of those two words. Everyone has their faults, shortcomings, and weaknesses; truly, nobody is perfect. Many of us are tempted to cover those up when looking for a partner, leaving them to discover the faults later (possibly much later). Don't! Also, don't fake an interest in things your partner likes if you're truly uninterested. You should not be trying to falsely represent a person that isn't you. Let your partner fall in love with the *real* you. There won't be any unexpected surprises later, and your relationship will be stronger because of it. (Addendum to this: you still want to put in the effort to work on your weaknesses! Your partner may accept them, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't want to improve yourself.)
Related to "be yourself" is "say what you're thinking." Don't keep things to yourself. Share your thoughts with your partner. All of them. Good, bad, ugly...share them. If your partner said or did something that made you uncomfortable or unhappy, share that too, in as much of a respectful and non-confrontational way as possible. This way, it can be talked about, improved upon, apologized for, etc. rather than grow into a larger issue or a major problem. If your partner loves you, and trusts that you care about them (and the relationship as a whole) then they will never criticize you for sharing your true feelings.
Speaking of trust: I had thought that communication was probably the most important aspect of a relationship, but it's not. At best, it's the second-most important. Trust is number one. That's something else I learned. When trust breaks down--for either partner, not necessarily both!--the relationship can't succeed. Implicit and complete trust is not merely important, but essential to a healthy committed relationship. Without trust, you have nothing at all.
You need to care about your own feelings. That may sound odd to some, but my mentality used to consist of "partner first," "others first," "good of the group," or some combination of those. The truth is, though, that your own feelings should matter too. Not seriously considering your own feelings can lead to further mistakes, as it did in my own case. My ex actually asked me if it was okay for her to date my friend. Because I was not yet over her, because I was still not considering my own feelings, and because I thought I could handle it, I told her yes.* That just makes you want to cringe, doesn't it? This made everything more awkward for everyone in my social circle, not just me. So...please, even if you routinely put others first, don't forget to consider your own feelings. After all, since they care about you, your friends and partners would want you to, anyway!
It is important that you avoid uncomfortable situations. Avoid deliberately putting yourself into these situations, and if you find yourself in one, remove yourself...because when folks are uncomfortable, they tend to make others uncomfortable as well. There were several occasions when my ex, her new date, and I were all invited to the same gathering. This happened often, because she had now become a part of my social circle. Not having that social time was difficult, so I naturally wanted to join in, but on the occasions that I did, I acted awkwardly...which, in turn, made others feel uncomfortable. When we had been brought together to celebrate something, like someone's birthday, it took the focus off of that and put it on me. I honestly believe that my behavior caused at least one person--someone I used to call a friend--to stop talking to me, and I deeply regret making his events uncomfortable. So in your travels--for your own wellbeing, and for the wellbeing of those around you--know that it is best to avoid uncomfortable situations.
I learned that no matter how different, or odd, or strange, or quirky, or unique you think you are, there are people out there that think--and feel--the same way that you do. These people will understand you, and you'll understand them right back. Trusting them will come easily because they're already on the same wavelength as you. They can help you through some tough times, and helping them through theirs will seem effortless. Someone like this really helped me a lot during the time I was single, and I hope I'm touch with them for a very long time. Keep someone like this in your life; you'll be glad you did.
And last, but not least, try not to hold a grudge. Or, to stay angry. At anyone, I mean. We are the sum of our previous moments, but we continue to have more moments. Therefore, we are constantly evolving, changing creatures. And while people do terrible things sometimes, it is important to remember that when a person performs an act, it was performed by the version of that person that existed in that time. Some of us change more than others, true, but I know for a fact that I'm a much different person now than I was four, ten, or twenty years ago. The same can be true of others as well. So, holding a grudge can be pointless. After all, the person who hurt you might not even exist any more...because, perhaps, they have also changed.
I truly believe that learning these lessons helped lead me to where I am now: directly into the arms of an amazing match for me, a sweet, wonderful person who I can't get enough of. Maybe I got a late start compared to many other folks, maybe I made a number of mistakes along the way, maybe I endured some pretty miserable moments...but if given another chance, I would probably do it all the same way again. After all, I'm thorougly satisfied with how this ended up, and proud of the person I am today.
* My ex told me later on that she would have dated my friend regardless of whether I'd said "yes" when she asked. However, this does not change the fact that my saying "yes" was a big mistake.