I remember the first time it dawned on me that I was in an unhealthy relationship. Not just one that was difficult and annoying but one that could actually be described as “toxic.”
It was at a training event for a sexual abuse charity I worked for. I immediately felt like a fraud!
How could I be working there, helping other women get out of their unhealthy relationships and process their pain and trauma, but not realize how unhealthy my own relationship was?
How did I not know?
Typically, as I had always done, I beat myself up over it.
I should have known, I’m a professional. How could I even call myself that now?’
It was always there lurking in the background.
Maybe deep down I had known … consciously, most definitely not.
And so, while someone talked us through the “cycle of abuse,” I sat there seeing my relationship described to perfection.
We had a nice time until something felt off. The atmosphere changed, and I could sense the tension building. No matter what I tried, no matter how hard I went into people-pleasing mode, I couldn’t stop it from escalating.
There was always a huge argument of some sort, and we’d end up talking for hours, going round in circles, never finding any kind of solution.
Just more distance and disconnection.
I never felt heard. Just blamed. It didn’t even matter what for. Somehow everything was always my fault. And most of that time, that ‘everything’ was nothing at all. Just made up problems that seemed to serve as an excuse to let off some steam, some difficult feelings.
We never resolved anything. We just argued for days … and nights. It was exhausting.
Then came the silence. I knew it well, had experienced it throughout my childhood too.
“If you don’t give me exactly what I want or say exactly what I need you to say, I’ll take all my ‘love’ away and treat you like you don’t exist or matter to me.”
Looking back now, that may have been the most honest stage in our relationship because that’s how I felt constantly— insignificant, unloved, and like I didn’t matter.
But somehow, out of the blue, we made up. We swiped it under the invisible rug that became a breeding ground for chronic disappointment and resentment. It was a very fertile rug.
I guess it also helped us move into the next stage of the cycle: the calm before the storm … until it all started up again.
So how come I didn’t realize that I was (and had been!) in an unhealthy relationship?
Was I stupid? Naive? Uneducated?
None of those things. I was successful, competent, and a high achiever.
I was highly educated, had amazing friendships, and made it look like I had the perfect life.
Because it’s what I wanted to believe. It’s what I needed to believe.
But most of all, it’s all I knew.
The relationship I was in was like all the others that had come before.
I never felt loved or wanted, sometimes not even liked, but that’s just how it was for me. Somehow, my partners would always find something wrong with me.
My mother too.
According to them, I was too sensitive, took things too personally, and couldn’t take a joke.
I said the wrong things, set them off in strange ways, or didn’t really understand them, and was too selfish or stubborn to care deeply enough for them.
Which is funny because all I did was care.
I cared too much, did too much, and loved too much, just not myself.
And so, I stayed. Because it felt normal.
It’s all I’d ever known.
I didn’t get hit, well, not in the way that police photos show. And pushing and shoving doesn’t count, right?
(Neither does that one time I got strangled. My partner at the time was highly stressed at work, and I said the wrong thing, so it definitely didn’t count …).
Being shouted and sworn at was also not real abuse. It was just “his way.” I knew that and still stayed, so how could I complain?
See, I paid attention to different signs, the ones portrayed in the media. Not the everyday ones that insidiously feel so very normal when you’ve grown up in a household in which you didn’t matter either.
The point is that we repeat what we know.
We accept what feels familiar whether it hurts us or not. It’s like we were trained for this, and now we run the marathon of toxic love every day of our lives completely on autopilot.
Most of the time we don’t even question it. It just feels so familiar and normal.
The problem with this is that we stay far too long in situations that hurt us. And so, the first part of leaving is all about educating yourself on what is healthy and what isn’t so that you know.
Because once you know, you can’t unknow, and you’ll have to start doing something about it.
And that’s what I did.
I learned all about unhealthy relationships and how to have healthy ones. This required me to heal my own wounds, let go of beliefs and habits that kept me choosing people that just weren’t good for me, and learn the skills I needed to know to have healthy relationships such as being connected to my feelings, needs, and wants or setting boundaries effectively.
Relationships are difficult and painful when no one has taught you how to connect in healthy ways that leave you feeling liked, respected, and good about yourself.
And so, it’s not really our fault when our adult relationships fail or feel like they’re breaking us.
But we need to put ourselves back in charge and take responsibility for learning how to create the relationships we actually want to be in.
So let me reassure you and tell you that that is possible.
I did it, and so I know that you can do it too.
But it all starts with deciding that you’re done with the painful relationship experiences you are having and that you’re committed to making EPIC LOVE happen.
A love that leaves you feeling appreciated and satisfied.
A love that feels safe.
A love that lets you rise and thrive.
A love in which you feel better than “good enough.”
Decide, choose that kind of love and say yes to yourself.
That’s the first act of real love.
About Marlena Tillhon
Marlena is a highly experienced psychotherapist and success coach specialising in healing inner trauma and breaking unhealthy patterns that stop her ambitious clients from having the success they know they can have in their lives, relationships, and careers. You can find her on Instagram or Facebook and receive her free training and gifts on her website.