- Early romantic experiences can feel awkward, but they help us learn about ourselves and being with others.
- Sometimes we need to spend time with different partners to identify what we like and don’t like.
- Past partners can teach us what kinds of boundaries we want in our relationships.
Many Americans start dating during their teens but don’t make binding romantic commitments like marriage or long-term cohabitation until their late 20s or early 30s. That leaves 10, 15, or sometimes 20 years to partner up … and break up. Any romantic or sexual relationship, short or long, serious or casual, realized or unrequited, has meaning for our romantic lives. The more we can learn from these past partners, the better equipped we are to build the types of relationships we want (a process called romantic development).
In the Relationship Histories Study, 35 participants (ages 24-40) discussed 256 romantic and sexual relationships during their in-depth interviews. Of those relationships, 242 (95%) had ended. In a recent publication, Dr. Caroline Sanner and I found that these ex-partners had taught participants valuable lessons about (1) how to be in a relationship, (2) preferences for partners and partnerships, and (3) setting and maintaining personal boundaries.
How do we learn how to be in a relationship?
Our earliest relationships are especially helpful for practicing being romantically involved with another person. Sometimes these relationships are brief or feel superficial, but they teach us how to manage the big emotions that come with attraction and how to say “no thanks” when there isn’t a mutual attraction.
We also found that crushes and unrequited love were sometimes very important. One participant talked about a high school friend and crush as the bane of her existence during adolescence. Yet, he was the first person to tell her she was beautiful, and the ways that he treated her well—and not so well—shaped her choice of partners moving forward.
For some people, these early experiences happen during adolescence, but for others they happen later. It doesn’t matter how or when you gain relationship experience. The important thing is to realize that early experiences can feel awkward, but they are very valuable in helping us learn about ourselves and being with others.
What kind of partner do you want?
You may have found yourself on a date or looking at a dating profile thinking, “This is definitely not what I want.” But in many cases, we need to spend a little bit of time with incompatible partners to identify what we like and don’t like.
For example, one participant from our study went out to a restaurant with someone she was casually dating. He didn’t want to learn how to use chopsticks because he never thought he would visit China. She realized that she thinks of herself as a traveler and an explorer. It was a deal-breaker that he wouldn’t want to explore the world with her.
Sometimes former partners show us what we do want, even if that relationship ultimately doesn’t work out. Another participant had a relationship in college with someone who taught her how to be vulnerable and how to love another person. They weren’t compatible for the long term, but she took lessons from that relationship into the future as she sought someone equally warm and loving.
For participants who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, gaining experience with different kinds of partners was often key to understanding their sexual identity. For example, one participant had a casual sexual relationship with a man. He suggested she might enjoy being with another woman more than being with him. He introduced her to a woman he thought she might like and she realized that, yes, she was attracted to this woman.
Whether you find things you like or don’t like in the people you date, each partner is a piece of the puzzle about who you will be most compatible with.
What boundaries do you need and want?
Imagine drawing two overlapping circles to show how involved you prefer to be in a partner’s life. Some people would draw circles that just barely touch, showing that they want to be connected but retain a lot of independence. Others would draw circles that are almost completely overlapping, showing that they want to be involved in almost every part of their partner’s life and vice versa.
These preferences often need to be explored through experience. You may find out you need more independence after being with a partner that wants to be together all the time. A lot of togetherness leaves less time for friends or interests we value. Alternatively, you may be someone who wants more consistent contact, and having a partner who isn’t around much could feel disconnected and unsatisfying. Finding this balance takes some trial and error. Our former partners give us the chance to try something, course-correct what we don’t like, and try again.
The past paves the way for the future
Breaking up with a partner is rarely easy, but when we learn from the experience, better relationships are likely to follow. As we mature and learn more about ourselves and our preferences, we choose partners differently and relate to them differently. By understanding the interactions we had with ex-partners, we can make choices that result in happier future relationships. So, rather than thinking of past relationships as failures, think of them as opportunities for growth. Thank those people for teaching you what you don’t want and move on to seeking what you do want.
Jamison, T. B., & Sanner, C. M. (2021) Relationship form and function: Exploring meaning-making in young adults’ romantic histories. Personal Relationships. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12400
Shulman, S. (2017). The emerging adulthood years: Finding one’s way in career and intimate love relationships, The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 70(1). 40-62. https://doi.org/10.1080/00797308.2016.1277123