I'm having doubts about my relationships; am I doing this right?

D
asks:
I’m 16 years old, and I’ve been in 3 relationships. Nothing serious - no sexual activity or true commitments or anything - but I’ve genuinely enjoyed the company of all three people I’ve been with, and I find myself thinking back fondly on memories with them. None of the three relationships have ended badly. Yet. Currently, I’m still in my third relationship, but the statement is the same: something is seriously wrong with the way I’ve felt about these people. My first two relationships went almost the exact same way; I met them online, became good friends with them, began dating them (both were long distance but weren’t more than 2 hours away from me), and about 4-6 months into the relationship, I began having serious doubts about whether or not I actually liked them. This ended up being the driving force that caused me to break up with them, and luckily, neither ended badly as stated before. Now -- in my third relationship -- I’m dating someone I go to school with. I thought that I was having those doubts before because I lived far from them, and the absence and lack of contact was making my affection fade. But despite being with someone I go to school with and see every day, I am still having similar doubts. When I’m around them, everything is great. I’ll hug them, kiss them, hold hands, and have great conversations. But the minute I’m away from them, I doubt whether or not I actually like them, and I find myself fantasizing about being with other people, most of the time who aren’t even real people and who my mind has just created. I had these same exact feelings when I was with my other two partners, and I’m having them once more. I realize that there’s no such thing as my “perfect partner”, but when I’m alone with my thoughts and not immediately and physically with the person I’m in a relationship with, I seem to forget that. These thoughts get so intense that it does drive me to break up with my partners, because I feel like I could be doing better, or that the relationship I’m in just isn’t for me, despite everything being normal, and otherwise, honestly, perfect. I feel like a terrible person because of this, and I often find myself missing my old partners even though I know I would simply end up in the same situation again if I got back with them. Is this normal? If not, then why do I keep doing this? How do I stop? Can it be stopped? I know this is long, but any help is appreciated. Thanks in advance! <3
Mo Ranyart replies:

It sounds like this is really stressing you out. Hopefully I can help by answering your first question right off the bat: yes, this is normal.

I think you're right that the lack of contact could have been a factor in the cooling of your feelings towards your long-distance partners; that's a common issue in long-distance relationships. They're possible to maintain, but it's often a bit trickier to keep up a long term, healthy long-distance partnership than it is to maintain one in person, especially if you didn't get any real time to be together in person in the relationship for a while first (or at all).

Something to keep in mind, though, is that many dating relationships last for a short period of time and end because of a gradual cooling-off of feelings. Sometimes people think of "dating" as something you do with a person you already know you're super compatible with. But more typically, the first few weeks or months of a relationship are often the period when both people are still trying to figure out how well -- and even if -- they fit together, if there's an attraction, and if so, how their initial attraction could grow or develop over time, and if they're compatible long-term outside of whatever drew them to each other in the first place.

In many ways, this is just what dating is, especially early on: it's spending time with someone in order to figure out if you want to spend more time with them and how you feel about being with them.

You can't truly know what it'll feel like to date someone before you are actually dating them. And for people in their teens, having shorter relationships -- even when nothing really goes wrong -- is both much more common, and also, I think, often healthier than having longer relationships, especially those they might stay in past the point of happiness or out of feelings of guilt or obligation.

There are plenty of reasons a relationship might not progress past this early feeling-things-out phase that don't mean either person did something wrong or is a bad person.

Folks just aren't always a good match, even if and when they like each other a lot. For example: two people might find that beyond physical chemistry, they just don't have much in common; when they aren't making out they might discover they have very little to talk about or do together. Or perhaps there's a conflict in how much time people want to spend together, or what they like to do on dates, which means there's no great compromise that makes both people happy. It's even possible that once you get to know someone better, you'll realize you don't like them quite as much as you did when you only knew the surface level of their personality. All of these are things that you can't necessarily know before you start dating, but might find out a few weeks or months in, and they're all valid reasons to end a relationship.

In addition, it's very common for new relationships to start with a strong burst of attraction, interest and energy (often called limerence, "new relationship energy" or NRE) that's part infatuation and part excitement. NRE doesn't last indefinitely; as partners get to know each other better, this intense energy will often turn into a slightly more sedate kind of affection. The positive tradeoff to losing some of that butterflies-in-your-stomach giddiness you get around a crush or new partner is an increased level of intimacy and comfort with a person if you've grown closer and gotten to know each other better. If you aren't expecting this change, though, or you aren't feeling closer to your partner at the same time, the gradual loss of that initial energy can feel like the loss of your feelings altogether. Sometimes we have doubts and lose interest because once that NRE dies down -- or when we're away from it -- we just find we're not as into that person without it.

