On Toxic Relationships

In 2016 I met a woman at a friend’s birthday party. While most of the guests played games or watched movies or danced, the two of us spent all evening enraptured by each other. We talked about convoluted comic book storylines, our weird hobbies and unusual scars. We did not talk about the intense mutual attraction we felt, but it was palpable enough to be felt. Within two weeks, we were dating.

That was a mistake.

The relationship lasted for one year. We spent most of our time after the first three months feeling miserable; she was in constant need of attention and validation without offering the same in return, and I enabled it by making promises that hurt me because I thought it would make her happy. She had a timeline in mind for what she wanted from our relationship, from a wedding that I didn’t really want to kids that I wasn’t sure if I could have (this occurred during the period when I first spoke to a doctor about Hormone Reassignment Therapy). I began quitting my commitments, or putting them off. I volunteered less, saw friends less, and put off following up with my doctor about going on hormones because I knew I couldn’t give her what she wanted if I did. I justified it to myself. I said that I just had to work a little harder and sacrifice a little more to be happy the way we were at the beginning. Then things would be good again.

That was a lie.

It’s really easy to look back with the benefit of hindsight and a support network and see all the things that were bad. When she gaslighted me during an argument, or manipulated me through guilt to get her way, or outed me to her friends without my consent—those are all things that I knew were unacceptable, and yet, at the time, I accepted them. And that’s why it’s also important to look back and remember the good parts of that relationship. Because there were good parts, parts that made me feel like it was worth staying.

She took my many food allergies as a personal challenge because she wanted to find recipes that we could share. She made sure to include me in any plans she made with her friends because she wanted all of us to know each other and get along. When I was job hunting for the first time in five years, she helped me revise my resume to be more in line with what people were looking for now. The day after we had a tearful argument, I learned that my mom was diagnosed with cancer. I told her that and she dropped everything to be there with me while I cried.

That was love.

For however faulty the foundations of our relationship were, I still believe she meant it when she said that she loved me. But just because the emotions are real in a toxic relationship does not make it any less toxic. In fact, that makes it more dangerous.

 

 

I was willing to sacrifice parts of myself that were and still are integral to who I am as a person to make her happy—despite the fact that doing so made me miserable. Love is not an inherently healthy emotion. That is why it is so important to look at unhealthy relationships and acknowledge the good in them. It can be easy to fall into a trap of demonizing your ex for all the horrible things they did to you, but if they were so unambiguously horrible, then why did you justify staying with them over and over again? You can love someone who is horrible to you and their being horrible does not make those emotions any less real. This is true for all kinds of relationships, not just romantic or sexual ones. It can be just as easy to justify abusive language from a family member, or neglect from a friend. To place greater importance on the status of your relationship than on your feelings towards a person is a trap that is easy to fall into. The ideal should never outstrip the reality, and that requires cutting certain people out when it becomes clear they are no longer healthy for you. That is exactly what my ex did when she ended things between us.

It was the day before I was supposed to start seeing a therapist. She called me and asked if she could come over, and I immediately knew what was coming. For the entire time we had been together, she insisted on me going to her place because she had a back injury that made walking long distances difficult. And yet, here she was, asking to do just that. Maybe there was something in the cadence of her voice too, but I knew the end was coming. Truthfully, I had been thinking about doing the same thing for several weeks at that point.

She arrived and we made awkward small talk for a few minutes. I made tea. We sat at my circular kitchen table in silence, sipping at our respective cups (mine was spearmint, hers was decaf Earl Grey). My eyes kept wandering back to the small Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker print that hung on the wall behind her.

Then she said: “I think we need to break up.”

That was the right thing to do.

Our relationship had become septic. The worst parts of both of us were wreaking havoc on ourselves and each other, and if we kept going, things were only going to get worse. I was so scared of letting her down or hurting her that I neglected my own well-being and eventually ended up constantly letting her down and hurting her. And because I kept making promises instead of setting limitations, she kept asking for more and pushing.

That evening was the last time we saw each other. It was also the first time in months that we were remotely content together. The fallout from our breakup, however mutually it had come about, still caused lines to be drawn amongst our friends. It’s been over a year since it happened, and a lot of the people who were in my life then are gone now as a result. And it is absolutely for the best. I hope she is happy with her life, but I am also satisfied not to be a part of it. I have moved on, and I am a different person now. I like to think that I would never allow myself to become entangled in a toxic relationship again, that I would recognize the signs if I saw them. I’m not going to excuse abuse in the name of misplaced love. And I hope now that you won’t either.