We Got 99 Problems and Self Esteem is One. (or, Why Women Stay in Toxic Relationships….a Blog Reader’s Request)

I have meant to write this blog many times, but I just never got to it. Today I threw out a request on Twitter and asked those who request to see what I have to say in 140 characters or less what they would like me to write on if I had a full space to toss out my thoughts. One person asked for RHOM and RHOA recaps, but sadly, I just haven’t been able to get into the Miami one, and I missed Atlanta’s beginning. The next request came for me to write about why women stay with toxic men, or in toxic relationships. This, dear readers, is a subject close to my heart, so much so, that it almost killed me.

People see my life now with my husband and kids and comment how lucky I am. Indeed, I am lucky, but to say I had to kiss some frogs before I met my prince is an understatement. A BIG understatement. I started playing toxic relationship Frogger in high school. (Did I just date myself there?) One of my first boyfriends started out by all appearances as a great guy. Then it started going down hill in teeny tiny steps. Little digs at my appearance. Comments about my decisions on a day to day basis. Nothing overtly horrendous, just subtle little jabs that I tried to take as constructive criticism. He was my second boyfriend ever, and I wanted to impress. I thought we loved each other, and I handed my V-card over. It was love….right? The comments got worse, slowly but surely. It was as if he was steadily chipping away at my self esteem and my beliefs about who I was. Then, I found out he was seeing my best friend behind my back. When he told me “you’re nothing” I believed it…both my boyfriend and my best friend had turned against me. Of course, now as an adult I look back and feel so terribly sorry for the young me (why hadn’t I realized just how fabulous I really was? I was a total catch!!) but then…I just couldn’t see it. And so started a cycle that continued for years.

My next boyfriend was awesome. Awesome at breaking my heart and then making me feel like a million bucks before he crushed me back down. He was a sweet guy in general, well liked by everyone who knew him. I adored him. I adored him even when he broke up with me to date my so called friend, who excitedly accepted his offer while I was a pile of tears. When I accepted him back after he woefully declared his mistakes a few weeks later, only to have it happen with a different friend later….well, I blamed the friend. I never fully laid the blame where blame was due, because then I would have to lay on the person I had put so high on a pedestal. So high in fact, not even I could knock him off. When I tell you, dear readers, that I let this pattern continue for 9 years (mostly off, but occasionally on) I say it with humiliation. Who could be so stupid to let someone treat them that badly? Well, sadly, that would be me. Yup.

Not all the guys were horrible that I dated. Most were kind, but lacked any drive in life whatsoever. Most didn’t share my “big picture”. A few that did seem perfect, well, I let them go. I was distrusting, horrifically jealous, and probably not at all my best self either.

The one that changed my thinking in a lot of ways was D. D was a sweet guy, with a lot of drive and had a lot of the same values as I. Pretty soon though, his major flaw emerged. He was an alcoholic. A black out alcoholic who could get physically violent. Of course, this didn’t show up until the relationship was pretty solid. I was hooked in, and my Nurse Nancy nature kicked in. I could help “fix him”. Sigh. What a mistake. Before long, I had bruises, usually on my arms, legs or ribs. You know, those convenient places where outsiders can’t see. When he was sober, he was great. When he was drunk, he was a monster. I went to Al-Anon. I tried to get him help. I tried to get him to help himself. A few weeks would go by, and I would think we were on a good path. Then I would clean (yes, me! Clean!) and find hidden bottles of booze behind the dresser, or in sneaky little spots around the house. I found a LOT of hidden booze. I was disappointed. I was angry, and I was scared. Sometimes I would defend myself, sometimes not. It was escalating, and it was TOXIC. I remember the one time he went for me outside and threw me into a bush. The next day I found a note on my car that read “I saw what happened to you. “No man should ever hit a woman. If you decide to leave, I would like to take you out and show you that real men treat women well. They don’t hit.” I didn’t even get the message at the time. All I could think was “Maybe a real man would have stopped him”. Looking back, I wonder if this stranger knew I’d kicked D out only to take him back over and over. How did I rationalize taking him back? In my case, him blacking out while drinking was a major issue…he often had no clue what he had done by the next morning. D would ask me how I got a bruise, and would surprised when I told him. Somehow, I rationalized I guess that he hadn’t meant to do it, since he couldn’t remember most of it. What I failed to see was that because he didn’t remember much due to the blackouts, he never really internalized what he was doing….never could fully feel remorse because it didn’t seem real to him. If I told you that last night you robbed a bank and killed someone, you’d tell me I was crazy, right? How does one feel true remorse if they honestly don’t truly believe they did anything wrong? The events for him just simply didn’t exist in his conscious.

What I refer to as D Day shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. he was drinking. An argument broke out. This time, he pulled a knife. A KNIFE. He got me down on the rug and had the knife to my throat. All I can remember of that moment is having 2 thoughts: “I love this rug, I don’t want to get any blood on it”, and “I need to getout of this mess, both now, and forever”. I tried talking him down. I agreed with him and spoke softly. He got up and went by the open sliding door where only the screen was closed. He blamed me. He told me this was all my fault. He turned his back on me for a moment, and I used the opportunity. I charged at him and kicked him from behind with every ounce of force I could muster. He feel through the screen and landed outside on his knees. I slammed the glass door and locked it. I ran to the front door and locked it too. Then I grabbed a baseball bat from the closet and called the police after locking myself in the bathroom. “Get here quick, or he’ll kill me.”

