It’s been 3 years since I ended a pretty toxic relationship. We had it all — infidelity, emotional manipulation, co-dependency and nasty fights. It was a wild ride that lasted close to a decade and has taken me many sleepless nights to recover from.
When I describe my previous relationship in this way to strangers on the internet, I often wonder if they think they can picture what kind of people we were. I wonder this, because when I finally ended that relationship I also came clean about what it was like to the people in my life who love me. They had absolutely no idea. My mum and my best friend had an inkling that my ex wasn’t particularly emotionally or practically supportive, but when I finally laid it all out for them, they were horrified.
They were horrified that I stayed in something so destructive for so long. That he was so emotionally manipulative behind closed doors. That I had been lashing out and drinking every night to avoid the reality of it all. That the relationship I described was so far from the experience we gave people of ‘us’. Don’t get me wrong, we were not a picture-perfect, picket fence, family dream type of couple.
We were worse.
We were yoga teachers. Mentors in our community. Deeply invested in personal development and understanding ourselves and each other. Our relationship narrative was centred around our union being messy, complex but steeped in a deep love only those who are willing to face their demons will ever know. And we spoke openly about it like we were the embodiment of couple goals.
We were just. so. self. aware.
So when the real story started to unravel for those around us, it became very clear that our passionate love story was based on a patchy belief that we had our shit sorted because we talked about it.
I remember watching a Brene Brown Ted Talk with my ex, and having our minds blown. It was the gateway drug, if I’m honest (and absolutely no shade toward Brene at all, I love her deeply).
Him: ‘This is it. This is my whole problem. I haven’t been able to show up and be vulnerable. I’m so deep in shame about my past behaviour (multiple affairs) that I’ve just been numbing with more shitty behaviour (porn and alcohol addiction, more affairs). It’s not my fault, it’s the shame. But I just need to name it! This is what I need to do!’ He promptly broke down, sobbing uncontrollably for a good ten minutes.
Me: ‘I haven’t been creating a safe space for you to be vulnerable. I have abandonment issues from my childhood (this is true) and have been pushing you away. I have such shame around you cheating on me, I need to release that so we can build trust!’ I also cried, but was mostly trying to keep it together for him.
Had we bothered to actually pick up any of Brene’s books and read past this bit, we may have realised our naivety. But we didn’t, and here we were — feeling like we’d unlocked parts of ourselves that held the answer to every shitty thing that was happening in our lives and our relationship. When it’s very plain to see that this was a tiny scratch on the surface of our respective issues, perhaps shining an even brighter spotlight on his narcissism and my anxious attachment/people-pleasing/co-dependent tendencies.
I was so proud of him. He was telling everyone how he’d messed up, but now knew that shame was to blame. He felt like he had ‘tamed the dragon’ and was a completely different person. I spoke to my close friends about his breakthrough, and how I had realised I’d been shutting him off through fear. But now I was determined to lead with love.
And of course we told everyone about it. People praised our vulnerability. He was put on a pedestal at our yoga studio for how he felt so close to source and finally free to live an authentic life. I felt good about him. Self-awareness is hot and he was throwing it around like confetti. We rode that high for a while, for sure.
But — spoiler alert — our relationship did not change. Not one bit.
The cheating crept back in. My co-dependence made a triumphant return. The air got stale from our self-proclaimed transformations, and the slow realisation dawned on me that self-awareness means absolutely nothing unless you’re willing to do the work to do things differently.
Read that again.
Self-awareness is not the same as self-improvement. Naming your shit does not automatically equal change. In fact, it is only the beginning of a healing journey, not the end.
Our problem was that we had become so wrapped up in telling everyone about our breakthroughs, that we failed to even see the long road ahead to actual, meaningful change. To be honest, even if we had, we were unlikely to dive in and do the work to bring that on. By that stage, we were wearing self-awareness like a badge of honour, our egos way too strong to admit we hadn’t yet earned the crowns we’d placed so smugly on our heads.
So after the short high of personal breakthroughs wore off, we were back to our same, destructive selves. The perfect way to bring about our ultimate demise.
Because here’s the thing. Acknowledging your issues, but refusing to make any real, active change is the epitome of self-centredness. And if you refuse to adjust, adapt and grow as you move through this life, you actually make a really terrible romantic partner.
Reflecting on my own journey over the past few years has really highlighted this for me. I thought I had ‘fixed’ myself, in particular my tendencies and behaviour in romantic relationships, so many times in the past. Yet my experience of those relationships didn’t change. I didn’t change. The habits, reactions and behaviour didn’t change.
It’s only been in the last six months when I’ve taken a break from dating to recalibrate that I have actually started to do the work I thought I’d been doing for a decade. It hits different when you admit to yourself that you’ve been a real asshole about self-awareness for that long. Aside from how exhausting it must have been for everyone around me, I’ve been fooling myself for a really long time. There’s a grief in that.
But what I’ve learned is this. Being aware of why your destructive and harmful habits exist does not absolve you of any responsibility to heal. It amplifies it. And while it can feel scary and hard to take that responsibility head on, it’s a huge gift. That pit of devastation that opens up when you realise you’re the problem? It’s there to save you. Sit there a moment, accept that life has thrown you opportunity to heal and, when you’re ready, lean on in. It’s worth it, I promise.
I’m only a few months in to my genuine healing journey, and I already feel lighter than I have in a long time. I’m not there yet — perhaps its an eternal process — but noticing and changing the responses my system has been having my entire life and digging in to what needs to change is probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done for myself.
And, aside from you, I’m not telling a soul about it. So let’s keep it between us, okay?
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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