Finding a healthy relationship after a toxic one is possible, if you stay open to the possibility.
‘‘Midway upon the journey of our life, I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost’’ laments Dante Alighieri at the beginning of his Divine Comedy. I also lost my path in the long dark months following my divorce.
After months of stumbling through life and suffering several setbacks in my post-divorce recovery, I met my current partner. It was a slow burner at first as we were both coming out of painful break-ups, but I knew, after each encounter, that something quite special was taking place. This man was my perfect match. And not because he was perfect!
On the contrary, it was the many ways he was different from anyone I had ever met, his curiosity, quirkiness, and contrasts that endeavored him to me. This guy didn’t buy me flowers: he bought me philosophy books. He didn’t pat me on the back when I was feeling down – he made a convincing case for optimism and the reasons why it was the only way forward.
He didn’t open the car door for me or lavished me with gifts, but always encouraged me to be the best person I could ever be. Gone was the incapacitating fear of failure that had accompanied me all my life: through his eyes, I saw someone with potential and promise. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be writing this article, I wouldn’t have landed a promotion at work, I wouldn’t be looking back at my divorce thinking that it was the very best thing that could ever have happened to me.
It is quite a shock to the system to go from an abuser who chips away at your confidence, day after day, to a supporter who doesn’t just believe in you, but is also capable of making you believe in yourself.
All the while being tender, understanding, present but also respecting of your boundaries, time and space. I have never felt this balanced in a relationship before. A partnership at last, the meeting of two people who are encouraging each other without overwhelming each other.
I know what you must be thinking, I got my happy ending and I get to brag about it, but the truth is, the transition from the depths of Hell to the gates of Heaven hasn’t been easy at all. As I was to find out, the conditioning of years of neglect, put-downs, manipulation, carelessness, and malice, lingers on long after the stamp has been put on those divorce papers. You don’t just snap out of it.
Post-traumatic stress catches you when you least expect it after an abusive marriage and triggers are everywhere.
Without even realizing, you are building walls around you and not letting people anywhere near. If someone gets near, they pay a price. My partner could have run a mile by now but he hasn’t. This guy is made of sterner stuff! Unlike me, his wife’s actions have not deprived him of all faith in humanity nor the willingness to put himself on the line again. Divorce hasn’t abraded his kindness, fairness, and courage, on the contrary, all these qualities seem to have been enhanced by it.
As we approach our first Christmas together, these are the six big challenges I have faced, and lessons I have learned, in the process of building a new, healthy relationship after the ravages of infidelity and divorce.
1. Lack of trust. Regaining trust in another person is one long, and painful process. The first few months with my partner, I just assumed that he was two-timing me and I was subconsciously looking for evidence that something untoward was going on. What I was in fact doing was telling myself stories, allowing my past to hijack my present. He patiently dealt with my outbursts, paranoia and, each time, he explained himself and the facts to me, even when there wasn’t really anything to explain.
2. Insecurities. Deep down I couldn’t fathom how a man, and not just any man, but someone as awesome as he, could be interested in me. I kept wondering what the catch was and at what point he would realize how boring/banal/unexciting I truly was. But nope, it did not happen. On the contrary, he never tired of telling me how special I was and made such a convincing case for it that I started believing in it myself.
3. Reluctance to open up to another human being. It would be like handing over a knife by its handle right? And saying go for it, hit me right here, where it hurts. This is definitely the part I struggled with the most, especially at the beginning. So terrified I was of revealing my broken self to him that I became very defensive and, occasionally, aggressive. Whenever I felt that he was catching glimpses of my true self, I just wanted to run as fast as I could. But each time he would bring me back gently.
4. Fear of intimacy. Despite having been out with other men before, all that mindless dating didn’t equip me well at all for my first real relationship after divorce. I struggled to reconcile the emotional and physical sides of it. Of being, truly being, with someone. It took us a while to even touch, and when it did happen, it felt awkward at first. Slowly, I loosened up and physical intimacy became the most natural, and….gratifying thing in the world.
5. Neediness. If we all could sail through life without ever succumbing to sadness, despair or defeat, we would lose the right to call ourselves humans. As it happens, life is not straightforward and people do fall often but, hopefully, they get up every time. Divorce is like being thrown into an abyss, where you keep on falling until you catch on something, anything, that stops you from falling further. The one big lesson I have learned is, that something needs to be found within. We are our own savior. As tempting as it may be, entrusting someone else with the task of saving us would be like falling into the same trap that brought our marriage to its knees. Neediness and co-dependency are not the connotations of a healthy relationship. For a partnership to work, we need not, need someone. The Dalai Lama said it best: ‘‘ the best relationship is one where your love for each other exceeds your need for each other ’’.
Whether we are aware of it or not, when we start seeing someone, we form certain expectations on where we would like that relationship to be headed. Instead of letting it unfold naturally, we try and get a glimpse into a future and, sometimes, we try and affect the outcome. People in general and women, in particular, are just not that equipped to deal with impermanence, however, having too many expectations, especially early on in a relationship, can be very damaging, and likely to lead to disappointment later on. We need to train ourselves to embrace the present and keep our expectations to a bare minimum. It is truly a case of less is more. There is a lot about our lives we cannot control, and predicting the future is a bit of a futile exercise. As divorce should have taught us.