Love, our shared battlefield

Lately, I’ve been spending more time than usual thinking about something that has always been very important to me: love. I’ve always thought that a healthy relationship can do more for a person than any personal development workshop it could possibly attend, but what does it even mean a healthy relationship anymore?

And, as always, I have started to apply my oldest method, which involves, as a first step, discovering what a healthy and loving relationship is not. And that’s a seriously long list.

First of all, a healthy relationship is not controlling.

Yes, a good partner will care about you, will ask you about your day, and will want to know about you, but s/he will do it naturally. You won’t feel interrogated or pressed. And, no, Where did you went dressed up like that?, Why are you coming home this late? or Who was calling you earlier? are not signs that your partner cares about you. They are, instead, signs of controlling behavior, and should not be ignored in the first place, or you will witness them escalating slowly but surely, as time flies.

A healthy relationship helps you grow.

And this is so important, I can’t even stress it out enough. If your partner tries to convince you to give up on your dreams or your long-time planned path for us, that’s not gonna work. A relationship where one has to sacrifice its desire for growth and evolution because the other doesn’t want more than s/he already has is a failure from beginning to an end. A good friend of mine gave up on a long time relationship because her partner disapproved of her career plans. I didn’t really understand that immediately, but  I did a few years later when I’ve been put in front of the same choice: do I want that relationship, or I want to accomplish my dreams? I’ve ended up by choosing myself, and I still would, if I would be put in front of that choice again. Because a partner which is, indeed, a good fit, won’t make you make decisions that could throw you into an inner war. For a good partner, your inner peace is just as important as its own, and your evolution is not a threat. If s/he pressures you into giving up on your education or change your career pretexting that it is for the future good of the relationship, run.

A healthy relationship won’t make you feel unworthy.

Yes, being criticized is an important part of human interactions, regardless of their kind. Somehow, you have to pay some extra attention to how your partner’s negative feedback makes you feel. If it makes you feel unworthy, not good enough or a disappointment, if it makes your self-doubt explode, there is a big chance that your relationship is a toxic one.

Toxic relationships are lasting just because one of the partners know how to constantly make the other feel guilty and ashamed.

An unhealthy relationship will always let you feel that all the fault is yours, for whatever rough corners that relationship might have. It is always you to blame, never the partner. And this is where the drama starts, as it teaches you that those are the kind of behaviors that you deserve. Needless to say, that’s one of the most obvious signs that a person has a toxic history to battle.

It won’t happen fast.

Even if this might sound counterintuitive, truth is that most of the toxic relationships have a common trait: they happen all of a sudden. You two get to know each other out of nowhere, online or maybe from some social event, that’s less important, you overshare, tend to be inseparable and, after less than a month, the first I love you is said, too. Does it sound familiar? If yes, then I’m sorry, but you have, also, a toxic past behind.

Love, true, healthy love, is rather built than found. It implies knowing each other, making sure that you share the same core values, and being friends. Yes, friends. Because when the lust is over, that’s when the actual relationship starts. And it can either be a healthy, long-time standing one if the partners took care of also befriending each other in the meantime or a living hell if there was one of those stories where the aggressor and the victim have found each other.

If there’s a truth behind all this, that is the fact that a toxic relationship is extremely hard to escape from. Even if one manages to cut ties with the toxic partner, there will remain something, usually known as the narcissistic wound to be dealt with. This usually involves low self-esteem, depression, fear of creating intimate connections with other people, and, depending on the length of the toxic relationship and the forms of the abuse experienced, might also include symptoms of PTSD. This is why, after getting out of a toxic relationship, some people tend to fall again for a partner with the same behavioral pattern as their former abuser: because, without professional help, one rarely manages to overcome all these issues on its own. And without a complete recovery, the relapse is just a matter of time.

Because, and that is something it took me a long while to see, all our relationships, and our romantic ones especially, are the reflection of one thing: the relationship we have with ourselves.

Only by improving our self-image, by understanding our inner worth and the fact that it is independent of our human interactions, we will learn to put and respect some boundaries without guilt. Of course, our toxic partners play their parts as well, but they wouldn’t get to become our partners in the first place if we weren’t toxic for ourselves. If we would be understanding and supportive when it comes to us just the way we are with our best friends. If we would keep learning and exploring, even with the risk of seeming ridiculous. If we wouldn’t just assume that we have everything figured out already. If we wouldn’t put so much unnecessary pressure on ourselves, on a daily basis.

