A large number of the emails I get for Ask Dr. NerdLove, both here and at Kotaku start off the same way: “I’ve never had a girlfriend”. Many my readers have a lot of anxiety over finding their first relationship. In fact, many feel that they’re essentially doomed because they’ve never seriously1 dated anyone before. They see the large gap in their relationship resume as a glaring, unmissable flaw, as though asking somebody out were applying for a job.
Others worry that, due to their lack of experience, their first relationship will be doomed because they won’t know how to handle it.
Here’s a secret though: all relationships are functionally like a first relationship. Every relationship is a matter of getting to know the other person, making your lifestyles and expectations mesh, learning how to tolerate each other’s little quirks etc. The only difference is that people who’ve had other relationships have the experience to guide them through the rough patches.
That first relationship can be tricky because you’re basically groping in the dark. My first serious relationship was full of avoidable mistakes and disasters that one might charitably call “learning experiences” because I had no fucking clue what I was doing.
But that’s why I’m here: to help you navigate through the complex, twisted and often scary world of first relationships so that hopefully you can avoid the most common mistakes. That way you can make new and different mistakes.
But all joking aside: here are 5 things I wish I’d known before my first relationship…
5) Don’t Lose Your Head
One of the first and hardest lessons for people to learn in new relationships is to keep your head.
The problem is that literally everything in your body and brain is rebelling against the idea of calm reflection. You’re lost in the intoxicating rush of the new relationship energy. Your brain is flooded with oxytocin, dopamine and norepinephrine firing off every neuron in the pleasure centers of your brain and convincing you that the way your girlfriend chews her food is is goddamn amazing. Everything is floating hearts, cartoon birds and winged babies floating all around you and making you feel that the universe itself is smiling directly on you.
Of course, we tend to associate that First Relationship Rush with being young – our high-school or college years. But even grown-ass adults can and do get caught up in the emotional roller-coaster ride that is a new relationship.
But as much fun as it is to get lost in the rush of that initial infatuation, you have to be careful. See, much like the popped-collar Broseph who’s convinced that doing “Straight Out of Compton” at the Applebees karaoke night is a good idea after five Tuaca bombs, when you’re in the throes of your first relationship, your common sense tends to go right out the window. That rush means everything is intense and amazing and you want to feel it all the time… but you don’t have the experience to realize that the rush fades. The rush is not the relationship and mistaking one for the other is a great way to sign up for commitments that you’re just not ready for.
The first six months or so of your first relationship are the worst time to make any long-term (or even medium term) decisions about the state of your relationship. You simply don’t know each other well enough – no matter how convinced you are that nobody has ever felt like this before about somebody else. That decision to move in together may seem perfect in the oxytocin haze, but falls apart when it fades and her inability to clean up after herself isn’t cute anymore.
(And don’t get me started on the people who get engaged within three to six months of dating…)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the rush is bad. Enjoy the rush. That’s part of the joy of your first relationship. Just don’t let that early infatuation push you into going too far, too fast. Take things slow. Savor it. Those early glory days fade faster than you realize.
In fact, let’s talk about that for a minute:
4) You’re Going To Fight. Don’t Freak Out About It.
One thing that almost always freaks out relationship newbies: the first fight. Up until this point, everything has been smooth sailing where the harshest disagreement you’ve had is “who is more schmoopy”.
And then one of you says something wrong over take out Pad-Thai and suddenly there’s yelling and there’s crying and everything is falling apart!?!
Chill out, Beavis. Fights happen. They’re a part of relationships. Putting two people together for long enough means that conflict is inevitable.
The fact that you’re having a fight doesn’t say anything about your relationship. In fact, too many people tend to treat not fighting as a virtue – as though not having a fight means that you’re both perfectly in sync. In reality, all never fighting usually means is that someone’s letting themselves get walked all over and is afraid to express themselves, which ain’t any healthier than a couple who always fights.
The frequency with which you fight also isn’t automatically an indication of a problem at the core of your relationship; some couples tend to be incredibly passionate and fights may result from those passions colliding. The question is whether you fight the right way. If you’re going to fight, you want to aim to resolve the source of conflict, not aim to wound the other person.
More importantly though: don’t let the anger linger. A lot of people will tell you “never go to bed angry”, which isn’t necessarily helpful. Instead it’s better to never go to bed without reminding each other that you love one another. Don’t let the anger blind you to the care and affection and trust you have for your partner… no matter how much you may want to rip their goddamn head off right now.
3) Maintain Your Boundaries
A lot of people who write to me with concerns about having never had a relationship before worry about getting caught up in a toxic relationship. They worry that there’s some man or woman out there who’s going to take advantage of their naiveté and lack of experience (and presumably greater desire to date) against them. Sometimes it’s a fear of falling for an abuser. Other times it’s a fear that they’re going to get suckered into a relationship that they don’t want or aren’t ready for yet – marriage, children, monogamy, polyamorous… you name it, I’ve heard from someone being afraid of getting tricked into it.
Now, in fairness, this is a valid fear. There are people out there who prey on the inexperience of their partners in order to manipulate and control them. But more often than not, the people who’re terrified of being trapped by a master manipulator are more afraid of the stereotype of the manipulative partner than the reality. Many times when you scratch deep enough, that fear of being “trapped” by a gold-digger or a woman trying to lock you into a relationship via kids is more about how they feel about women as a whole.
And more to the point: the way you avoid manipulators and users is simple. You maintain strong boundaries.
