There was a time in my life where I defined much of my self worth by whether or not I was dating anyone and who I was dating. Fortunately, that "phase" of my life has long passed me by, but I can so easily see how it wouldn't. This is one of the parenting lessons - is it a parenting lesson? - that is most critical to have them pick up: you are the one who needs to make yourself happy.
I firmly believe that. If you can't make yourself happy, no one else can. And relationships are a big piece of making yourself happy. I so want them to understand that if the person you're with doesn't add to your happiness and isn't happy for you, that's not a healthy relationship. The person you're in a relationship with needs to let you grow and let you not just become but stay your own person.
In high school, I ignored that completely. My first real boyfriend I found out started dating my best friend several weeks after we first went out. He never said anything - and that relationship naturally fizzled out anyway - but she mentioned dating him without thinking about the fact that I had been dating him at the same time. It never dawned on her that this might be hurtful to me or just wrong altogether. I've never trusted her as much after that.
The relationship I entered - days after that conversation with my friend: I wasn't good enough for him, he didn't want me but my best friend instead - another relationship that lasted through the first month of college. It started out well with a nice guy who liked me and was fascinated by me. But doesn't it always?
Even then, I knew he wasn't the one. I met him at a camp I was at over the summer, and I remember telling myself that I'd break up with him when camp ended. I'd break up with him at the end of summer. I'd break up with him after Halloween. After Thanksgiving. After Christmas. After Valentine's Day. But I never did. Somehow, he kept me sucked in. And yes, part of that was probably his confession that he was initially attracted to my best friend but that she didn't appear to be interested in him so he turned to me. Yes, my self-esteem took another nosedive.
He slowly separated me from my friends because I began spending every available moment with him - though he lived twenty-five minutes from my home. He was a year behind me in school but still older than I was (I was young for my grade), and as I started looking at colleges, he pressured me to stay nearby. Somewhere close where he could keep an eye on me.
He didn't like that I was a cheerleader and constantly questioned where I was during practices and games and who I was with. He pressured me to spend more time with him, to show him that I cared about him. He was needy, and I could fill a void for him. Halfway through basketball season, I stopped by his house one afternoon and threw my entire cheerleading folder into the garbage to show him that I cared that I understood his issues. The fact that he shouldn't have issues for some reason didn't cross my mind. The fact that I was quitting something I'd loved was swept away. I was captain of the cheerleading squad, but I was throwing that away for him.
Things continued in that vein, and as I prepared to go to college two states away, he freaked. I wasn't changing where I was going to college - fortunately I still had my wits about me enough for that - but he wanted to talk every day. This was in the early days of the Internet, and he didn't have email yet, but he showed me how we could keep in touch by chatting online with our 2400 baud modems.
A week into my college stay, he provided me with a list of "rules." Those rules included a prohibition of ever being alone with a male person, regardless of the circumstances. There was something about never having my door open when I was in my room to discourage people from coming in and hanging out. I was to check in with him twice a day. There were more, fourteen in all, I think, though fortunately I don't recall every one.
I looked at that list, and I told him ok. I told him ok. I had no intention of following the vast majority of them - really, I couldn't have any male friends? I wasn't supposed to socialize and make friends at college? I resolved to ignore most of the rules - he wouldn't know anyway, and it wasn't like I was doing anything "wrong" so what difference did it make. Even after the rules, he was still jealous and controlling and concerned. I lasted three days. Three days after he sent me the list of rules, I told him I was done. I told him that was ridiculous, and I'm sure a whole lot more. That was the last time I ever spoke with him.
Something finally got through to me, and in a way maybe that list of rules was a blessing in disguise. Unfortunately, it took me a long time to trust people again. It was hard to date for months and months and months, and I remember flinching when a friend tried to kiss me a few weeks later. My self esteem was shot, but I couldn't trust anyone else either. I'm more grateful than anyone knows for the wonderful and supportive friends who were there for me and helped build me back up, but it wasn't a quick or easy journey.
That's the kind of pain I want the wee ones to avoid. I wrote earlier this month about the Purple Purse project because I was lucky. I got out before there was lasting damage. I got out before anything truly bad happened to me, but I know there are way too many who don't. To that end, I talk to the wee ones about making themselves happy. I talk to Little Miss about not giving her friends power over her, as it's already happening in first grade. Inoculating them though? I'm still not sure how to do that, but somehow I've got to.
What suggestions do you have?
In the interest of full disclosure, this post was inspired by the book "Lost Edens" by Jamie Patterson as part of the From Left To Write book club, where we write posts inspired by the books as opposed to traditional book reviews. I received a copy of the book for the book club, but I was not compensated in any way.