Life is Messy (and That’s Okay)

Recently I wrote about the kinds of sex & love questions I get that just can’t be answered easily in Twitter’s 140 character count. Many of these are more about relationship issues than sex facts/info. For example, without reprinting each of these word for word, a quick skim of my Inbox over the past 2 weeks reveals a number of emails that are roughly dealing with the same issue.

The boiled-down, edited versions of these readers questions are:

“I met a great guy but he lives a three hour plane ride away! And we’re both college students with not a lot of money to travel with. But I really, really, really like him. He thinks we can make it work. I want to but my best friend told me to give it up and if it’s meant to be, it will happen later. What should I do?”

“I’ve been seeing the most amazing woman, someone who could be the love of my life and who wants many of the same things in life that I do, but she’s separating – not separated. My buddies think I’m nuts to stick around, that I should wait until the ink on the divorce papers has run dry. I don’t want to wait that long. I think I could love her forever and I know she feels the same. What should I do?”

“My new boyfriend is everything my exes weren’t – kind, honest, reliable, he even has a steady job! Problem is: he comes with two little kids and an ex-wife. My sister is trying to fix me up with tons of other guys to get me to forget my new boyfriend-with-kids but I like him the best. I don’t want to see other people. My sister has always been better at relationships with me (proof is in the pudding – she’s now married and pregnant and I’m still out there). I don’t know though: logic tells me my sister is right, my heart tells me to go with this guy, even though he comes with what she calls “baggage” – the kids and ex. Who’s right?”

My response:

On second thought, maybe these are ripe for Twitter because I think it comes down to this:

Life (and love) are messy. Get used to it. And also? It usually works out.

If you’re looking for some sanitized, women’s magazine version of love, you’re unlikely to ever find it. If you do, chalk it up to luck or a fluke or to your tossing out all the messy stuff (which may have been great stuff) until you found something utterly devoid of mess.

Messy can be hard. It can cause tears. It can be frustrating and maddening but it’s also sometimes where incredibly rich, life changing things happen.

I have a ton of work today so I have to keep this short, but I will say this:

Most people don’t see the realities of relationships. They  learn about love, sex and relationships from movies and their own (very, very) limited experiences. They hear cleaned up, sanitized versions of love, sex, and relationships from their friends (“it was love at first sight and we’ve been together ever since!”).

A very cool thing about being in my job is I get to hear people’s secrets. So many of the couples who look perfect from the outside, and who only share santized versions of their relationships with their friends, have lots of messy insides. I can’t tell you the number of couples who have had messy beginnings similar to the ones above. In fact, my favorite couple in the universe – the couple I would be most like if I could – had a very messy beginning. They were BOTH married. He had grown kids. She was a brand new newlywed. They lived in different places. They had an affair. They ended their marriages and got together officially. 25 or 30 years later they are still together and they have one of the most real relationships I could ever aspire to, and it’s brimming with love.

Another couple I know got together in a messy way, too. They had a very dirty one-night stand. Or rather it was supposed to be a one night stand. There was a considerable age difference. And when they got together, there were all kinds of other issues. Sexual incompatibility in some ways. Family issues. But 20 years later, they’re still together and, again, very real and very committed to each other and very much in love.

I could, I assure you, go on and on. I could also tell you about messy beginnings that ended. And I could tell you about sanitized beginnings that ended. And that stayed.

Here’s the thing:

When relationships that started in messy ways don’t work out, people are quick to blame the messy beginning (“well, you know, he cheated on his ex to be with her….”). If Brad and Angelina ever split up, mark my words, people will go there.

But when relationships that started in sanitized, made-for-TV-movie kinds of ways end, people throw up their hands as if to say “I don’t know what happened, I’ve never seen anyone so much in love!” or “But they seemed like the perfect couple, I remember when they met.”

As if a happy, clean beginning begs a happy, clean life together.

LIFE IS MESSY. If it doesn’t start out messy, it will get messy later.

I have seen so many promising relationships end becuase of meddling friends, brothers and sisters (see above how every single one of them has a well-intentioned but meddling friend/sibling). If there is one thing I have (FINALLY) learned as a friend, sister and cousin, it’s not to meddle. If my friends/family are happy, then I am happy. I don’t know what’s best for them. And I know that life is messy. And everything seems better for it.

On that note, I’ve got to run to a meeting. Enjoy life’s little (and sometimes) bigger messes the best you can. And if you’re having trouble seeing through them, check out some Thich Nhat Hanh (try Peace is Every Step) or Pema Chodron (try When Things Fall Apart).

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About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at

  • Meagan

    Messy at the beginning can be good. My husband and I commuted 4 hours back and forth on weekends to see each other while dating. If you stick with it then, you’re probably committed. And will stick it our and work on the relationship for a long, long time.