How to Stop Accepting Bad Relationships

What I’ve learned about love as an abuse survivor

Sarah Kat
Sarah Kat
Dec 20, 2020 · 8 min read
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Photo by Rene Asmussen from Pexels

At the end of our date, Geoff walked me to my door. He casually turned the conversation to be about how the other woman he was dating was boring, but more age-appropriate for him.

He just wanted to tell me that he’d had fun with me tonight — more fun than with her.

But this was the first I’d heard of another woman, and this was how he let me know. I should have been hurt, annoyed even. Probably in some very deeply locked away part of me, I was.

But Geoff was out of my league; handsome, older, a real grown-up with an impressive career. I really wanted to stay in his life, so I sucked it up and put on my best act.

“Oh, so I’m the other woman…”
I tried to make it sound seductive.
“That’s exciting.”
I think I was convincing.

I didn’t mean it, but I managed to say it lightheartedly. And this was enough to keep him around, for a while at least.

This memory came back to me this morning for no particular reason, I’ve just been processing a lot of old stuff lately. I shudder now at how compliant I was at 21 years old. I would have done anything to be wanted, accepted, and to feel like I might almost be ‘enough’.

But I wasn’t enough.

Who was I?

Years went by, as did boyfriends, and this theme was consistent throughout. I was compliant, nice, fun, and never stood up for myself. I just needed to be liked. I think I probably knew it was never love.

But I wanted to be somebody’s real girlfriend. Somebody who was put first — not an afterthought.

Of course, we all know that until you can put yourself first, nobody else will. I had probably heard that somewhere, but hadn’t yet understood that it applied to me too.

Instead, I was the girl who wouldn’t rock the boat. I would show up early to our date at the movies so that I could buy the tickets before he got there. I wanted to show him I was generous.

I was the girl who fit around his schedule, no matter how tired I was from working my shifts. I was just pleased he wanted to see me at all.

I was the girl who said ‘it’s fine’ through a fake smile, when nothing was close to fine. But I wanted him to think I was easy breezy.

I was the girl I thought he wanted me to be.

If you recognize yourself here, then please know that this has a happy ending for me, and it can for you too. I just had to learn the life lesson first, which is what I wanted to share today.

A little background

We’ve all got history. We’ve all experienced heartbreak and betrayal, and had our trust broken.

Many of us also grew up feeling unlovable and not enough, and that carries through into adulthood, showing up in all sorts of ways.

My story begins with an abusive childhood, both physically and mentally.

Many survivors will tell you that mental abuse scars are deeper. I could handle a lot of physical pain, but feeling resented and unloved was by far the worst part.

In his book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Pete Walker describes the Four Fs. These are four categories of maladaptive behavior that abused children typically fall into. These categories explain so much about our attachment styles, and therefore our behavior in adult relationships.

I seem to fall into a mixture of two Fs, one being Freeze and one being Fawn.

Freeze and Fawn

Whenever I’m in my Freeze behavior I tend to dissociate. This is a technique that has got me through many a situation I should never have put myself in.

No matter what hell I was receiving from whichever bad boyfriend I was with at the time, I could numb out and carry on.

Then there is Fawning. This is all about being a people pleaser in order to give the other person exactly what they want.

In my early adulthood, I played the role of Fawn Girl. I anticipated my partners’ needs and provided for them at all times. I was empathetic, gentle and understanding with them — but never with myself.

I spent all my time and focus looking for love, and finding yet more abuse. It’s a common story really, at least in part due to the nature of human beings.

Why? Because we follow our patterns.

If being small, quiet and compliant kept us safer in childhood, then as adults we don’t rock the boat either. If we were made to feel that nobody would or could love us as children, then as adults we are grateful for whatever representation of love we get. Even if it’s not healthy.

That is, until we become aware and change things.

Starting the process of change

Geoff was by far the nicest of my bad boyfriend experiences. He was only my second boyfriend, and once I understood that he would never treat me right, I found the courage to end it.

It hurt to let go of the fantasy I had about having a future with him. But I was, and still am proud of myself for doing the right thing and getting out.

But of course, it takes more than one moment of clarity to change the course of your love life. I did go on to have many more relationships with guys, who ranged from emotionally unavailable to downright abusive.

