At the beginning of November, pop star Ariana Grande dropped a super catchy new song “thank u, next.” In it she name-drops her famous exes (Big Sean, Ricky Alvarez, Pete Davidson, and Mac Miller) and thanks them for teaching her self-love in the wake of each of their break-ups. Over the weekend she released the highly anticipated music video, recreating famous scenes from female-driven movies like Mean Girls, Bring It On, 13 Going on 30, and Legally Blonde. Immediately the song and video became a hit and took over social media. Her lyrics “One taught me love / One taught me patience / And one taught me pain” birthed a new type of meme, one that I’m very here for. I spent a solid hour scrolling through the hashtag #thankunext thinking, “This is why I love the internet.” Here are some favorites:
Unlike Ariana, I’m not single (and I’m not a pop star); I have been married for 6 years. My husband and I got married rather quickly after falling in love in Vegas, “our Las Vegas love affair” we affectionately reminisce. After that weekend, at 24 years old, I packed my bags and moved from Canada to California to be with him. For these last few years, we’ve been happily “super married.”
Now I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a stan Ariana Grande fan, but each time I listened to the hit, it nudged me. Like a dusting off of old memories of own my past relationships, I kept asking myself this specific question: what did my exes teach me?
In order to give proper thanks, I needed to map out my relationship timeline. I had to go to the very beginning. I wrote down my list of men, err boys, many that I’d long forgotten about.
The first name on the list was Maxim, a French boy I met at summer camp in Maine, who I had fallen madly in love with. I was 12. He wasn’t my first kiss, but he was the best kiss I’d had up until that point. Remembering him I thought, “How cliche! A french boy good at french kissing.” He wrote me love notes with lots of grammatical errors (which was like, sooo cute), and he told me I was beautiful. The last night at camp we made out by the fire, professing how much we’d miss each other and vowing to become pen pals. We’d even promised to see each other once a year. Later that evening, as I was walking back to my cabin, I found him making out with another, older girl. I was heartbroken. When I got home I listened exclusively to depressing pre-teen songs while my mother tried to figure out what the hell happened to me at camp. “I met I boy…” I finally admitted to her. Though I would learn this many times, Maxim taught me first: Be suspicious of grand romantic gestures — they can be shady and deceitful, and usually come at a cost (heartbreak).
No guy is worth fighting over, especially one that is purposely trying to cause conflict between two friends.
My next “love,” Ford, was 4 years older than me. At 13, I was predictably attracted to the boy with the bad boy allure. When I wrote his name on my list, I couldn’t help but laugh, “What the hell was I thinking?! How was I even attracted to this person?!” He would now be commonly referred to as a fuckboy. He’s truthfully insignificant in my past, but he was the first guy to create competition between me and another girl. She was one of my friends, and ended up dating him for several years. Ford taught me that no guy is worth fighting over, especially one that is purposely trying to cause conflict between two friends. We, women, are better than that.
At 15 years old, I started a 7 year relationship with an Italian boy-man named Matt. He was 5 years older than me and, while dating, I could have never imagined my life without him. I was incredibly close with his family, and I always thought he’d be the one I’d marry. Our friends and family often referred to us as Allie and Noah, characters played by Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling in the Nicholas Sparks movie, The Notebook. At the time, my whole identity was wrapped up in being his girlfriend. Our relationship was far from perfect, and it eventually showed me exactly what I don’t want out of a long-term partnership, but our love was real. It just wasn’t supposed to last forever. The lingering effects of our long-term relationship, specifically some of the emotional abuse, took years to heal. Over time, Matt taught me that trying to keep someone small does not equal love, that possessiveness and jealousy does not equal love, and that in the end, no matter how many times you try to change and heal a person, that too does not equal love.
Our love was real. It just wasn’t supposed to last forever.
After my break up with Matt, I dated a guy 12 years older than me, Pacey. I was shocked at how quickly I liked him after being with someone for 7 years. On our second date, he shared his food with me at a restaurant, something which Matt would have never done. “Sharing is caring,” he said lovingly as he handed me his fork. I came home and cried to my roommate, remembering all the times Matt and I got into aggressive arguments over something as silly as food. I never dated a guy who was nice, never mind thoughtful and loving. We dated on and off for a year. He was adamant about not having kids, and though I was unsure about many things in my life, I knew I wanted to be a mother. Even though our love was short-lived, he was the first guy that never tried to change me. He believed I was capable of achieving anything. Pacey taught me that I was worthy of being treated with kindness and respect. And the more I surrounded myself with people like him, the more my confidence grew.
After Pacey, I spent the next year casually dating. The lessons learned from these hookups can be narrowed down to 3 teachings:
Going down my romantic memory lane brought me many nostalgic giggles and dramatic eye rolls. Afterwards, I felt oddly drained and really wanted to give my younger self a hug. In each one of these relationships, I realized that I felt like I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t, someone I wasn’t. I believed whatever they told me about my worth, through their words and actions, was more accurate than what I knew to be true about myself. I knew Ford was a fuckboy and not worthy of my time, and I didn’t think I deserved more than that then. I knew Matt’s jealousy and controlling ways would never falter, and it took me 7 years to finally trust my intuition and have the courage to leave him. I knew Pacey would never be the father of my kids, and yet I stayed because I was terrified that I would never find someone to treat me kindly again.
Each guy, each relationship, each heartache, no matter how hard, has served the purpose of finding my way back to myself.
Thankfully, it feels like I’m no longer the person I was in my past relationships. I am now confident. I am worthy. I no longer need a man’s approval or validation to determine my value. Most importantly, while I am and will forever be a work in progress, I know that I am enough.
Over the years, each boy, each breakup was like putting a bandaid on my heart: with each applied bandage, my heart grew stronger and more powerful. Over time, my heart healed and I realized that in learning who I was through them, it started to beat for my own happiness.
Each guy, each relationship, each heartache, no matter how hard, has served the purpose of finding my way back to myself. And for that, I say thank you.
“I’ve loved and I’ve lost / But that’s not what I see… / Look what you taught me / And for that, I say / Thank you”