How Being in a Toxic Relationship Changed My Life for the Better

“Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars.  You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.” ~C.S. Lewis

My ex and I split up about five years ago. We had been married for seventeen years, and after that long, I figured we were home free, as far as lasting marriages go. Needless to say, when it happened, I was devastated. Over all those years of being a couple, I had lost a big part of myself. Without that relationship, who was I anymore?

I was terrified of being alone, which led me to start exploring the dating world much too soon.

I dated a really nice guy that I just wasn’t into and we became friends. I dated a guy (once) that freaked me out and taught me never to get in a car with a stranger. I dated a guy that ghosted me. Finally, I dated a guy that I thought was my soul mate. He nearly ruined my life.

When I met him, I wasn’t all that into him. He seemed too quiet for me, but he was cute and after a few dates, I started to really like him. We were both mid-divorce, and we had a lot in common. We could talk for hours. He was thoughtful and offered his time and affection freely.

After a couple months, he changed. He became very quiet and contemplative, and the conversation waned. He was always lacking in energy and never wanted to go out and do anything fun, which was totally the opposite of me. In a healthier mental state, maybe I would have seen the red flags.

We connected on a deeper level though, when he did talk. We were both in search of meaning in our lives. We were both trying to make sense of it all. I felt like we had this deep bond unlike anything I had experienced in a partner before. We both struggled with depression and with finding our places in this new life after divorce.   

I needed someone to fill the hole that my ex-husband had left, and I wanted connection so badly. People told me I had to learn to be alone and get to know myself again first, but I didn’t want to hear that. The only thing I wanted was to feel whole again, and at the time whole meant being with someone. 

As he grew distant, I tried harder and harder to get attention and affection from him. And, of course, the more I tried to get the affection, love, and attention I so desperately wanted, the more he pulled away.

I felt like I was drowning in a rushing river, trying desperately to grasp onto something—anything—that would help me fill the void left by my failed marriage. I wanted him to treat me like he loved and cared for me, and he was just not willing to do that, or maybe he just wasn’t capable.

The constant fishing for him to say the words I wanted to hear and to make me feel how I wanted to feel was exhausting and unbearably frustrating. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so selfish when I was giving so much.

We’d been together for about five or six months when he started having debilitating anxiety accompanied by suicidal thoughts. One night, when he was afraid to be alone, I rearranged my schedule with my kids so I could stay with him to make sure he was okay. He ended up feeling like he needed hospitalization to stay safe.

I stayed by his side the entire time, and when he was admitted to the inpatient program, I visited him every day, without fail. I rearranged my days so I could be there for him. I was practically existing to be needed by him.

As he was preparing to be released from inpatient, he was afraid to be alone in case his anxiety worsened and he started having suicidal thoughts again. He asked if he could stay with me, which was tricky since I have two kids who were going through this difficult time of divorce as well. It wasn’t ideal, but in my state of needing to be needed, I was ready to help him however I could—whatever it took.

His parents ended up coming to stay with him, so that measure wasn’t necessary, but it also meant he didn’t need me anymore.

All of his attention was focused inward and on getting better, and not at all toward me or showing any appreciation for the sacrifices I was making for him. Let’s be clear—this is how it should have been, and I know that he absolutely needed to take care of himself, but it made me crazy.

I wanted him to love me like I (thought) I loved him. I just couldn’t see that he was not in a place where he could really love anyone. That hole I was trying to fill just kept getting wider and deeper.

When he was hospitalized, it almost normalized the experience for me. He got a break from life for a few days and I basically dropped my life to save his.

Maybe he’d do the same thing for me, and maybe he’d finally give me the attention I craved. Maybe, just maybe, I could start to fill in that big hole in my heart. This was, of course, a subconscious line of thinking at the time, but in hindsight, I can see that I was grasping for any shred of validation from him that I was worthy of his love. 

I was severely depressed. I had thrown myself so hard into this relationship, and I wasn’t getting anything back. I ended up being hospitalized too because of the depression, pain, and hopelessness I was feeling.

He spent a little time being supportive, but he didn’t drop everything to be there for me like I did when he needed me. He only came and visited me once.

I had never felt so alone in my life.

The relationship had grown to be so dysfunctional that I had lost any shred of sanity that I had left. Looking back, it feels a little embarrassing that I stayed in this place when everyone I knew told me to get out. I wanted the relationship to work—at any cost.

He broke up with me right before Christmas that year, which was also completely devastating to me.  I didn’t take it well, and I hated him for it.

To make matters worse, in the new year, he texted me to tell me that he missed me. We started hanging out again and maintained a “friends with benefits” kind of relationship. How dumb could I be?? 

Again, I was there whenever he needed me, at great cost to my own well-being. I held on to this shred of hope that maybe things would work out. Somehow, someday.

His depression and anxiety eventually flared up again, and he took some time to go to North Carolina to stay with his parents for a month while he attended a partial hospitalization program.

