“Why do they put up with this nonsense?” I often ask myself when a beloved, smart, gorgeous friend puts up with toxic behavior that leaves them in tears, picking up literally and metaphorically after emotionally immature partners who don’t help enough with the emotional/physical household labor, and footing bills and burdens that aren’t theirs to carry.
Well, for one, it’s easy for me to say that when I am in a long-term, stable, nurturing, and deeply loving relationship. But even before this, I had developed a relatively low tolerance for relationship bullshit.
It’s extremely hard to walk away from someone you love… who ultimately isn’t right for you or your goals.
That wasn’t always the case for me, however.
A dear friend of mine seems to think I am far more resilient than I actually am. Why? In my late twenties, I took a long, hard look around me, and ultimately walked away from people I loved. I walked away from relationships that held a lot of goodness amid the myriad toxic bits–but I realized that these relationships weren’t serving any of us as people. Most of all, these relationships weren’t meeting my needs.
And so, head held high and with far fewer tears than I would ever have imagined, I walked away.
Where did this inner strength come from?
Why was I able to look at people I loved, people who weren’t all bad (just bad for me), and decide enough was enough–and actually walk away?
First off, I wasn’t always this resilient. At all.
I didn’t have a strong basis from my parents.
I am both…
- A child of an unflattering divorce and
- The adult child of an emotionally immature adult
When your emotional needs aren’t met when you’re a child, a couple of things happen:
- You don’t learn to identify what your needs even are in the first place
- (You learn to get by with less instead)
- You have no choice but to exist in relationships that don’t serve you, and then
- It becomes your normal that the people you love and who ostensibly love you back don’t treat you with the care and concern that you need to be okay, to feel loved, and to feel secure and attached.
This led to my first toxic romantic relationships. The first boyfriend(s) I dated seriously were bad news bears. Because I had no frame of reference for what a healthy relationship looked like, I put up with… a lot. And the straws that ultimately broke those camels’ backs were flat out dangerous. Those men were hard lessons, and I’m lucky I got out unscathed and alive. I wish that were hyperbole, but it is not.
I got a little wiser from those formative romantic relationships, but not much.
As a very young woman with no idea…
- what my emotional needs even were and
- no way to even begin meeting them on my own at that point,
one after the other, I casually dated partners who were varying shades of semi-toxic–not all bad, but definitely not good for my well-being either. Men who kept me waiting by the phone, men who would call me “needy” because how very dare I want to spend time with them more than once every two weeks, men who gaslit me about doing drugs, men who talked a big game but who didn’t show up the way I needed them when I needed them, men who kept me up at night wondering what was so wrong with me that I was unloveable, wondering what else I could do to better change myself to better fit their image of the “queen” they so desired.
I had no idea how to exist in a relationship where I was treated with the respect, love, and affection that I so craved. It seemed mythical. Eventually, I learned to ask for what I needed, but didn’t know how in the world to react when I asked, and they answered with varying degrees of, “Lol, no.”
Nobody told me that you don’t need to build a case to fire your boyfriend, so I’m telling you in case you need to hear it.
The Formative Relationship That Started to Change My Views
This changed in a big way when I met J.
I was 20, he was 30, and it was the most casual relationship on the planet. We had nothing in common other than the shared value of honesty, a love of goat cheese and red wine, and a mutual attraction — but, in spite the lack of emotional connection, he was the first person to treat me well. I was under no illusion that we would ever be together (nor did I want that)–he had a young child, I was barely into my second year of college, and while we had fun together, we were definitely just friends who were attracted to each other.
“When can I see you again?” he asked me the night I met him, which delighted me to my very soul.
Being in a relationship with someone who treated me well taught me a lot:
- I learned that one of my emotional needs is to feel wanted.
- I unlearned that I had to earn someone’s time or affection.
And then he called when he said he would. Every time.
- I unlearned that I was expected to wait by the phone for scraps of affection.
- I learned to match a partner’s behaviors to their words–and to believe them when they showed me who they are.
- I learned that all feelings–mine included!–were valid, but it was someone’s behaviors as they processes those feelings that made or broke a relationship.
He was honest about hard topics, even when it would have benefited him (significantly) to lie.
- I learned that omitting key facts is the same thing as a lie.
- I unlearned using ultimatums as a form of control, which was a toxic trait of my own. No more ultimatums, just honest conversation.
J met my emotional needs that I didn’t even know I had.
And because I wasn’t desperately in love with him and clinging to meager breadcrumbs of affection, I had no pressure to be anyone other than myself around him. For the first time in my entire life, there was no pressure to contort to try and fit into what he wanted me to be. We just liked each other, we hung out, and we followed through.
Dating him in this way made it a lot easier to see through other partners’ bullshit.
We casually “dated” (if you can even call it that) for almost a year before calling it quits, and by then, I’d experienced enough stability to know that stability actually exists–and what it looked and felt like. Prior to dating him, that kind of treatment felt like something I’d only ever read about in books.
