What it’s like re-learning love
I just started dating someone amazing after two years with someone toxic. The transition between the two has been eye-opening.
Phase 1: Your old habits die hard
If there’s anything that will make you realize how toxic and unhealthy your previous situation was, it’s carrying all those learned habits into one that’s not.
“I’m sorry if I emasculated you by asking Jessi for restaurant recommendations.”
This is what I said to the new guy I’m dating, after meeting his friends for the first time. One of them, Jessi, is a self-proclaimed foodie and I’m new to their area, so I asked her about her favorite restaurants — right in front of the boy, who’s lived here for years.
Walking to the car later that night, out of habit, I apologized for potentially upsetting him. And he sort of glanced at me and then said, lightly, “you didn’t.” And then added, “do you want to go to any of them?” Just like that.
Maybe it seems obvious that he wouldn’t be upset. It certainly seems obvious to me now.
But just a year ago, and the two prior, I was immersed in a relationship where saying shit like that — and being with someone who would get upset about shit like that — was the norm.
My ex was a codependent, and he had issues that were largely cloaked in big words like “love.” He was insecure about (and preoccupied with) making me happy, and demanded that I “resolve” his bottomless pit of self-doubt with continuous compliments and reassurance.
Before dating him, I would have read that and thought “I’d never date someone like that.” But the truth is, toxic shit can happen to anyone. It’s easy to judge it differently when we’re not in it — so easy, in fact, that I even judge myself looking back.
These became learned lines I’m still finding scattered around my life.
Unnecessary words of affirmation
I still thank the new guy for everything (“thanks for letting me finish.”) And I catch myself repeating it, like a tick, to be sure it’s heard. I give him compliments for things he doesn’t need reassurance on (“wow, you’re so great at opening bottles!”), which makes him laugh.
I look up from my phone at home and ask, “does it bother you that I’m texting my mom right now?” I thank him for being patient when I call my dad on Father’s Day.
I still thank him for things that we all deserve as a baseline in a relationship. And it’s not that we shouldn’t articulate gratitude — even for the basics — but more that there’s a difference between doing it casually; lightly… and doing it compulsively; neurotically to stave off someone blowing up (because you don’t “appreciate” them enough.)
Unnecessary ego boosts
I invite the new boy to play expert/provider by helping me choose fancy cheese — to which he says, “sure? Though I know nothing about it.” And I’m like “oh yeah, I forgot your ego doesn’t hinge on pretending.”
Because you’re so shell-shocked you still startle, expecting to be emotionally hit with something — all the time.
The first time I got a little feisty while drinking with the new boy, sullen over something stupid, I was shocked that he didn’t retaliate. He didn’t come at me for getting upset, didn’t get even more upset himself, and when he gently asked me “what happened?” the next morning and I apologized, he just let me. And that was that.
Phase 2: The deafening rush of white noise where toxicity used to be
When you’re coming off a bad situation, it’s not someone else’s kindness that will get you at first — what gets you is the way it feels when they’re kind without also being toxic.
There’s this sudden rush of white noise and white space, and what you notice first is all the things that are missing — the fact that things are done without strings attached, or manipulation, or emotional war games, or hurt, or keeping score, or being eyed for the appropriate amount of “appreciation” or “getting paid back.”
That, and they apologize when they do something wrong — just straight up say “I’m sorry” without getting defensive, blaming, or tacking on “but…”
For a while you find yourself periodically asking “are you okay?”, just to be sure, and they always are. And it’s amazing.
There’s just kindness — and then this incredible rush of quiet calmness where anxiety used to be.
Phase 3: “Holy shit, I can breathe.”
After the point when you are no longer wincing, anticipating an emotional backlash…
And when you are no longer surprised at the lack of receiving it...
After that, there’s just this beautiful, relaxed, floaty feeling — and after a while, you realize: it’s breathing.
There’s a moment — or many — where you are suddenly acutely aware of actually breathing. You suddenly just feel relaxed and splayed, your energy gently spread out and sweet-heavy in a pool around you.
Phase 4: “I’m not sure what to do with my hands”
Because now you have to replace the white space with something, but you realize you no longer remember how to act normal — and you’re not even sure what normal is or ever was.
The thing with toxic relationships is that they creep in on you — mine, over years. Your partner is kind at first and kind periodically throughout — they have to be, after all, or else you’d bail — and over time, you lose touch with what’s okay and what’s not.
This drifting feeling lingers even after you see the toxicity for what it is, because you still don’t remember how to act instead.
You’re not sure how to navigate relationships. You’re not certain of your judgment, and not entirely sure how to go about trusting people (after all, you trusted your ex and look where that got you), including yourself (because it was you who trusted him.)
You cut out everything you’re confident is toxic but still have to go on silencing whatever rushes into that void, because most of it isn’t right, either.
What’s a normal amount to say “thank you;” what’s a sane compliment to give? Is his teasing negging? Is mine? How much of my mindset should be redone?
How much is enough, and how much is too much, to give?
I still reassure him that he makes me happy, and that seems to be working for starters.
Phase 5: Feel is… good.
You realize there’s not just an absence of bad energy, but suddenly this crazy wash of good.
Ironic, right? When you don’t have someone harping on you for happiness, and instead just letting you live your life, good feels just sort of cozy up in the warm hollows.
I am continuously amazed at this guy, and still spend a lot of time marveling at him — and the way it feels.