8 Relationship Lessons You'll Learn Your Whole Life
A few weeks ago, I called my father on the drive to work, and quickly dove into an exasperated recount of a silly fight at home the night before with my husband. “So, what happened?” My dad asked. “Oh,” I said, “Nothing, really—I am just trying to be . . . less selfish.” He burst out laughing and replied, “Good luck with that! I’m still learning.”
His point stuck with me. When it comes to relationships, whether romantic or platonic in nature, we assume that there’s an end goal, a destination where we’ll have it all figured out. That simply isn’t true, which means that we keep on fighting the good fight, stepping up and speaking out in ways that challenge us to be better versions of ourselves. Here are some of the lessons I’ve had to learn over and over again.
1. It isn’t 50/50; it is 100/100.
You often hear that in the best relationships, effort is fifty-fifty. But research shows that we unconsciously overestimate the amount of work we put forth in comparison to others. Author Gretchen Rubin writes, “This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do.”
Focus on giving one hundred percent wherever you can, and worry less about keeping score.
Take household chores, for example: Even though my partner and I agree to split the work in half—he does the dishes and I tackle the laundry, he runs the dog out and I bathe the baby—but it is often incredibly easy to feel like we are each doing more than the other person. Instead, focus on giving one hundred percent wherever you can, and worry less about keeping score.
2. Beauty exists in the mundane.
A friend of mine lost her mother a few years ago, and recently shared that her warmest memories involve the smallest things: The sound of her mother’s voice on the phone, the view of her mother shutting off the hallway light before bed, the feeling of her mother’s arms embracing her in a hug. Those are the moments she misses most.
If I pay attention, I can find plenty of opportunities to appreciate the small joys around me during the routine of normalcy, no matter the stress or challenges that may also exist. Like the way my 9-month-old son screams at our dog with glee. Putting on red lipstick to go to dinner with my husband. Sitting on the couch at my grandparents' house talking about the weather for the millionth time. Going grocery shopping with my little sister to get ingredients for tacos. Laughing with my best friend, thousands of miles away, on FaceTime.
There are hundreds of little, fleeting moments in your life that wouldn't necessarily seem noteworthy—but they add up to one big thing: your life. Enjoy the small treasures of your relationships whenever you can because those times might form the basis of the "good 'ole days" that you will spend hours reminiscing about later on.
3. Trust your gut.
I used to bounce around from relationship to relationship, always feeling the need to have someone at my side. And then after a particularly bad heartbreak, I decided to put dating on pause. The next week, a really nice guy asked me out. I almost said yes, thinking to myself, “Who knows! Be open!” But deep down, I knew that being alone was the only thing I needed right then. So I said no.
Now, that certainly doesn’t mean I’ve always followed my intuition; however, I am slowly learning to listen to myself. When I’m confronted with a fork in the road, I usually know what I need, what I want, how I feel. That doesn’t mean I can predict the future, and sometimes I still veer off-course. But it means I’m following my own truth and paying attention to my inner compass, two things that have never steered me wrong.
Look at your life. Take stock in the simple pleasures. Find the pieces of beauty that add dimension to your days, days that just might later become memories you look upon longingly.
As author Cheryl Strayed says, “I don’t think there’s a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do while I was doing it. Even when I justified it to myself—as I did every damn time—the truest part of me knew I was doing the wrong thing. Always. As the years pass, I’m learning how to better trust my gut and not do the wrong thing, but every so often I get a harsh reminder that I’ve still got work to do.”
4. If it seems unhealthy, it probably is.
I once loved a man for years who didn’t love me back, with whom the timing always jarred like an old cobbled road that trips your feet. I remember wondering, “Why doesn’t this work? What is the problem?” It wasn’t until we finally parted ways that I was able to see how dysfunctional our dynamic had become.
Broken relationships are broken for a reason, whether it is your lover, parent, or friend. Either you do the work to mend the rift or you let go and move on. It can be exceptionally painful, but in my experience, such times allow you to learn valuable lessons about boundaries. Darkness can be a gift, one that pushes you into the light.
5. Practice patience.
My mom used to say this to my sisters and me, over and over, when we got frustrated with one another. I can still see myself sighing dramatically and saying, “I know,” upon hearing these words out of her mouth. But it’s true. Patience is a virtue, a behavior that must be learned and taught and practiced repeatedly. It is also the trait we most frequently lose our grip on.
In those times of extreme irritation, take a page out of my brother-in-law’s book. He says that when he’s annoyed, he tells himself to pretend that everyone has to pee. Meaning, they’re antsy and grieved and distracted and vexed, too, just like him. It offers a dose of compassion and perspective—as well as a much-needed laugh.
6. Change, and fear of the unknown, is normal.
Many of us think that as soon as we get into a relationship, we’re good. We’re all set. Done. Check mark. Task completed. But if the national divorce rate is any indication, that’s not exactly how it works. People outgrow one another. Our needs evolve, as do our preferences, personalities, goals, and capacities.
Accept the ups and downs of life while fighting for what you believe in, and confront what you don’t understand with an open mind.
Rather than becoming a control freak, give yourself the grace to trust that you’ll be OK. You can’t always control the future. You can make every effort to protect yourself and your loved ones, and you will still experience loss at some point down the road. You might be in the perfect partnership and later discover that your life is calling for a new set of circumstances. You could marry someone who, fifty years down the line, is even better than you would’ve imagined; you could end up alone and happy; you could fall in love with someone completely outside of your expected paradigm.
Fearing change and the unknown is a messy part of our humanity. Accept the ups and downs of life while fighting for what you believe in, and confront what you don’t understand with an open mind. Both mindsets build resilience and strength. Remember, most of all, you will be OK no matter what happens.
7. Equality and respect are fundamental rights.
In the wake of this year’s election—and let’s be honest, this year in general—it is vital to remember that equality and respect are fundamental rights. For everyone. Full stop. No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, who you choose to love, the language you choose to speak, we all have value and worth as human beings.
That being said, in our relationships, we must be willing to allow for differences of opinion, especially ones in stark contrast to our own. It’s OK to disagree, especially with people you love. We can acknowledge the things that divide us while also standing up to protect, extend, and lift up equality and respect for ourselves and others in our partnerships and families and schools and communities.
8. Love wins.
In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the beloved character Albus Dumbledore states, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” Similarly, love wins over fear and prevails over hate, always. When it feels like your relationship has hit a low, or you lack the type of partner you long for, or you can't quite make it work with your on-again, off-again person—stay optimistic. Not in the unrealistic, everything-happens-for-a-reason way, but in the hard won, you'll be OK no matter what what. . . because you already love yourself. Start there. Stay there. Let that type of self-love be your baseline.