For those of us who have previously been in toxic relationships, healthy ones can be tough.
I’d dragged myself out of an annihilating relationship, scrapped myself together through therapy/coaching and intense self-improvement work, yet in my first healthy relationship, I was a mess.
What I discovered and have since been reminded of many times is this:
Healing is a cyclical, not linear, process.
This means that even if we’ve done a lot of work, things may trigger us and we’d be in the thick of needing to recover again. The frequency, duration, and intensity, at least though, lessens over time.
Why People May Struggle Being in a Healthy Relationship I struggled because I’d never been in a healthy relationship before, and all of it felt…weird. Others may struggle because they hadn’t had healthy relationships role models, and/or several of their previous relationships had been mentally, physically, and/or psychologically abusive. They also may have difficulty recognizing healthy behaviors because they’ve been more used to unhealthy expectations and behaviors.
Others may also have issues communicating, setting boundaries, and practicing self-care, or they may have negative internalized messages and beliefs, like, “I am unlovable. Every relationship I’ll be in will be toxic.”
Here are the crazy things I did in my first healthy relationship that you might be able to relate to:
1. Thanked my partner for not yelling at me We were on a date when my now husband smacked a curb in his truck and got a flat tire.
It was cold, dark, and rainy. Definitely not the best time to be changing a flat. I tensed up immediately, waiting for him to yell or scream at me. My former husband often lashed out at me if anything in the slightest inconvenienced him, so I’d spent too much energy in our relationships trying to create a life for him that wouldn’t upset him, but always failing.
After the flat was changed and we were warm and cozy in his truck again, I thanked my partner for not yelling at me.
“Not yelling at you?” He asked. “Why on earth would I have yelled at you?”
“Because…that really sucked?” I attempted to offer as an explanation.
“Well, yeah, but it wasn’t your fault, and even if it had been, I’d never treat you that way!” He said.
It was my first time realizing that I’d normalized very unhealthy behavior. The more positive experiences like this one helped me set a new bar for my relationships, which included recognizing not being abused as the bare minimum of what I would allow in relationships.
2. Felt physically uncomfortable whenever my partner was “too” nice to me
In my previous marriage, and — if I was honest — in my own childhood, the niceness or generosity of others often came at a price that I was rarely ever able to predict.
Because of this, I couldn’t trust others’ generosity. They always came with strings attached. Too often, the price would never be one I’d want to pay.
Whenever my partner was “too” nice to me, I found myself tensing up, unable to be thankful or even excited about his kindness because I was waiting for the catch, the “bad” that always seemed inevitable whenever I received something “good.”
I found breathing deeply and positively affirming myself to be helpful as I faced these feelings. Telling myself things like, “I deserve kindness. I am lovable. My partner shows he cares for me by giving without expectations.”
It did take time, but I eventually had a new normal.
3. Picked fights whenever things felt “boring”
When we’ve always been around chaos, we may fear stillness.
This was a reality for me. My previous relationships had included nastry cycles of abuse: the adrenaline and cortisol release during a fight, the come-down, followed by making up which meant a rise in dopamine and oxytocin, and then another come-down. Then the cycle would start all over again.
Also called a trauma bond, this is a particularly addictive cycle in relationships. We start to crave that dopamine hit, and since we know it’ll follow a fight, we may go ahead and pick one.
Having a relationship with a healthy partner made this pattern just…not go anywhere. He sometimes would just stop me and say, “Why don’t we take a break? I’m going to go to my office, and I’ll be there if you want to talk.”
It was infuriating at first. I WANT A DOPAMINE HIT, my brain was screaming, but…he just wasn’t going to go there with me. Once I was able to regulate myself (deep breathing, journaling, or walks are helpful for me), I would go talk to him about what had come out, and I was able to get what I actually needed: just a hug or some assurance.
4. Obsessively looked for red flags and sometimes even made some up
When we’ve been in unhealthy relationships, we often struggle trusting ourselves. I’d felt conned, duped, and just plain dumb because I’d continued to date unhealthy partners after I’d discovered they were unhealthy.
I’d find myself obsessively reading articles titled things like, “X Red Flags You MUST Look for When Dating a New Partner.” Articles like those can be helpful, but as I was constantly looking for red flags, I started to believe they were there, like an oasis in the desert.
Were they actually? No.
My now husband isn’t perfect, by any means. He did have some “red flags” that turned out not to be dealbreakers, because we all have them. MY big red flag was clearly that I had more work to do on my trauma.
A helpful thing I did was interrogate those thoughts. If I thought I saw a red flag, I’d start building evidence to see if it was supported. I wouldn’t confront him about it during this process. I’d just wait and observe. More often than not, there wasn’t enough evidence to support these red flags, and so I was able to write them off altogether.
If you can relate to any of the above and you’re attempting to be in your first healthy relationship, please give yourself some grace. It’s easy to shame ourselves by telling ourselves things like, “I should be better. Wtf am I still having ____ issue?” Recognize that it’s all part of the healing process, and you’re experiencing something completely new, which is good. Be kind to yourself, and know I and many others have gone through the same thing.
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