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‘I Have No Relationship Experience’

by Sara Eckel - December 7, 2016

Dear Sara: Growing up, I lived a very sheltered life: Most things were simply given to me, in return for a level of conformity that followed certain expectations. Throughout high school, I was essentially prohibited from being in a relationship (along with strict avoidance of drinking and partying—yeah, those were fun years) as I was led to believe that it would impede on my education and career prospects. I’m 24 now, about to finally graduate with a career in law enforcement just on the horizon, yet another reason why I abstained from a lot when I was younger.

In all that time, I have never been in a committed relationship with someone. I mean, I haven’t even made it to holding hands with a woman. There’s just this deeply ingrained apprehension that prevents me from being romantic, and as hard as I try to “put myself out there,” I feel like they get an easy read on my lack of confidence and inexperience. Now, don’t get me wrong, most of my friends are actually female, but that’s about as far as it ever gets.

Many of my guy and girl friends tell me I’m not missing much, that anticipating finding love is simply setting myself up for disappointment. Most of them are bitter about their own bad experiences, and sometimes they do a pretty good job of convincing me to remain single.

Am I crazy? Now that I’m living by my own means, I’ve tried meeting people online, which has led to a few friendly coffee dates or concerts, but never more than that. Finding that spark of romance that goes beyond being good acquaintances (most of these girls just end up being my Facebook friends, ugh) seems so out of reach. I’ve had advice ranging from “be a jerk, have a few emotionless flings” to “keep being genuine, the right girl is out there!” All I want is a meaningful connection with someone special, who can see past the fact that I’ve got some serious catching up to do. Is there any hope?—Sincerely, C

Dear C: Here’s the good news about love: Nobody knows what they’re doing.

In our culture, we treat love like an achievement and often liken the search for love to a job hunt, one that requires a long and detailed resume to prove one’s “qualifications.”

But it’s not true. Your friends who are bitter from their bad experiences are on their own path. It’s not better or worse, just different. They have baggage–resentments, hurt feelings, disappointment—that makes them question whether a relationship is worth it at all.

You, on the other hand, are a clean slate. You might feel like you’re at a disadvantage because you’re “less experienced” than they are, but your letter indicates that you have a very firm grounding in what matters most.

You didn’t send me a laundry list about age, weight, education, family background. You want “a meaningful connection with someone special.” There is a lot of beauty and wisdom in that statement, so hold onto it. You might not find that person tomorrow or even next year, but if you maintain that core principle, it will steer you in the right direction.

I absolutely understand the “falling behind” feeling. I felt it throughout my twenties and thirties, when I was mostly single. I thought that I was missing out on important relationship experience, but after I married my husband I realized I had been gaining a different kind of experience. My long-term singleness helped me develop skills like independence, self-acceptance, patience, and the ability to offer love and kindness outside of a romantic relationship. Those skills have served me very well in my marriage.

Instead of worrying about your lack of experience, I suggest you make an effort to gain some in the area where you feel most insecure—letting woman know you’re romantically interested in them. The best way to overcome your fear of putting yourself out there is … to put yourself out there.

Psychologist Albert Ellis was once shy with women, and he dealt with it by asking a lot of women for dates. Did he get rejected—yes, quite a lot. But in the process he discovered something very important about rejection: It wasn’t that bad. The fear of rejection turned out to be worse than the rejection itself, and the more he put himself on the line, the easier it became (a story he recounts in a terrific book with a very long-winded title: How To Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything—Yes, Anything).

If making the first move is difficult for you, that’s an excellent reason to practice making the first move. If traversing that line from “just friends” to “more than friends” is hard, all the more reason to try.

Rejection will happen, and it will suck. But you won’t die. And each time you have that experience of not dying you’ll be a little bit stronger and more able to get up for the next round.

Yes, there will probably be women put off by your lack of experience. But the goal is not to convince every woman you like that she should date you, or to fashion yourself into the kind of man you think most women will want. It’s to find the woman who loves you as you are. Your letter indicates that you are thoughtful, responsible, honest, and a good friend. You’re not looking for a trophy—you’re looking for someone to love. From where I sit, that puts you pretty far ahead of the game.

Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her questions here.