A Look at Love and Relationships from the Mind of a Woman who was Never Taught How to Love
I grew up in an abusive household, tainted by untreated mental illness and scarred by the dysfunction of addiction. I never really was taught growing up what a healthy relationship was, let alone was shown how to love properly, if there is such a thing. I’ve been learning through experience over the years, trial and error, and have developed my own opinions on love, emotions, relationship and commitment.
One of my earliest memories involving love and relationships dates back to when I was six years old. During that impressionable age, so many young children get bitten for the first time by the love bug and play their game of adulting, planning pretend marriages, playing house and mimicking the lives around them. A neighborhood boy that I absolutely detested and I had decided to get married, thoroughly convinced that people get married to argue. He had grown up in a dysfunctional family, as well. We fought all the way down the aisle, calling each other names. He pulled the tops off all the dandelions in my bouquet. We vowed to hate each other and fight for the rest of our lives. Sometimes from the mouths of babes comes great insight into the future ahead.
By the time I reached dating age, I had already lost much of my own identity. I was raised to believe that appearances mattered more than anything, to put on that smiling mask and be the person others expected me to be. I had boyfriends because it looked “good and proper” to have them, not because I had feelings one way or another. I had been a cheerleader so I dated the jocks. I dated boys from “decent” families because it looked good for my mother to say her daughter was dating their son. How they treated me was irrelevant. It didn’t matter if they were cruel or unfaithful or were struggling with alcohol and drugs. All that mattered was that outer veneer stayed shiny and clean. Love was an illusion.
My first serious relationship was my high school sweetheart. We had this puppy love that I was convinced was destined to last forever. He was from another school, another town. His role in my life had no impact on my mother’s bragging rights, but none of that mattered. We bonded over our dysfunctional upbringings. We were “in love” and determined to make it last forever. In the beginning, it was sweet, pure and beautiful. Over time, it warped into something else entirely. Originally, it was us against the world. By the time we had my daughter one month before I turned 19, we fought more than we loved. When I found out he had been cheating, I packed up our daughter and left. He moved his newest conquest into what had been our apartment that same week.
All of my serious relationships have followed that same pattern. They begin beautifully, with us madly in love, convinced we can conquer anything with the power of love alone. Over time, each has changed and warped into something unhealthy and unnatural. Once, the mere thought of each of them set butterflies fluttering in my stomach and made even the darkest day feel infused with sunshine. By the end, I was left each time with an aching in my heart by the vaguest thought of them because I knew, deep down, love was never supposed to feel like this. Love was never supposed to hurt this badly.
They say everyone has a type. Mine has always been someone raised with abuse and dysfunction because I needed to feel like they understood where I was coming from in life. I needed a kindred spirit who was damaged, as well, so they wouldn’t look at me as broken and inherently flawed. Time and again, I was drawn to that fellow injured soul, hoping that through love we could heal each other. Every single time it has failed because the hard truth is that two unhealthy hearts cannot build a healthy relationship. This was never more glaringly true than when my last relationship imploded. To say this relationship was dysfunctional and toxic was an understatement.
As I was left once again surrounded by the debris of my life, I was determined to never find myself back at this same crossroads again. I began taking a very hard look at myself and my views on love and relationships. There were a lot of ugly truths to accept. Underneath it all, however, was this beautiful ray of hope. I am, in my heart of hearts, forever a true hopeless romantic. Though my heart has been tainted by abuse and dysfunction, I still believe in love, wholly and completely. However, over the years I have developed some very firm and unwavering views on exactly what love is. I am on a journey to become healthier in mind, body and spirit. I want to love again, and to build something lasting and true. Before I can seek it out, however, I need to define honestly what love is to me and what it should be. I need to approach love from a healthier standpoint, otherwise I am doomed to continuously repeat the same unhealthy mistakes.
So I am left to ask myself some hard questions. What exactly is love to me? How do I believe love should and shouldn’t be? What do I truthfully need from someone else if I let them into my heart? And where do I draw the line so I do not find myself repeating my past?
Love has become in so many ways a cliche. So many people talk about wanting it, having it and losing it, yet I’m thoroughly convinced only a fraction of these people have even an inkling of what love truly is. It has become a sound byte people throw out there to imply “more than like”, without ever considering the commitment that love implies. Love isn’t something you fall easily in and out of on a whim, nor is it something you can shut off. I still carry love for a handful of people from my past. It may have been scarred over with hurt and pain, but that love is still there, enduring as always. I don’t think love ever truly dies. Sometimes, however, the bad outweighs the good, the pain is too much to bear, and some love needs to be left in the past because it is not healthy for you. Unhealthy love can be toxic. But love endures.
While I cherish the idea of soulmates that are destined by some sort of kismet to be together, I do not believe there is only one person out there for everyone. With so many people on this planet, the odds would be astronomical to find your true partner. Likewise, I do not believe there is only room in your heart to love one person. I believe some people come in and out of your life and your heart at different periods of your life like people going through a drive-through at a fast food place. Others leave a more permanent mark, as if they had carved their name into your heart much like you might carve it into an old tree. Years later, the letters may be weathered and worn, a faded shadow of what they used to be, but you can still trace your finger over the grooves and remember when they were freshly carved and beautiful. Either way, love at it’s heart and soul is a beautiful thing.
