I hate to admit this, but I was never really a “single gal” until my 30s. Somehow, starting in seventh grade, I settled into a series of years-long relationships that only ended with one boy when another boy expressed interest in me. I went from my junior high boyfriend to my high school boyfriend to my college boyfriend to my post-college boyfriend with pretty much no space in between. I was never without a boyfriend from my first slow skate at the roller rink to the day I accepted an engagement ring.
I’m not proud of this. In those early years, I was the heartless heartbreaker in each of those relationships. I didn’t learn anything. I didn’t grow. I didn’t take any time to figure out who I was or what I wanted or what was good for me.
As an adult, it’s been very different. I’ve been on the other end of the heartbreak, and I’ve spent several years on my own in between each relationship. Most importantly, I’ve finally learned a few things. A lot of things, actually.
Speaking from my own hard-won experience—and some priceless input from others—here are the top things I would have encouraged my younger self to do before jumping into marriage (or another serious relationship).
I’m kicking off this list with the top three things I heard back when I asked married people what they wish they would have done before starting their current relationship. Some of the people who responded have been married for 30-plus years, others just a year or two, but the #1 answer I heard back was they wished they’d traveled more—alone, with their friends, on mission trips, with all of their possessions in a single backpack, whatever, wherever. One person said: “Had I done so, I have a strong hunch the sheer cultural exposure and appreciation for the simple things would have made me a different person today.”
So, if you find yourself alone, this would be a great time to check some destinations off your bucket list—before you step into sharing your budget, priorities, and preferred travel itineraries with someone else.
This was another thing I heard again and again from people in relationships. They wished they’d taken the chance to live on their own before settling down. One woman said, “I always wonder if I could’ve done it.” Another said, “I wonder if I would have been a better partner if I had experienced life on my own.” And one married woman says living alone is the #1 piece of advice she gives to young single people. As for me, I’m currently living alone for the first time in my life (and talking about it here and here), and I’m absolutely certain I’ll have much more to bring to a future relationship because of it.
The third thing I heard repeatedly was some variation of “I wish I’d taken the time to pursue my career/my passions/my purpose.” Being in a relationship is a partnership, and any good partnership requires some compromise for the benefit of the team. So before you team up again, make sure you’ve thought through the goals you have for yourself and things you feel called to—personally, professionally, spiritually, financially—so you know where you’re willing to compromise and where you’re not. Use this time to pursue those goals without distraction. Make an intentional investment in yourself and your future. List out your biggest goals and dreams. Take some steps toward achieving them. Decide which ones are non-negotiable. Start setting yourself up for success, so your next relationship can support those goals and not derail them.
As for me, this is my number-one recommendation right here. Each adult breakup I’ve had has been brutal for me emotionally, and yet each one has provided an opportunity for me to grow in an entirely new way—and a huge portion of that growth was made possible through therapy. If I had just wallowed in my sadness and loss, or squeezed my eyes shut and pretended it didn’t hurt, or numbed out the pain in one way or another, or relied on my limited understanding of reality, I would have had a lot of trouble with most of the things on this list and every relationship thereafter. Therapy helped me with all of that. But beware. Good therapy will change things. It might even change what kind of person you choose to be with. One married woman, when asked what she wished she’d done before getting married, responded: “I wish I had gone to therapy. I may not have married my husband though. I’m thankful how things worked out—but I’m so lucky!”
If you’d like to rely on more than luck to take you into your next relationship, find a good therapist.
For me, with the end of each relationship, I’ve had to take a hard look at what part I played. I’d like to blame every relationship failure on the other person’s shortcomings and downfalls, and in a few cases, there truly was a selfish, unhealthy person involved. But even in those cases, I had to look at why or how I had found myself in that scenario—and if I’d behaved as the type of woman I truly want to be. Ultimately, there has always been something for me to own—some way for me to grow, some way for me to step up, something I can improve for next time. I’m doing my best to own my crap, because I believe doing so not only makes me better equipped for my next relationship—it makes me a better human being.
