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Imagine that for the last two years, ten years, or twenty years of your life you were living a lie.
That you were painting on a happy face and smiling so that everyone thought you had the perfect life—the perfect house, the perfect job, the perfect relationship.
Except you didn’t.
Imagine you never knew what you were coming home to. Imagine every time you got in the car to leave work, you wondered, “Is he/she still mad about last night? I wonder if they are speaking to me? Should I get dinner ready or not? What should I say when I see them?”
Imagine every moment spent inside your home involved walking on eggshells and every moment spent outside your home involved trying to figure out how to keep it all together so no one would know the stress you were under. So no one would think badly of your partner, badly of your family, or badly of you.
Imagine painting on a happy face and reapplying makeup before you got to work because you didn’t want anyone to worry about you—because you were embarrassed about the fact that they should be worried about you.
And, imagine that no matter how hard you try, no matter how many books on communication you read, or how many times you changed something, anything, everything about yourself, that it was never good enough.
Imagine you were aiming for a target that was always moving. Imagine running a race where every time you reached the finish line, the person you loved told you that your efforts didn’t count because they had decided to change the rules of the race. And they always made up the rules. They always had the power. And they’d tell you that once again “You aren’t good enough! You aren’t trying hard enough! You aren’t getting it right! Try harder! Try harder!”
And, you try. And, you fail.
And you paint on the happy face and show up to work, and during your lunch break you read another article on how to improve your relationship, find something new to try, and go home only to fail again.
Your days are filled with chaos and confusion. Your nervous system is constantly on edge and you begin forgetting things because you are so very tired. But they remind you that it’s just because you are stupid. Or not trying hard enough. And you know something is wrong, but since they are never wrong, you just assume it’s you. And they happily agree.
So you work on yourself. You try to be less sensitive, more forgiving, and less needy. In fact, you learn to not have needs. You learn to just be quiet. You tell yourself, “No relationship is perfect. Everyone complains about their significant other.” You tell yourself this is normal.
Except it’s not.
And then one day…you know.
You know you can’t keep going like this. You know something is wrong. You know you have to ask for help. You know that if you don’t do something soon, something terrible is going to happen. You know that if you give up one more piece of yourself, there won’t be any pieces left.
You are in a toxic relationship.
So you leave.
And then people ask why you left.
And you share a sliver of your story—and you’re confused about how much is too much sharing, about what they will think of you. What they will think of your family. What they will think of…well, everything.
And, they respond with, “Gosh. I would have never put up with that! If my partner did that to me I would have left within 15 minutes.” Or, “I always thought of you as strong. I can’t believe you put up with that!” Or, “Are you sure it was that bad? You seemed so happy!” Or, “Everyone has problems and your partner has always been so helpful.”
“It takes two to tango,” rolls off their tongue before they ask, “What could you do to make the relationship work? You seem bitter and angry. I can’t imagine that being easy to live with. Maybe if you work harder you can make it work.”
Maybe if you work harder, then you can make it work.
And without knowing what they are doing, the friend, family member, therapist, or religious leader echoes the words of the toxic partner; you are the one who should be doing the work. If it isn’t working, you should try harder.
Imagine what that feels like—to spend years changing yourself to make another person happy and bending yourself like an acrobat to try to make the relationship work, and after a few minutes of conversation, someone quickly jumps to the conclusion that you should have tried harder. How it feels to finally have found answers, and that other people have been through the exact same experience, and then have it dismissed as over-exaggerating?
Imagine how helpless and angry you would feel. Imagine how alone, broken, and vulnerable.
Imagine fearfully baring your soul, and then someone assuming you are weak. Imagine the pain of people assuming that if you could have communicated differently or spoken your mind more that you wouldn’t be in this situation. Imagine after years of having your confidence chipped away with verbal insults and emotional games, you finally get up the nerve to tell someone what you have been going through—and their response is that they would never have gotten themselves into that situation.
Sometimes, our weakness is that we see things from just our own perspective, and we make choices based on the information we have rather than all the information that exists. After all, we cannot possibly know everything there is to know in the world!
And each of us has this innate ability to protect ourselves. We tell ourselves stories to preserve our own egos, to conserve energy, and to survive. We assume we would have known what to do when the car swerved to our side of the road. We assume the child in the grocery store would know how to behave if he lived in our house. We assume only other people get cancer, and we assume we would have seen the red flags early on in the relationship. We assume we would have understood the game being played and we would have walked away from the relationship the first time a voice was raised. We assume we would have known better.
But we assume these things because we are humans who can only handle so much. Because we want to protect ourselves.
We assume these things because our brain can only focus on limited things at one time. We assume these things because we are selfish creatures and our problems feel bigger than other people’s problems. So if we haven’t felt the pain of your problem, then your problem probably wasn’t that bad.
We become overwhelmed with the warnings about the changes in our environment, the chemicals in our food, the failings of public education, the government, or the dangers we face every day as we get into a car. Our brains tell us that it wouldn’t happen to us—that we are safe.
The problem arises when someone we care about tells us about the hell they’ve been living in when we thought they were fine.
Their pain bursts our bubble. It pokes through the protection we try to surround ourselves with.
We humans tell ourselves that it won’t happen to us and, therefore, it shouldn’t have happened to you. It is simply easier to believe that if you were in a toxic relationship, it was your fault. It’s easier to believe that you should have fixed it. You should have known better. You should have been better. If it is something we believe you should have controlled, then it was something we tell ourselves we could have controlled.
And if a person has never experienced a toxic relationship, then they think a toxic relationship can be controlled. Managed. Changed. Tamed. Fixed. But they’re overlooking the fact that control is the very problem that needs to be addressed within a toxic relationship.
It’s time for a new conversation.
If you have questions about why someone stayed as long as they did, or why they didn’t come to you sooner, remind yourself that this is not the time for those questions. Try to remember the conversation isn’t about you. In fact, they can’t answer your questions because they themselves are searching for the answers.
Loving them well in that moment means allowing the conversation to be about their search for clarity rather than your own. It’s about their pain, their confusion, and their journey.
“What is wrong with me?” is the question that greets them each morning and rocks them to sleep each night. What attracted them to a toxic partner? They think about the good times and wonder why those good times weren’t good enough. They wonder why they didn’t have the ability to make the relationship work.
If you don’t know what to say, then address that question—“What is wrong with me?”
Remind them about all the good things within them. That they weren’t dumb, just forgiving. That they always see the good in people, even when things are hard. That they didn’t see what was happening to them because they would never hurt someone on purpose and wouldn’t recognize it. That they didn’t understand the game of control because they wouldn’t want to control their partner. That they are amazing problem solvers, so it makes sense that they thought if they worked hard enough, they could solve their relationship problems.
Remind them how giving they are, and how grateful you are for the generosity they bring to the world, and tell them you are sorry that their generosity was used against them. That just because they entered into a relationship with someone who wasn’t good at loving doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of love.
The next time someone is brave enough to talk to you about breaking out of a toxic relationship, avoid making assumptions about what you would have done or what they could or should have done. Resist the urge to try to solve a long, painful, complex problem with simplistic solutions.
Instead, offer a listening ear and some compassion. Allow that person to process their pain and to travel through their journey of recovery at their own pace.
Remind them that they were targeted by a toxic person because of what is right with them, not because of what was wrong with them.
Remind them they are beautiful. Remind them they are strong.