Failed relationships, therapy, and self-help books taught me everything that romance books never did.

The media manipulates us into believing love and relationships should be this colorful, grandeur event from beginning to end. There are stories like this, sure, but they don’t happen as often as we think they should.

This isn’t to say I haven’t heard real, heart-warming, stomach-tickling, foot-flipping romantic stories. Though, there are very few of those. My point is real love stories are practical, pragmatic, and based on one’s personal traits and stage in life. And, all relationships are hard and nothing like the movies.

A lover of books and films, I enjoy reading romance and watching romantic comedies. Eventually, these presentations provided me with a false narrative of what love should look like. This delusion of the charming, typical love story deeply embedded itself into my mind and, ever subtly, became my inner compass for choosing my partners.

Years ago, if there weren’t butterflies in my stomach and fireworks in my kisses and some universal sign in the form of an explosion from where he wined and dined me to the way he said my name, it meant I needed to dump him and wait for the one who would do that for me. It is these unbelievable expectations that led to the wrong relationships and their eventual demise.

Unhealthy Perspectives of Romance

Aside from unrealistic expectations, my romantic life was also dominated by an innate fear of settling down with someone I would grow to resent and eventually divorce. Divorce and multiple separations from both sides of parents shined a repulsive light on marriage.

Therefore, I held two unhealthy perspectives of relationships: One in films and books that were patient and beautiful and perfect. The second perspective ended in a bitter divorce. There was no in-between in my mindset. Therefore, I did not know things like effective communication, mutual respect, conflict resolutions, and love language.

These unhealthy perspectives permeated every thought and decision as I searched for someone who could figuratively, and even literally, sweep me off my feet like in the movies. But men, or in my case boys, don’t actually do this. Especially not the quiet, inexperienced (but adorable) nerds, I often dated. I would be left with this trickling anxiety that they must not be enough, because our relationship was not as easy-going or as passionate as the relationships in the movies. I would be left asking questions such as:

Why does he refuse to go out on weekend nights? Why doesn’t he want to meet my friends? Why can’t he ever be the one to initiate the conversation about anything? Or, at least add to the conversational bait I’m throwing at him? Why won’t he ever read my pieces when I ask? Why doesn’t he ever make the plans for our dates? Why does he constantly leer at other women? Is it normal to feel this bored when we hang out?

Do I not like him enough? Is this what the rest of my life is going to look like? Would dating his friend be better? He is taller and better looking after all. Is he settling for me? Am I settling for him?

Eventually, the questions would be a blaring alarm to every activity we engaged in and every date we went on until I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d slowly distance myself and then one of us (usually me) brought up the idea that things weren’t working out. From there, I would jump back in the dating pool, searching for a rebound to numb the pain. At least, until I found the one who could do what I’d been expecting all these years.

Well, I finally realized that was never going to happen. In the last three years, I have realized I am not living inside a quirky Reese Witherspoon romantic-comedy, although I’ve had quite a few moments that I believe to be romantic-comedy worthy. This is real life.

We have to build a strong foundation with a partner to who we are not only undeniably attracted but who also shares our interests and values. A large part of this foundation is effective communication, a skill I did not develop for years. If I had simply brought up my concerns about these issues, we could have worked on it, together. Because if our foundation is strong enough, then the possibility of a sustainable relationship becomes even greater.

But, my unrealistic expectations of the relationship, based on the superficial relationships of films and books, combined with my history of witnessing bitter divorces and separations, influenced me to cut and run whenever there was trouble ahead. Then, I can search for the perfect man, one who loves me more than anything, and who instinctively knows what to do without my saying anything.

It took me several years and a few failed long-term and short-term relationships to accept that all relationships will always be a work-in-progress. We are independent people who need help, motivation, and elevation from our partners. Not a sudden exit or escape route.

Rather than looking at my relationships as failed tragedies, I chose to look at my own role within the relationship, and apply a lens of gratitude and positivity. And, rather than complain about what these previous partners did and did not do, I should be grateful for what I gained from each relationship. The experience, the memories, and the insight. Because we leave each relationship knowing much more about ourselves than before.

What I Learned from Relationships

A large focus of love stories is change. One character is pressured to change and because these stories aren’t real and end within a few hours (depending on whether it’s a book, episode, or movie), the character always changes for the one they love. I used to perceive this as the most misleading concept in every, single love story. But, now I see some truth to it. I didn’t change for the ones I loved and they didn’t change for me. However, we changed because of the relationship itself. We transformed over time and we’ve risen as a phoenix from the ashes of our dead relationship.

And though my relationships haven’t come close to the faux, depthless affairs I’ve found in literature and in movies, they have produced a different kind of happy ending. One where we not only grow, but we take what we’ve learned and implement these teachings into our own life and into our next relationship.  

Because of my relationships, I have learned to see red flags early on and be cautious about the person I am allowing into my life.

I learned to let my walls down and trust the person I have chosen to be with.

I learned my love language, (physical touch, quality time, words of affirmation), and learned I cannot be with someone who does not share at least one similar language.

I learned what my boundaries were in relationships and how to stick with them — even if I feel uncomfortable opening up about it.

I learned that respect, ambition, and intelligence were the most substantial values I desired in my partner–although I had convinced myself it was spirituality and kindness that I wanted more. I still do want a kind and spiritual partner, of course, but I realized my previous relationships have ended because they lacked those three and I often found myself bored, frustrated or disrespected.

I learned communication was one of my own largest flaws. Rather than admit how I was hurt or disrespected by something a partner had done or said– I would stonewall and give the silent treatment. I was also very guilty of catastrophizing conversations, emotional reasoning, and black and white thinking, all cognitive distortions that go into ineffective communication skills. It took a few sessions of couple’s counseling to realize how this flaw permeated and stained almost every single relationship. Effective communication skills are something I actively work on daily.

And one of the recent, most important lessons I learned was to never date somebody for who they could be, only for who they are at that time.

A Realistic View on Romantic Relationships

Each of these relationships, and a few short-term flings, opened my heart and softened my view to what I really want from a relationship and what I should never expect. These relationships helped me work on my own bad habits and character flaws and led me to a variety of self-help books that are dedicated to issues with communication and conflicts. Self-help books such as Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married, Set Boundaries Find Peace, and even Single On Purpose.

Overall, I’m no longer afraid of marriage. I’ve acquired a realistic notion of a relationship. After many years in a variety of wonderful, and not-so-wonderful, relationships I’ve decided to stop looking for romance and butterflies, and start looking for stability and maturity. It is not just a relationship, it is a partnership.

And, I’d rather have a partnership with someone who inspires me to be the best version of myself while challenging me just enough to keep me on my toes, intellectually, instead of chasing each other around in a sick, unbeatable game of, change and heartbreak. As it goes in the circus and quicksand of romance movies. Due to my previous, gritty experiences in realistic relationships, I’m able to scrape the brainwashed aspects of romance from my mind and trudge forward, making better decisions in real-life relationships that I am eternally grateful for. Because failed relationships taught me what romance never could.

As Ariana Grande would say, “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex. Thank you, next.”