It could be that what you're experiencing is the totally normal process of figuring out what sorts of people and relationships feel right to you, or the experience of having NRE wind down and finding you feel differently without it. But in case there's something else going on, let's look at some other reasons you might be feeling doubt about relationships when you aren't spending time with your current partner.

It can be hard to separate the reality of a relationship with an idealized version we might have in our minds. It could be that you're coming into dating with a lot of expectations for how it'll feel or how quickly you'll build intimacy with someone. You say you know that no partner's perfect, but even when "perfect" isn't on the table, it can be easy to imagine a lower-conflict, higher-excitement relationship than what you have. You might want to take a look at what you're imagining: are you picturing a reduction of conflicts or problems you have in current relationships? Or are you imagining an idealized situation when what you have at the time doesn't seem to have any glaring flaws? After all, you're right: none of these relationships could have been perfect, because no relationship ever is.

When you talk about "doing better" with a hypothetical new partner, I wonder what exactly you want to improve or change in your current relationship. If you find that there are things you're lacking like time spent together, emotional intimacy, or something else that you're missing out on, I encourage you to bring it up with your partner to see how they're feeling; maybe they want the same things you do and haven't been brave enough to speak up yet either. If "doing better" means having something you know you really want or need that just isn't possible in your current relationship, whether that's by circumstance or by your partner's choice, then it may be best to consider seeking out a relationship that's a better fit for you. In other words, you could be right that there's something you've been missing in your relationships up until now.

If you just have a vague sense that there's someone objectively "better" who you could be dating, I think it's important to remember that while it's easy to imagine an ideal partner, a real romantic partner will always be a person with their own flaws and potential areas of conflict. It's fine to want to make changes, or to decide that a painful or frustrating part of a relationship isn't worth sticking around for the good parts, but it's also important to be realistic in your expectations of how conflict-free a relationship can ever be.

It can be so easy to overthink relationships. I hope you can avoid doing that too much, but it might help to ask yourself some more concrete questions about how you're feeling. For example, having a specific answer to, "Am I excited to see my partner today?" might make things a bit clearer than, "Do I still have feelings for them?" You may want to do some journaling and ask yourself: are you excited when you think about spending time with your current partner? Does it feel like you have a lot to talk about and share with each other? Is it easy to find activities to do together that keep the atmosphere feeling fun and natural instead of stilted or awkward? Does this really feel like something you could grow in and that could, itself, grow? If you're answering yes to most of these, that's a good sign! We also have a list of questions you can ask to give yourself a little relationship checkup, if you want something more substantial to mull over.

If you do feel like it's time to end your current relationship, it's good to have that conversation in a way that's as clear and compassionate as possible. If you just do that, you can rest very assured you're not being a horrible person. There's this advice column about breaking up I think you might find helpful, and I wanted to pull out this quote in particular for you:

For some people, nervousness or a desire to soften the blow can result in a lot of extra apologies, explanations, and reassurances that are unlikely to be helpful in the moment, and might actually make it less clear that a breakup is what's happening. If you can keep things brief and to the point, that's probably for the best, and it might be good to spend a little bit of time planning out what you want to say beforehand so you're less likely to be tongue-tied in the moment. I think it's best to stick to something short and simple about how your feelings have changed and that while you still care about [them] you no longer want to be in a dating relationship. Adjust this as you need to, of course, but the fact that you need to break up is more important than the specific details of why that's what you want.

There may never be a point when feelings or relationships lose all of their mystery and you perfectly understand yourself and your connections with others, but my bet is that over time, as you have more experience with relationships, you'll get a better understanding of how you feel when you're settling into a good relationship -- and perhaps just getting cold feet or nerves sometimes when you're doing that -- or realizing that one isn't feeling quite right. Identifying and understanding emotions like these may not be a skill anyone can perfect entirely, but it does get easier with practice.

Being as open and compassionate as you can to the people around you will go a long way towards making things easier, even when you aren't entirely sure how you're feeling.

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