Living in the discomfort of my unmet needs no longer felt normal.
After J, I stopped allowing partners into my life who immediately fell short; I set a new expectation for myself that I would only invest time, energy, and love in someone who matched my own efforts.
But I still didn’t know how to “fix it” when future partners eventually stopped meeting my emotional needs.
Which, unsurprisingly, was an absolute problem after I got married the first time.
I discovered (eventually) that…
- I could not control someone else’s behavior and should not try to do so.
- Only he was in charge of his behavior, which logically led to the conclusion that
- I could change my behavior.
I eventually identified the most important of my own needs and learned to meet them for myself.
Thanks to my earlier relationship with J, I knew some of the things that fulfilled some of my emotional needs:
- I adored fine dining and sushi, and would take myself out to dinner at least once a week (because otherwise it would rarely happen, if at all)
- I pursued interests of mine with a wide community of friends (theater, karaoke, parrots, web design, etc.)
- Dancing really filled my cup, so I danced my heart out (by myself) at friends’ weddings and eventually joined a community theater group to get my fix.
Logically, that made sense. I assumed (wrongly) that I was married forever, therefore if I wanted to be happy and fulfilled, I needed to figure out how to do that myself.
For a long time, that worked okay. Four years, in fact.
Real talk, it ultimately is what gave me the strength to leave.
Unfortunately, relationships take two. One little-talked about hard fact of marriage is this:
You can throw 100% of yourself into trying to make your marriage work, but if your partner doesn’t reciprocate–or doesn’t reciprocate enough–it will still fail.
And fail, it did.
And then I was dating again.
What changed after my divorce?
- I’d identified my needs; I knew what I needed in my life to feel okay.
- I was practiced at meeting my own base emotional needs.
- I realized I could not force a partner to answer my asks, so that meant that
- I had to decide what I would do if they did not meet those needs. My choices were:
- Meet my emotional need myself and accept less from that person
- Walk away and find someone I could actually rely on.
- Eventually, I started to understand that it was okay to rely on other people — which meant I needed to spend time with people who would, rather than people who routinely chose not to.
My Three-Strike Rule
At the suggestion of a friend, I developed a three-strike rule; if someone didn’t answer a simple ask of mine, they had three tries to get it right. My job was to communicate as clearly and kindly as I could what needs I needed met, what I was willing to do to meet halfway, and what I needed from them next time we were in a similar situation.
This wasn’t always easy.
When a partner disappointed me, I got into the habit of asking myself how I would have wished they would have behaved differently. If I determined the change I needed was reasonable (fun fact, my asks weren’t always reasonable), I’d share it with them and ask them to do better next time. I usually added in something else I would do to help meet them halfway–after all, I can change my behavior, not theirs.
But here’s the thing:
If a partner won’t meet you in the little things, they will be nowhere to be found when the big ones appear.
The most important thing I do know about toxic relationships is this:
Fun fact: People who will routinely disappoint you will usually start that nonsense early, before you have time to get really invested emotionally.
It makes walking away a lot easier.
I’m not extra resilient, I’m just a little older and a little wiser.
I think that’s why I say I’m not as resilient as my dear friend thinks I am; when I walked away from those former relationships, my head and my soul knew I wasn’t where I was meant to be, even if my heart protested.
I learned to stop wishing that someone would treat me the way I needed, and go find someone who would–because I knew I could take care of myself.
So, there I was: freshly divorced. My heart broken (by me and my own choices) into a bazillion pieces.
And when I sat and stared at my empty bedroom, sitting of borrowed furniture I’d soon have to return, sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress that wasn’t mine, all alone in another state… I picked out my first rug, my first set of curtains, and my first piece of artwork all my own for my walls, and placed them all with satisfaction–and a little loneliness.
But I could deal.
I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring. I didn’t have any local friends, I wasn’t able to afford a place in Denver, and going back to my childhood home was out of the question.
But I knew that my people were out there (friends and future lovers), that my future person was out there–someone who would treat me well.
And that someday, I’d find them.
And in the meantime? I’d take care of me. I finally knew how.
That’s why I’m not as resilient as you think, friend. Because walking away was hard, but it wasn’t nearly as hard as it is currently for you. Experience was on my side.
So, what can you do to start discovering and meeting your own needs?
Imagine a series of perfect dates, whatever that means to you: cozy coffee shops, Broadway shows, sparkling fine dining, riding rollercoasters. Dates inside on bad weather days (hot baths, wine, and candles, anyone?) and dates outside doing what most thrills your heart.
Take yourself on those dates.
For group things, bring friends with you. Join meetups if none of your local friends share your immediate interests. (#remoteworkproblems)
Take care of yourself the way you’d expect a kind and loving partner would take care of you. Explore your inner world and longings with a curious heart, and treat yourself deliberately the way you’d like someone else to treat you.
Taking care of myself is still something I’m learning about. I’m currently working on identifying my needs and honoring them. It’s a hard and long process when you don’t even know yourself very well, but I’m getting there.