Relationships are hard, but they are also beautiful, raw, real and unique. When relationships go well, there is no better feeling in the world, but when they get complicated, there is nothing that causes more anxiety or stress.
I have learned some very valuable relationship lessons throughout my 20s. While I have not mastered all of them, they are a part of my daily life in a way that will solidify my happiness in relationships for years to come.
Here are the top 12 important lessons I have learned about relationships in my 20s:
1. Learn to give another person freedom
I have been in situations where I have been scared to give someone else freedom, which, of course, is fueled by anxiety and fear. As soon as I put fear and anxiety ahead of love and understanding, I am no longer acting with the trust required of being in a healthy relationship.
I've acted according to what is best and easiest for me. And, of course, as soon as I do, the person I've done it to inevitably rebels. And, when he rebels and pushes away from me, I cling harder with fear of losing that person. The more this happens, the harder he pushes.
Resentment builds, and the thing I was most anxious about (losing that person entirely) inevitably happens.
I didn't pay attention to the most important part of being in a relationship: acceptance and understanding. Freedom is necessary for growth, and important for discovering dreams, passions, happiness, etc.
The more you are able to give someone freedom, the more he or she will feel understood, cherished and loved. He or she will want to spend time with you because your love comes with no strings attached.
2. Be your best self
I would obsess over who my significant other's ideal person was. I would want to become that person, and I would change myself to please other people.
I would try to follow my love's dreams and passions, and forget that the whole reason that person was attracted to me in the first place was because of who I am.
Whether you are in a relationship or not, your 20s teach you to be your best high-value self. Having expectations for yourself is just as important as having expectations for others.
3. Learn self-love
Self-love ties into your self-confidence; it allows you to excel and pushes your drive and growth. Having confidence leads to making choices based out of love and kindness, rather than fear, guilt and anxiety, which are the three emotions that will take you straight to a breakup.
Whatever it may be that builds your self-love, my advice to you is to learn how to love yourself unconditionally in your 20s.
This means accepting that you will never be perfect, and looking in the mirror and being comfortable with what you see. This means coming to terms with your past demons, letting go of the baggage that suffocates you, freeing your soul and igniting your spirit.
And, don't worry if you haven't mastered this because it is a lifelong lesson to be learned. I am still learning it every day, one step at a time.
4. Learn to trust without strings attached
Learning to trust is hard enough without considering the strings. When I began to trust other people, especially after coming out of some very immature and dramatic relationships in my teenage years and early 20s, I'd often include rules that came with the trust.
I've created procedures for what it will take for me to trust someone. For example, "I will trust you if you are always checking in with me," or "I will trust you if you are always telling me I am the person for you."
Luckily, my 20s have taught me that this kind of trust is not real trust; it only creates more fear. Believe me, if you look hard enough for a problem, you will always find one.
5. Learn how to be vulnerable
When I was younger, I did something I refer to now as “emotional flat-lining.” Emotional flat-lining is when you are so scared to be hurt that you close yourself off entirely. This sort of behavior is entirely protective, and for me, I felt I needed to secure myself so no one could hurt me again.
The unfortunate result was that, while I never felt overly sad or upset, I also never felt overly happy or excited. I was missing the entire point of living: to feel emotion.
Being vulnerable takes immense strength. It takes putting yourself out there, and doing what is in your heart and your soul.
It means admitting you love someone before he has told you he loves you. It means showing when you are sad. It means learning to be okay with your anxieties and fears and learning to turn them into strengths that lead you to emotional freedom.
6. Understand there is a difference between men and women
I am a feminist; I believe in true equality between the sexes and equal pay for equal jobs. I believe men are just as good as women, and I believe there are men who aren't horrible, untrustworthy and out to get me.
And, while I am both pro-woman and pro-man, I do not believe we are the same. Our differences are due in large part to our biology and also to societal conditioning. Whatever the reason may be, once I learned to accept this difference, it made me more comfortable in a relationship.
I can only really speak for myself, but I know I think differently than men. I overanalyze at times; when I am sad or lonely I want to cling to the person I love. I love sharing the way I feel, and while I know this is not always true of every woman, I know these actions are different from the actions of the men I know.
From my understanding, men retract when they are thinking things through. They need space and time and don't always want advice. They take longer to process emotional subjects. They like to spend time with their guy friends (a lot of time), and don't always want to be the person to whom you gossip every little detail of life.
Even at my age, I often forget this about men. I'll mistake the need for space as something to take personally. I will misread the quietness as something I've done wrong, and I will try to offer unnecessary advice. It's just in my blood, and I can't help myself sometimes.
Learning and understanding these differences takes time and a certain level of patience. It takes being in tune with your partner and leading with trust, kindness and love, rather than fear and anxiety.
7. Learn to respect
Learning how to respect others is huge. Respect is not a self-serving action. As with some of the other lessons here, this one is based purely on approaching life with positive energy rather than negative energy.
I've found that I've never had anyone treat me badly in response to “please” and “thank you,” and I certainly have never been treated poorly because I respected another person's boundaries or needs.
Respect is something upon which you build. I believe there is no such thing as too much respect. Because of that, I am still learning to be even more respectful, no strings attached.
8. Learn self-respect
As important as it is to respect other people, it is equally as important to respect yourself. I have disrespected myself before, especially in my teenage years; I have allowed people to call me names and walk all over me.
In my early 20s, I became mean and rude to these people in response to their disrespect. But, I've learned that you can't change people, and being mean and rude just makes you less worthy of respect in return. However, you can change your response to disrespect.
I have learned to make sure to respect myself by making sure these people are not in my life.
9. Learn how to support and be supported
There are two types of people: takers and givers.
I am a giver; I love to support people, and sometimes, this comes from a selfish place. I know that sounds somewhat contradictory, but I have had to learn how to support people in a non-selfish way. I have learned to try and listen to how they are asking for support.
In turn, I have also been awkward at taking support. I sometimes don't know how to accept it, and it is just as important to accept support as it is to give people the right type of support.
Learning to give support if you are a natural taker is really important. Everyone needs support, and you can compromise with people about the kind of support you are willing to give and they are willing to take. It's okay if it takes a little while to figure out, as long as you are trying.
10. Learn how to diversify your interests and relationships
Never put all of your eggs in one basket. I've had friends who were only through my boyfriend's social circle and cut off contact with friends outside of it. I've stopped going to my friends for support, or my family for fun times, and I've been burned badly because of it.
Not only does giving up your friends and support system show that you aren't loyal, but also, it will leave you with nothing when your relationship inevitably ends.
Diversify your interests; make friends with people at work or school. Try out new hobbies with your friends like hiking and exercise classes. You may even pique your love's interests and get him or her to try something new with you.
11. Engage in romance
Romance is scary, and pulling out all the stops, like the flowers, the wine and the love letters makes you vulnerable.
I am no exception; romance scares the crap out of me, but making time for romance in your relationships is essential. That trip to a quaint ski town, or night at a hotel in your own city will create special memories and moments that you will cherish long after they are over.
12. Let go of fear
I think this lesson is something people have to continue to practice over the course of their lives. At times, if I am tired, stressed, grumpy or life is not going my way, I fall back into that dark place where I make decisions out of fear.
And, I can tell you that every time I have made decisions based out of fear, I have lost out on something. I have made the wrong impression, communicated the wrong emotion, pushed people away and hurt other people because of my fears.
Learning to let go is a constant struggle, but practicing letting go will lead to freedom, high-value, self-love, trust, vulnerability and respect. And, while you may take a while to understand these lessons or realize why they are important, you will have your own journey in your 20s to learn your most important relationship lessons.
Maybe, one day, you will even choose to share them here.