…and how they helped me to build a happy new relationship.
Oooooh, it’s a long and very open one!
I recently shared an Instagram post about my mental wellbeing during lockdown, and how I had been reflecting on my previous relationship. I received so many messages that I thought it might be useful to share seven lessons I learnt from that failed long-term relationship, and how those lessons enabled me to build and maintain a happy, healthy long-term relationship with my current boyfriend, Paddy.
Most of you know me as being with Paddy, so here’s a bit of context –
My previous relationship spanned seven years, more or less. It involved my first boyfriend (during sixth form), then me moving to Canada with my family and us living apart, throughout which we stayed in touch, and got back together for the summer holidays, when I would fly back to England. During that time we both experienced other relationships, but I thought of him all the time – he had a big hold over me. Our third summer we decided to keep it going this time, so had a full long-distance relationship that next year, both flying back and forth between the two countries every 6-8 weeks. I then moved back to England, and we lived together for three and a half years there. So seven years on-and-off / four and a half years together in a row without any breaks.
Did I love him? Yes.
Did I care for him? Yes.
Did I fancy him? Yes.
Did I think we’d be together forever? Yes.
So why did everything crumble?
As you can imagine, this post could go in different directions and could end up being even longer than it already is. The four or so months that followed that breakup were the most difficult of my life, but let’s not get into that. This post will focus on seven key takeaways from that rock bottom time, that have stayed with me ever since. I learnt more about myself, the things I needed to work on, what really mattered to me, and what makes for a more successful relationship.
Who knows, maybe this will help you avoid some of the mistakes I made, and help you build a positive relationship with a partner you’re fully compatible with. And if you’ve ever sabotaged a relationship before, maybe you’ll be able to relate to some of this, with your own takeaways, and at least know you’re not alone!
Of course, if your relationship ended due to one of you cheating, or because you just got the “ick” (aka stopped fancying them), then you may feel differently. You may wish to forget them altogether, or wish that you’d never met, or you may feel nothing at all when you think of them. For me, I’ll always care about my ex – he was my first love, and he meant a lot to me for so long. So I chose to learn from the experience.
It kinda seems like a fitting time to talk about it now, because it lasted for around seven years, it ended around seven years ago, and Paddy and I have since been together for nearly seven years. Hence the seven lesson theme!
So here goes!
These aren’t shown in any particular order by the way.
1. Sometimes you need to work on yourself
If you feel like you’re going round in circles in your relationship, trying to fix the same issue time and time again but getting nowhere, in my experience it was because I needed to fix something within myself – not the external issue, or my partner.
I suppose the age-old “it’s not you – it’s me,” can have some truth to it after all!
For me, I was really insecure back then, which led to trust issues. That was probably the biggest thing I needed to work on internally, and it caused a big rift between us. I had recently gone through an eating disorder, so I had a poor relationship with food, exercise and my body, and I compared myself to others a lot. I wanted to trust him so bad, but I just wasn’t in the right place mentally to be able to. The insecurity made me act pretty ‘nutty’. I would get so hung up on the smallest of things – things that wouldn’t even bother me now.
When we were first dating, my ex kissed another girl. I found out about it while he was over in Canada, surprising me for my birthday, so I didn’t want to bring it up then and ruin that time together. (Poor communication / letting things fester – helloooo!). On our next visit, he told me about it in person, and we had a chat. It was before we’d had the “are we exclusive / are we properly together” talk, and we were still living across the world from each other, but in my head I was committed. We’d been acting like boyfriend and girlfriend for four or five months by then, flying back and forth, and had exchanged “I love you’s” long ago. So I got so upset by that, bringing it up time and time again. I look back and think, what?! Why did I continuously punish him for that, and why would I feel SO upset about it?! Especially after I’d said that it was fine, and that I still wanted to be with him. And especially after years of monogamy had passed since then. I was just really insecure, and our communication hadn’t been great.
Compare that to when Paddy and I first got together. We were open with each other from the start that we didn’t want to rush into a relationship – I had just got out of my long-term relationship, was an absolute mess, and sooo not ready for anything serious. Paddy had also recently had a break-up, and just wanted to enjoy being single. So we knew we weren’t exclusive, and that suited me just fine. For the first time as an adult, I fully experienced being single – I dated different guys, went out for dinners, flirted – y’all know all the boys come out the woodwork when your Facebook relationship status changes. 😂 Was it fun to think of each other getting with other people? No, but at least we were on the same page, and that openness made me chill the f*ck out.
I could tell my insecurities and trust issues had improved as soon as Paddy and I started properly going out. Paddy could get the pick of most girls, had been a bit of a Casanova 🙊 and on one night out together a girl actually hung her arms round his neck begging, “pleeease get with me!!” (Seriously). But have I trusted him from the get-go? 100%. It’s never crossed my mind that he might cheat on me, I’ve never felt the need to check his messages, and I’ve never worried about him going out with the boys.
