At 20 years old, I was what a typical southern grandma would call a “late bloomer.” While most of my peers had their first relationships in high school, I was entering my junior year of college without having ticked that box. I’d kissed someone once, I’d slept with someone once, and I’d been on maybe two dates. 

Enter Katie. She and I started as friends working on the same campus magazine but quickly became something more. When she asked me to be her girlfriend one December morning, I said yes. Finally, only four months shy of my 21st birthday, I found my first relationship. 

But I differed from my peers here, too. Most of the relationships in my high school lasted only a few months. One couple made it an entire year, aweing my classmates and I with their commitment. In college, the majority of my peers were dating around. I, on the other hand, dated Katie for four years. We moved to New York together after graduation, and I started picturing a wedding, a pet, and a couple of kids. 

When our relationship fell apart (amicably!), I really wanted to be the type of person who could go on a bunch of dates and have a bunch of no-strings-attached hookups. I felt like I had missed out on my formative years and like I was behind everyone else in the dating department. My relationship count was one. My kiss count was three. 

So, I tried. I signed up for dating apps, and I lined up a few dates. Each time, I tried to keep it lighthearted. I wasn’t there to find a soulmate, I’d tell myself. I was being casual. But I just couldn’t do it. If a woman didn’t feel special to me after two dates, I inevitably started drifting away, forgetting to text her back, or flat-out telling her that it wasn’t going to work out. I didn’t want to kiss her goodnight, I didn’t want to “just hang out,” and I didn’t want to have a one-night stand. 

After a while, I realized that I’m not cut out for casual dating. Even when I did get into a fling situation (because we had amazing sexual chemistry) with a woman named Beth*, I made it very clear that we weren’t dating. Our friendship with benefits went up in flames after a few months.

To me, casual dating never felt right. I couldn’t date anyone — like Beth — who I couldn’t picture a future with. So after another string of dates that went nowhere, I stopped trying to make things fun and started taking the pressure off of myself to keep up with my peers in the dating arena. 

Part of that process was recognizing that there shouldn’t be rules when it comes to dating. “Just go out and make yourself happy with any relationship style [that works for you],” says board-certified sexologist and relationship expert Megan Stubbs, Ed.D. As long as you’re happy, it doesn’t matter if you’re nonmonogamous, a serial monogamist, have a friend with benefits, or are single.

It’s easy to feel bad about ourselves and our relationships based on societal expectations, whether we think we haven’t had enough experience or we’ve had too much. But the only important thing in relationships is making sure you’re happy and fulfilled. “If you’re finding [your relationships] are becoming detrimental to yourself — maybe you’re closing yourself off, not continuing to develop as an individual, or see codependency issues pop up — that’s when it’s time to take a step back in whatever relationship iteration you have and make sure you’re not losing yourself,” Stubbs says. 

For me, casual dating just doesn’t work. If it does for you, power to you. But personally, I want to share an apartment and some cats, and dream about the future. 

*Name has been changed.