Hello and welcome to our advice column, Ask MR, where we answer your burning questions, hoping we’ll become the ointment to your life rash. Ask us a question by sending one of us a DM, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “ASK MR A QUESTION,” or simply leaving one in the comments.
“As a late bloomer with overprotective parents, I didn’t meet my first and current boyfriend until I was 22. We’ve been together for 5 years now, and everything is great except for the niggling fear of regret I have that I haven’t ‘lived’ or ‘experienced’ enough to settle down already. My boyfriend started dating at 14 and had a number of serious and non-serious relationships before me, and now he’s ready to settle down forever. I wish I had the same certainty. Whilst I’m grateful for the comfort and security of my long-term relationship, I can’t help but feel I missed out on the fun dating phase that everyone goes through in their twenties. I worry that I’ve missed out on major learning experiences including learning about myself. Should I STFU and be grateful for what I have or will this fear of regret eventually kill my current relationship? What’s the solution to a life not fully lived?”
I’ve been with my partner on and off since I was 14 years old. We started dating our freshman year of high school. He was my first kiss (he still had braces, I had just gotten mine removed). We’re currently together and plan to be for the long-term, so there’s a good chance he could also be my last.
When we first reunited after college, I thought, How extraordinary. How special that we found our way back to each other. That I’ve never been in love with anyone but him. That we weathered the rollercoaster of teenage hormones and landed on the other side, changed, but still intact.
A few years later, I thought, How terrifying. How absurd that I never seriously dated other people. That I didn’t take advantage of my early twenties as an opportunity to explore. That we settled right back into the thing that felt most comfortable.
“Settled” is an unnerving word in the context of relationships, particularly when you consider how social media has shaped our perception of what it means. In 2019, we are voyeurs of other couples’ dynamics to an unprecedented degree — their milestones, their PDA, their vacations, their rescue-puppy adoptions. Choosing to stay with a partner instead of opening yourself up to the possibility of other options can therefore spark FOMO on a whole new level, because unlike deciding to stay home one night instead of going out, it’s a choice that carries the gravity of significant emotional investment — and in some cases, a sense of finality.
Mixed up in this is the common conception that experiencing a string of different romantic encounters with different people is integral to our growth as human beings. Even if you’re confident in your current relationship, you might be uncertain about how to reconcile its existence with all the unanswered questions you still have about yourself and your life.
I wrestled with this conflict for months. I wondered how I could ever learn to live boldly when my relationship choices felt so safe. I questioned whether being with someone who has known me since childhood was impeding the actualization of my identity as an adult. I fantasized about who I could have been, what depths of enlightenment I could have reached, if I had only exposed myself to a broader range of romantic configurations in my early twenties.
Three things ultimately shifted my perspective. The first was saying what I was thinking out loud — to my partner, to friends, to my mom, to my sister. It sounds obvious, but its effect was palpable. It gave other people a chance to tell me what I felt was normal, to share their own perspectives, to help me see more sides of the equation. It reassured me that the anguish and delight of growing up will occur regardless of whether my oats were sowed wildly. That if there are lessons about being human I might have learned from dating around in my twenties, I probably learned them elsewhere — and if not, I still can and will in other ways.
The second thing was acknowledging that just as dating around isn’t the only avenue for accruing valuable life experience, it also isn’t the only supporting evidence that I chose the right person to be with. As Haley wrote in a recent “Ask MR” column, the idea of “right” is a fallacy when it comes to romantic partnerships. There’s only what feels good or seems right. Wobbly as these qualifiers may appear, they don’t undermine the validity of gut instinct. My instinct tells me my relationship feels good and seems right, even though, to some extent, I also feel the regret of stones left unturned. Examining what they are is an ongoing process, one that I’ve come to find has little to do with my relationship and a lot to do with myself.
The last thing was a sentence, spoken at the end of Esther Perel’s first TED Talk in 2015: “Today, in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person.”
Until hearing that, it hadn’t occurred to me that even though I’ve only had one partner, I’ve had more than one relationship with him. There was the relationship our freshman year of high school, ushered into the world with so much innocence the nostalgia makes my chest hurt. I broke up with him that May for no particular reason, except being young and not knowing what I wanted. There was the relationship when we got back together seven months later, less innocent but equally adolescent. We said “I love you” and meant it, but didn’t understand it. We fought frequently. There was the relationship during college, when we went our separate ways but occasionally acted like we didn’t, so full of on-again-off-again angst I deleted him from my phone contacts at one point. And then there’s our relationship now, which already in the span of five years seems to contain multitudes, a sequence of nesting dolls stacked inside the nebulous whole.
So tell your partner you love him, and then tell him you’re curious about how the choice to be and stay together from such a young age has shaped who you are. Tell him you’re grateful for what you have together, but sometimes you wonder about your ghost life, the hypothetical forks in the road you decided not to take, and where they might have led. Ask about his prior relationships, and what they did or didn’t teach him.
Tell yourself the story of all the relationships you’ve had with this one person over the past five years, and the lessons you learned from each of them. Ask if the one you’re in now feels good and seems right. Remind yourself that you’ll never know what could have been, but you know what is.
Ask MR Identity by Madeline Montoya.