I’m not saying I won’t ever get jealous, but I’m a whooole lot better than before!
Of course, how your partner treats you and speaks to you can bring out or enhance insecurities. I saw a good quote on this actually: “A real man doesn’t make his woman jealous; he makes other women jealous of his woman” – Steve Maraboli. But for me, I think it was mostly something I needed to deal with internally, to ever be able to move on. And my goodness it feels good to not be eaten away by trust issues! A relationship lacking trust is draining for the both of you.
2. The importance of open communication
That example brings me to, in my opinion, another vital aspect of successful relationships: good communication! And these two learning points for me were intertwined. The fact that Paddy and I were open with each other from the start left me in a much better place mentally to trust and feel secure.
With my ex, I’d get really upset when I’d find out he’d previously got with someone I knew, while we weren’t together. Why couldn’t I just be at peace with him having a past?! Maybe it’s because I’d find out in dribs and drabs, often through other people, and be left to fill in the blanks in my head (of course, with the worst scenarios possible, like we all do with sparse information!).
With Paddy, we’ve always laid everything out on the table. And I mean everything – we talk about all sorts, even things we might not have wanted to know! I know about his past, he knows mine, and that’s great! I am glad he has an ex, as I wouldn’t want our relationship to have been his first (otherwise I’d probably worry he would wonder what it’s like to be with someone else, even if we were happy together), and rather than getting upset over his dating history, I think, wooooo, I was your favourite out of all those girls! 😆
That, as you can probably tell, is down to a huge shift in my mindset (less insecure, more rational), as well as having more honest communication. The breakup had given me a big wake-up call.
Paddy and I have very few arguments – I can’t actually remember when our last argument was. That’s because we talk things through as soon as possible, and don’t just bottle things up until we explode. We listen to each other, and appreciate the openness.
Having said that, we’re far from perfect! Let’s just say Paddy isn’t the tidiest person…and I often climb into bed too late…
With my ex, our relationship was a real rollercoaster – we’d have big arguments, often over such small things, then make up and have a (really precious feeling) evening or next day together. We’d find it difficult to just talk. That kind of tumultuous relationship can be addicting, as it keeps you on your toes, and the good times (the highs) seem amazing compared to the all-too-frequent lows.
I know I’m not alone in getting into a new, more stable relationship and thinking, is this normal to just get along all the time? Is this, dare I say, boring?! And to miss those fiery times, and the passion of those relationships. (Particularly first love relationships!) But those rocky relationships can also be exhausting, and are probably not sustainable, and it’s easy to forget the amount of pain you experienced during the lows, when you probably just dreamed of getting along!
If you can relate to this ⬆️ then you may be inclined to read about the Soulmate versus Life Partner theory – it’s pretty interesting!
3. Learn their love language
This is not something I learnt about directly as a result of that breakup, but through self-improvement over the years following, and a lot of it really resonated. It’s helped me to understand a lot about Paddy and our current relationship, and it would have helped a lot in my previous relationship.
I’d recommend all couples read The 5 Love Languages book, by Gary Chapman. It’s a super digestible, quick read.
You and your partner can each take this free online quiz to determine your love languages, before you delve into the book.
As the theory suggests, there are five main love languages, aka main ways someone expresses their love, and feels loved. They are: Acts of Service, Physical Touch, Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, and Receiving Gifts.
Of course, in new relationships, say under two years, you’d expect ‘physical touch’ to be high. Along with putting in effort for fun or romantic dates, and maybe writing them cute notes or buying them little treats. But the excitement of a new relationship can naturally fade over time, so it’s super important to continue to make your partner feel loved.
It’s rare that you and your partner will have the same love language, so it’s normal to have to put a little effort into ensuring you’re ticking both of your boxes. Check out my blog post on home date night ideas!
In my opinion, you need to have a bit of everything in order to have a happy, rounded relationship, as otherwise you might start to crave the one thing you’re missing, even if it’s not your main love language. But a certain way of receiving love will always mean more to you.
My main love language is Quality Time. This means that quality time spent together, such as hiking, going away for the weekend, baking together, or having a deep conversation, all make me feel really loved.
Ok, here’s how it works. Imagine you have an empty tank inside of you. Different types of expressions of love fill your tank up by different amounts.
Here’s my simplified example:
Paddy and I go on a walk-and-talk together (Quality Time) – my tank gets filled up by 60%.
Paddy cooks dinner (Acts of Service) – my tank fills up by 10%.
Paddy cuddles me (Physical Touch) – my tank fills up by 10%.