Because, at the end of the day, any person who will ever meet you will learn how to treat you from yourself. What you allow and what you don’t, what you care about, and what are you only pretending to care about. You will teach them which are your limits, your self-worth and you will show, by the way, you treat and talk about yourself, what you’re expecting and accepting from others. So what if you’d wake up one morning and, while sipping your coffee and listening to your favorite music, would decide to actually act as positive and firmly as you talk on the Internet feed?

And to anyone out there reading this article, if you find yourself in a toxic relationship, please, PLEASE, RUN AWAY! SEEK HELP! Talk to anyone you trust about your problems, and accept any type of help you are offered. It will hurt, but you owe it to yourself to escape. You are worth living a beautiful, fulfilling life, so run as fast as you can of anyone trying to convince you that you’re not. The man that tries to make you live a life dominated by fear, guilt, and shame doesn’t love you. He won’t change. But you have to, so be brave, be bold enough, and leave. You’re gonna thank yourself later for doing so.

Work hard, dream harder

I was reading an article in a magazine about the emotional work, and it remained with me. Even if the main ideas were about how women tend to do more emotional work, and for free, the simple thing of seeing the emotional help we tend to offer as work brought me an idea worth reflecting upon.

I have always been a giver. I tend to run away from my problems by helping others solve theirs. And I’ve never thought about what I was doing as if it was some kind of work.

Of course, I’ve always known that it is a kind of investment, that I give a part of my resources- time, energy, knowledge, kindness, patience- for another person’s well-being. But it felt more like an act of generosity, of friendship, rather than a service that I was making to those people.

I thought, for a very long time, that the only thing that I get in return should be the fact that I have a meaning that doesn’t allow me to fall apart in irreversible ways. That this should be enough to make me feel like I do the right thing.

And even if giving, if helping others is more of an inner calling than something I am doing for an outcome, trying to see this as work has forced me to shift the perspective for a bit.

It made me aware of the fact that not only I can, but I have to choose the people I would share some of my resources with. But it took me an eight-years-long friendship ending in not-that-friendly-terms, to learn how to distinguish between people who need attention and those who are looking for help.

Thinking about what I do provide for others made me aware of the fact that I don’t provide the same things, in the same ways, for myself. That during my quest of saving the world kindly, one person at a time, I was neglecting the only person I could save: myself.

But, first, I had to become empty. Before I’ve got to understand the importance of being selective and aware of what I bring to the table, I had to get to the point where I was talking myself out of panic attacks in the mirror, crying, somewhere at 2 a.m. or maybe in the afternoon.

And only when I’ve seen myself reaching a new level of low, I’ve understood that you can’t help others without taking care of yourself. If I want to be able to keep giving, I also have to allow people in, to let them see me struggling and fighting my demons. That I can be a friend just as much as I let others be my friends, as well.

And this was hard to admit. It was hard, as I’ve always valued the feeling of power that is usually brought by being independent and having your life together. I’ve always hated to appear in front of others as vulnerable, even if I am. I’ve never wanted my loved ones to see me crying, even if, so many times, I have had no control of it, and it just happened.

Somehow, being the strong one has always felt like it is the only option for me. Even if, in an almost ironical way, I’ve always encouraged people to be their own, real, authentic self. With good, bad, strong and vulnerable points.

Seeing written on paper about how emotional work is work, real work, made me ask myself questions. And the most painful one was Were all those people worth it, would they ever do the same for you?

It left me a bit bitter, to know that I need to choose with more care the people I get close to, that need my help. That I can’t fight any battle I feel to. That I have to think twice before deciding to put in the work and resources for somebody.

Because emotional work, like any other type of work, is tricky, as it can be meaningless, as it fills you up with frustration and exhaustion when it turns out wrong, or, contrary, to bring you purpose and enlightenment.

This happens because emotional work, more than any other kind of work, involves care. Authentic, genuine care and openness established between two people. An exchange of vulnerabilities, experiences and, why not, information. This is why it is almost always seen as a feminine kind of thing, even though, the truth be told, I’ve also met a lot of wonderful men doing it, and I am grateful for all the things I’ve learned from them and stayed with me.

Because emotional work is not about a schedule. It is about seeing the good in the other person, and help it see that good, too. And this is one of the most beautiful parts of being human, a type of work as stunning and glowy as a dream, but as challenging as the real existence at the same time.