In first grade, my boyfriend cheated on me with a girl named Hannah. This seems silly or cute now, given we were so young, but my 6-year-old self felt hurt. Further, this would not be the first time I would experience pain in love.
Flash forward to college, and I was desperate for someone to date who loved me romantically. After growing up in a house where I often felt emotionally neglected and mistreated and felt as if my worth came from my body, I would do just about anything to find a significant other. After essentially no sexual contact ever, I had a lot of sex during my first year.
But no significant others came from that. I never understood how my friends could meet their boyfriends on Tinder when all I found were guys wanting one-night stands. Further, when I found people who were potentially more interested in me, they didn’t treat me right.
One guy “broke up” with me on Valentine’s Day and continued to paperclip me, talking to me periodically to make himself feel better. As it turns out, he was cheating with me, too.
Another guy breadcrumbed me, only giving me attention when I pulled away to use me and making me feel unhappy more often than I felt happy.
If you’ve found yourself in similar toxic situations — even multiple ones — don’t blame yourself. Revictimization plays a role, in which one toxic experience can make us likely to experience more toxic experiences. Also, to be frank, a lot of not good people exist in the world, and that’s not our fault.
I want to give you hope, though: As of a little over a year and a half ago, I’ve been dating an amazing woman who loves me better than I ever thought someone could. We are not destined for unhealthy relationships like I once thought.
If you’re looking for or hoping to create a healthier relationship with someone after dealing with toxic people, here are 7 suggestions that may help.
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1. Remind yourself of your tremendous worth often.
Part of what keeps some of us coming back to unhealthy relationships is our struggle with our worth. This is understandable, especially after dealing with one or several relationships in which people treated us as if we weren’t worthy.
But once I remembered what I wanted in a relationship, that I deserved and would find an excellent partner, and that I didn’t need to settle, my mindset changed. I wasn’t willing to put up with people who mistreated me anymore because I knew it would be a waste of time. Do what you need to do — follow inspiring Instagram accounts, writing encouraging notes on your mirror, talk to loved ones, or whatever else helps remind you of your worth. Not long after I did, I met my amazing girlfriend.
2. Brainstorm and listen to green flags and red flags as you enter and continue in the relationship.
If you’re like the old me (and sometimes the new me), you may ignore red flags because you want to hold onto relationships and see the best in people. However, if you listen to those red flags rather than excusing them and move along to new people, you’ll be grateful you did. Trust your gut when you sense a red flag.
At the same time, be on the lookout for green flags as well. What do you see in this potential partner that you really appreciate and emotionally need? What are signs they’re treating you better than previous partners? Do they make you feel good about yourself and you two as a couple?
Remember to do this throughout the relationship, not just at the beginning.
3. Learn to be okay with being single.
Because I was so desperate for someone to date and love me romantically, I would put up with yellow and red flags. I thought my worth came from being in a relationship and that I couldn’t be fully happy without one.
However, with one guy I casually dated, I ended up feeling unhappy more often than I felt happy. After I broke things off, I felt free. I was proud of myself for taking power back and excited for the better relationships I knew were coming. I reminded myself that my worth is inherent. I reminded myself of my many amazing friends and organizations that could help fill my time, treat me well, and make me feel good.
4. Continue to work on handling your past trauma, preferably with a therapist if possible.
Unhealthy relationships can leave us with unhelpful messages. They can make us feel as though we aren’t worthy of good things, that people will soon leave us, or that we’re not good partners. With the help of a therapist or trusted love one, we can learn those messages aren’t true. We’ll learn we can trust the green flags in new potential partners and believe them when they say we’re good people who deserve the world. We’ll be able to live into that healthy relationship fully and feel happy.
Psychology Today has a great database for therapists and other mental health professionals, and The Mighty has an article that lists cheaper alternatives.
5. Talk about your potential partner with trusted loved ones, seeing how they feel and what they think.
Sometimes, our loved ones can see red flags in our partners better than we can. They may notice signs we should pay attention to that we don’t catch because we’re (understandably) caught up in the excitement of a new potential relationship.
Talk to your friends, family members, et cetera about this potential new partner and even hang out together. Later, ask about the red, yellow, and green flags they saw. Trust your gut feelings, and trust theirs as well.
6. See if any trusted love ones know of people they like that you could date.
When you already have mutual friends with a person, your chances of them treating you well may be higher. Talk to friends, family members, and more to see if they know of someone they think highly of who’s single and may be interested in you.
If you end up going on a date with that person, trust your own feelings too. Just because they treat your loved one well doesn’t mean they’ll treat you well, so take care of yourself and be mindful.
7. Don’t question the good that comes your way.
When you find a healthy relationship and notice many green flags, let yourself feel excited and grateful. Remember, you deserve goodness! Even though this is easier said than done, try not to worry or question their positive behavior unless a yellow or red flag pops up. Continue to check in with yourself, of course, but don’t fear or feel unworthy of healthy love.
. . .
Finding and being in a healthy relationship after a toxic one can be hard. Give yourself grace as you navigate the process; be gentle with yourself and try to stay patient and self-compassionate. Lean into people who love you well and can encourage you in hard times. You will find a partner who loves you and treats you right, and there’s more to life than romance, anyway. Love yourself first, and the rest will follow.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love.
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