I’m going to tell you a secret that I wish someone had told me a long, long time ago:
If you’ve been in nothing but toxic and unhealthy relationships for most of your life, your first healthy relationship is probably going to feel boring.
I spent the majority of my teenage years and early 20s in a series of unhealthy relationships. My relationships were all unhealthy in very different ways, but there was one thing they had in common: they were unpredictable, and in a perverse way, that made them addicting. There’s something weirdly thrilling about a relationship that is off-the-charts intense all of the time, even if it’s often a bad intense. My stomach used to drop like I’d just gone down the first hill of a roller coaster every time I opened the door to the apartment I used to share with my ex, because I never knew what I was going to find inside. Maybe he’d be on the couch, writing a song about me with that big smile on his face. Maybe he’d be half-coherent and the entire apartment would be trashed, with all the shades drawn. Maybe he’d be gone altogether with absolutely no explanation, and no way of getting in touch with him. There’s a sick thrill to waking up every morning and not knowing if your day is going to end with an impromptu romantic 2 am adventure that involves kissing under the stars, or if you’re going to go to bed in tears because you just got screamed at in a dumb fight over paper towels. Maybe it’s both.
Often, it was both.
And after a while, when someone makes your heart pound every time you see them, your brain stops trying to learn the difference between attraction and fear.
Then in my final year of my master’s degree, I swiped right on the right person and got into the first healthy relationship I had ever been in. My new relationship was everything I could have dared to hope for, back in the days when I was begging my ex to tell me where he was because he hadn’t been home in four days, or getting woken up at four a.m. because he’d found a man’s name when he went through my phone while I was sleeping and didn’t believe it was my brother. My new partner is, at a very fundamental level, an incredibly gentle and thoughtful person. Regular “good morning” and “good night” texts became a regular staple of my day, instead of passive-aggressive jabs and so-called “silent treatments”. Encouragement was given freely, without any accusations that I was seeking attention or trying to out-do him. Birthdays and important dates were remembered without any reminders. Hugs were given out in generous quantities, small issues were laughed off instead of fought over, and male friends were encouraged instead of demonized. At long last, I had the relationship I had always wanted.
And to my absolute horror, I realized I was bored.
Without even realizing it, I had trained myself to think of relationships as battles, and being in a healthy relationship for the first time felt like I had suited myself up for an epic war, only to end up in an old ladies’ pottery class. The lack of unhealthy behaviours started making me antsy. Why wasn’t he going through my phone and looking through my social media? Did he just not care? Did it just not matter to him that other guys might be speaking to me? Why was I feeling so calm all the time? Where was the adrenaline rush? Why weren’t we clashing more? Did it mean that we just weren’t invested enough to even bother to fight with each other? We were - and are - deeply compatible people who have a lot of fun with each other, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the relationship just wasn’t intense enough. I absolutely knew that my past relationships were deeply unhealthy, but it’s hard to un-learn the idea that relationships should be high-stakes and constantly exhausting if both people truly care about each other.
It took a lot of time, but I gradually come to realize something: I’d never actually known love in any of my previous relationships. What I had known was obsession. My exes had put me up on pedestals, and ripped me down as soon as I failed to live up to impossible expectations. Over and over again. Everything was big and over-the-top: life was a series of grand gestures, big fights and enormous apologies. I had one ex comb through years and years of my social media photos, commenting on every single one, while another ex would make the hour-long drive to my house in the middle of the night several times per week, whenever he felt like seeing me, letting himself in through my bedroom window. When you’re young and don’t know any better, that level of obsession is flattering. It’s what we’ve been taught is romantic. But it’s not - it’s not a good basis for a strong and healthy relationship. And in the end, none of it was really about me. My exes were caught up in ideas about the relationships they’d fantasized about having, and the way they wanted people to perceive them, and I was more or less just there to play a part. And it always came crashing down.
Real love, on the other hand, is not about the grand gesture. It’s not about non-stop “dialed-up-to-11″ intensity. It’s about being there, day by day. My boyfriend has never gone through my social media for six straight hours or broken into my house because he couldn’t wait a moment longer to see me, and he’s never screamed at me for having male names in my contacts list or for not texting back fast enough because he’s just so afraid to lose me. Instead, he is patient. He is kind. He listens to what I have to say and he doesn’t get upset about the small things and he always remembers to make my coffee exactly how I like it. I know that he will be there for me when I need him - whether I need to vent about a bad day at work or build a bookcase or double-check that I added enough salt to the soup - and I do the same for him. It’s a kinder, gentler kind of relationship, and now that I’m used to it, it’s anything but boring.
Don’t get me wrong - sometimes a relationship can be healthy and not be right for you. If you don’t have anything in common and you don’t enjoy doing things together, that’s probably not the relationship for you. It’s important to have fun with your partner and enjoy their company. But it’s also important not to mistake obsession for romance, or mistake a lack of intensity for disinterest.
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What abusers believe.
If you've ever had to deal with an abusive person in your life - like an abusive parent or partner - you've probably wondered what made them treat you that way. If you understand why abuse is happening, the thinking goes, you might be able to figure out how to make it stop.
So why do abusers do what they do? Do they have anger issues? Drinking problems? Past trauma? Personality disorders? Do they just need to get in touch with their feelings and learn how to communicate better?
