Life After Dating: What Relationships Can Teach Us That Being Single Can’t (And Vice Versa)

After being in a relationship for 10 years, Nick and I have gotten pretty damn good at dealing with relationship-related issues. We are still learning, of course, and probably always will be, but when it comes to the challenges that arise from sharing a life with someone, we’ve got a solid handle on it. Balancing two people’s needs, addressing conflict in a respectful way, compromising, communicating clearly, owning your own moods, and giving and receiving love freely are all things we’ve become really good at.

And I use the phrase “become really good at” on purpose. These weren’t skills we brought into the relationship as two separate people, these are things we learned from being in a relationship. I’m so grateful to my relationship (and to Nick!) for providing a loving, supportive context in which I could learn these things. I’ve been able to apply them to my friendships, my family relationships, my work, and my writing. The skills you learn in a relationship aren’t only applicable to your relationship — they’re truly valuable in many different areas of your life.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if all the work I’ve done on issues relating to my relationship has been at the expense of work I could have been doing on myself.

If I hadn’t been¬†learning to compromise within my relationship, would I be less willing to compromise on things that are important to me in other areas of my life? If I hadn’t been learning to advocate for my own needs in relation to another person, would I have a clearer picture of what those needs are? If I hadn’t been learning how my moods affected someone else, would I be better able to fully inhabit my own emotions, and learn the important lessons that come along with doing that? I don’t feel like I missed out on these things, necessarily, but I do feel like I have to put in an extra effort to work on them within the confines of my relationship. Getting enough alone time is crucial, as is fostering strong relationships with my female friends and pursuing interests and activities that are “mine,” not “ours.”

There’s no doubt I would have learned different life lessons and things about myself if I’d been single all this time, but there’s a flipside to this dilemma: the things you learn about yourself in a relationship can be tough to learn on your own.

A few years ago, a friend of mine had just gotten out of a bad relationship, and decided to throw herself headlong into taking care of herself and resolving all of her lingering emotional hangups. She went to therapy, she read self-help books, she meditated, she ate healthy, she took an Eat, Pray, Love-style solo trip to a country she’d never been to, she spent a ton of time alone and a lot of time talking to good friends. After more than a year of this intense focus on self-care, she felt strong and centered. She’d put so much of her past behind her and felt completely at peace with herself. She wasn’t afraid of being alone; in fact, she had come to truly enjoy it. We talked a lot about how she wouldn’t have been able to do this in such a potent, profound way if she had been in a relationship.

Then she met someone, and as the joyous bliss of their honeymoon phase faded, some of her old emotional hangups started rearing their ugly head: jealousy, insecurity, difficulty communicating her true feelings.

“I’ve realized something,” she told me one day over dinner. “No matter how much work you do on yourself, there are some issues that don’t really come up until you get in a relationship. Jealousy, for example. How would I have confronted that until my boyfriend went out with a female friend of his, and suddenly it was staring me right in the face?”

In a way, she was right. It’s nearly impossible to tackle interpersonal issues without, well, another person involved. Her year of self-care and self-growth helped her come into her relationship as a whole, healthy, loving person, but it could never have fully prepared her for the challenges she and her partner would face together.

Humans are always growing and learning and changing; there’s no end point in our paths to evolve and become the best versions of ourselves. Emotional hurdles will pop up at unexpected times, our limitations will be stretched, and new challenges will arise that test and push us to discover new things about ourselves. Whether you’re single or coupled up, these things are inevitable. Your relationship status is far from the only factor that dictates your personal evolution, but it’s a big factor, and one that’s definitely worth being mindful of, no matter what your status is right now. There are always new things to learn.