I Spent Most Of My 20s In A Relationship That Didn’t Work Out — Here’s Why It Wasn’t A Waste

When I broke up with my ex-fiancé, one of the first things a lot of people said to me was, “You must regret being with someone that long through your twenties.” My answer every time was that I don’t.

There’s this whole societal notion that because you’re in your twenties, you’re supposed to be untethered, explorative, and unsettled. But here’s the thing: You can still find yourself while with another person, and that includes all those unsure, sometimes regretful moments of indecision. Your journey may just look a little different than your single peers'.

I don’t feel like spending the majority of my 20s in one relationship caused me to miss out on any opportunities or was a waste of my time — yes, even if the relationship didn’t pan out. Here’s why.

1. Dating Is Horrible, But It’s Especially Horrible In Your 20s

Dating is already an anxiety-ridden clusterfest of making yourself vulnerable just to get told someone isn’t interested anymore. It sucks. The misery of this whole process is only further exacerbated by the fact that most people in their early twenties have NO IDEA who they are or what they want.

Sometimes, this group-think uncertainty is a good thing — swinging in and out of the lives of others who also have no idea who they are can give you an idea of who you don’t want to be, if nothing else. But for me, during college, when I was wrestling with what I wanted from the world and who I would be in it, my ex-fiancé was someone I could home to and bounce ideas off of. I had someone in my corner whom I could have those “What are we going to do in the world?" conversations with, and having that kind of support and stability really contributed to who I am becoming as an “adultier adult.” I was able to focus more on my work, my studies, and my internal development without giving into the constant anxious thrum of “oh my god, why hasn’t he texted me back?”

2. It Takes Work To Stay Together, But It’s A Life Skill You’ll Be Glad For

Regardless of whether or not you’re in a long-term relationship, most people will determine a lot of pivotal things about themselves before they’re thirty. These developments come with their own cavalcade of mess-ups, off-the-wall decisions, and general flailing around in the dark until you hit something — metaphorically. Staying with someone during your own metaphorical flailing takes a conscious effort, and if both of you are flailing at the same time, then you learn how to grow and change without losing closeness with another person.

I did a lot of figuring myself out while I was with my ex-fiancé. I went on school trips to everywhere I could, from Alaska to Cuba. I dyed and cut my hair every which way. I pierced things. I got tattoos. I made bucket lists and declarations, then several weeks later threw them out in lieu of a new set. Through it all, I learned how to discuss my own goals as well as the goals I wanted to share with my partner. I learned how to support someone in their own ever-shifting goals and challenges.

This isn’t to say that I successfully managed to be perfectly supportive every time — or that I was perfectly supported. There was a lot of being selfish and fighting on both sides before coming back around to a compromise we could both work with. It was a massive learning curve, and while, in the end, we weren’t able to continue tackling those lessons together, I still came out of it knowing how to better handle these conversations with a romantic partner.

3. Regrets Are Going To Happen; It’s The Lessons That Are Important

Obviously, there are going to be things you do in your twenties that you will later regret: cheap whiskey, gas station taquitos, that deeply intimate piece of personal writing you asked a professor to critique. Regret is the less glamorous side of figuring yourself out and messing up, unfortunately. But for every regret, there’s a lesson to take away into your adult life. Relationships are no different.

I’ve heard from several of my friends who have been in long-term relationships through their entire 20s that they actually have felt a pre-emptive twinge of “oh dear god, am I going to regret this later?” That fear is real, especially considering the aforementioned expectation that you not stay in any particular shape or pattern during this time of your life. It’s OK to feel that fear of regret, but don’t give into it.

I still do unfortunate things after a few well whiskey drinks, but I absolutely learned to leave gas station taquitos alone and that it’s not the end of the world to get feedback from a professor or mentor. Nothing about the relationship I was in at the time kept me from learning or discovering those lessons (mostly because nothing on this earth can keep my drunk self away from fried foods), even though that little voice in the back of my head would scream, "WHAT IF YOU WERE DOING THIS SINGLE?" The things I regret thus far from my 20s are decisions that I made for myself as an individual, not the ones I made as one half of a long-term couple.

4. I Learned To Go With My Gut

I had no idea that almost seven years into my relationship, I’d wake up one day and realize that the man I wanted to marry was no longer right for me — for a litany of reasons, the least of which being that he didn’t think I was right for him either. But if I’d given into that fear of potentially regretting this relationship later, my life would be completely different. I’d be missing a lot of the parts of myself I developed during that time that I’ve come to treasure. My ability to calmly but clearly talk through an interpersonal issue, or to cook several variations of the same meal for a group of picky eaters, or a quiet decisiveness in what I want and expect from a partner. These are things I developed during my relationship and they may seem small, sure, but they’re integral to whom I’m becoming.

Two things are most likely going to happen next: Either you’ll enter into your 30s with a relationship you know is capable of weathering mass amounts of life changes, or you’ll enter your 30s with a better idea of what you want to build with another person. Basically, you’ll start with a solid foundation or a blue print and either way, at least you’ve got a start. Stick with your gut, regardless of what those around you are expecting, and you’ll be fine.

Breaking up with my ex-fiancé hurt a hell of a lot more than that one morning I spent throwing up a gas station taquito. The end result, however, is that I know what it is that I want from my next potential partner. It’s one less detail to figure out while I’m putting myself together in the second half of my 20s — which leaves me much more room for poor food choices while drunk on cheap whiskey.

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