- At 23-years-old, I ended what I now realized was a toxic relationship.
- He drank too much, I obsessively looked through his phone, and we’d have horrific fights.
- It took spending time alone before I could be vulnerable and trust myself again.
I was sitting on my condo’s living room floor, my swollen eyes stinging. What I had hoped to be a home for my then-boyfriend and I was empty, save a few broken picture frames and half of the furniture we purchased together. It was two weeks after I had an abortion, a week after we broke up, and six days after I found out he had been sleeping with our neighbor for six months.
I was lost, insecure, afraid, angry, and incapable of imagining a future in which I would ever trust another human being again. But now, seven years later, I so desperately wish I could go back to that broken-hearted 23-year-old woman, hug her fiercely, and whisper in her ear, “You just went through a toxic relationship. But you will learn to be vulnerable again, because the relationship you deserve is not like the relationship you just endured.”
My then-boyfriend and I had been friends for two years before we decided we wanted to be something more. That “decision” was a long and winding road; one that left me insecure and desperate.
So when our friendship morphed into a romantic relationship and we found ourselves turning his things and my things into “our things,” I held onto what I had hoped would be a romance I had never experienced or witnessed before. We would love each other better than my abusive father claimed to love my mom. We would last longer than any of his ex-girlfriends or my ex-boyfriends.
It didn’t matter if he sometimes drank too much, or I sometimes looked through his phone, or we sometimes yelled horrific things at one another. I was going to make this work, no matter what. It had to. I was in love.
According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, more than half of all college students say it is difficult to identify dating abuse. The same site reports that nearly 1 in 5 college students have been verbally abused by a dating partner. I never would have identified our relationship as abusive or toxic then, but now that time has pushed us both forward and into loving relationships with our respective families, I can say that my partner and I were both verbally abuse towards each other.
The things we said in the throes of yet another high-intensity fight were not healthy. They were cruel, manipulative, and meant to whittle away our individual sense of self-worth. And we were equally to blame, fueling one another with each quick and sharply pointed verbal punch.
He drank two or three six packs every single night before going to bed. I broke his trust and searched through his phone. I found texts and received messages alerting me to an ongoing affair. He lied and told me I was lucky to be with him and he was doing me a favor. I begged, pleaded, and tried to cater to his basic instincts by exploiting the love he had for his family. He cultivated overwhelming feelings of self-doubt that left me questioning the reality of a situation that was only growing more and more unhealthy.
So by the time I held a positive pregnancy test in my hand, the realities of our toxic relationship were no longer avoidable. I scheduled an abortion we both had decided I should have, and a week later he was packing up boxes and moving out of the home that never was. And I was left, alone to pick up the pieces of a failed relationship, a terminated pregnancy, the pains of infidelity, and the pieces of whatever trust I was capable of putting into not just another person, but myself.
Because that’s the thing about toxic relationships: they don’t just make it difficult for you to trust someone else again. They make it difficult for you to trust yourself. How would I ever be able to be vulnerable with another person if I wasn’t able to decipher who was worth trusting and who I needed to keep at arm’s length? If I am incapable of reading the red flags in a toxic relationship, how will I realize when I’m in a healthy, happy one?
I didn’t find the answers to those questions after more than three years, a slew of pointless dates, a few ill-advised one-night stands, and two failed relationships.
I didn’t find the answers when I met the man I now live with. The man I have loved for more than four years. The man that helped me bring our son into the world. The man that makes me feel safe and heard and supported and an equal member of a partnership that takes work and gives me an endless amount of joy.
I found the answers on a random afternoon, sitting in a studio apartment listening to an album I obsessed over in high school, looking around the home I had finally created. A home I had managed to cultivate, alone. A home that was for me, and only me.
Although everyone’s path towards healing from a toxic relationship is different, mine was only capable of coming to fruition when I was finally comfortable being alone. Since childhood, I had watched my father verbally, emotionally, and physically abuse my mother. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children who witness domestic abuse have increased anxiety about being separated from a parent, have high activity levels, difficulty concentrating, generalized anxiety, and experience emotional difficulties in adulthood, like depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Throughout my young adult and adult life, I surrounded myself with friends and romantic partners, and threw myself into work and extracurricular activities in the hopes that staying busy and never being alone would keep the physical, emotional, and mental effects of domestic violence at bay. I had never once learned to sink into a quiet that can only be experienced when you’re alone. I never learned how to love myself without the love of someone else; to trust myself without relying on what someone else thought or believed; to listen to myself without someone else’s input.
It wasn’t until I spent more than a year alone that I learned how to be vulnerable again, and not just with someone else but with myself. It took a year of intense self-reflection and asking myself difficult questions for me to look my now life-partner in the eye and tell myself: years ago you went through a toxic relationship, but now you’re ready to be vulnerable again. Because this relationship is the one you deserve, and it’s not like the others you’ve endured.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, you can visit The National Domestic Violence Hotline or call its hotline at 1-800-799-7233 to receive confidential support from a trained staff member.
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