If real life was a rom-com, your relationship would go something like this: The ultimate meet-cute would have you locking eyes and knowing in your soul that they’re the one from the first “hello.” Cut to a montage of baking together (with spilled flour all over the kitchen, obviously), sunset strolls holding hands, and maybe a tandem bicycle ride or two.
To no one’s surprise, relationships tend to develop a little less cinematically in real life. The beginning of a relationship is tough to navigate, but it can also make or break the longevity of your romance. Here are 15 key pieces of new-relationship advice to start off on the right foot (and figure out if it’s even worth sticking with).
1. Focus on the present, not the past
It’s natural to bring your fears and negative experiences to a new relationship; after all, it’s a survival mechanism to prevent getting your heart broken again. But even if old fears and insecurities may prevent heartbreak, they can also prevent you from truly being happy in a new relationship. For example, if a past partner was unfaithful, don’t distrust your new partner just because of what an ex-relationship was like. Focus on the qualities that make your new partner different. If they’re trustworthy enough to date, that means you should trust them.
Likewise, while the “dating history” conversation will be an important one eventually, don’t rush into it. Spend the first few dates getting to know your partner’s likes, dislikes, dreams, and personality traits, while they’re getting to know yours. There’s no need to explain what went wrong in your last relationship on the first date or find out about their dating past before you know the names of their siblings and where they grew up.
2. Talk about the future early on
While you shouldn’t focus on the past, you should focus on the future, at least somewhat. Of course, you don’t need to (and probably shouldn’t) ask how many kids they want before the salad course arrives on date #1, but you don’t want to wait until after one year of dating to find out that they never want to get married if marriage is a non-negotiable for you.
It’s not always fun to talk about things like life goals, religion, marriage, politics, etc., but naturally work your deal-breakers into the conversation to make sure you’re at least on the same page as soon as you start to see a future together.
Also, whether you’re looking for a long-term relationship or are looking for more of a casual fling, communicate it.
3. Make sure you’re attracted to the person, not the idea of a relationship
Sometimes, we want to be in a relationship so badly (dating burnout is real) that we don’t even realize we’re more attracted to the idea of a relationship than the person we’re in a relationship with.
If you’re so focused on finding Happily Ever After, you run the risk of pushing other people into boxes that they don’t belong in (or don’t want to be in) or forcing a spark. You overlook flaws or red flags because your mind has already convinced you that this has to work. Instead, take your partner at face value.
Assume they’re not The One. Would they still be someone you want to spend your time with? If you enjoy their company so much that you’d want to be with them whether or not they were “The One,” then you’re likely attracted to them, not just a relationship.
4. Don’t skip the sex talk!
This should go without saying, but if you’re not comfortable talking to your partner about sexual health (including STD testing, history, etc.), then you’re not ready to be intimate (or maybe they’re not someone you should be intimate with). Discuss your likes, dislikes, and what you are (and are not) comfortable with while listening to theirs without judgment.
Oh, and don’t forget that the “right time” to be intimate is different for every couple (screw the “three-date rule” or any other bullsh*t guidelines), and remember that just one partner feeling ready is not enough.
5. Meet each other’s friends
Since the relationship is new, you may be tempted to keep it all to yourself. However, meeting friends early on is crucial.
The way you interact with each other’s crew can give insight into your partner and what the relationship will be like. For example, if all of your partner’s friends are huge douches you would never get along with, you might not know your partner as well as you think you do (who chooses to hang out with douches if they’re not a douche themselves, ya know?).
Likewise, having your new partner around your friends can illuminate potential red flags. Your friends might see something that you don’t or your partner might not get along with them as well as you had hoped.
If you both fit in seamlessly with each other’s group of friends, that establishes a mutual friendship, meaning you won’t have to choose between hanging out together or with friends when you all get along swimmingly.
6. Don’t have important conversations over text
Texting is a modern-day blessing when it comes to regular check-ins and sending funny memes to make your partner laugh while they’re at work.
However, texting should not be used for anything deeper than making plans or LOLing over TikToks. Discussing your feelings for each other or getting into disagreements should always be done in person. Not only can texting make in-person feel awkward, but a lot can also be lost in translation and cause more misunderstanding.
If you feel an argument coming on and you’re in a situation where you can’t at least talk over the phone, let your partner know you’ll discuss it when you can talk it through together.
7. Be yourself
OK, so this one sounds so cliché, I’m embarrassed to even write it. But I would have saved young, single Josie from a lot of wasted time if I had been 100% myself on every first date and at the beginning of every new relationship. I get it: You try to be all “chill” and “cool” at the beginning.
You pretend you watch horror movies instead of the Hallmark channel, and you tell them you like their artsy music even though you only listen to Taylor Swift’s first three albums on repeat. Even if you’re still at the phase of shaving your legs before every date (ah, more innocent times), be honest and upfront about your likes, dislikes, and who you are. Not only will it save you time and heartbreak with the people who aren’t a good match, but it will also help the right person find you.