Then I got help

After breaking off the first of the three engagements I would go on to have, I found my first therapist.

The fact that there were more engagements probably tells you that my first round of therapy was not the silver bullet that cured me. In fact, spoiler alert, there is no silver bullet.

Getting better took years of awakening to my own patterns slowly, accepting one hard truth at a time, and learning to love myself.

But that first round of therapy was important because it set me on the right path.

We have to know the extent of what we are dealing with before we can take the appropriate action. Personally, I had to begin the painful process of unpicking all the bad things I thought about myself. Then I had to understand how I had learned to think of those things in the first place.

Most importantly, I had to truly accept and embody the knowledge that I wasn’t bad or defective. But the way I had been raised was.

Starting with myself

I had to let go of blaming myself. And I really had to stop looking for love outside myself. Fawning and bending myself into different shapes to please men would never find me love.

If this is resonant for you, then please understand that this rule applies to everybody.

You can’t earn somebody else’s love by trying to be who you think they want you to be.

You have to be yourself, love yourself as much as you can, and wait for other love to find you. And you also have to know that if other love doesn’t find you, that’s not a problem because you already love yourself.

That might sound scary, but here’s the thing. You have to be okay with only you loving you, at least for a while. You have to know that your happiness doesn’t depend on something external.

That’s the way to being healthy and strong. You must be okay as you are.

When we depend on external factors for love, happiness or validation, then we are putting ourselves in a vulnerable state. We are open to abuse and exploitation.

But when we are self-sufficient, we can think of love from another person as a nice bonus, but not something we desperately need. Then we can finally stand in our own power.

Suddenly, we stop being a target for abusers who seek to use our need. We are safe, finally, and can then accept real love which comes without all those conditions we used to have to meet.

Lessons learned

The lessons I learned along the way were all a part of my journey from child abuse survivor to woman warrior. So I wouldn’t go back and change it, even if I could.

The biggest lesson I learned was not a quick one. And I had to unlearn a lot of my childhood programming before I could learn the right lesson. You see, the lesson and the programming contradicted each other.

Trying to love yourself when your programming still tells you that you are unlovable is a huge uphill battle. It makes more sense to unlearn your programming first, and then work on the self-love.

Knowing, and I mean really deeply knowing that we are enough is what gets us there. And that doesn’t happen overnight, or with one brave decision to stop loving somebody who doesn’t love us back.

Really feeling that we are enough comes from a collection of life experiences over time, where the one constant is us.

Looking differently at yourself

I want to challenge your perspective for a moment. Look back over your life. If you’ve had a rough ride with relationships too, then at first glance you might think the one constant is abuse or mistreatment from others.

Look again, and look at yourself.

The one constant in your life is you, getting yourself through bad situation after bad situation — always getting yourself through it in the end.

Have you ever stopped to appreciate how strong you are for doing that? You are brave, and you are more than enough.

So to summarize all this in a way that you can remember and use, let’s look at the main points again.

  • Therapy is not a silver bullet, but it puts you on the right path and is very worthwhile.
  • Once you recognize your own patterns, you can finally stop walking into the same bad situations. Instead, you can stop, find your therapist, and examine what needs to be unlearned.
  • Work on yourself. Challenge your own perspective and recognize that you are more than enough. You are the person who got you this far in life, and you can go even farther now.
  • Love begins within. Recognize that needing love from others makes you vulnerable to abuse — needing is not the same as wanting.
  • Once you love yourself, other love can find you too. You can absolutely have what you want when you are ready for it.

Don’t wish for a white knight on a horse to scoop you up and save you. You are your own white knight. You have done an amazing job of getting yourself this far.

Know your worth, which is immense. And know that anything you feel to the contrary is just programming, which you can unlearn over time.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Sarah Kat

Written by

Sarah Kat

Mental health, psychology, freelancing and Solopreneurship. Columnist for The Innovation. Editor of The Elective Orphan Club.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

Sarah Kat

Written by

Sarah Kat

Mental health, psychology, freelancing and Solopreneurship. Columnist for The Innovation. Editor of The Elective Orphan Club.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join thousands of others making the climb on Medium.

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