Somewhere along the way, my quarter-centennial crept up on me. 25 is paradoxical -- you know you're still so, so young, that you still have so much to learn, that there is so much ahead. And yet, by this age some people have done insanely impressive things -- founded companies, written books, given birth. New realizations begin to appear on the periphery of your mind: You no longer want to be at the bar for last call, and sleep is more important than it was at 22. For me, it was also a moment to take inventory of my love life. Combing through about nine years of dating, I've come up with a few things I know to be true. I'm certain over time this list will change or double, but here's what I've got so far:
You know the answers to your questions.
I've read at least five articles over the years advising me to "follow my inner voice." I thought it was a new-agey cliche and never really paid attention. Then I realized that for most of the bad decisions I've made in relationships, I knew at the outset they were wrong. I spent hours in diners with best friends debating whether I should end things with a guy, even though I subconsciously already knew the answer. That internal voice is actually there, and it's telling you what you know you need to do, even if you don't want to know. Warning: It's usually pushing the most difficult option, the one that will give you the most peace in the long run even if it breaks your heart in the meantime.
If anyone is going through anyone's email inbox/phone/Facebook account, you shouldn't be together.
Social media has destroyed the notion that there are some things we don't need to know. In the last decade, it's become possible to find out not just what your boyfriend's prom date looked like but what she did on her recent vacation in Hawaii. If either of you feels the need to snoop, something is very wrong. I discovered this years ago when my ex looked through all of my Facebook messages while I was in the shower. After that night, I never thought of him the same way; a boundary had been crossed, and there was no going back. Everyone deserves privacy -- the question is whether or not someone deserves your trust.
No matter how progressive you are, manners matter.
For a while l had trouble admitting this, because I grew up believing you can do it all on your own. When I was younger, I used to love the kind of guy parents hate. It took a few good men to show me you can be independent and still appreciate a guy who holds the door for you. Is he polite to your friends? Does he remember you're out of milk? These aren't necessarily deal breakers, but when a guy walks you home or grabs a heavy bag out of your hand, appreciate it. Good manners say a lot about a person.
You chose the friends you have for a reason. Take their advice seriously.
The friends you spend the most time with have probably known you longer than any guy you're dating has. They can recognize when you're happy or not, so if you're coming to them for guidance, pay attention to what they say. Any man I've been with that my friends have red-flagged has always turned out to be trouble. I suppose it's possible that your friends will initially hate the right guy for you, but I'd say probably not. My guess is they'll never tell you anything you don't already know. Bottom line: If your friends don't like him, it's likely doomed to fail.
Intimacy is communication. Period.
The greatest lesson a man I loved ever taught me was that being intimate means creating a safe space to talk about how you each feel, whether it's your fears, your dreams or your insecurities. You should never feel like you have to be quiet because you don't want to rock the boat. Those who truly love you will want you to talk, even if you don't think you should.
It's not how he is when things are good; it's how he is when things are bad.
After the dates slowly become just hanging out and you're settling into something serious, you'll surely encounter rough patches in your own lives. It's in those moments that you see what people are really made of. One night, when a guy I was dating slept over, I had a nasty fall while running to the bathroom, which resulted in a broken toe. When I limped back into the room, he nonchalantly rolled over and went back to sleep. As I iced my foot over my bathtub the rest of the night, I knew I had to break it off. If that's how he is when my toe is broken, how's he going to be when something really tragic goes down?
You can't change or save anyone, so stop trying.
Sure, people can evolve, but only at their own will, which is a fundamental truth I wish wasn't so. If he's not motivated about his career, you won't be able to motivate him. If he drinks too much, he'll continue to do so no matter how much you hate it. This is one of the hardest lessons to learn, and something I'm not sure anyone can ever master. Instead, try to remember that you have to want the person you met from day one, because chances are that's exactly what you're getting for the long haul.
Don't feel guilty about breaking up with someone.
Having these sort of conversations are brutal, and we'll go to great lengths to avoid them (including staying in the relationship far longer than we'd like). I remember having that feeling at the end of a summer fling when we had to decide if we were going to change our lives to be together or not.
"Are you crazy about me?" he asked, and I was confused. "I think we like each other a lot," he continued, "but we're not crazy about each other and we should find someone we are crazy about." It was tough to hear, but he was right, I wasn't, and it's okay to admit when something isn't working.
We've all been heartbroken, and sometimes we're the heartbreakers, and that's just life. Be graceful, be kind, but always be honest with yourself and the person you don't want to be with anymore.
It's always for the best.
Sadly this only comes in retrospect, but I've never found it to be untrue. I've spent months obsessing over relationships that didn't work out, or how things used to be with ex-boyfriends, but I can confidently say there isn't any former flame I should still be with. Recently, at the Apple store near my apartment, I bumped into a guy I dated who took a long time to stop thinking about. After briefly saying hello (and despite how great he still looked), I knew we were both meant to be without each other. Remember; relationships end because they aren't working anymore.
Be okay with yourself.
Look, dating is arduous. Despite some amazing highs and great moments, you'll face times when you don't even want to do it anymore. The only way to survive the road of romantic triumphs, tragedies, and humbling episodes is to be okay with who you are and know that there is someone who'll love you for exactly as you come. It's important to always strive to be better, but throw away the first-date-facades and be yourself.
It's worth it.
I'd like to note that I've disregarded every lesson on this list, and it'd be wishful thinking to assume I'll never break one of them again. When it comes to something as elusive as love, it's hard to know when you're going about it the right way, or if all the ups and downs will lead to what you're hoping to find. No one can be sure it will. But it only seems fair the search wouldn't be an easy one. After all, of all the journeys one would take, could you think of one more worth it than the path that leads to love?
More from this series:
HuffPost Women sends stories about relationships, politics, sex, work, culture and body image, straight to your inbox three days a week. Learn more