Dating in your late teens and early twenties: An unpaid internship

I can safely say that my dating curriculum vitae definitely lists me as undateable. I have been with a lot of people but until this day I have not been in a long term, healthy, and exclusive relationship. And I believe it has everything to do with age.

18-21 is a very delicate time in our lives. It is marked by a lot of decision making and change. This is the stage where you define who you are. These are the trial-and-error years especially if you find yourself in transitioning from high school to university.

Erik Erikson, a development psychology scholar, theorised that there are eight stages of psychosocial development. He posits that as adolescents -(ages 12 -18) – we are essentially defining ourselves as we struggle with questions of “who am I?”. After we have defined our identities, we then move to another stage in our lives (the early 20s) where we are concerned with intimacy. At this point, we want to share our lives with others. This explains why there seems to be a slight obsession with dating amongst people in their twenties and late teens.

Pls note, he also argues that having a strong sense of self is a very important predecessor to successful intimate relationships. How do you then have a strong sense of self if your life is marked by a lot of change and growth?

You are in the beginning phase of your degree, you are trying out adulting, and are trying to find what makes you tick. So where in your early twenties and late teens do you make time for dating? Where there is a will, there is a way.

My mother met my father in her early twenties. So she always advocated that one starts dating and having sex after 18 and then that changed to 21. But I consciously started dating when I started university because I also thought that I would meet the love of my life in my first year of university and live happily ever after. But life had other plans for me.

Someone once tweeted that dating in your twenties is an unpaid internship. Unpaid internships are for learning and growth. They count as work experience especially if you do it for a good company. That has been my dating experience. All my failed attempts at love have allowed me to make mistakes and also be able to articulate exactly what it is I want in my relationships and in a partner. But I wish I had waited a bit longer. Maybe until I turned 22. Here’s why.

I was very idealistic and out of touch with reality. I love romantic movies and they influenced my take on dating a lot. In my first year, I started vibing with this other student. But I just knew he wasn’t for me because a lot of that relationship was spent inside a res room. So, I dumped him. I wanted everything – the spontaneous restaurant dates, long road trips, beach dates, and new experiences with the love of my life. This meant I would need to date older because there aren’t that many students who can do this. So there went the idea of growing with someone that my mother instilled in me.

My conception of what a relationship was distorted by ideas that weren’t realistic. But I won’t lie, I experienced everything that I wanted to experience with my partners. But there was always something missing. My ‘type’ never wanted to commit for different reasons.

The first one was that I am too young to commit. In my first year, I had no idea who I was and I was extremely impressionable and irrational. I still am a bit irrational but not so much impressionable. I felt more than I thought. That’s when my doctor explained to me that I internalised and felt everything to the extremes because the rational part of my brain had not fully developed. According to the University of Rochester medical centre, the rational part of our brains only develops when you turn 25 or so. This explains why each break up devastated me.

Second, they were not ready and had just come out of a relationship. Third, I was too young and needed to explore my options. If only they knew, I would have married all of them if they just asked because I really thought they were the love of my lives and there could never be anyone else. I felt like this for maybe 3 different people. I would take all of them back if I could because I believe they all the ones. See? Very irrational.

I remember last year, my therapist asked me to list the five most important qualities that I wanted in a partner. I could not say ONE. I had no clue. I have always just got into it because it is convenient to be quiet honest and it was always ‘love at first sight’ or by chance. I met most of my partners in a club or restaurant. The intention was never to fall in love. But just to pass time and feelings were prompted by the fact that I am easy to get along with and the spending of a lot of time together. This is why I decided to take a break from the dating scene this year.

I needed to figure out what I wanted and focus on my personal development. Another reason why I chose to stop dating was that dating at this age can distort your self-concept. Dating can trigger insecurities that you didn’t know existed. If your partner cheats, it’s very difficult to remove yourself from that and not make it about you. When you break up, it’s very easy to find yourself thinking it was because of you and maybe if you change certain things about yourself – it will work. Also, I find that a lot of young people just settle because we think that this love even if it is toxic, is the alpha and omega of relationships. I may have been irrational but I know for fact, any situation that is not healthy (abusive: emotionally or physically), isolates me from being an individual, and conditional – is not for me.

In my case, I always felt like I did not have a personality worth dating. I saw myself as a good time and not a long time because no one I was with was willing to commit to me. But after some deep introspection AND therapy, I learnt that this is bullshit. The only reason why no one was committing to me was that I also was not willing to commit. Alongside the fact that they were not for me. I really have a hard time opening up to potential partners and being vulnerable. I project a very nonchalant persona and this leaves my potential partners feeling like I just want a good time. That time on the inside, I wanted a RING!

Mind you, I have met people that proposed long term partnership but I declined because I knew I would not be happy. I don’t believe in settling. If you’re not relatively attractive, smart, openminded, kind and compassionate. I know what I want in a partner and a relationship. I would have not been able to sit here and say this if I did not have the failed attempts with all these different people. Had I settled with the first person who I felt was the love of my life, I would have compromised so much of myself and never been able to grow into the person that I am now.

This is why I am against settling at this time of our lives. If you’re in your early twenties and late teens within an unfulfilling relationship. I advise you to leave because these are really the defining moments of your life. What you accept now sets the bar for future relationships.

I know of people who met the love of their lives in high school and are now getting married. We all have different paths beloveds. What has been your experience dating in your late teens and early twenties? Have you been able to find yourself and still be in a longterm healthy relationship? Let me know in the comment section below.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Janel Comeau says:

    I also intended to meet “the love of my life” early and go through my whole life with them, especially because that’s what my parents did. But I was so insecure in my late teens and early 20s that I was settling for anyone who would have me, even if they had a serious lack of compatibility or direction in life. I took two years off of dating and went to grad school, and now at 26, I’m in a much healthier and happier relationship than my 21-year-old self would have thought possible for me.


    1. ali tyhilana says:

      That’s sooo beautiful Janel! Thank you for commenting and sharing your story w/ me. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Palesa Ramurunzi says:

    Absolutely loved this article! Growing up I’ve always fantasized over the idea of meeting the love of my life at a young age and then staying together until kingdom come and because of this, I often stayed in spaces that were not conducive for me.

    It’s so important to note that we are still young and many of us don’t even fully know who we are yet or what we want, and in as much as it would have been nice to ‘grow with the love of your life’, it’s even nicer figuring yourself out first. This will allow for you to see what works for you and what doesn’t and with that being said, it will avoid settling for anything less than what you want or deserve:)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ali tyhilana says:

      Thank you for the comment Palesa! And I can relate to you on sooo many levels! :*


  3. Azasakhe says:

    Loved this baby 😘😘 . Cheering for you


  4. Vuyani Mthiyane says:

    This is a relatively good read. At this stage of life well, early 20’s I think I now know what I want from a partner and what I want from a relationship. My current relationship is healthy from my side, meeting this guy has helped me see parts of me that I wasn’t aware of and made me view life in a different aspect. I’ve never felt so free around a partner, I can be who I am around him without any fears.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ali tyhilana says:

      Thank you Vuyani, I love me a good love story! I’m very happy for you and wish you guys all the best! ❤️


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