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What You Can Learn From Your Ex

The human experience dictates that the most valuable and profound life lessons are products of pain. It’s unfortunate that to grow we must first suffer, but someone who can convert anguish into something positive is lucky. While we are sometimes victims of the hurt – that is, we can’t control how much we suffer – what happens next is completely under our control.

But that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Sorting through it – the cruelty, the embarrassment – and essentially reliving events we’d just as soon forget. It takes strength to let these memories flood your mind, but within them there’s wisdom. And later, growth.

Because life lessons come from people for whom we care deeply (though occasionally our enemies teach us a thing or two), there is a lot to be learned from our exes. Examining past relationships is like holding a mirror up to one’s face; our old flames teach us what we need and want in a partner, what we can stand and what we can’t, and – maybe most important – who we are and how we function in relationships.

The experience can be extremely valuable if you are ready and willing, but if you are still harboring resentment toward your ex, don’t bother. The only thing you’ll be able to see is that you were somehow wronged.

You Learn What You Can’t Stand (and What You Must Have)

Probably the easiest thing to garner from a bad relationship is what you can’t stand in other people. Even if you were dumped, there probably was something about your ex that didn’t quite sit right with you, whether it was the way he held a fork or the way she answered the phone. But hey, when you are in love, it’s easy to overlook little idiosyncrasies. After all, they make each of us unique.

But really, these “can’t stands” are petty compared to more serious issues. Ranking number one on the no-can-do list is usually infidelity, with lying and jealously coming in closely behind. Some people balk at the idea of a “clingy” partner or conversely, someone who is too flirtatious.

At the onset we think we can live with certain things that later turn out to be deal-breakers. But how would you know if you hadn’t dealt with your deal-breaker firsthand?

After you’ve weighed your deal-breakers, your “must-haves” become more apparent. Maybe your ex went out and drank a little too much for your liking but in retrospect was way more fun than the workaholic you are now dating. Or perhaps your current significant other is gorgeous but really has nothing on your hilariously funny ex. As long as your list of “must-haves” is realistic, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have them.

You Learn to Separate Fact from Fantasy

As children we have an idea of the kind of person we’d like to share our lives with when we grow up. Usually this person closely resembles one of our parents or a character in a movie, but that’s another article altogether.

Whether it’s the cheerleader, the jock, or the movie star, many people spend their days chasing an ideal. Often the pursuit of “perfection” or a “type” continues into adulthood, prompting people to seek mates who work in a particular profession or who have a certain look.

We’ve all done it in one form or another and often with the same result, disappointment. Why? Because no one can live up to what we’ve built in our imagination. Dating that “ideal” person (or someone close to it) gives us a dose of reality and reveals that what we really want isn’t, well, that. Those who realize that the ideal person doesn’t exist and move on are that much closer to finding a happy and healthy relationship.

You Learn About You

Undoubtedly the most valuable lessons to be garnered from your ex are the ones about your own character. You probably have a pretty good grasp of your strengths and weaknesses from your upbringing, but being in a relationship is a completely different story.

When a romantic relationship is serious, our significant others get to know us on a deeper level, more so than anyone else, and oftentimes better than we know ourselves. Hearing criticism from them, fair or not, is never easy, but it’s almost always true.

When thinking about your past discussions and arguments, was there anything that he or she pointed out that may have a kernel of truth to it? Maybe that you complain a lot? You’re too blunt? Stubborn? Self-centered? (This is the part where you really have to be over your ex, otherwise you’ll just think that everything the person said wasn’t true.)

Insults hurled in anger obviously don’t count, but if you are able to extract some insight from past arguments that can make you a better person, you’ve won. In the long run, you may even thank your ex (secretly) for telling you what was up; after all, he or she made you a better boyfriend/girlfriend because of it.

You Learn to Go Easy on Yourself

Similar to the way music is the soundtrack of your life, ruminating over your exes allows you to gauge where you were emotionally when you dated them. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s obvious that you dated the charmer because you needed affirmation. The workaholic because you weren’t ready to commit. The party animal because you were craving a little excitement.

The important thing is that you don’t judge yourself too harshly about the people you’ve dated or take a failed relationship as a personal failure. So it didn’t work out. Big deal. You’ve learned a lesson, maybe two. Now that you know better, you can do better.