As some of you may, or may not, know…I am in a healthy relationship and getting married next year. For those of you following this blog, or knowing me personally, you’ll understand how this is a big and wonderful thing. I don’t have a great track record for healthy relationships. Not a lot of child abuse survivors do – and it isn’t because the survivors are ‘asking for it’ or like to be victims, as much as the stigma tries to say this. Mostly it’s because everyone follows what is most familiar; it’s more than just a joke that you’re likely to fall for someone with similar traits as your parents. If all you’ve known is abuse, you’re more likely to inadvertently fall for an abuser. If all you’ve learned is that relationships are perverse and upside down, how the hell are you supposed to learn the opposite? Also, I guess there is an element of self-worth. I don’t think I could have gone into a healthy relationship if I didn’t have more respect for myself than I once had, and more belief in my rights. In my most serious domestic abuse relationship, she convinced me I was broken, couldn’t be loved because of my past, and that this was the best chance I had at any kind of ‘normal’ relationship.
Let me tell you this, it’s a lot of c*ap.
My last relationship wasn’t exactly the world’s healthiest either. Being second place to someone’s fantasy love life, who they want to be with but never can so ‘you’ll do’ isn’t a bundle of laughs. In fact, it was damaging in a different way to my self-worth. But equally, I learned a lot. Mostly that I wasn’t going to stand for that again. Secondly that love is complicated.
Following that relationship, I was stuck. My conclusion from nearly all my relationships (though not all; like my last boyfriend, or my first girlfriend) was either I was worth only a punch-bag to someone, or I was worth less than a fantasy. Or maybe both. Who the hell knew at this point. Whatever, I wasn’t worth anything more.
Which led to a couple of flings which were again, very unhealthy. But centred around what I believed I was worth, and also what I knew. Being used.
But, during this period, and running up to it, I’d also started to observe healthy relationships around me a bit more. Several of my friends’ were/are in healthy relationships. All of them believed I was worth more than what I believed I was worth. Some of them had been stressing this to me for nearly 3 years. Some bit of me had to accept that they must be telling the truth; who could repeat themselves for 3 years without going insane with boredom if what they were saying was a blatant lie? I had to hand it to them, their ability to keep repeating themselves in the hope I’d one day believe them was admirable. And helped, so much.
What I first witnessed from relationships around me was that nobody got hurt. Not intentionally anyway. Okay maybe the occasional argument or even row, but they’d both be remorseful after, even if the row led to break up. And they respected each other, respected each others individuality and lives, each others strengths and weaknesses. They laughed together and had in-jokes, and wanted to see each other. They missed each other after a period of time. They were concerned if the other was upset or stressed in some form. They loved them, flaws and all. They certainly didn’t punish each other for past mistakes, or memories, or personality traits or anything. They loved and respected each other as a whole, not as a percentage. That was the biggest thing I learned. I needed to be whole. And I deserved to be loved as a whole.
What I also learned from witnessing those around me was that a level of self-respect was definitely needed in order to sustain a healthy relationship. Sometimes they needed to voice their opinion even if it resulted in an argument. They needed to believe they were worth being cuddled, needed to believe they were worth being treated properly…and the only way they could believe that was by treating themselves properly too. Importantly, the only way where they could feel confident that any of their boundaries would be respected, is if they themselves respected them. I historically can be quite good with boundaries with friends, but just plain awful at boundaries with partners. The voice in my head says ‘they’re your girlfriend/boyfriend, and this will make them happy.’ I sacrifice myself to just pleasing them. I do this to a degree with friends too but certainly to a far lesser extent. I dunno why. Maybe less hormone collision. Maybe less intense as a relationship anyway, and so it’s easier for me to put a line down and stick to it. Maybe because friendships are not mostly private and behind closed doors, where aspects to romantic relationships quite reasonably are. But you have to trust your partner, entirely, not to hurt you in that secret edge to the relationship. And you have to trust yourself to be able to ask for help if they do harm you. Because nobody deserves to be harmed.
So, what have I learned from being in a healthy relationship? I think it’s important to write this down, because I receive so many messages from survivors who stick with abusive partners because they think it’s the best chance they have given their past. I remember believing that too. And I want people to realise it’s just utterly wrong. I’m a survivor of ritualistic child abuse, and I’m very happy in a loving relationship, and I’m 21. It genuinely can happen.
I have learned:
· Tears are as important as the smiles. Honesty with emotions makes your relationship stronger and more beautiful, and safer. I can burst into tears for no apparent reason and know I’ll be held and helped, and equally she can burst into tears and be held and helped. Sometimes the tears are because I’ve tickled her so much she’s hysterical. Then I must admit, I laugh and help later. 😉 I don’t hide myself. If I’m feeling crap, I’ll say so. Because we are willing to show our fragile vulnerabilities to each other, I’m not scared to. And it means we value each others strengths even more, and love it when we are both smiling.
