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Calibrating Healthy Relationships After Emotional Abuse

Photo by Kiwihug on Unsplash

Embracing the idea of vulnerability means radical honesty and complete transparency. My confession is I don’t know a lot about healthy relationships and what I do know is constantly challenged by what I feel.

Dating After Marriage

If you’ve followed the blog, you’ll notice there is a theme. I love falling in love. I love the excitement. I love having a crush so much that I started this blog with my first one after more than 15 years. Most of my crushes have touched so many posts throughout the blog. I loved documenting my obsessive observations and my early crush watches (you’ll have to dig through search). Watching someone with romantic notions is so much fun compared to being in a relationship that could potentially hurt again. I usually keep these to myself but catch me in a great mood, and I might let something slip that sounds highly intense. Not always on purpose, but sometimes it really is. Or has been.

None of them were ever meant to be permanent. There was never the idea of falling in love with someone for the rest of my life. Temporary romances and crushes that never became more were all i was interested in. Once I started getting on my own two feet, I decided no man would compete with another man. He was competing with me. Could he treat me better than I treat myself? Is it possible he would be an improvement on my time alone? As a single mom in Los Angeles without a roommate, driving my own car, he had to at least be doing as well as I am.

This unwillingness to commit to something mediocre and settling for a life that didn’t serve me, made rejections fun. For me. I’ve been content in relationships that I knew wouldn’t last because I didn’t want anything real. When I decided to reject them, I enjoyed pushing them to the point that they walked away.

There was a shift. On November 15, 2018 I attended a personal development workshop that helped me define my heart’s desire. It helped me clarify my purpose in this life. This was the day I decided I was ready to really look for a partner to grow old with.

The Rejection List Left Lessons

The first crush. I enjoyed watching him and imagining what dating him would have been like. There was no future, and I really didn’t know him, but that wasn’t the point. I totally objectified him for his Crossfit workouts and overall kindness.

The crush that wasn’t right for me, just as much as I wasn’t right for him. I loved how curious and intelligent he was. He encouraged my writing. There were a couple of makeout sessions in the back seat of a car, but it was very innocent and would never go anywhere. I never considered he’d meet my kids. I felt safe because nothing real would happen. I watched him choose between me and someone else and when he chose her, a part of me was happy. This experience showed me that rejection isn’t always painful. I still obsessed a bit, but it didn’t stop my badassery. A couple of years passed and a few months ago when he wanted to revisit what we had, I let him know I’m not that person anymore. I was looking for my King.

The next man was tall and kinda cute. I think I enjoyed how shy and awkward he was around me. He was getting ready to change jobs and wanted to focus on his career. He expected me to wait for him to be ready to date him, and put my life on hold for him. It sounded ridiculous and I saw it as an inability to be adaptable to change. He wanted the space to let life settle before focusing on a relationship with me and I pushed him. I laughed when he blocked me on social media. He was justified. I sent an epic love letter via Facebook messenger when I had never even kissed him. I still giggle about that.

There was the man that made me flinch the first time we met. I knew it would never be forever. We got pregnant within 6 weeks, so I tried to make it work, but I also took my time finalizing my divorce because it was a safety blanket of distance. It was something he wanted that I didn’t want to give him. My divorce was about me. Chapter 12 was about him in my book. He was never going to be permanent. I never saw it as forever. I told my children he wouldn’t be around because he wasn’t for them. He was for me. I couldn’t see him as a good Dad to my boys. He was abusive and even violent. I kept him around, knowing it was a choice and I could send him away. With him, I learned it only takes about an hour to change four doorknobs and four deadbolts on my front and back doors, and security gates. As many times as I kicked him out, he always came back until we were both done. Less than a year after we started talking, he walked out of my life for good.

Just last month I pushed away the latest man. Four pseudo dates wasn’t really dating. He was definitely a Mr. Right Now. He gave me his boundaries. He wanted to take things slow and limit our texts and dates. I told him he was handsome and loved watching him look away in discomfort. I liked making him uncomfortable. Then I pushed. In the middle of an amazing moment, I took my love of the ocean and pushed it on him. I was finding my bliss, and my joy in that moment was directed at him, full force. He freaked out and ghosted me. I laughed. It’s the idea that if you can’t take a little push, you can’t take half of what my version of normal is. My rejection was about the life he didn’t love. He complained about hating his job and couldn’t work up the nerve to change things. He was smart and handsome but there was something soft and malleable in him that brought out my poking stick. He told me his boundaries and I pushed. Just enough. In the days after that, I felt bad. In him I could see that I couldn’t be attracted to, or get turned on by a man that needed me to be his mother or the man in our relationship.

There were the men that disappeared for a week and didn’t think I would delete their contact information from my phone. My favorite line was, “I forgot about you and deleted you. Feel free to do the same.” There were men that would like all of my photos on social media but never asked me out. There were the men that wanted to send me a message every night on social media or via text, but never felt bold enough to ask if I might be hungry on a kid free night. There were the men that sealed their fate by asking me to wear heels, allow them to tie me up during sex or had a request for a Brazilian wax without asking if I wanted to spend my free time with them. Unfortunately a lot of men don’t know better, and the rest were conditioned to not care. I say this, but I also know there are some amazing men in this world. I was often asked why I couldn’t get a date. I refused to spend time with someone that I didn’t deem worthy of my time. How could I manage to stay celibate all this time? If I don’t like a man as a person, I refused to get physical, even if we did manage to go out. In all of these men, I couldn’t see the man I would crown as King in my life. I felt he had to be doing better than me and they weren’t.

