I walked away from a relatively sure marriage thing right before the single lady witching hour of my 30th birthday for one simple, critical reason: I knew it was the wrong relationship for the long-haul, with the wrong person in the wrong place, at a time when almost all of my friends were either already married or well on the way.
I'm still so grateful (for both of us) that I didn't marry that person in some false race against time and cultural expectation, and I wish I could say that as a result, my 30s were a shining example of doing the right and/or most emotionally healthy thing.
The truth is, it was another mixed-bag-decade in the love and romance department.
Despite the many challenges and missteps, looking back from the cozy vantage point of my 40s, my 30s are a collection of love lessons, cautionary tales, accomplishments, grief, and growth from my many love mistakes.
I'd go back and do many things over if I could, I can't lie. But since I can't, if you're not yet 30 or still living out what I promise is a potentially awesome decade, maybe some of my insights can help you, even a little bit.
1. I believed the hype about age and love and marriage.
I bought part of the hype that I needed to get locked down quickly or I'd be miserable, and this didn't help at all. The secret no one tells you is that by focusing on the end result, it's possible to push it farther away. I wish I'd spent less time in pursuit of the singular "one" and instead on more of the many people, experiences, places, and opportunities that may have opened me up to a broader scene.
Who knows who would have crossed my path then? I did go back to school in my mid-30s and took up a serious interest in photography, but I was still a bit hung up on who I didn't have than the experiences that were in front of me. It took a lot to get it out of my system, but it's so nice to be free of that now.
2. I didn't ask important questions because I was afraid of the answers.
I'm not one for having the "Where do you think this is going?" talk on the second date, because everyone needs time to settle in to a new situation without major questioning. But after celebrating holidays, meeting families and friends, and functioning for a period of time as a couple, it's fair to honestly discuss future plans.
I kept my mouth shut at a few key points because I was so afraid of the answers. I already knew them deep down anyway, but when my gut guessed that they weren't what I wanted, hearing them aloud was too much. Letting fear win wasn't a good use of my vocal chords, my time, or my well-being.
I wish I'd been way more inquisitive and equally ready to handle the not-always-fun truth. It would've saved me a lot of time and effort, and freed both of us up for the truth that was out there.
3. I didn't have enough fun.
Things can get so serious all the time, especially when it comes to relationships. The stakes can seem so high that it feels like a job or a problem to be solved, rather than a happy arrangement with the person you (hopefully) like the best out of all people.
Given a choice today between talking about my relationship and doing something fun with the person I'm seeing, I hope I always choose the latter: hanging out the person with whom I just fit in the first place, without talking it to death. There really is no time for that.
4. I lost sight of my own goals.
Love can be an intoxicating distraction from the more confusing personal questions in life, but that's a bad idea, at least it was for me. I was crazy in love with an ambitious, focused person in my 30s. My ambition and focus became that relationship, like a tiny robot army taking over my brain, a bad switch for a person raised to focus on my academic and professional achievements way before dating and marriage.
Before I knew it, I was delaying my own next move because I wanted to know what he was going to do first, which he never asked me to do in the first place. And when the relationship ended I had no idea what I was supposed to do next.
5. I didn't deal with my own stuff first.
I had some nagging issues and questions in my 30s — where I really wanted to live, what I really wanted to do with my life — that didn't get the focus because I was too worried about who I was going to end up with. Now, once I've taken care of myself — prioritized my physical and emotional health, my work, and my life — the right people show up, or at least I know better where other people fit. And if those people go away? The infrastructure is still solid.
6. I didn't listen to my intuition.
When I was honest with myself much later, I knew that one significant other always had at least the shoelaces of one foot out the door. I was all in, while he was halfway there. I took "breaks," I took people back and I went back, when I wish I'd trusted myself and looked forward.
I knew all of this in my gut, but my heart didn't want to talk to my brain about it. I like to live from my heart and soul, but they have to have occasional conversations with common sense and intellect, especially on the bigger issues. I can trust my gut. Lesson learned.
7. I looked more at potential than at reality.
I'm a relentless idealist who sees possibilities, sometimes a little too much. This situation is great except for the no-commitment thing. Maybe commitment next year. Maybe if we work at it or have one more conversation, or I read a few more articles the sex will get better, he'll like my dogs, or that argument about a basic value difference will end.
It was way too easy and tempting to look at only the good stuff, and to wish away the not-so-good, when big love was the bottom line. This misstep had some consequences; I said I wanted to be a mom, but I never wanted to do it alone, and I stuck around in relationships long enough that this didn't happen in my 30s. Oops. People show us who they are; it's my job to believe it, and to decide if it's something worth a compromise, or a great big deal-breaker.
8. I accepted unacceptable behavior.
I may not have married anyone who wasn't right for me, but I did spend periods of time in committed relationships that were settling situations. I allowed people to speak to me in ways I wouldn't wish on my sister or a friend. I spent some holidays alone and skimped on vacations.
I believed that my basic wants were "high maintenance" because I wanted to go out to dinner after a long work week or liked to go on vacation sometimes. Regardless of the other person's outlook or behavior, though, I chose to stay.
9. I didn't enforce the "no contact" rule.
No contact with exes is good for me, and this isn't easy in the future where no one ever seems to truly go away — not when there's an internet connection, anyway. Digital social connections exploded when I was in my 30s, and maintaining those ties with a heartbreaker never ends well, at least not right away.
Some people can pick right up where they left off, but I'm a sentimental person, and leaving that frail internet thread open can leave me open to too much information that I don't need. Unfollowing and unfriending are sometimes very good friends indeed, and blocking exists for a reason.
10. I didn't love myself enough.
I'm sorry to report that this cliché and the lyrics of many Beyoncé songs are 100 percent true for me. If I don't love and value myself enough first, I can't bring my best to relationships. I'm going to take behavior I don't deserve, and probably dish out some questionable stuff, too.
"Loving myself" isn't some abstract self-help section concept in my mind anymore. It means I'm confident enough to show up with the best I've got, and with some standards, too. I can walk away if the situation isn't right. It gives me the courage to say things like "Please don't talk to me like that" or "I'm so sorry. That was wrong." Or, you know, "No."
And with the right person, it's the courage to say "I love you" mutually, and to act like it. I'm hoping this is how it goes for the rest of my decades.
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Laurie White is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to YourTango. Follow her on Twittter @lauriewrites.