Abusive behaviours come from abusive beliefs. Abusers - whether consciously or unconsciously - hold specific beliefs about relationships that drive their behaviour and allow them to justify the horrible things they do. Even if your abuser has never put their beliefs into words, you'll probably recognize a lot of these abusive beliefs:
You are responsible for my emotions. It is never my responsibility to reflect on my emotional reactions or learn better coping skills - it's your responsibility to stop doing things that make me angry or upset.
I must act on my emotions. If I am angry, I am going to lash out. You have no right to criticize me for that, and it's not my responsibility to learn to manage my emotions - you have to stop making me lash out at you. Asking me not to act on my emotions is controlling and wrong.
You will always be responsible for my emotions. Even if the relationship ends, you will continue to be responsible for my emotions, and I will expect you to continue to prioritize my feelings.
If I have feelings about something, it's my business. If something you do or think causes an emotional reaction in me, then I have a right to get involved or tell you what to do. My feelings must be the priority. You don’t have the right to tell me that it’s none of my business.
You must judge me on my intentions, not my actions. If I didn't mean to hurt you or scare you, then you don't have the right to be hurt or scared. No one has the right to try to hold me accountable unless I meant to hurt someone.
I get to decide what your intentions were. If you hurt me, you meant to hurt me. If you make me jealous, you meant to make me jealous. Nothing you do is ever accidental or unintended - everything you do is intentional and malicious, even if it was a response to something I did.
My feelings are genuine; your feelings are manipulation. If I'm upset, my feelings are real and important. If you are upset, you have an ulterior motive - you're just trying to be manipulative and get attention or sympathy for yourself.
You have freedoms because I allow you to. Every freedom you have in your life - like wearing what you want - it's because I generously allow it. I expect you to be grateful to me for that. I have the right to take those freedoms away whenever I want, and I expect you to obey.
If you set boundaries with me, you are mistreating me. If you really loved me, you wouldn't set boundaries with me. You are doing this to intentionally hurt me, which means I don't have to respect those boundaries.
You holding me accountable for hurting you is worse than me hurting you. My pain at being called out is worse than your pain at being mistreated. If I feel bad about something I did, I have already been punished enough. You trying to discuss the issue or hold me accountable is just your way of abusing me.
If I apologized for something, you have to forgive me. If the relationship has ended, you have to reconcile with me. You don't get to ask for more time apart or more discussion of the issue - once I've apologized, the matter is closed for good.
The relationship is not over until I say it is over. So long as I want a relationship with you, you must have a relationship with me. Your feelings are irrelevant. Even if we have broken up, you must remain available to me so we can get back together in the future. Not wanting a relationship with me means you are mistreating me or being immature.
I am the authority in this relationship. I am smarter and more perceptive than you. I know what is best for both of us. My version of events is always the correct one. I have superior judgement, taste and opinions. If you question me or disagree with me after I've given you the correct answer, you are disrespecting and mistreating me, or you are simply immature and incapable of knowing what’s good for you.
I have the right to control you. It is my absolute right to decide what you do and who you associate with. You have no right to disobey me. I am owed obedience and control; if you don’t give me those things, you are wronging me and cheating me out of the relationship I deserve.
If you resist my control, I am allowed to do whatever I think is necessary to get it back. Once you’ve resisted me, I am justified in whatever I do to regain control of you. I am not responsible for my actions when you resist my control; you forced me to do it, and it’s your own fault.
I should be your main focus. Everything else in your life comes secondary to me. When you make decisions, my feelings should be your first consideration. You are expected to make sacrifices for me and put me at the center of your life; I am not obligated to do the same for you.
If I spend money on you or do something for you, you are in debt to me. You spending money on me or doing things for me does not erase your debt to me, and I am never in debt to you. You are indebted to me for as long as I decide. I may decide that your belongings and earnings also belong to me, since I allow you to have them. I may also decide at any time that you owe me for gifts I gave you, even if they were meant to be gifts.
I am not abusive, and you are not allowed to tell me otherwise. I know what abuse is, and real abusers are significantly worse than me. If our relationship has ever had any good times or positive moments, it can’t possibly be abusive. If you accuse me of being abusive, you are the one abusing me, or you have been led astray by bad influences.
Relationships should be effortless (for me). I am owed a relationship that is peaceful and requires no real effort from me. It is your job to make sure we have that kind of relationship. If there is any tension or conflict in the relationship, it is your fault, and you are depriving me of the relationship I deserve to have.
Abusers and victims alike often buy into the narrative that abuse is rooted in anger issues - after all, abusers are frequently angry, and anger is an issue that can be treated. But this narrative just isn’t true. Abusers aren’t abusive because they are angry. Abusers are angry because they are abusive.
A non-abusive partner is not someone who has learned how to control their rage whenever you spend time with your friends or get home 15 minutes late from work. A non-abusive partner just doesn’t feel any rage in those situations. An abuser’s rage is firmly rooted in their beliefs about relationships - they feel entitled to a relationship that meets their impossible expectations, and when they inevitably don’t get it, they bubble over with fury. Whether they know it or not, they have firmly entrenched beliefs about how relationships should be, and those beliefs are at the heart of their abuse.
Can abusers stop believing these things? Maybe. If they can acknowledge that they have these beliefs, accept that these beliefs are dangerous and unreasonable and let go of these beliefs, maybe it’s possible for them to no longer be abusive in the future. Maybe. But it’s not your job to hang around and find out. If you’re in an abusive relationship of any kind, you deserve better. There are many people in this world who don’t hold abusive views of relationships, and you deserve to find happiness with them.
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