I wanted someone more intelligent than I am. And more dominant. I needed to know he can take care of himself without my help. As long as I wasn’t seeing any of this, I wasn’t worried about something real, and I often enjoyed pushing them in a way. Making them feel like they were rejecting me became a game. It was like working on my pick up lines or adding to my “Conversations of NO” album on Facebook with all of the terrible text messages I received while swiping for love online.

I met someone new. It’s still early, but his metrics are all within my rubrics, and far beyond my expectations in so many ways. For the first time in years, I glimpsed something so real that I could imagine permanent. Intelligent. Accomplished. Kind. My mirror in so many ways that I felt gratitude to the universe. I might have even said so. Out loud. The experience uncovered just how little I know about normal relationships.

Before, I’ve wondered about the idea of romance. I wrote about it but this was all in my imagination. I had strong ideas of what I wanted and even shared dating tips to make it easier on men that were bombing so terribly. I’ve shared many things about crushes and the idea of forever, but any time something felt like it could be real but not right, I pushed. I pushed by telling them I needed them in a way that was frightening. I met him. We liked each other. We should try marriage, right? You want to talk sex? I bet our babies would look beautiful with your eyes and I hope we have a daughter so you can learn to regret how badly you treat the women in your life.

Off Center

I had to learn how to be treated with kindness. I am lucky enough to work with gentlemen. Their natural behavior is kindness, compassion, and empathy. When they extended politeness toward me, I had to learn to accept it. I had to learn how to accept an offer for a drink. I had to learn how it feels to be listened to and valued. My opinions matter at work in a way that I had never experienced at home.

And now I have to learn normal dating patterns in a healthy relationship because what I know has always become emotionally abusive.

My marriage and my last long term relationship were very whirlwind. They both moved in with me, within the first week of dating. This felt normal because it was always what I knew. I know what being Love Bombed feels like.

Love Bombing

When I didn’t know that I could love myself, I was looking for love and acceptance wherever I could find it. When relationships started, it was about constant contact. They wanted to know where I was and the texts and calls were constant and all day long. I had goodmorning and goodnight texts. I had texts to ask what I was doing, wearing and eating. They wanted to know how I felt, and any free time was supposed to be spent together. They were talking forever, with marriage and babies within the first week.

Isolation

(To simplify, I’ll call my ex Jerry. There was no Jerry. Lots of the same type of behavior came from most of my ex lovers and I feel like picking on Jerry because he was always a bully to Tom in the cartoons.)

Jerry wanted to be with me every moment and he needed to feel my love. The more time we spent together, the more Jerry was convinced my friends and family didn’t like him. (Wonder why? Hindsight really is 20/20.) If my friends didn’t like Jerry, it wasn’t possible that he was bad for me because he loved me. My so called friends that loved being with me (even if I wasn’t handing out orgasms) must have been jealous. Suddenly they wanted what Jerry had. Because it was all about Jerry. In his mind, the friends that never wanted anything with me before suddenly saw me as a sex goddess and they needed to be with me. I didn’t have time for these jealous friends anyway.

Jerry wanted me to give him my heart, body, mind and soul. We were so in sync that our dreams and goals were identical, so I could just trust him for us. He had all the answers. It was all consuming and I didn’t have my own expectations because I couldn’t see past the picture he painted. Jerry’s dreams became mine, which means we needed to be together at all times. Reassuring him that I was his forever was normal. Even after a few days of texting and talking. Why should love have a time limit?

Right after I was hooked, Jerry’s dream to do what I wanted, shifted into what he wanted. I was there for whatever he was serving.

Blissed out love was dotted with selfishness, then abuse. No one can sustain a farce for long. Our bond was strengthened by the adrenaline and dopamine from being on high alert in fear of a mood that would shift without warning. He was living a lie and I was hoping to see that old Jerry resurface.

Guilt

I want to believe I’m good at giving Mom guilt, but it’s nothing like love guilt. I took my ex husband’s last name out of guilt. I felt bad for not wanting to take his name and made his feelings more important than mine. My ex boyfriend chose to live in his car, and I felt guilty for having a warm bed. I wanted to share my home to relieve my guilt about his choice in life to cut costs from the back of his truck. Sex was given out of guilt when I wasn’t aroused. Changes in my home were made out of guilt so I could incorporate them into my life. They both guilted me into throwing away things that were important to me.

Deflecting and Word Twisting

When I had an issue I wanted to talk about, it was often reflected back at me. I would bring up how I was talked to in a demeaning way. Or I would discuss wanting more financial freedom. I was reminded of how I was the abusive one. The argument would become about something I did, and at the end of it, I was to blame for being a mean person and making them experience the forgotten pain of what I did to them by bringing it up. They were both really good at shifting focus from them to me.