A few years back I started dating someone who, I soon learned, hadn’t done his grieving yet. As we began to fall in love, the grief from his past relationship surfaced and started to pull him away from what we were trying to build together. The process was painful and frustrating for both of us and, ultimately, we didn’t survive it. Whether you broke up yesterday or eight years ago, whether you’ve had 12 relationships or one, the loss and pain you’ve experienced are real and legitimate and deserve (need) to be grieved. If you haven’t taken the time to let yourself feel the feelings around the demise of your last relationship, do it now, before your next one begins. The fact is, the feelings are there, and they’ll come up eventually. Why let them derail your future relationship—or your own wellbeing? If you haven’t already done so, let yourself grieve now, before you step into something new. It can be scary to feel the full weight of your pain, but it is the one sure path to freedom and healing.
This one goes hand in hand with grieving. First you grieve, then you can let go. Letting go can look a lot of different ways. It can mean forgiving your ex—and yourself. It can mean letting go of the hope that an old relationship will come back to life. It can mean unfollowing your ex on social media. It can even mean letting go of the need for any relationship at all. You probably know what things you need to let go of in order to move on, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I find it fascinating that releasing certain things can be so incredibly hard to do. I can drop my cell phone on any random walk through the park, but I can’t drop certain resentments and longings without an epic struggle. And yet, cliché as it is, until we can open up our hands—and our hearts—to let go, they won’t be open to receive what’s next.
Have you ever noticed that when your heart is raw with grief or loneliness, beauty becomes even more striking and brilliant? Take a deep breath and let that beauty in. Watch the dancing sunbeams on a morning wall. Slide through the muddy hope of a snow-melting afternoon. Notice the shifting shades of a slow, purple sunset. Taste every layer of your favorite pizza. Surround yourself with music and food and sights and scents that bring your senses to life. The ability to hold both grief and joy, loneliness and contentedness, pain and beauty is key to being happy and whole in any stage of life, single or not. One might argue that this is life. Opening yourself up to beauty makes being single infinitely more lovely, and any future relationship that much more rich.
Or, if you’re phone-averse like me, text them. Email them. Facebook message them. One way or another, set up some face-to-face time with the people you enjoy. There are only so many lunches or happy hours in a week and, when you’re in a relationship, they mostly go to your partner. So when you’re on your own, use your free time to catch up with the friends you’ve been wanting to see and those you want to see more of. Many of my most beautiful friendships have been born during my single years. And there is perhaps nothing more valuable to take into a future relationship than good, strong friendships.
Being single is a great time to give your time to others who need it—before you are spending some of that time on a relationship (or possibly even kids). Volunteer for your favorite nonprofit. Bring a meal to the neighbor who just had surgery. Donate to the causes you believe in. Obviously you can still do these things while in a relationship (and hopefully you will), but being single provides some extra space to focus on giving back. Take advantage of that!
If you find yourself single with kids, as many of us do at some point, consider using this time to enjoy those kiddos without the distraction of a relationship, at least for a while. I’m not saying there aren’t amazing blessings from gaining a partner in your parenting journey. But, while you are single with children, there can be something incredibly sweet about that time together with just you and your kids. After my marriage ended, I definitely didn’t intend to raise my kids all on my own the rest of the way. But, now that it turned out that way, I can say I’m truly grateful it did. I never had to compromise on any of my parenting preferences. The kids and I didn’t have to share any of our special traditions. I didn’t have to walk my kids through the transition of a stepfamily. I’m not saying any of those things are bad. If you find an amazing relationship that’s supportive of you and your kids, celebrate that! But, for however long you might be single with kids, invest, be present, and enjoy. Plan Friday night adventures. Hold marathon game-a-thons. Create traditions. Notice the sweet parts. And remember how fast it goes.
More than one married person told me “I wish I’d figured out who I was before I got married.” And more than one problem in my past relationships was because I had no idea who I was, what I wanted, what made me tick, where I struggle, where I shine, and where I was headed. How does one figure out these things? A huge piece of that simply takes time. The rest of it is a process. It’s living life. Paying attention. Making mistakes. Learning from them. Being alone with yourself. Discovering your passions and your callings. And, if you’re me, therapy. Also #13 can help.
For me, tools like Meyers Briggs, the Enneagram, StrengthsFinders, and the Five Love Languages have helped me tremendously in understanding some of my natural default settings. It’s been important for me to realize that not everyone is wired like me, so I can better manage my expectations and improve my behaviors in a relationship. Tools like these have given me the power to know where I thrive, where I struggle, and where I need to work a little harder. They’ve helped me to be less judgy and more accepting of people’s differences—and to feel less hurt or personally wounded by other people’s actions. Learning a bit about brain science and how male and female brains are wired differently has helped as well. If you haven’t already spent some time learning about your personal wiring, look into that endeavor while you’re single.
Have you gotten clear about what you’re looking for in a relationship? Do you know what you want to stay away from? Or are you leaving that up to the whims of love and chance? While we all need to keep an open mind, and sometimes we end up being with someone who looks very different than what we were expecting, it’s incredibly valuable to identify any of your must-haves or deal-breakers—and it’s far easier to do this before any emotions are involved. One long-time married woman told me: “I wish I would’ve been encouraged to not give up opportunities for the sake of being married. People who have a sense of adventure need to make sure that they share that with a partner—or that it’s at least supported to a degree.” For her, this might have been a must-have on her relationship list, had she known to make one. What are yours?
One of the most challenging aspects of any relationship—especially a marriage—is money. Spend some time while you’re single figuring out your financial values and goals, and establishing the habits and budget you want for yourself. This practice will obviously help you thrive as a single woman, but it will also give you a solid foundation for any financial conversations and decisions in future relationships.
You’ve heard it before, and for good reason: The better you’re able to love yourself, the better you’re able to love someone else. A great way to put this theory into practice is to take yourself out on dates. The benefits are many. For one, you get to practice being with yourself and simply enjoying your own company. Spending an evening on the town alone can help you pay attention to yourself in ways that don’t happen when you’re home by yourself. You have the opportunity to notice what things make you feel comfortable or anxious, what energizes you, what intrigues you, what inspires you. You get to be with yourself in ways that don’t happen otherwise. Plus:
I would venture a guess that many of the best things about traveling the world can be accomplished by taking yourself on dates to new places right in your own town.
Building on the previous point, treat yourself to small moments of delight and thoughtfulness. A fresh bouquet of your favorite blossoms can brighten more than just your room. It can lift your spirits. The farmer’s market and Trader Joe’s are my favorite places to grab affordable stems. Or, in the summer, my own backyard.
A final variation on the theme we have going here is this: If you want to be with someone who is honest with you, be honest with yourself. If you think you deserve to be listened to with care and interest (and you do), listen to yourself that way. If you crave a gentle, gracious partner in your life, be that for yourself. And if you want someone to laugh with, laugh with yourself.
Okay I admit, this one might not be for everyone. And it should not be entered into lightly. (If you need a reality check on how much work a new puppy is, holy cow. I can fill you in on my four-month-old little rascal.) But if you’re craving companionship and cuddles, if you want someone to chat with around the house, if you want to be with someone who is consistently YOUR BIGGEST FAN, you might be a good candidate for a cat, a pup, or some other little creature. As an added bonus, I can already tell that, to some degree, my new pup is going to help me stay centered on my own needs in a future relationship, versus losing myself in someone else’s (a struggle point for me).
And finally, before you start your next relationship, find your own personal love song. Choose a theme song that sums up the things you love about life, the things you enjoy about yourself, and the things you hope and dream for your future. Find a theme song that makes your heart beat faster. The best part of choosing your own song is it will never be ruined by a breakup. It will always be yours, and it can always remind you of the fabulous person you are at this moment in time.
Okay, ladies. That’s what I’ve got. Do you have anything to add? Leave it in the comments below! As for me, there are a few things here that I haven’t actually done for myself yet, so I’m off to start checking them off my list. Let’s do this, girls! xo
Julie Rybarczyk is a freelance writer, fair-weather blogger, and empty-nester mama who’s living alone and liking it . She’s perpetually the chilliest person in Minneapolis—so most of the year you’ll find her under layers of wool, behind steaming cups of tea. Or on the socials at @shortsandlongs.
BY Julie Rybarczyk - March 7, 2019
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.