Unhealthy relationships have a very specific definition in our popular media. Movies and TV like to showcase one very specific type of abuse (and abuser, and abuse victim, and abuse solution), but they don't tell you the hard truths about other kinds of unhealthy relationships, like the fact that they can happen to anyone, and they can be very complex — even happy at times. Human being are very complicated, and when we get together, we combine our complicated lives in a very, umm, complicated way.
It doesn't matter how smart you are, or how feminist. For example, I went to college for nine years, many of those years spent majoring in women's studies and working in the field of domestic violence and healthy relationships (both as a Domestic Violence Victim Advocate and a Planned Parenthood Certified Responsible Sexuality Educator). And one day, as a coffee pot narrowly missed my head and shattered against the wall, I realized I was in the very kind of relationship I was completely immersed in preventing. Denial is a heck of a thing, and love can come with serious blinders.
I know from experience, both personal and professional, that if you want to recover from unhealthy relationships, you have to start with the truth, even if their are a lot of hard truths that you don't want to face. If you've experienced any of these truths, consider this your lifeline to the world of the understood. You're certainly not alone.
1. You Can Be Oblivious To The Problems
Yeah. You can be in an unhealthy and even abusive relationship and not even know it. I just told you how it happened to me, and I promise, it can happen to you, too. Maybe you're in denial, maybe your models for relationships were unhealthy, and maybe you're the type of person who thrives on a little bit of chaos. There are many ways to wander into a bad situation. That's why it's so important to know some key truths about healthy relationships, and to be a constant self-evaluater.
2. They Can Sneak Up On You
Some abusers have a clever ruse of being the absolute definition of perfection in the beginning, only to carefully and slowly reveal their true colors once they've gotten a little more control over you. And how are you supposed to know that your true love is really a true villain if they're everything you've always wanted and more? No shame. And it's not your fault if someone takes advantage of you in this way.
3. You Can Be Really Happy
Really happy relationships can be unhealthy. For example, if you and your partner are super best friends and do everything together and have all the same friends and can't live without each other for even 10 seconds, well, that can be problematic. And a little co-dependent. Healthy people in healthy relationships have their own friends, their own interests, and their own lives. They spend time apart. Sometimes being inseparable is a coping mechanism for deeper insecurities or trust issues.
4. You Can Be Madly In Love
We've all been there. Falling head over heels for some lying, cheating, controlling, emotionally distant jerk who we know we probably shouldn't even know, let alone love. But the heart wants what the heart wants sometimes! You can even be in love with someone who is physically violent or wildly manipulative. Whether or not you love someone is often the least important factor in an unhealthy relationship. The heart cannot always be a reliable guide.
5. You Can Be The Problem (Or Part Of It)
Maybe you have some stuff you need to work on, and you're the one creating an unhealthy situation. Maybe you don't even know it. We all have our issues. If yours include trust, low self-esteem, jealousy, poor communication skills, dishonesty, or even laziness, then you may be the one in need of a major change.
6. It Can Be Impossible To Leave
Judgments always fly, like "I would never let someone treat me like that" or "I don't understand why they don't just leave." These kind of statements completely overlook the complexities of unhealthy and abusive relationships, and are frankly ignorant. Some abusers control the money and don't let their partners work or go to school so they have no access to the resources needed to leave. Some abusers threaten to kill their partners or their families, or to take their children. Some victims don't know they deserve better. There are a million reasons why leaving can be a struggle.
7. Things Can't Always Be Fixed
You can do all the therapy, anger management programs, and healthy communication courses in the world and still find yourself in love with someone who is just not good for you. It doesn't mean you didn't try, didn't take your vows seriously, or didn't love your partner. Sometimes things will never be healthy, or you'll never agree on big issues, or your personalities just won't mesh. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to say goodbye.
9. Things Can Be Calm And Non-Violent
Unhealthy or abusive relationships don't always mean violence. You can be with a gentle giant who loves and cares for you, and is sweet and romantic, but is still a liar who doesn't trust you. Physical abuse is only one kind. There's also emotional, psychological, and sexual abuse. And there's no one kind of abuse that's worse than the others.
10. Your Relationship Could Be The Least Of Your Problems
Maybe your unhealthy relationship has nothing to do with your relationship at all. Maybe the stresses of life just have you so pre-occupied that you can't be the attentive partner you need to be. Maybe you're too busy with work and school to make your partner a priority. There are lots of ways a relationship can be unhealthy for one or both partners that have nothing to do with personality flaws in either partner.
11. People Will Judge You
People will judge you if you leave. They'll say you didn't try hard enough, you were stupid to get in that situation in the first place, or that everything was your fault. People will judge you if you stay. They will say you're weak or stupid to let someone treat you poorly. You can't win. You have to block out all that noise and do what's right for you.
12. Not All Unhealthy Relationships Need To End
If your problems are fixable, like poor communication or trust issues, then you can totally try to save things. You'll have people in your ear telling you that you need to run away, but they can't make those decisions for you. Some relationships just need a little tweaking. That's not to say that violent relationships just need some tweaking, because there's always the risk that a violent partner could kill you. But my point is that unhealthy doesn't always mean unsalvageable. You can each support each other while you become the best versions of yourself, as long as you know they ways in which your relationship is unhealthy and you're both doing the hard work of getting things on lock.
13. Your Abuser Can Be A Wonderful Person
Yeah, I said it. My abuser was the funniest, smartest, sassiest, hottest feminist I had ever met, and continues to do great things to change the world for the better. People aren't always all good or all bad. It's hard and often shameful to admit that someone who abused you could also be awesome (at times). We're supposed to think that anyone who abuses us is a plague who should be drowned in a sea of rubbing alcohol after we inflict a million paper cuts upon their rotting souls, but that's just not always reality. Some people are just damaged. Or lack skills and coping mechanisms. I feel shame even typing that, because I'm supposed to hate my abuser, but I don't. There's no place for her in my life, though.
You never have to feel like it's your fault if you end up in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, and you never have to feel shame if you have a complex mix of feelings that are both good and bad. Love is complicated. Just make sure you're not using any of these hard truths to justify letting someone treat you poorly. And if you need help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline.