I used to think I knew what love looked like. My idea of love was a mixture of rom-coms, romance novels, country and old-school R&B songs, and some really toxic ideas. I thought that love meant that I was supposed to give every part of myself to my significant other. Love was supposed to be a perfect all-consuming emotion. I was supposed to accept everything that my partner did or didn’t do. I was not supposed to complain or ask for respect and have boundaries. I was supposed to make excuses for them if they got violent. I was supposed to build up the man I was with and do everything possible to help him accomplish his goals while putting mine on the backburner. This also meant I was supposed to do all the emotional heavy lifting in the relationship, cook and clean, and be everything that my partner would want without them having to lift a finger.
A lot of these assumptions about love were what my parents modeled for me. I’ve seen West Indian women do it all. Cook, serve, clean, entertain, crack jokes, dance, work full-time and so much more while not breaking a sweat. Culturally all of that was women’s work, and men sat at the table waiting to be served.
I used to have imaginary relationships with boys in my middle and high school because I wasn’t allowed to date. The boys that I did date… well, let’s just say it didn’t go well. When men finally started paying attention to me after I graduated high school, I had no clue what I was doing. I thought that if a man paid attention to me, I had value all of a sudden. My parents never sat me down and talked about what a relationship and love should look like. Of course, that wasn’t taught in school, either. The greatest love stories I had ever seen were when Mel and Danny met on The Real World: Austin or Jack and Rose on Titanic. That was my major frame of reference when it came to relationships and love. Have you ever seen that animated gif where the lady’s like, “Honey, you got a big storm comin’.’?” That’s a perfect description of what was on the way when I turned nineteen.
*trigger warning: mentions of sexual and domestic abuse*
My mom is a woman that just doesn’t quit. She’s amazing. Seeing her pull off everything when I was a child set some very high standards for me. I felt like a failure in many relationships when I simply couldn’t keep up with all that I thought was expected of me. I’d been a full-on wife to men that had only been with me for short periods of time. During my final year of college, I dated a sociopath and tried to do so much: full days of school, plus ROTC, working full-time at J.Crew with a shift that ended at midnight, cooking, cleaning, and also hiding the fact that I was being beaten, terrorized, and raped almost nightly. By the time graduation rolled around in May, my grades were in the toilet and I could barely stay awake in class even if I was standing. I limped into work and was in extreme pain during Physical Training (PT) every Tuesday and Thursday morning, but I didn’t say a word. No one knew what I was going through, and my classmates just assumed that I was lazy. Once it all came out after he tried to kill me, the compassion overflowed and people kept asking, “Why didn’t you say anything?”
This is a very sad admission for me. I didn’t say anything because I honestly didn’t know that love didn’t include abuse. Everything about toxic love seemed normal to me. I assumed every relationship was like mine. Fighting, gaslighting, and getting hit or worse was just a part of love. My attitude about love was, “Whatever it takes.” I think that phrase was actually my Facebook cover image in 2012.
“You’re so strong!”
When I tell the story of 2012, most people gasp and say, “You’re so strong.”
I’ve come to dislike that reaction. I think that’s kind of a fucked up thing to say to someone that’s survived domestic violence. Strength should not be a measure of how much abuse a person can endure.
I actually included that as a quote in my breakup recovery journal. It is the most important lesson that I have learned in life so far.
“I used to think that strength was a measurement of what I could endure. Now I know that it’s the ability to take what I’ve endured and turn it into purpose.“
I am not strong because someone beat the hell out of me repeatedly, and I didn’t speak up about it. I am strong because I am teaching others to never accept behavior like that as normal. My purpose is to be a voice that teaches what healthy love looks like. There are so many toxic love ideas floating around in the form of jokes on Twitter and other social media such as: “If she backs into her parking space, she’s too independent. She’ll cheat.” or calling men that jump into relationships and move in quickly “hobosexuals”.
None of these “jokes” about love are healthy, and social media spreads them far and wide to varying age groups. And they are what many young people are learning about love outside of the relationships modeled by their parents and by the media. The meme culture around toxic love has got to go.
One thing that was hard for me to accept was that even though I endured such a horrendous relationship in college, I still fell into toxic relationships and patterns afterward. My eyes were opened to the fact that physical abuse is unacceptable in a relationship. But I still didn’t recognize verbal abuse and gaslighting as toxic behavior. I didn’t understand that someone not respecting my boundaries or discussing major decisions with me was not okay. My bar was set to: Well, he doesn’t hit me. He must be a good one. It took a soul-searching trip to the Bahamas to really understand what was important to me in a relationship. I have standards now that I will not deviate from or let slide.
My new boundaries and standards for love look like this:
- I won’t be teaching another man how to cook, how to clean up after himself, or be his secretary (yes, this has happened multiple times).
- If we can’t discuss expectations in the beginning… I’m probably gonna pull a Spongebob and head out.
- If he expects all the benefits of a relationship without being in one. Nope, bye pal.
- I’m not sleeping with him unless we’re committed to each other. I understand myself on a different level now, and I’m not sharing an act that has a lot of emotions that I have to work through with someone that just wants to get laid then disappear.
- I will not entertain any arguments that do not stay respectful or assertive. I’m out if he’s quick to disrespect me when he gets angry (yeah, many, many relationships).
- If he decides to be a jerk toward me for no reason… I just can’t accept that anymore. I have too many times.
- I’m not moving in until I am engaged/ I am not moving to be with someone unless I am engaged and we get married shortly afterward (yes, the exact opposite has happened multiple times).
