Written by Alice Barraclough
Love is a messy, complex and sometimes heart-breaking business. Here, Stylist readers reveal the hard-earned advice they’ve learned along the way: the wisdom that has transformed their attitude to relationships and finding ‘the one’.
I’ve been told that when it comes to love, I have unrealistic expectations. Now, I’m not sure who to blame here – Jane Austen? Nicholas Sparks? Nora Ephron? – but growing up reading and watching stories filled with romantic proposals and passionate declarations of love have perhaps left me with a warped sense of what finding ‘the one’ actually looks like.
You know how it goes: boy/girl meets boy/girl, they fall hopelessly in love and live happily ever after. It’s fate, right? When in reality, it’s more like flying to New York for a fifth date with a guy you’ve just met online, only to find out he’s a real-life Christian Grey (true story) or hitting rock bottom after being kicked out of the flat you shared with your long-term boyfriend (also, sadly, true).
Love, at least, in my experience, is often painful, manipulative, messy and complicated. And being the only single one in my friendship group meant I often found myself on the receiving end of advice – wanted, or otherwise.
“Be more vulnerable,” they’d say. “But don’t come on too strong – guys don’t want to feel emasculated.” Conflicting, or what?
It’s clear that dating advice, in general, is pretty terrible. But sometimes, we need a little help navigating the choppy waters. So, we asked Stylist readers to share the best advice they’ve ever received about love. Below, see their pearls of wisdom.
Love the person that treats you the best
“The best piece of advice I’ve ever received about love is to ‘love the person that treats you the best’. It was advice I got from my aunt when she so candidly reminisced about her 30-plus years of relationship with her husband. It made me overlook all the ‘superficial things’ and really focus on character. This piece of advice led me to David, my husband. He honestly would’ve failed all the criteria I had for a future husband because they were focused on superficial things. Giving him a chance over a decade ago, and looking at where we are now, I can definitely say that I got the best of both worlds.”
Adanna, 33, Dublin
Sometimes, love won’t feel good
“The best piece of advice about love I’ve ever received was from my therapist. She said that sometimes love won’t feel good. At first, this confused me – how could love not feel good? Essentially, we’re continuously exposed to different models of love and relationships – from our parents, our siblings, our friendships, our romantic relationships, the media, and our culture. If these relationships are dysfunctional, for example, there’s a lot of hot and cold behaviour, manipulation, people-pleasing, distrust, extreme highs and lows then our bodies can get used to it, and that familiarity can feel safe and normal. So when we meet someone gentle and patient, has boundaries and high emotional intelligence, understands that deep love often doesn’t start with a firework but with a slow burn, that relationship can feel bad, boring and maybe even unsafe – but it doesn’t mean that it is. She told me to lean into it because I deserve a love that is certain and secure.”
Natasha, 28, London
Don’t seek it out too much
“My mother is right about a lot of things (annoyingly) but this one, I really felt. She told me that love often comes along when you’re least expecting it. If you find yourself seeking it out too much, instead of just enjoying your life and allowing it to come in as an added bonus to the life you already have, it won’t appear. Just enjoy yourself, focus on you and love will find you. She’s completely right, when you place so much importance on finding love, it often means you’re focusing so much more on that but not letting yourself really feel it. I needed that reminder.”
Jade, 22, Manchester
True love is unconditional
“Love is unconditional – that’s what I learned from my Nanna who passed away a year ago. She was very conservative in being demonstrative with love and affection vocally – very much British stiff upper lip and a lady of a Victorian-esque upbringing where one has decorum always. But in her actions, she just oozed with love for her whole family and not least my grandfather who passed away several years before her. He was 20 years older than her and became quite unwell during the later stages of their marriage. She cared for and loved him ‘til the day he passed, with unwavering and compassionate loyalty. Every day since he passed she would talk of him, keep him alive in memory, and never uttered anything negative about him or their loving 50-year marriage. It was all the fun and loving aspect. She inadvertently taught me that love is a deep-rooted loyalty and respect for one another, and I aspire to her and my other grandparents’ love and stoicism.”