Paddy tells me I’m beautiful (Words of Affirmation) – my tank fills up by 10%.
Paddy buys me a bracelet (Receiving Gifts) – my tank fills up by 10%.
Paddy’s love language is Physical Touch. I’m sure that was my ex’s too. Once you learn about the love language theory, you can better understand how someone’s heart operates. For example, if your partner gets upset feeling like they’re always the ones to initiate anything, you realize just how important that is to them. Them wanting more physical touch isn’t them just being a ‘typical man’: Physical Touch makes them feel truly LOVED.
(And by the way – physical touch doesn’t just mean sex! It includes any form of physical connection – holding hands, cuddling, kissing, giving them a massage, just sitting with your legs touching…)
Here’s another example to show how the love language theory works: If it feels like your partner is always moaning at you for not doing the dishes, it’s not necessarily them being a ‘clean freak’ – Acts of Service probably make them feel really loved.
Therefore too little of those things lead them to feel unloved. 😢 This is something that would have helped me a lot back then. I hope that learning about your partner’s and your own love language helps your current or future relationship!
4. Don’t fixate on ‘forever’
Now this lesson may sound cynical, which I guess it is, but my previous relationship taught me not to assume you’ll be with someone forever. I loved my ex unconditionally, and there was no question in my mind that we wouldn’t be together forever. I placed him on a pedestal, and I was in love with our love story. (High school sweethearts, not letting the distance stand in our way, etc). I saw any issues our relationship had as hurdles that we’d get through – little blips along the timeline of life together. ‘Our love will trump anything,’ type mindset.
In my relationship now, I hope Paddy and I will stay together, but I’m more realistic in that, we might not! I love Paddy for who he is, how we are together, and how he makes me feel. But if one of us ever does anything that really hurts the other, or if we realize we just aren’t happy together anymore, we don’t have to stay together.
I’m not suggesting that would be an easy decision – of course I’d be absolutely devastated. And I’m not saying we wouldn’t try to work through issues. But it would at least be an option. There are no guarantees you’ll be with your partner forever.
With my ex, I could never bring myself to end it. I just could not give up on us, and I was too scared to try life without him, despite how often I would cry in that relationship. I could not stop loving him, even when I wasn’t happy with him.
But once you’ve made it through one heartbreak, you know you could make it through another, however tough it might be.
Sometimes I’d feel upset that my past relationship taught me that. It felt like I wouldn’t be able to love someone as wholly, or give my heart to them as fully, or feel as infatuated as that again. Like a guard was up, to protect myself. But now I see it as having a more realistic, grounded outlook.
5. Stay true to yourself
Oh boy is this important to living authentically, feeling fully yourself, ensuring you’re aligned on what you want out of life, and avoiding just cracking one day!!
When I was at uni in Canada, I’d been really involved with the community there and was always busy with something. But when I moved back to England, I was completely absorbed by just being with my ex, after living apart for so long, and wanted to be with him all the time. I should have put more effort into making friends there faster (as it was a new city to me), and I should have picked up hobbies again, joined uni clubs, etc. That time just screams no balance to me when I think back to it. Luckily I stopped being like that long ago! When Paddy and I moved to London and then Vancouver together, we both put effort into networking right away.
But back then, I gave up a lot of my independence, and I lost some of my ‘spark’. When the relationship ended, I felt like an empty shell, and it took me a long time to remember who I was again, as weird as that sounds. After going home to spend Christmas with my family (about four months post-breakup), my mum said to me, “oh my goodness, it’s so good to have the ‘old you’ back!!”. She could tell right away that I’d ‘found myself’ again. I was back to being my jokey, loving self.
That’s how I was when I first connected with Paddy. I thought, I’m just going to be my full, wacky self from the get-go, and if he doesn’t like it then we can both walk away early on. 😂 The first message I sent to him was something like, “Hey, I don’t know if you have a girlfriend or not, but I’d love to get to know you better (aka I think you’re cute) – here’s my number”. LOL. He text me saying “guess who?” to test if I’d sent that message to loads of boys. Luckily I got his name right. 😅😇
When Paddy and I first started talking, I just asked him what he wanted out of life straight-up. I wanted to figure out whether we’d be compatible on paper, to see if it was worth pursuing anything more serious with him, because I knew that if I was starting again, then I needed to put my own life goals first, and try to find someone who wanted similar things themselves.
I asked questions like:
Do you want children one day?
How do you feel about dogs? 🙊
Do you like travelling?
Do you smoke?
And…just to let you know, I plan to move back to Canada sometime after my Master’s…
With our constant communication, we regularly talk about the future, and assess where we’re at, and what our next plans are. It feels really exciting to know we’re on the same page, and moving together as a team in the same direction (and it’s especially comforting during this uncertain time). It also helps to avoid any unwelcome surprises, or ever feeling like you’re holding someone back.
