Our expectations for how romantic love should feel are established at a pretty young age. We grow up watching movies with the typical romantic formula where two otherwise flawless characters get stuck in a situation out of their comfort zones, only to conquer it when the man swoops in with some grand gesture meant to steal the girl’s heart forever. I knew that was unrealistic, of course, but there remained some part of me growing up that was waiting for a version of it. I wanted something that dramatic, something that sure and all-encompassing; in movies, it always seemed life-defining and I felt like I needed it to define myself, too.
I was in love with someone once, in the very typical crazy way it happens in college, but I can’t say that it felt anything like I thought it would. I realize now that I didn’t hold myself in very high regard when I met him, and I still didn’t love myself by the time we broke up. I remember during the last weeks we were together, I was so on edge and upset—not with him, but with myself. I couldn’t put the feeling into words back then the way that I can now: I didn’t like who I was. And I wasn’t even sure how to say it without somehow insulting him, too.
A lot of it was a consequence of graduation looming. I think most people can relate to that feeling that you have somehow failed all your expectations for yourself before you’ve even begun, and as a person who had always held myself to high standards, it was all festering in me in the ugliest possible way. Anyone who has endured those first few years after college can attest to the hot mess that is your self-esteem post-graduation.
I know I have a lot more growing to do (don’t we all), but in the past few years something very important shifted: I like myself again. In fact, I love myself, more than I ever thought I would when I was miserable and very dead-set on picking at my own flaws. And while a lot of my perspectives have shifted since that happened, one that changed in particular was how I viewed love in general. Once you start to love yourself, your expectations about love inevitably shift:
We internalize this idea from a very young age that the universe somehow owes us the big movie screen romance that we idealized growing up, and that if we don’t get it, we are somehow incomplete. I was never wholly invested in this idea, because even when I was at my all-time lows, I knew deep down that being in love with someone wouldn’t solve all my problems. I realized, in fact, that trying to love another person when I didn’t love myself was ultimately setting us both us for certain failure.
Only after I started to love myself as a person did I realize that the pieces I felt were missing were my responsibility to acquire—not somebody else’s. I stopped expecting that romance would serve as a “fix” for the while felt incomplete about me, or something that would automatically give life meaning. I had to find the meaning on my own.
I love How I Met Your Mother just as much as the next Netflix addict, but I have to say, watching Ted drift along in his life constantly waiting for The One was super stressful. It was fictional, of course, but the feeling was all too real: How much longer do I wait? What if it never happens? What’s wrong with me? At some point, Ted felt like an exaggerated caricature of anyone who “waits for love” (because no one does that much literal waiting for love.)
It’s ridiculous to me now that these thoughts ever went through my head because I’m in my 20s, not my 80s, but when you are already feeling uncertain about yourself, you can’t help the feeling that your life is at a bus stop and you’re waiting for the Next Big Love to come along. Once I was able to love myself, I stopped waiting. I got up and did what I wanted to do. I refused to have this expectation that someone was going to come along at the exact right time. In fact, in this regard, I don’t have any expectations at all, and it has been a freeing notion that has led me to all kinds of opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I had kept this expectation that my life wouldn’t really “begin” until I found someone to share it with.
We are all messed up. I am messed up. If you are reading this, then you are also messed up. I don’t know why it is especially difficult for us to come to terms with that fact. We spend so much time focusing on our flaws instead of strengths that of course we don’t like ourselves. And consequently, we do the same thing with other people: We focus on everything that is negative about them, and about ourselves, and then we wonder why our relationships keep falling apart.
Once I was able to not just recognize my own flaws but make peace with them, my expectations about flaws in the people I loved also changed drastically too. I became more empathetic and understanding of people around me. Things that seemed like deal breakers before became merely challenges associated with being a flawed human, and the need to overcome them and compensate for them and adjust to them became opportunities to learn and appreciate more about each other’s histories. I no longer have this expectation of a unrealistic, perfect person coming along, because nobody is perfect. Some people just have flaws that mesh well together, and that is what I expect to find out of love now. And it turns out that I finally learned that lesson by applying it to myself first.
A lot of people treat romantic love as if it is the ultimate affirmation of love. It is especially easy to do this when you don’t love yourself. I don’t mean to minimize the impact of romantic love, because it is an amazing and incomparable thing. I’m all for it. It’s the best. But once you love yourself, you realize that all kinds of love are amazing and incomparable things. Not just romantic love, but platonic love and familial love and pet love and love for strangers on the subway and everything in between. It diminishes all the pressure that you put on romantic love, which ultimately makes you more able to enjoy it for what it is and not for some sense of fulfillment you may have thought you needed.
If you love yourself, you know what you are willing to compromise and what parts of your identity are so essential that they will never change. When I was at a particularly low point of not loving myself, I had this huge crush on someone, and I was having all these absurd thoughts about how I would make myself perfect for him. Because that’s the kind of crazy thought someone has when they don’t truly believe they are enough for another person. They constantly try to force themselves to become what they think someone wants—it would never occur them that they might already be exactly that.
So I had this crush. And I would be neat even though I was a slob at heart, or keep my voice down even though I am a total loudmouth. When I look back on that now, it genuinely makes me sad that I liked myself so little that I was willing to change integral parts of myself to please someone else. Now that I appreciate myself for all my quirks, I am much more upfront with people. I expect someone to love me for who I am rather than expecting myself to change for them.
It’s easy to have this expectation that if a relationship goes south, it is your fault. If you tried harder or if you were a better person, things would be different. But once you are able to love yourself, you also gain this massive perspective on relationships in general. Most of the time when things don’t work, it wasn’t because anyone in particular was bad or wrong. Sometimes things just plain don’t work out. And once you lose that expectation that you’re going to be the one to blame if it doesn’t, you’re able to make more mature assessments of whether a relationship is really worth pursuing, or if you’re better off going your separate ways.