Anna, 39, Hertfordshire
When someone shows you who they are, believe them
“After leaving a terrible, abusive relationship – which ended with a restraining order and years of therapy – I was under the care of the NHS crisis team following a breakdown, and a clinical psychologist told me that ‘when someone shows you who they are, believe them’. It changed the way I looked at everything. When someone shows you good or bad, who they are through their words, actions, and treatment of you, believe them. People will always show you who they really are, sometimes we just choose to ignore it. I now work hard to treat others how they treat me. If they don’t value me, I no longer work harder to people-please, to gain affection or feelings of self-worth. Because I now know that how someone treats me, directly displays their respect level for me. And that the signs are always there if only you choose to look for them.”
Sian, 35, Midhurst
A solid relationship is about being equal
“My best friend once told me that when you’re looking for a partner, don’t just look for someone you want to share your life with, but find someone you want to live your life with. Even if that means you’re in two separate lanes, but going in the same direction. Relationships aren’t about dropping everything and jumping in the other person’s lane and doing what makes them happy while forgetting about everything you’ve worked for so far. A solid relationship is about being equal. It’s about continuing to chase your dreams, being in your own lane, but also having a partner to enjoy the ride and the view with.”
Shitika, 31, London
Fit your own oxygen mask first
“After going through a tough bout of depression, I read an article on self-care and the writer used a metaphor to describe how you should always put yourself first. It’s stuck with me ever since. She said that when you’re in an airplane, they always teach you to ‘fit your own oxygen mask first’ – at the time, I was trying to make a relationship work that just never would. I was constantly trying to ‘fix’ him – putting his needs before my own. This advice changed everything for me. In love and life, you can’t help anyone else until your own oxygen mask is firmly fitted.”
Laura, 26, Edinburgh
Remember, no one is irreplaceable
“I remember my father reading me a story by Franz Kafka about a little girl who was very upset as she had lost her doll in the park, and Kafka helped her overcome the loss. He did this by reading her letters every day from the doll for a few weeks, about all her experiences. After a few weeks, the letters stopped, with the last letter saying the doll had got married and was very happy. The little girl was very happy about this. What I learnt from this is that we lose things all the time, and then we find a new place to put our love. You may love one person and think they are irreplaceable. But really no one is irreplaceable. When love is lost, love is found. As Kafka said: ‘Everything you love will probably be lost but in the end, love will return in another way’.”
Sarah, mid 40s, Finchley
Lose your expectations of ‘the one’
“After dating a stream of guys who cheated on me throughout my 20s, I found myself clinging onto anyone who would show me affection. I was desperate to be loved and feel wanted. A close friend told me to stop going on dates thinking that they’re ‘the one’. It was a bit of a lightbulb moment. By wanting a relationship – any relationship – so badly, I was pushing potential partners into boxes they didn’t want to be in, and I still ended up hurt and rejected. She taught me the importance of just going with the flow, without expectation.”
Georgia, 29, Leeds
Staying is a choice, just like leaving
“The best advice I’ve been given was from my mum. My marriage was failing and I felt pretty hopeless and scared for the future. But I still stayed. I kept trying to make it work, only to come to the exact same conclusion: my marriage was clearly over. My mum told me that; ‘staying is a choice’ and it’s that single piece of advice that taught me to love myself enough to leave.”
Cat, 34, Surrey
As for me? The best advice I’ve ever received about love was from a colleague. She told me: “you can date as many attractive, successful, egotistical people as you like, but remember to marry someone kind.”
Kindness is such an essential trait in any partner, and now, on the year I turn 30 and put my tumultuous 20s behind me, I think I might have finally found that kind person who could be my forever.
As Nora Ephron wrote in When Harry Met Sally: “When you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
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