Cold Distance

My ex boyfriend had a look of disgust reserved for only me. Anytime something didn’t go his way, he would give me that look and I would do anything to get him to look at me with love again. In this way my fear was carried on adrenaline and dopamine, as I danced on eggshells to avoid his ire. Then for a moment he would give me just enough love to flood my system with oxytocin. My hormone release was my reward for waiting for him to be nice again. Our dysfunctional bond was created on these hormones and it became an addiction. He didn’t want sex or to be touched by me. He didn’t want to talk to me or look at me and I was too broken to decide I was better off alone. Oxytocin would kick in during those moments when he was content with me, and I felt we were happy. (This same hormone helps mothers forget the pain of childbirth.)

Abuse

My ex boyfriend sent most of his insults through text. He would have a bad day and start taking it out on me. He called me names and cursed me out several times a week, only to apologize. I took him back, mainly because I cared about him, but also because I knew it wouldn’t be permanent and I could deal with it a bit longer. I always felt like it wasn’t that bad because the shift felt gradual, or at least his abuse wasn’t always daily. He would blame it on his marijuana habit or something I did. He dismissed it, saying it wasn’t a big deal. He reassured me he only did it to people he cared about and even his mom got the same treatment. He minimized what he did. He needed to be with me, forsaking all others, but I wasn’t good enough for anyone else without him, and I couldn’t make any smart decisions without him telling me what to do. I was always rebellious about that last bit. I loved defying him.

I explained more about the abuse in my book and won’t get into it too deeply here. My ex boyfriend was careful to not break laws, but push that line just before it. There were times when abuse looked like a heated moment that passed just as quickly as it came. It wasn’t until I begged for his closure that I understood just how much he wanted to hurt me, and that he was using it as punishment because I wouldn’t do what he wanted me to. After exposing my vulnerabilities in that way and being hurt so badly, the first time in bed with someone new was terrifying.

Control

Control started in small ways. My favorite shirt didn’t look good on me anymore. I wore too much makeup. He wanted me drunk but he didn’t want me to act drunk. He wanted me home right after work so we could be together but once I was home he needed space. I remember feeling afraid that I wouldn’t respond to a text fast enough and the fear of sitting through a work meeting without my phone gave me diarrhea. There was a team outing with my co-workers and angry texts from my ex boyfriend as he was packing up to leave me. He couldn’t understand how a woman on a team of men would think it’s fine to hang out at a bar. He needed to control me and he couldn’t trust me. I was told he couldn’t live without me and I was responsible if he hurt himself because I should have been home at night. He needed to know where I was at all times and I needed his permission to be there. I was often rushing home at the height of traffic just to jump into making his dinner, even if I was too stressed to be hungry.

After a Year Alone, Where’s My “Healed” Stamp?

Any process to get you to the other side will always require intentional work. I’m suddenly in new territory.

A couple of days ago I was deleting all of my online dating profiles because there is one man that has my full attention. It’s been a short while, but it’s a record to go this long without my putting a cap on how long I want to be involved. I don’t want to push him away.

He’s not love bombing me. I mean, we both have a lot on our plates, and the idea of hanging out or connecting sounds great when we’re not busy. This has made my anxiety skyrocket and I have had to practice my deep breathing. My rational side couldn’t reconcile the part of me that was convinced he was rejecting me because it had been more than three hours since his last text message. It was almost a week and he wasn’t talking about moving in or putting his babies in me as soon as he got me alone. My anxiety was through the roof because it had been a few hours since his last text and I was imagining this was rejection.

Real connection doesn’t include love bombing. Rationally, I know I get busy and need space when I can’t play on my phone all day. I have a job and drive a long commute. I have kids and want to sit through a shared lunch with a co-worker without being on my phone. But my past was normal to me. My past tells me he should be in constant contact and I can’t miss any of his texts or he might be angry and jealous. My past tells me he’ll want to know where I am at all times and I over explain my whereabouts, likely boring him with how little I get into. I take my time getting home when my kids are gone, and there’s nothing exciting about that. I feel the urge to tell him more than he asks because of the consequences I’ve experienced that have nothing to do with him.

I get to recalibrate for normal. I’ve done this before. I’ve had to understand being worthy. I’ve had to learn how to accept things with gratitude. I’ve had to learn how to set boundaries of what I will and won’t accept. I’ve had to learn it’s better to reject mediocre so I was available to receive amazing.

It’s normal to not move in together within the first week.

It’s normal to not answer every text.

It’s normal to go missing for short periods of time.

It’s normal to show interest without obsession.

It’s normal to continue to live the life I normally lived without him. One caveat is he inspires me to be better. It’s not guilt. I’m just not interested in my typical vices and I’m even drinking more water. He’s not checking on me or testing me or even questioning me.

I’m recalibrating and learning healthy. I’m learning that romance doesn’t have to be scary or painful and my level of intensity won’t terrify the right man into controlling that part of me. I’m learning what it means to take things slowly and that slow doesn’t mean rejection. It’s difficult and terrifying, but I know how to put in the work. Even if he’s not the one, I’m ready for the man I would crown as King in my life.