8. Actually enjoy it
Another personal story coming at you: I can look back at the beginning of every relationship and remember all the times I worried about how my hair or makeup looked before going on dates or reading into all the little signs out of worry they didn’t like me as much as I hoped they did. But the beginning of relationships is so special: The “new-relationship bubble” has yet to pop, the honeymoon phase feels like it will last forever, and you’re smiling, like, all the time.
It’s normal to feel scared or reluctant to be vulnerable when your heart is on the line. But no matter how scary a new relationship can feel, don’t forget to enjoy it. Notice all the little moments, try new things together, and make sure you’re having fun.
9. Don’t worry about labels (to a certain extent)
With Bumble, Tinder, and Hinge, it can be incredibly confusing where you are (“Talking?” “Dating?” “Hooking up?” “FWB?” “Wifed Up?”). If ambiguity still lingers over where you two fall on the relationship scale, don’t panic. Different people have different timelines for when they feel ready to take each relationship step, so different timelines don’t necessarily mean you’re incompatible or that they don’t like you.
However, you should have clarity about whether or not you’re both seeing other people, and you should know if you’re on the same page in terms of keeping it casual or looking for something serious (always be open about what you want). But otherwise, the “girlfriend” label does not necessarily mean what it did back in kindergarten when it only meant “I like you,” so don’t sweat it if they haven’t popped the G-word yet.
Oh, and if you run into that awkward introducing-them-but-don’t-know-how-to-refer-to-them situation, just call them by their name. You don’t need to clarify what they are to you, and it might cause a lot more confusion if you try to guess.
10. Know that red flags aren’t suggestions (and aren’t going to go away)
If you catch them in a lie, they’re rude to the waiter, or they say something mean about a friend, guess what? It’s not a “one-time thing,” and they’re not going to change.
Red flags are gut feelings that are telling you something isn’t right, so listen to them. Ignoring red flags can only prolong the inevitable demise of a relationship and make the eventual breakup harder for both of you. Nobody’s perfect; you might judge your partner and they might make mistakes.
If it’s simply a judgment or mistake, you’ll be able to talk it through. If it’s more of a gut feeling that “this isn’t right” or an inexcusable behavior more than a mistake, run for the hills.
11. Spend some time apart
A new relationship is incredibly exciting. So exciting, in fact, that it’s easy to get swept up in your life as a new couple and let the routines from your single life dwindle. Maybe you see your friends less often or spend less time on your hobby to spend more time with your new partner. Sure, it’s a great sign that you want to be together all the time, but spending all of your time together (and giving up your own independence and social life) could set you up for a relationship disaster.
No matter what, make sure you don’t lose your friends or yourself. Avoid constantly texting or calling, and try your best to act like nothing has changed in your friendships (because it shouldn’t have!). You shouldn’t be looking for the person to share one life with; you’re looking for the person to share your life with.
12. Stop bringing up your ex
Especially if you were not the one to break off your last relationship, it’s natural to compare your new partner or new relationship to your old one. But remember how we’re supposed to leave the past in the past? Newsflash: Your new partner is not your ex (thank god!), and they don’t want to keep hearing about your ex.
Sure, you’ll need to have the “dating history” chat to understand each other better, but otherwise, is it really necessary to ever bring up an ex? No one wants to feel like they’re being measured against someone else, but it’s also destructive to compare your relationship to past experiences instead of enjoying it for what it is. In the words of Elsa, let it go (like, for real).
13. Relationships aren’t 50/50—they’re 100/100
Some of the best relationship advice I’ve ever received is that relationships really aren’t all about compromise or trying for 50/50. Contrary to popular misconception, you can’t just contribute what you think is your share. For a happy, successful, long-lasting relationship, give all that you’re capable of and expect the same in return. Of course, conflicts will arise (and will arise even more the longer you’re together), but you both should be 100% in the relationship. You cannot split up relationship responsibilities like you split a check on a dinner date.
14. Communicate how you feel often
The start of a relationship can lay the foundation for the future, so pay particular attention to how you talk to each other and work through problems. If you’re unsure of the right communication tools to use in your disagreements with your partner, consider consulting a relationship therapist (no such thing as too early!).
Besides the major designer closet on a writer’s salary, Sex and the City got one more thing wrong: Your friends should not always be your relationship sounding board. Of course, you should have a strong support system, but when you get in a disagreement with your partner, think of turning inward instead of outward to fix it.
Talk it through with each other instead of immediately complaining to your friends. PS: Your partner is not a mind reader, whether it comes to date nights or sex positions. Tell them what you want and create a perfect relationship instead of expecting a perfect person.
15. Remember that actions matter more than words
Labels are one thing that everyone has different opinions on, but at the end of the day, you should know how they feel about you. It doesn’t matter if they’re promising to take you on vacation or that they want to introduce you to their parents if they’re not making consistent plans, making you feel special, and showing you how they feel about you (instead of just telling you). Confusion happens when actions aren’t matching words, so pay attention to what they’re doing instead of what they’re saying to find clarity. If they really do care about you, you won’t be confused.