The other side to this is just letting your personality shine through, and feeling like you can be fully yourself around someone. I’ve realized that’s so important. I am always playing my rock/metal music and singing along terribly, with Paddy around. 😜 He’s always taking over the dance floor, or rocking his speedos (yep, you read that correctly) at the lake without a care in the world. It’s really refreshing!
6. The wonders of girls time
I’ve always loved my friends like family, but during my last relationship, I didn’t spend nearly enough time with my girls. That changed as soon as we separated, and I realized just how vital the support of my girls was, and how much friends add to the enjoyment of life. So for the last seven years, I’ve always put a big priority on having girls time, whether that’s chatting on the phone, meeting for coffee, going out dancing, booking a trip together – you name it. It does wonders for the soul to have close girls you can turn to with anything, and vice versa.
Surrounding yourself with friends who uplift you, inspire you, support you, and make you laugh is the best! And I’d never go back to being so absorbed by my relationship that I neglect girls time.
7. Don’t forget to look after yourself
We’ve already discussed working on our internal issues – in my example, that was mostly insecurity and trust issues – but it’s so important to look after your physical self too. We all know that exercise can work wonders for our overall wellbeing, but during my previous relationship, neither of us regularly worked out.
I basically went from one extreme to the other: from calorie counting to baking all the time, and working out too much, to nothing at all. Can you tell I wasn’t in a great place mentally yet? 😜
I also didn’t spend any time on self-care, I started to wear only mascara, and I did nothing to my hair – literally just washed it and went, didn’t even dry it. (And lemme tell you, my hair is nottt good without being heat-styled!). At that age, I just didn’t have a real sense of my own style either.
After the relationship ended, I started going to the gym several times a week, and this time I was able to workout in a healthy way, not obsessing over anything, not weighing myself or tracking calories. I just worked out to feel good.
I switched back to being pescatarian, which had always been my preference, I ate better and I went gluten-free, which I realized suited me really well. Eating intuitively, aka eating healthily 80% of the time, and enjoying chocolate dessert for the other 20% 😏 is how we’ve always been in my relationship with Paddy, and it feels good!
Paddy and I ski together, run together, hike together, sometimes do yoga together, and find sharing physical activities so fun! We also have a good balance of our own separate hobbies and outings, for example Paddy plays lacrosse, PlayStation, has beers with the boys, and so on. I meet up with my girls, attend blogger events, and we do separate workouts at the gym.
After things ended with my ex, I started to curl my hair, and it made me feel so much better about myself. I started fake tanning once a week, and I enjoyed looking less pale! Although I’ve always kept my makeup quite natural, I put more effort into that area too. Within that first year, I also dyed my hair blonde, and I don’t think I’d want to go back to my natural hair colour any time soon!
(Of course, I’m not suggesting you need to wear makeup or style your hair to look or feel pretty! But for me personally, it gave me a big boost).
I’ve continued all of that to this day, and just see it as basic selfcare now. On top of that, I had both my feet operated on, as they always bothered me. I’ve also had laser hair removal in certain areas, so I can never be stubbly again. Now let’s see if I ever get that nose job… 👀😂
My point is, in my experience, while taking care of yourself externally isn’t going to solve any deep-rooted issues you have internally, it really does help you to feel more self confident, and minimizes the amount of little hang-ups you have with your appearance. Looking after yourself is a sign of self respect. Keeping fit will make you feel great inside and out, and pamper sessions, like getting your hair done, can leave you feeling refreshed. You deserve it!!
Would things be different with my ex if we had met a little later in life, and I already knew or had dealt with these things? Maybe.
What I know for sure is that Paddy and I have been together for just under seven years now – almost seven years since our first kiss, and about six years, eight months of being exclusive. Three cheers for modern dating 😆 And I can confidently say, with the things I learnt from my last relationship, we don’t have the ‘seven year itch’ yet!
Despite how heartbreaking it can be for a relationship to end, how nasty breakups can become, and how sad it can seem that someone who once meant so much to you is now a stranger, at least all relationships can better us as people, so we can enjoy happier, healthier, more stable relationships going forward – both with ourselves, and with future partners.
Also, just an obvious reminder that no one is perfect, and no relationship is perfect, so we shouldn’t aspire to that. You’re going to disagree with your partner sometimes, they’re going to annoy you sometimes, or you’ll irritate them in some way. And it’s great to have different opinions, interests or passions, because that’s what makes all of us unique and interesting! But the fact you have worked on yourself and continue to do so, and that you grow and learn together…and that you support them, love them, and make them laugh – those are the things that really count. ❤️
What have your previous relationships taught you?