We stayed in contact the whole time, and toward the end of his stay there, he talked about how he was starting to feel like we should get back together. I was still in heart hole-filling mode, so in my mind, it was like things were finally coming together—this was why I had stuck it out so long, after all, right?

When he came home from North Carolina, we didn’t really talk about “being back together,” but it sure felt that way. It finally felt nice—like I had wished for, for so long.

And then one day, everything changed.

I invited some friends over for my birthday, and he was supposed to help me with the food, but he was late. Really late. I tried calling him multiple times with no answer. As I hung out with my friends and tried to make fun conversation and pretend nothing was wrong, I felt hurt, unimportant, unworthy, and small. When he finally did show up, something was odd about him. When he left that night, I went to kiss him, it felt forced and awkward.

Later that week, when I pressed him on it, he told me he was on a date with the woman he knew would be his future wife.

After one date we were over. Like a switch flipped.

After one date, he was exclusively dating another woman whom he would marry someday, and he didn’t even apologize, explain, or get how crappy all of it was. 

I was so angry, but I was also blindsided, hurt, and I felt like an idiot. I had given so much of myself for him, and he treated me terribly and without care. The rest of the details aren’t necessarily important, but in the end, I told him to f* off and that I didn’t ever want to see or talk to him again.

All of my hurt was finally starting to turn into something useful—anger and self-respect.

I think I needed anger to leave that relationship behind and realize how much better off I was going to be without him.

I didn’t really start to heal from the pain of my divorce until after this moment, and I didn’t really date for a while after that.

I reconnected with friends I saw much less of when I was dating him. I reconnected with myself. I learned how to be alone, and how to appreciate that time.

I learned what I want and need in a relationship.

Most of all though, I learned that I am worthy of love and I deserve someone who wants to give back. I learned that I shouldn’t settle for less than someone that wants to be an equal partner in my life.

Despite how horrible that time was, I am so grateful for the experience because of  how much I learned about myself and grew during that time.   

We were just two people who were struggling with where we were in life. We weren’t right for each other, but we were put in each other’s path to teach each other something.

He ended up getting married to the woman he was with when he was late to my birthday party, and I am so thankful that she ended up as his wife and not me.

I like to believe that he really is a good person that was just going through a tough time when he met me. I do wish him the best. We all deserve that, right? I could even go so far as to thank him for the things he helped me learn.

The lessons that came out of this very painful experience are many, and I want to summarize them so that you, too, can learn from my mistakes. I hope you find these helpful.

You Are Absolutely Worthy of All the Love

You deserve the world, even if you have to give it to yourself. It doesn’t matter who you are, you deserve love. Yes, you. And if you are with someone who doesn’t love you like you deserve to be loved, you should look elsewhere, or even better, within.

Move on. For real.

Figure Out How to Love Yourself First

It’s been said that you can’t really love anyone until you learn to love yourself. I don’t think you can really truly accept and feel love until you learn to love yourself first, either.

What’s more, when you learn to love yourself, you don’t need another person to fill any emotional holes. You are already whole all on your own. The love you find when you are whole is a different kind of love, and it’s beautiful.

How do you learn to love yourself? Start by simply being with yourself. Fill the hole with your own care and attention. This will lead to respecting yourself, which in time will lead to valuing yourself.

You Have Value as a Person

Part of your journey in life is seeing that you are worth making the trip. It might be hard to see, but you most definitely are.

If you are with someone that can’t see how valuable you are, you’re with the wrong person. You have unique talents. You are beautiful, and you are amazing. There is someone out there that will see it. But you have to believe it, too.

Every Experience in Your Life Has Something to Teach You

I bet if you look at all of the challenging experiences in your life, you can find at least one thing you learned from each. If you don’t agree with me, I can almost guarantee that you’re not trying hard enough.

It’s through challenges that we grow. If I hadn’t had this difficult experience, it wouldn’t have led me to my current partner, who loves me and supports me more than I could have ever dreamed of. I learned so much about relationships, and myself, that I wouldn’t have otherwise learned, and who knows, I might not have been ready to meet the love of my life.

Letting Go Can Be a Beautiful Thing

Letting go is hard.

We want what we want, and it takes a lot of trust to walk away from a sure thing when you don’t know what the future will hold.

It’s hard to accept that sometimes what we want isn’t the best thing for us. But you have to trust that by letting go you’ll open up to better things.

And sometimes the best thing for you is to simply to live without a person who isn’t good for you.

About Kortney Rivard

Kortney Rivard is a life and wellness coach and host of the podcast Real, Brave, & Unstoppable. She helps smart, passionate women rebuild their lives after a divorce, breakup, or other life transition by helping them get their bearings, discover what they really want, believe in themselves, and take action to create an authentic life they’re excited about living. Learn more at www.kortneyrivard.com.

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