It can sound weird to talk about boundaries in the context of a long-term – or even a short-term- relationship. But even when you love somebody with your heart and soul, maintaining boundaries is still important.
Not only do boundaries keep the toxic people and abusers away, but it also means that you stand up for your own interests in the context of an otherwise healthy relationship. Just because somebody doesn’t mean to be manipulative or pushy doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Some people have strong personalities and may end up steam-rolling over less assertive partners without meaning to. Other times – especially in one’s first relationship – it’s easy to end up bending too much in order to please them.
However: don’t mistake strong boundaries with “being an asshole”. It’s one thing to stand up for yourself and advocate for your own interests. It’s another to be a stubborn jackass who always has to get their own way. Relationships are all about compromising… and sometimes that compromise means doing what your partner wants instead of what you do.
2) They May Have Had Relationships Or Lovers Before You. Deal With It.
Many people – mostly guys, but some women – who write in about looking for their first relationship tend to be worried about the experience difference. They’re afraid of asking somebody out because that person has had more experience than they have.
And I always respond: “So?”
This is a frequent sticking point for guys because they feel that their inexperience is somehow a disqualifier; they worry that they couldn’t possibly measure up to her previous lovers because they don’t know as much or have done as much. Other times they worry that the more experienced partner is not going to respect them because they’ll have never dated anyone before and this means that something’s wrong with them.
It’s a classic catch-22; they feel that they can’t get into a relationship because they don’t have the experience, but they can’t get the experience without the relationship.
This tends to be a matter of self-limiting beliefs rather than reality; there’s almost always going to be an experience differential between partners. In both cases, it relies on a mistaken idea about the nature of attraction and why folks date the people they do. Relationships aren’t comparison shopping. Women don’t choose to date someone because they used to have a Boyfriend 3 and now they’ll only take a Boyfriend 5s. People aren’t attracted to someone because they hit a certain number of checkmarks on a list; they’re attracted to that person because of the qualities that make them uniquely them.
Ok, some people do. We call those people assholes. Quit worrying about the dating habits of assholes.
Do some people consider a lack of relationship experience a flaw? Yes… but we judge people on the holistic person; yes, they may have their faults, but do their other qualities make up for it? And if that theoretical person considers your lack of dating experience to be a flaw then they have done you a favor because you don’t want to date them. They have self-selected out of your dating pool and you should be grateful.
Seriously. Someone should make greeting cards for that.
Similarly, when you’re dating someone who has had relationships before (and most people have), you’re not competing with their exes. You’re not competing with anyone. They aren’t dating you because you’re a better lover, dresser or prepare a croque monsieur better than everyone they’ve ever dated. They’re dating you because you’re you.
How do you get past these fears with your partner? Simple: you communicate, communicate, communicate. Use your words. Let them know that you have this anxiety – not because it’s their problem but because you want them to understand where your head’s at. Work together to find a way that they can reassure you and calm those anxieties. When they do, take yes for a goddamn answer.
1) Your First Relationship Probably Isn’t Going To Last
So I hate to be a downer but… the odds that your first relationship is also going to be your last one are pretty long. To be sure, nobody likes to think about their relationship being temporary after all, and going into a relationship assuming that you’re going to break up eventually is the opposite of romance. But at the same time, pretending that this isn’t a possibility doesn’t do you any good either.
We very rarely stay with the first person we ever date. Yes, exceptions do exist, but they are incredibly rare. This is why we call them “exceptions”.
It’s important to realize though that this isn’t something inherent to first relationships; it’s a factor in all relationships. Every relationship you will ever have will end… until one doesn’t. And you can never be sure which one that will be.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you should enter every relationship with the idea that it’s doomed to failure. Quite the opposite; you should enter your relationship with the idea that you’re going to savor and appreciate every moment.
I know, I know. Stick with me, this will all make sense in a moment.
You see, people have a tendency to misunderstand relationships and break-ups. We tend to enter into each relationship with the assumption that this is the last one we will ever have… and that’s a mistake. That mindset stresses us out and makes every conflict seem like one of catastrophic importance because “what if this means that we won’t last until the end of time!!!!!111!!oneone??” because we assume the the fail-state of relationships is “break up”. Except breaking up with someone doesn’t mean that the relationship was a failure.
We all grow and change as people and we don’t necessarily have complete control over how we grow. Sometimes we grow apart from people or outgrow our relationships. That doesn’t mean that the relationship itself was a failure – it just means that it’s naturally run its course and now it’s time to move to the next stage of our lives. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to appreciate every moment – just because a relationship ended doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important or enjoyable or that you didn’t learn from it or that your partner wasn’t someone special to you.
A successful relationship doesn’t mean staying with someone until you die, nor does avoiding a break-up make a relationship successful. You can stay in a relationship that makes you miserable until the day they carry you out in a pine box – personally, I’d call that a failed relationship over the couple that realized they were done and made a clean break of it.
In fact, if you can part on good terms with your ex and stay friends, if you can appreciate the good times in your relationship and look back on it with fondness… I’d call that an incredibly successful relationship; you’ve grown as people but also held on to that core of affection and friendship that brought you together and that can be huge.
So yes, your first relationship may well not be your last… but that’s not something to be feared. Appreciate it for what it is and enjoy every moment. If and when it does end, then yes, go ahead and mourn it. It’s sad when relationships end2. But the fact that it ended doesn’t magically negate all the good times that you shared together, or that this person was someone special in your life.
And as the pain subsides, you will realize that everything you learned in your first relationship is what helps make you ready for your next relationship.