- I’m no longer going to be in long-distance relationships unless I’m engaged (I’m done with long-distance relationships in general).
- If the word “bitch” comes out of his mouth in reference to women… I’m out. I’m also not really a fan of “females”. It just rubs me the wrong way.
- If he’s not able to control his emotions (like having fits of explosive anger, and, yup, this is a multiple timer, too) I’m done.
- If he’s unable to explain what’s going on in his head and give me direct answers instead of saying, “I don’t know,” millions of times, that’s a wrap. I’m not a mind-reader, and I’m not playing 60,000 questions to help him communicate how he feels (yes, this has happened with most of my partners).
- If he does the disappearing act without saying, “Hey, I’m busy with [insert whatever here], I’ll talk to you when things are less hectic.”(Yes, it’s happened often in different relationships. Just communicate, man, damn.)
- If he seems like he’s lying to himself or calling me a liar constantly, he’s probably lying to me, and I’m not allowing that projection mess into my life anymore (this has happened with just about every guy and is also a huge trigger for me).
- If he’s unable to set goals with me to work toward together or answer honestly when I do a monthly check-in about anything we might need to work on or discuss, no thanks.
- I’m not leaving my career for a man ever again (yes, again, multiple times).
- I’m not dealing with being stonewalled ever again. (yes, too many times to count)
- If he wants to have children, I gotta go. I’m also not gonna be a step-mother. Sorry, not sorry. I’m childfree for life.
- If he takes me for granted… guess what? I’m outie five-thousand (every single relationship… every single one).
- If he lets his friends treat me with disrespect without standing up for me… that’s a hell no.
- If there are thinly veiled put-downs in our conversations… I’m not about that life (present in most of my previous relationships)
- If he’s not marriage-minded yet wants to keep leading me on for years… it’s not gonna happen again (yes, this too, with multiple men) because I know exactly what that looks like now.
- I’m not interested in anyone who feels the need to live a double-life… I just can’t even. (This one stings because it’s happened so much. Just do me the respect of telling the damn truth!)
- If he says he can handle my mental illness but dumps me or disappears because I’m going through something and need his support… there’s no second chance when you come back when I’m feeling better (this has happened in just about every relationship smh).
- If he’s unsure about me… (*sigh* I’ve been in limbo more times than Persephone) let me make it easier for him. Bye-bye. I deserve everything better than that.
As you can see, I’ve been through the same things many, many times. The one that hurt most was being taken for granted and it’s the one that happened most often. It really sucks being a sweet person that does kind things for her significant other that either goes unnoticed because he’s come to expect it or he doesn’t care and ignores it completely. It was a special kind of hurt if I was really excited to do something for him and was told I was annoying instead. Ouch doesn’t quite describe that one. It’s a little like being punted in the heart if it was positioned in the crotch area. It sucks.
When I showed this list to a girlfriend, she remarked, “So you’re not dating man-children anymore? You want to date adults now.”
Wellp, I guess she’s right. I’m not asking for too much in wanting maturity, honesty, mutual respect, and receiving what I give to my partners. I’ve been with far too many takers and have often felt like I was my boyfriends’ mother. I know that having these standards means that the likelihood of me being alone is much higher, and truthfully that doesn’t make me nervous anymore. I took a hard look at all of the relationships I was in during my twenties. The last decade of dating had the same themes over and over again. I’m not getting taken for granted or taken advantage of anymore. I refuse to go through that any of that again. I would rather be happy alone than disrespected or taken for granted in another relationship. If you were a part of my past, you’re staying there. I said what I said.
There are things I have to take responsibility for in my new definition of love. A lot of these things happened because I was codependent and scared of being alone. I was also incredibly jealous of all the women I saw getting married, while I was being abused. My toxic relationship cycle showcased my low-self-esteem. I always chose to hop into new relationships instead of taking time to work on myself. I never stopped to look for real change in a person I let back into my life. I just took them at their word while they kept doing the same old shit. I also engaged in a fair amount of toxic behaviors while struggling with my mental health. Many apology emails or messages have been sent owning up to my behavior and sending them best wishes for the future. But it’s left at that. They’re no longer a part of my life. I forgave myself, and I stopped looking backward to look forward. I chose to work on myself for myself, not for another person.
I hope I’m not coming across as bitter or angry about what happened to me. I’m not anymore. Acceptance of these relationships was part of my journey. Many lessons were learned. I don’t have to like that I went through, but I did have to accept it. Heck, on my not so good days, I downright hate it. I still have my moments where I break down in tears, call my mom, and ask why he (which could be any number of men) did that (which could be any number of things) to me.
She responds, “I don’t know, but you’re going to grow from it. It’s okay to let it bother you today. Tomorrow will be a better day.”
She’s right. I’m learning, growing, and sharing my lessons with others. The future certainly looks brighter now that I know what I want and need. I understand now that I’m a gift, and it’s too bad my exes didn’t see it because they missed out. It also doesn’t matter if they figure it out in a couple of years and come back saying they’ve changed (which has happened multiple times, even recently now that I’m single… strange). I’m not interested in reliving ancient history, and the “change” is usually short-lived anyway.
I’m not a story that you can just put a bookmark in and come back to later at your convenience. I value myself way more than that, finally. No thanks, that door is shut, because I’m finally secure with myself.
Have you been through a toxic relationship? What did you learn from it? How has it influenced your subsequent relationships?