I am sitting across a restaurant table, having wine and catching up with my ex from a billion years ago. More than all the others, I thought she was the one that I would be with forever. Of course, I was 27 then, and I thought I’d be young and have a tight butt forever too. As we laugh and chat about our lives, now filled with kids, wives, and mortgages, (ok, her life is filled with a kid, a wife, and a mortgage,) I realize that in almost every case, my ex-girlfriends, the ones I had serious relationships with anyway, have been my biggest teachers in life.
Later, in search of more understanding about past relationships, I sprawl out on the bedroom floor with a glass of wine and old journals as my cats romp and tumble about the room. As I read my own words and remember the sweet beginnings, the vulnerable miscommunications, and each ultimate demise, I realize two things at the same time: that I never really knew what I was doing and that anything I do know today is because of the women I now call my exes.
Here are the top four things I learned from being with these women.
1) Relationships were a mirror for how I felt about myself.
For years I blamed my bad relationships on my exes and then I got in the worst relationship I’ve even been in. Our communication was toxic. One moment she adored me, the next moment she was emotionally abusive. When the relationship ended, I had to really look at how and why I participated in it to begin with. In the end, I realized that when we started dating, I was in the middle of a deep depression, one that left me feeling hopeless and wondering, “Who would want to date this?” Looking back, I recognized that in that checked out, self-despising state, I wasn’t as dialed in to compatibility, to what was or wasn’t healthy, or to red flags. Our relationship was just a reflection of how I felt about me.
2) Love doesn’t trump incompatibility.
In the movies, when things go awry with our leading couple, there is a moment when one lover realizes that their love can overcome any challenge. Love, the message tells us, conquers all. Cue to uplifting music as our lovers race through an airport toward each other. Or something. In real life, I’ve spent a lot of time in airports and the truth is, I have never seen a single person racing toward their partner. When I got in a relationship with an amazing woman who had every quality I had been looking for yet we couldn’t really understand each other, I began to understand that, to put it in Seinfeld terms, we were great together on paper. As the relationship progressed and we rarely met in the middle I began to understand relationships in a different light: it’s not really about blame or being right or wrong. I realized that there’s nothing wrong with her and there’s nothing wrong with me, we just don’t fit.
3) Losing myself in relationships was from a lack of boundaries.
Of all the lessons I have learned about love in 20 years of dating and relationships, learning how to set and hold appropriate boundaries has been the biggest game changer of all. Where I would have let myself focus all my energy on the relationship in the past, I learned to check in with myself with how I’m feeling, with what I need, and with the balance I want between taking care of myself and taking care of the relationship. I developed more skills around communicating, “This is how I feel,” to better take responsibility for myself. This realization helped me take ownership of my own happiness and avoid taking responsibility for things that weren’t mine. The best part about learning about boundaries was that it applied in all parts of my life – with friends, at work, and with family.
4) I had my guard up in most relationships.
I have often felt confused and that I was alone to deal with life when things went sideways in many relationships, including with friends and family. I could never understand why, periodically, I felt totally supported and safe, while other times I felt like I was dangling out on a tree limb by myself. Then I had a medical situation that left me completely vulnerable and without any walls up. And to my surprise I felt totally supported and safe. Finally, I connected that the times I felt support were the times where, because I had let my guard down, I let people in enough to see where I was struggling. I didn’t understand for many years that the ability to be vulnerable or not was what separated those times from the out on a limb times – and was totally in my control.
These days, I’m working on holding gratitude for all the things I learned from my relationships, to take responsibility for my part in them, and to let go of anger and hurt that doesn’t help me today. It isn’t a clear thing – some days I’m Zen about it all and other days I feel edgy with frustration. But I’m working on it. After all, isn’t that all we can ever do when it comes to growth?
I believe we are all better when we can learn from each other. If you’d like to share, post a comment below or email me. I’d love to hear from you! Want more dating musings? Subscribe to my weekly newsletter here.
Kim Baker is an educator, freelance writer, and blogger whose writing explores lesbian dating in the digital age. Drawing on 20 years of dating, she redefines dating through the lens of mindfulness and connection. Kim is writing a dating book that offers a healthy approach to dating, beginning with self-care. Follow Kim on Twitter: @sdwriter girl, or visit her website: www.sdwritergirl.com.