Perhaps one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to relationships is the statement “They complete me”. I’ve always believed that you should never look toward someone else to make you whole. To say that someone completes you is to infer that you were not whole before they came into your life and that you would somehow be less than a person if they left again. I prefer to think of it as someone who compliments me and helps me grow as a person into a better version of myself. I often compare it to two candles. Alone, each can still shine in the darkness. However, when together, they shine more brightly. Removing one candle, however, does not steal away the other one’s light. They can continue to burn on.
I do not believe you should have to change in order to be loved. While I believe that people should continue to grow, learn and expand throughout life, I don’t believe that anyone should have to change a fundamental piece of their identity as a prerequisite to being loved by someone else. Statements like “I could be with you if only you’d change this…” reflect control, not love. At love’s core is acceptance. You should see beauty in their flaws because it is part of who they are. There is a unique perfection in imperfections. While you can continue to grow and change as a person or a couple, no one should ever have to sacrifice their identity in order to be loved.
While I adore having someone there on an intimate level, I do not NEED anyone, not in a romantic sense. Need implies an urgency or insistence. I do not consider myself needy because while I cherish having someone there, I will survive if they are not. Admittedly, part of this stems from abandonment issues from my past. If I never fully rely on anyone, I can never fully be let down. However, it goes deeper than that for me. For me, need implies something that you cannot live without. I NEED food, water, oxygen to breathe. I will not die if someone withholds their love and I never want anyone assuming they have that kind of power over me. I appreciate love. I cherish it. But with or without love, I will continue on.
That being said, while I can truthfully say I never needed anyone does not mean I loved or wanted them there any less. I feel greatly and love deeply. I believe you should always love fully and completely. Love is perhaps the most addicting force I’ve ever experienced. If someone is in my heart, I crave them, long to talk to them, see their smile, feel their touch. I by no means need them in order to survive, but much like the two candles I mentioned earlier, the world is just a much brighter place for me with them in it. Never mistake the depth of my affection or passion, however, for neediness because I survived before each person I have let into my heart and I shall survive after they’re gone, as well.
There’s an old saying that “Love makes you do crazy things”. People talk about “falling in love”, or “making that leap” and other statements implying spontaneity and risk. While I am in many ways very intellectual by nature, thinking and overthinking everything, weighing out consequences before action, I believe wholeheartedly that love is one of those things that are beyond our control. Love happens whether we’re ready or not. There is no perfect or ideal time for love. Love, like life, happens when we are doing other things. I believe we have to cherish it when it happens and run with it. If we wait for circumstances to be ideal, windows of opportunity may close and we will have missed out on something beautiful.
You never know how long a person may be in your life. Death and disease are realities in life. Life happens. I don’t believe you should ever pass up a chance to love and be loved, whether it lasts a month or a lifetime, whether it flourishes and grows or crashes and burns. Love, in it’s deepest essence, is a beautiful thing that deserves to be cherished each and every time it comes into your life. I don’t believe you should ever run from love because life can be fleeting. Even if that particular love affair does not last, it is always better to carry those beautifully bittersweet memories of a love shared then lost for a lifetime than the regret of never having tried.
One of the biggest truths of love that I have come to accept is that I need to learn to love myself. While I am fully capable of loving someone else wholly and unconditionally, I think my lack of self-love has been glaringly obvious to my past partners. If I could not fully love and respect myself, truthfully why should they? I believe I’ve set myself up in the past by choosing partners that I felt I deserved instead of looking for ones who would treat me how everyone deserves to be treated. In turn, many times they treated me with the same disrespect and disdain I showed myself. I need to love myself and know my own worth before I can expect anyone else to see it in me.
I think in the past I have settled, too, more often than I should have and accepted more than anyone deserves to endure. Whether it was because I did not feel I deserved any better or because I was so accustomed to dysfunction being the norm that I was unaware how unhealthy those choices truly were is irrelevant. I need to stop settling for less in life. I need to be firm and uncompromising when it comes to my own worth. Nobody deserves to be treated like they are inconsequential or less than a person. No one should be made to feel like they don’t deserve to be treated with love or respect. That is NOT love. That is abuse.
This aspect of my heart is under construction currently. I’ve spent too much of my life encased in a shell of dysfunction that I have not been able to see the hazards for what they were. When you are never taught what healthy love is, it is easy for someone to pass off a sub-par version as the real thing. Imagine if throughout your whole life you had never seen or smelled a rose, yet again and again you had people telling you that a skunk was a rose. You hear time and again that roses smell beautiful. You’ve never experienced the beauty of a rose, only the foul odor of the skunk. However, over time you come to accept that the foulness must be somehow beautiful because it is a truth everyone else agrees upon. In your head, you begin to think of the skunk as a beautiful rose until the day that you are taught otherwise. That is my past experiences with love in a nutshell. I had only experienced a dysfunctional love but overlooked all the bad because others always talked about the beauty and perfection that was love. However, I have learned the truth. I am no longer willing to accept the foulness of abuse or dysfunction as a normal part of love. I want a real, genuine, pure and beautiful love next time.
I admittedly was never taught how to love so I am learning as I go. I love deeply, with a passion that may be overwhelming for some, but I believe that you should never hold back when it comes to the pure and beautiful things in this world. I cannot promise anyone “forever” because life sets its own schedule, however I can always promise that when I love, I do so wholeheartedly. Though I will never say anyone completes me and refuse to consider them a necessity in my life, I will cherish every moment they are with me, shining more brightly with them at my side, and mourning their loss deeply when they go. I believe fully in love. It is a truly beautiful thing that should never be taken for granted or cast aside and ignored. Love is one of those beautiful blessings we have in life that make it truly worth living.