Not so long ago I was grieving the end of a roller coaster relationship that ended. Truth be told, it took a while for the fog to lift, for me to see what was wrong with it, and how I was just falling back into old patterns. Even at the end, I considered myself blindsided and there was a lot of woe-is-me going on, but really, I knew that things had unraveled a while before then, as hard as I tried to hold them together on my own.
These are sad choices, people.
At the tail end of things, pretty much three months after the last time we had seen each other in person, I had become a wreck. I texted her every morning and every night. I dropped care packages off at her place to show support for some family emergency type stuff she was working on. I got obligatory thank yous and responses via text, but nothing else really. Things had cooled off like the reactor core at Chernobyl prior to the meltdown.
I am a hopeful person by nature, in spite of the things I have experienced in my life. I am optimistic as well, even if I shouldn’t be. It goes against the grain of logic when so often things fall apart and you have a hard time imagining a world that isn’t put together with the same structural integrity of a kid’s tree fort. Why expect anything better? What is better?
That Christmas, I had a gift prepared. It was a nice gift, but I decided to include something else too. A framed picture of us that just stared back at me from a shelf for the last year or so. Through two or three breakups. And reunions. So, I wrapped it up and stuffed it in the bag with the blanket I had gotten her.
I just couldn’t bear looking at it anymore.
The “Official” breakup happened a few days later. Several months after when things really had just deteriorated. It took a lot of time to process. A lot of texts with supportive friends. Phone calls. Self-destruction and grief and ranting on this blog.
One day, I woke up. The how, what, when, where, why of that is irrelevant. No one thing woke me up. I just did. This relationship had been no less co-dependent than my marriage. I compromised so many of my core values. I ignored some serious red flags.
So, after that happened, I beat myself up a little more because I am a grown ass man and should have known better! Well, I didn’t. Why? Not many of us know what a healthy relationship even looks like. I didn’t.
Five years of therapy. Half a dozen books on boundaries, codependency, relationships, TEDTalks, subscriptions to psychologists’ blogs. At the time, I thought all this info would be like building a foundation. Really I was standing on one side of the levy, working away, not realizing that the work I was doing was actually chiseling away at the rotten foundations of something keeping an entire reservoir of crap I needed to let go of.
What in the actual fuck had I been doing to myself?
Normal might as well be a dystopian science fiction world. I think it is something akin to when soldiers have to come back into civilian life. When your daily life includes people shooting at you, the concept of normal is something that you might not even recognize.
In fact, if they stop shooting at you, it might make you nervous.
Though I realized things were stupid and dysfunctional, I feared I wouldn’t be able to do any better. At least it wasn’t as bad as my marriage! (Note: nothing could be as bad as my marriage. It isn’t setting the bar very high). Some of my friends weren’t helpful.
They told me I could find someone if I lowered my expectations.
Pump the brakes. No. Just no! Do NOT allow your friends to tell you this. If you buy into this, you need better boundaries with friends and yourself. Otherwise, you will find yourself miserable in another bad, unhappy situation.
Be alone. Be single. Be comfortable with yourself before you EVER do that.
Abuse teaches you that you don’t deserve better and any breadcrumbs someone hands out to you are like ambrosia and nectar from the gods. And sometimes when you go from flat out abuse to pretty much indifference, the breadcrumbs are fine. At least they are crumbs.
You are worth more than crumbs. You are worth effort. Communication. You shouldn’t have to fight to get time, touch, effort, consistency, exclusivity in an LTR, or not being held emotionally hostage, unable to reveal the nature of your relationship to anyone. You are in a relationship! Not protective custody!
At a campfire one night, meeting more of her family, a cousin’s husband asked how long we had been together. I said, “Three years.” I didn’t feel it was important to mention the off-and-on rollercoaster of it all. He was amazed, and when he mentioned it to her, she got mad at me. “Why did you tell him that?” Why? Because it’s the truth. And he asked me. I didn’t think that it was some kind of big secret!
Thus began a weekend long cold-front.
At the end of things, there were still “close friends” of hers who didn’t even know my name. And a few others who didn’t even know I existed.
So, those sad choices have given me contrast. By allowing myself time to grieve, time to reflect, and not jumping into anything (in spite of other friend advice that this is the best way to get over someone–terrible advice!) I can honestly say now that the flags were indeed red, waving wildly, and I’m lucky to be through them.
Above all else, I learned from them. I learned from books, therapy, time, perspective, writing, and anything else I could find. I began to see the difference from a blasted landscape of emotional wreckage, walking on eggshells, and how much work being with someone who is emotionally unavailable actually is. How clingy and needy you get when you are slowly being emotionally starved out of a relationship. How you almost expect them to feel guilty about that, but they never do. And come on, that’s like Codependency 101, people. Don’t be that guy.
If it sucks. Leave.
When you do meet someone and things are healthy, it might be an almost alien concept. What you have thought to be as normal in the past, actually wasn’t. You are surprised as how your heart races because of how happy you are, not because of the anxiety of saying the “wrong thing” and having your partner disappear for a few weeks to “process” an unwritten/spoken/changed rule that was broken.
You might find yourself comparing the past with the present, and honestly, you might even reach the point where you are like “None of these landmarks are familiar. Where are the dead trees and the radioactive water? Is this what buildings look like without bullet holes? Is that a mailman and not a slow mutant with a sharp stick?
So, it’s a little hard to stop comparing. Contrast is good, and learning from mistakes is great, but don’t bleed on people who didn’t cut you! Figure it out.
Don’t put someone new in a position where they feel like they have to be your therapist. If you need that, go to a therapist.
Normal is actually good! In fact healthy people prefer it to scrounging for rats and stealing gasoline for their nomadic high-octane rattletrap. If your friends keep going out with the same idiots because they are “exciting” maybe they should consider trying something else. I mean, trainwrecks are exciting too. Do you want to live on one? Have you tried something else?
Walking into that bright, beautiful unknown
There might even be this dark corner in your soul that burns like the embers of a campfire, ready to flare up. It says, “Don’t trust this.” For so long, those embers kept you warm. It’s hard to walk away from that. Even if that little bit of warmth was the only thing keeping you in a dark and miserable place.
Notice I said hard? It’s not impossible.
Normal isn’t scary. Normal is NOT boring. It is beautiful. It is fulfilling. It is healthy. Things which are normal to expect take time to recognize sometimes. But the best way to identify them is when they don’t give you a sick feeling in your stomach. Trust your gut. It’s the voice that was yelling, “Hey, didn’t you see that red flag? The one you just went flying right by?”
I’m figuring that out too.
I write about these things because if I can help anyone by passing these lessons along, then I hope that gives them a better tool to put in their tool box. At any rate, it’s what I have learned.