· You will both have good and bad days. Sometimes, one of you will have a good day and the other have a bad day. This is a little easier to manage, because the one on a ‘good’ day can just make silly jokes and make a cup of tea and cheer the other one up. But sometimes, you’ll both have just had the day of hell and want to annihilate anything/anyone that so much as breathes wrong. In this situation it’s actually okay to just both have a vile day. To both sit on the kitchen floor and cry, and eventually start laughing when you realise you’re both on the kitchen floor crying like exhausted over-emotional women (definitely not speaking from experience). You will learn to recognise patterns or warning signs that your other half might be heading towards a bad day, and learn how to put little safety nets in place or full on inflatable tyres to pull them away from the big waves. And you know they will/do the same thing for you, because you’re a strong team. Each moment of honesty is just another moment in emphasising trust to each other.
· You are both individuals. You are both different. You don’t try and ‘morph’ and become the same person, but instead learn to understand each other’s individual differences, their limits and energy, their dreams and goals and motivations, and to work together to ensure a balance…to make sure that neither of you are losing your individuality, that you both respect each other as individuals and can find ways of slotting together in a partnership without having to become the same person.
· You will have some pretty dull conversations. Like budgeting for a wedding. Or who has done the food shopping this week. Or when the laundry is going on. Or if there’s any post today. And you grow to love these frankly mundane conversations, because they’re evidence of how comfortable you are being with each other. That you can talk about the most boring thing on the planet and not be bored with each other. Often it also means that one/both of you will try and say/do something funny afterwards, to remove the boring ‘bills’ conversation and put it in the ‘boring adult’ box 😉
· You will relax. Eventually. It took a couple of months for me, but because of my past, I kept looking/waiting for the catch. She seemed genuinely lovely, warm, creative…my head just kept screaming ‘it’s too good to be true!’ I kept waiting for the first put-down, the first slap, and in hindsight spent a lot of time on edge (needlessly, and I feel rubbish/stupid about it now, but equally it was hardly surprising given my background). The other person will not only recognise your anxiety, but will gently try and reassure you without being in your face. So not only can you relax, but you’re given the space to relax in your own time. I’m not forced into feeling 100% safe. I do now feel very much 100% safe, but it’s amazing for me that I was able to relax into that feeling at a pace which was comfortable for me.
· Boundaries really do exist! They are not some mythical thing. ‘No’, is a word that is not only heard, but respected. ‘I need to sleep in my own bed tonight because of my back’ doesn’t result in guilt-trip or being hit. I’m actually just allowed to lie wherever is best for my back. Yes you heard it; my body is respected as much as my head.
· MY BODY IS RESPECTED AS MUCH AS MY HEAD. I needed to repeat that. In capitals. It’s a big deal. I don’t even respect my body as much as my head. For every scar she sees a victory. Every mark I don’t like she sees as it as part of my unique self. And the feeling is reciprocal. I have learned that healthy relationships mean mutual and unconditional respect and care for each others body and head. I’ve also learned that both parties will hate some bit of their body, and doubt some bit of their head….but that they will still always be reassured and their self-esteem gradually soothed.
· My past is not a dirty burden. Nobody’s past is a dirty burden. It’s simply something that has happened.
· Weddings take a lot more organising than I ever realised.
· You will become very comfortable with having unwashed hair, un-brushed teeth, and no deodorant. Your fear of breathing on your partner’s face in a morning and her running for the hills and never returning will vanish (ish). You love each other for who they are, not for how dressed up and nicely smelling they are. You therefore become at ease with each other, and don’t panic about constantly ‘looking perfect.’
· You will occasionally get irritable with each other, either genuinely because you’re irritated with them, or mostly because you’re tired and stressed about something else and they happen to be the person nearest you at the time. I’ve learned that this does not ever result in screaming matches or punches. Mostly it results in an exhausted slump on the sofa and a cup of tea for you both. And then laughing at whoever it was being irritable (mostly me, to be fair).
· You will eat better. I suddenly give a bit more of a damn about what I cook, because nine times out of ten she’s eating it too. So I cook healthier stuff, not ready meals (not a single one since being with her, where I used to live on the things a year ago). I feel physically a lot healthier.
· You will stop trying to be strong. Because they love all of you, and that includes the nightmares, the meltdowns, the crazed chopping off of one’s hair in a moment of psychosis…etc…
· Your toothbrushes will lie side by side, like a little couple of their own. Bless.
· You will come up with a bathroom routine, without ever speaking a word. It’s like “psychic shower o’clock”
· You will get excited about things you genuinely did not give a damn about before. Like wedding dresses. And shelves you buy for your first flat together. And the hoover you bought for the same thing. Genuinely a hoover. Genuinely I got excited.
· You will both become mundane adults and start giving a damn about housework. Man alive you’ll even clean the kitchen together like some mad ‘date’. Romance is sweet, guys.
· You will learn the exact way to make their tea/coffee. And god forbid you get it wrong 😉
· “Did you remember the butter/toothpaste/shampoo?” will become a normal question.
· You will doubt yourself, and they will reassure you. But you will soon doubt yourself again. And they will doubt themselves. And you’ll both flail in a puddle of self-doubt, but know exactly how to help each other stop flailing. Mostly.
· You will start caring about scary things like futures. And long-term career plans. And savings accounts. Eeek.
· You’ll still get butterflies when they laugh or smile
· You will not be abused.