5 Lessons I Learned from Going On a Relationship Cleanse
When one writer gave up dating and relationships for a year, she learned more about herself than ever before.
In the immediate aftermath of my breakup two and a half years ago, I jumped back into dating with a never-before-seen fervor. I took to apps. I hit mixers. I went out to bars with friends, and I had other friends introduce me to single guys. I was a woman on a mission, slowly wondering what on earth I was doing.
As the months wore on, as a man would like me more, or I'd go on a dud date, or I'd get ghosted (or zombied, even worse), I would feel more and more anxiety. What do I really want? I'd think. Not just from a partner, but from my life?
I wasn't learning anything from these dates, or even trying to decide if a man was right for me. I simply didn't have the emotional bandwidth, or the long-ranging self-knowledge. Yet. I was a super-young college post-grad, after all. As an introvert, dating overwhelms me under the best of circumstances. But this was a new kind of crippling: I didn't even know my own wants or needs.
After a grueling on/off relationship cycle, I was also numb and just going through the motions in an exaggerated way. I drank too much, stayed out too late, went out with anyone who asked me, and was looking to heal a wound my narcissistic ex had created in me. Eventually, I realized that although I wanted to have a corrective experience to patch that gap, I had to find a newfound sense of worth in myself first.
I took a full year off from dating and love back then; my first "relationship cleanse." I took yet another nine-month break more recently to pursue a lifelong dream-writing a book on finding love as a modern woman-after realizing there was no shortcut for making said dream happen, only full devotion. In a dating world that's exhausting, and a relationship landscape that's rapidly changing, these two cleanses have been two of the best decisions I've ever made for myself. (Related: 7 Health Benefits of Being Single)
What did I gain? More than I can ever say. But here are five lessons I learned during my sworn singleness, all of which helped mold me into the person (and dater) I am today.
1. If you haven't fallen in love with your life, make changes.
I still remember the sad realization I had one morning with my ex, when I ultimately decided to pull the plug on that relationship: I was lonely. No matter what I did every day, I had a partner who felt distant and nothing else that truly lit my fire. But over time, I realized that I always had the power to fall in love-not just with a guy, but with my whole life. To be honest, the latter is significantly harder.
I did a lot of searching after I gave up relationships, trying to answer: What will make you happy, and what will help you grow? Short answer: New challenges, and new relationships. I ended up moving to a new city, making tons of new friends, cutting out a few old toxic friends, getting closer with my niece and nephew, and ultimately selling a book. All of these were active choices; I spent the energy I would have invested in dating on a totally different use. When I finally did get back to dating, each disappointment was significantly less tragic, because my life was so full otherwise.
2. Your work often gives you satisfaction in a way no partner ever will.
Career is one of the most incredible developments for women today. We are graduating from college in record numbers, flooding the workforce and demanding equal treatment. It's a marvel to watch. It's also been a joy to participate in. But to exist in past relationships, I always lost sight of my career goals for a hot second. Whether it was my choice of partner or my headspace or both, I'd always let the pursuit of love slow me down.
School and my career have always given me a lot of joy, pride, and that sense of personal accomplishment; I can do anything, and I can conquer the world! (Or something like that.) Getting straight-A report cards or landing big assignments were little "accomplishment" highs that helped carry me through even emotionally crummy periods of my life.
Focusing extra time on that major aspect of my life again? Empowering. I realized that I've always been happier when I'm motivated, working on projects I feel are worthwhile, and intellectually expanding-something that often got lost as I grew into adulthood, felt pressure to couple along with my friends, and started dating more seriously. I'm quite sure I'll never lose sight of that truth again.
3. Having a stable friendship base in your life can help you make better decisions in love.
One of the best decisions I made for my romantic life had nothing to do with dating prospects, and everything to do with making great adult friends. I used my relationship cleanse to really focus on surrounding myself with encouraging, vibrant, supportive, genuine human beings. This wasn't an easy process; like romantic relationships, friendships aren't built overnight. You need to meet like-minded people, invest your time, support each other through big milestones, and eventually form lasting bonds. That said, it's one of the best decisions of my life.
When I broke up with my ex, I had a dwindling college friend circle. I had also just experienced a major "breakup" with my lifelong, childhood best friend. I suddenly woke up one day boyfriend-less and (nearly) friend-less, which was insanely difficult. It was also the fire I needed to start building friendships based in common interests and similar life goals, instead of simply adopting people based on proximity (what we do through most of our younger years).
Today, I feel there is zero chance I'll make a romantic decision out of loneliness or societal pressure; I'll only date or couple up because I truly want to, as my life is otherwise full with amazing people who support me in non-romantic ways. And that's more than enough to tide me over until I am really excited about the potential of a maybe-relationship with someone new.
4. Knowing yourself is incredibly important for your health.
When you are in a relationship, you're integrating your life with a partner's, adopting mutual goals and routines-which is why breakups are so darn difficult. You need to disentangle your life from another person's, and decide which desires are truly your own. I wanted to do that in the extreme sense; soon after I broke up with my ex, I rented a fifth-floor apartment in downtown Ann Arbor, and decided to live on my own for the first time ever.
The beauty of this change was that no one and nothing dictated my day-to-day decisions. I began taking long walks by myself, to detach from social media and email, process thoughts for my book, and stay healthy. I focused on eating better, and exactly what I wanted. I occasionally took "single girl" days devoted solely to cheesy rom-com Netflix binges and wine, in which I talked to very few people. This was all self-care for my soul, and I found out who I was in a big way. Interestingly, while I regularly felt lonely in my (bad) relationship, I found that, over time, I very rarely felt lonely on my own. And that's powerful, to know I can be fully comfortable in my own skin, with my own hobbies and routines.
5. I learned the difference between wants and needs.
Before my first relationship cleanse, there was a small part of me that thought I needed a relationship to be completely happy. Socialization has some strange effects. I grew up in a small town, where women became brides and moms pretty rapidly after graduation. I devoured classic rom-coms and hidden copies of Seventeen or Cosmopolitan magazine, which sometimes unconsciously instilled the idea that having a guy or a relationship was necessary.
When you deprive yourself of something you think you "need," you often realize just how unnecessary it is. During my relationship cleanse, when I was not entertaining any romantic partners until I had reached specific goals for myself, I totally relaxed into my singleness for the first time in my life. And it was glorious. (Related: This Is Exactly What I Say When People Ask Me Why I'm 30, Single, and Childless)
Women don't need relationships to survive; such is the beauty of a society that no longer measures our worth by the rings on our fingers, and provides larger career opportunities than ever before. But I, personally, still want a lasting relationship someday. After writing a book on love, I still think a partner can provide support, consistency, and opportunities for growth, among other great benefits. The difference is, now I only want a guy who will improve upon my already awesome single life, who thinks I do the same for him. However long that takes, it'll be well worth the wait.
Now, I'm dating again. I have a book to show for my "time off," as well as great friends and a better appreciation for my own intricately crafted journey into the future. I recommend people take time off from finding love all the time, when they're feeling vulnerable and unsure of themselves. My "relationship cleanse" helped expel old toxic notions and poor dating habits, leaving behind more refined tastes for what I'm looking for-not just in love, but in life.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love (out January 23, from Grand Central Life & Style).