The fact is dating, sex, love, basic human connection is hard. But we’ve got just the little snack to help. Ask An Alfawhore, the sex and love advice column from the tell-it-to-ya-straight, sex-positive, uber feminist older sister you always wanted is back. This week: how to clean up after toxic relationships.
Dear Auntie Alfawhore,
I met someone last year, and we both fell hard. I don’t know what it was — maybe it was the intense physical chemistry, or some pretty rotten events that transpired in both of our lives — but I opened up to this person in a way I hadn’t in many years. It felt beautiful, almost fated at first. But then, little by little, the relationship became more and more toxic: they became extremely jealous, possessive with my time, quick to anger and over-critical. In my eagerness to share myself completely with this person, I had unwittingly given them the ammo they needed to cut me down during arguments, to make me feel small and less than.
I know, I know. I should have walked away. But I excused their bad behavior as symptoms of their current dissatisfaction with their life, and I so badly wanted to help them. Well, you’ll probably see this coming: I finally discovered that many (perhaps all) of their accusations were projections of their own insecure behavior, and we broke it off. I know it’s for the best…but I am left feeling hollow with anger and sadness, both at this person and at myself. It’s not the first time I’ve let myself be entangled with someone like this. But I want it to be the last.
How do I move on? How do I forgive them (and myself, for tolerating this kind of treatment for so long) and let go of this heartache? How do I prevent myself from repeating this pattern in the future?
Addicted to the pain
Welcome. It’s always humbling and haunting to see another adherent of my former favorite vice, i.e. loving people who aren’t ready. Yes, read that last bit again: they aren’t ready. They weren’t ready when you met them. They may never be ready. And guess what? It’s not up to you to change that. Kiddo, take it from me: you never had a chance.
I once had a relationship that sounded a lot like yours. I excused their manipulative and accusatory behavior for months, and devoted hours upon hours of mental energy to finding new, creative ways to reassure this person that I loved them. I thought that if I could somehow prove to this person that I was genuine in my thought and action, and wasn’t doing any of the things they regularly accused me of, that it would all snap into place, and we’d be okay.
I finally wrote them a letter at the end, trying to capture all of my pain on paper and express it to them in a way that would make them understand, see the damage they had inflicted. When we talked about it later, they told me they couldn’t believe I had been so hateful, that I had written all of those terrible things about them. Their reaction shocked me — I had been careful not to attack their character, to call names. I had stuck to the facts, only stating the things that they had done, to how I felt. I had expressed sorrow, and anger, and a bit of tough (albeit pleading) love. But hate? Not even a little.
I suppose that’s when things really began to click for me. This person saw everything I had said as hateful, because that was their lens of the world. They had never been able to fully see or accept my love during their relationship. They didn’t see or love themselves. And people who don’t see and love themselves are incapable of truly seeing and loving another person. They simply don’t have the right tools, or maybe they don’t know how to use them yet. It may not be their fault — not all of us have been blessed with receiving those tools (and the training to use them) early in life. But while you can empathize with this injustice, you’re not helping anyone by letting them hack away at you while they figure it out.
If I had to venture a guess, I would say you’re probably a bright, shiny star of a person. Maybe you’re very talented in one thing, or a little talented in a lot of things. Maybe you have a big network of friends, or a small group of people who are always there for you. You probably have your shit together. You almost certainly have a lot of love to give. And that’s what got you here, my friend: your little light shines so brightly, you can’t help but draw the attention of those wandering in the dark. Your hourglass of love is extra-grande, filled to the brim with little gems of affection and adoration that you readily pass to those around you. You do so freely, because you know that more is more when it comes to love and trust, and that the good outweighs the bad 99% of the time.
Well my darling, it seems we’ve arrived at that one percent. And that’s okay. You are allowed to be in mourning, and feel like hell for a little while — in fact, it’s integral to your healing. Regardless of the outcome, this person was a part of your life. Every relationship has its season, and now this one is over. I bet you learned a few things that you can take into your future relationships, i.e. the signs that someone is not ready for your love. So please, let go of the guilt that plagues you, acknowledge this loss, and forgive yourself.
It was good of you to trust and love like you did. But yes, it may have been misdirected in this case. I want you to take a little time to examine what was going on in your life when you fell head over heels for this person. What was your mental state when you welcomed them into your heart and mind? You said that you were both going through a rough patch when you met: chances are that neither of you were in the best place, mentally and/or spiritually. At best, this can become a breeding ground for unhealthy behaviors in even the healthiest of relationships. At worst, this can leave you vulnerable to predatory behavior. Recognize this, and try to be mindful of it going forward.
You said that you’ve been through this before. I’m willing to bet that this time around, you saw those red flags a little more clearly than the last, but ignored them, perhaps wanting to believe the best in this person. They will be harder yet to miss in the future. Next time, trust your instincts. And in the meantime, get 👏yourself 👏to 👏 therapy 👏(insert a billion handclap emojis here). When we allow toxic actors to remain in our life for any substantial amount of time, some of our deepest insecurities are uprooted, the shadows of our soul exposed. This is an incredible opportunity to reconcile with your past, strengthen your mind and reclaim your sense of self. And one of the best ways to do that is with the guidance of a qualified professional. You are not alone in this journey, and you definitely don’t have to do this part by yourself.
I promise you: you’re going to be okay. Better than before, even.
Keep loving, my little lover.