Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Recognizing An Unhealthy Relationship

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.


Alicia October 26, 2011 at 2:44 PM  

I'm so happy that you realized after that list of rules that this was not the person for you. I'm so sorry you had to give up cheerleading for him though.

All I can offer is don't make the next guy pay for that guys mistakes and be honest with Little Miss and let her know that she can always talk to you.

Raevyn October 26, 2011 at 4:32 PM  

The best thing you can teach Little Miss (and Mr. Man, for that matter), is that they do not, and will not EVER require the approval/love of another person in order to be a good/kind/loving person themselves, and that their happiness should always come from within, rather than being contingent on someone else's opinion.
I'll be the first to admit that I have trust issues, and that those issues are a large part of the reason I've only been in a few intimate relationships in my 44 years, BUT, I also know that I am a good, loving, generally kind person, and I'm happy with my life.
My father believes in specific gender roles, and I do recall being told that specific things were men's/women's work, or that I couldn't do something because I was a girl. My mother, on the other hand, did not hold to those notions, though while she was an Army officer's wife she played the expected role of stay at home mom & hostess well. She taught me that aside from producing sperm, there was NOTHING that I couldn't do "because girl's can't do that". Sure there are things that are harder, simply because typically we don't have the physical strength, but that's a muscular thing, NOT a gender thing.
I've seen so many friends in unhealthy relationships, and it breaks my heart that I can't shake them out of it, but until they are willing to wake up and recognize that it truly is a problem, I can't help them to help themselves. I once had a friend who actually said to me "If he would just hit me, I could leave." after the 2nd time she went back to him. I told her "but he IS hitting you, WITH WORDS, and those invisible bruises take much longer to heal, if they ever do." I helped her leave a 3rd time, and the last I heard she'd gone back to him. Again.
I think you do a pretty good job of making sure that your kids know that they don't have to be labeled, either by a medical/emotional/learning condition, or by a gender role. They know that they are loved, despite what happens in the world around them. That's the biggest gift you can give them, knowing that they have people that they know they can trust.

MAMA BRANDI October 26, 2011 at 5:25 PM  

Wow. What a strong young women you were to recognize you needed to leave that relationship...and follow through with it! You are right...we absolutely need to teach our little ones how to think for themselves, how to recognize poor treatment.

Lisa Hanneman October 26, 2011 at 11:36 PM  

Looking back at high school relationships, I feel like it is totally socially acceptable (almost encouraged) for a guy to play the role of possessive boyfriend - Somehow that seems flattering to a girl. But, then it can so easily take a crazy turn...

So glad you go out of there and didn't waste more of your time and energy on him.

Not only do we have to make our kids realize they are enough and not allow themselves to be treated a certain way, we have to worry about our kids treating others badly for whatever reason. I wish I had advice, but I could use some myself! Man, this parenting thing is tough.

Jamie October 28, 2011 at 11:56 AM  

This is something my sister and I talk about a lot: how to raise strong, independent women (she has two little girls). It's something that I feel like as long as we keep talking about it we'll find a way to give them the tools they need. I hope. Speaking of the importance of talking: I've never heard of Purple Purse! What a wonderful program so glad I know of it now. (Thank you!)

Thanks for the post, Michelle, and thanks so much for reading!

Pat October 29, 2011 at 7:46 AM  

For me, at first it was flattering to get all that attention from the guy. I thought, Oh, he must really care about me because he wants me with him all the time and he doesn't want to lose me. Then it became suffocating and I realized that "love and care" for me was really his desire to control me. It was all about him and his needs. I can tell it was a learning experience for you, as it was for me.

Taylor October 30, 2011 at 8:39 AM  

I have a daughter in first grade as well, and this is a constant worry for me - how to teach her and guide her and make sure she knows her worth. Parenting is SO hard!

Michelle November 1, 2011 at 10:39 AM  

Alicia - I didn't *have* to give up cheerleading. I chose to because I was naive. It's hard not to let the effects of a bad relationship linger even when you know rationally that you shouldn't.

Raevyn - Trust is huge, and you're right that it does start at home. I keep hoping that it sticks.

Mama Brandi - I don't know if I was so strong or just that I had enough distance to finally decide I was done. Regardless, I'm grateful.

Lisa - It absolutely is. Take a look at what's on tv - or Twilight for that matter; hated the relationships in those! - and you wonder why there is such an issue.

Jamie - The Purple Purse is a neat idea, and I hope you spread the word. And thank you for sharing your story, as difficult as it was to do, I'm sure.

Pat - Exactly. It's like the commercials now with the cell phone. Where does it cross the line from ok and caring to controlling and not ok?

Taylor - It is. It's the hardest thing I've ever done, but I wouldn't change it for a minute!

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