The police came. They’d been there before. “It’s cold out, why don’t you let him back in and you can work it out in the morning?” That’s what a cop told me. After having a knife held to my throat. Why? Because that’s what I had done before…what so many battered women (and men!) have done before. I knew at that very moment….I had had enough. Of course, the phone calls came with apologies. I didn’t pick them up when I saw his number on the caller ID. Flowers, gifts. Apologies. Promises. Begging. Anger. Apologies for the Anger. I sank into a deep depression, and tried to figure out what to do. The only thing I could do is stay away from him, one day at a time. I had friends stay with me each night. He slashed all my screen doors and windows. He broke in once. I held strong, for the first time, and I wouldn’t let him back. I hung out with all the friends I hadn’t seen because I had been hiding my problems. I TOLD them my problems. Why? Because it made me accountable. Hiding the abuse was making me shamed, and I didn’t want that any more.

A few months later, I was still single, and just spending time being me. Life was good. I was awoken one night by a call in the middle of the night. A woman’s voice came down the line, half in a whisper, half in tears. She told me she had heard through a friend of a friend that I had gotten out of an abusive relationship. How did I do it? Where did I get the strength? How could she leave? I was in awe. And then I told her everything. She called me one other time, and that was it. The last time I talked to her, she had left and she thanked me. I hope her silence after didn’t mean she had caved and gone back. Strangely, she wasn’t the only one who called. I had a few women from all over the country that called me. Friends of friends of friends. Friends of strangers. I never questioned them too much. I just told them I left, how I had managed to stay away, and I tried to tell them they could too. I told them they were worth better, that it wasn’t their fault, and that they could do it when they wanted to. I told them the sad truth: “it won’t get better, it will only get worse from here, no matter what he promises you. Once they hit you once…that barrier has been forever broken”.

I’ve since been open about my experience. Why did I stay? To answer that, is complex. Abuse generally doesn’t start immediately with physical abuse. It’s often slow, calculating. It starts with little comments, and works up from there. Usually there is love, or what appears to be love, before abuse of the mental or physical kind becomes apparent. Women are the great healers, fixers and lovers in relationships. We feel that if we love enough, DO enough and BE enough, love will conquer all!! We’re taught that in fairy tales and movies. So we try to do, be and love enough, and when it doesn’t fix a problem that isn’t ours to begin with, we turn our hurt, our pain, in on ourselves….we must be unworthy, not good enough. So we try try again. Where does this stem from? Low Self Esteem. Being critiqued constantly by the person we love the most to the point of disparagement. It’s a vicious cycle. Almost all of my worst decisions in life boil down to moments when my self esteem has been the lowest.

Fast forward many years later…..

My relationships got healthier. I got engaged a few times, but I always ran before things got too deeply into the planning stages. My friends joked I was the runaway bride. I felt I would just “KNOW” when the right guy approached. I knew I lived still in a certain amount of denial. As soon as relationships got incredibly serious, I would suddenly have a gut feeling “he isn’t the one” and I would end it. I still battled with self esteem, but I didn’t want to ever settle. I wasted a lot of time with the wrong guys while I was hoping in my heart for Mr. Right. One day I was talking to a friend who was in a dead relationship, but she was afraid to just end it and be alone. I told her “Any man who is Mr. Right will not waste his time nor be immoral enough to try to be with you while you’re with Mr. Right Now or Mr. Douchebag”. Oh jeez. I was a big, fat, raging hypocrite. I could give great advice, I just had an aversion to taking it!

Before I knew it I was single, and ready to just be on my own. My feeling was, if I wasn’t happy in my own company, why would anybody else be? I set out to relearn who I was, what I wanted, and WHO I wanted. I made a list of my non-negotiables. I wrote down facts about who I was, what I NEEDED in my life. I spent a lot of time doing things on my own. I took time to notice what drove me mad about other people. They say that what makes us irritable about others is often a mirror about things about ourselves we don’t like.

When I met my husband, it was like there was a gravitational force pulling me towards him. I can’t explain it, but something about him made me want him in my life as a friend or more. He had a kind, gentle air that made me feel calm before we ever spoke. He gave me butterflies. Most importantly, he made me laugh. He treated waitstaff at restaurants with the utmost respect. You can tell an awful lot about a man by how he treats those who serve him or do things for him. If he treats them as lowly, he will no doubt treat you the same. He was kind and respectful to his mother, me, and my mother. My mom saw my dad (a total stranger) pass by on a bus one day and pointed to him, turned to her friend and said “see him? I’m going to marry him one day!” I called my mom after my first date with my husband and said “I’ve met the one”. I knew it purely, instinctively, and without question. For a long time, my insecurities caused some arguments. The years of being treated badly, being cheated on, and just generally having self esteem issues made me horribly, horribly jealous. I would have a dream he cheated on me and spend the morning surly and distrustful. I was irrational. He gave me no reason to suspect he was anything other than what he said, but I dug to find imperfections. One day I just opened up about my past relationships, and he understood why I was the way I was. It did NOT, however, excuse me accusing him of things without merit. He made extra effort to quell my fears. I made more effort to trust. We are in a much better place because of it, and I now trust him implicitly. He supports me in all I do. When I am down on myself, he picks me back up. He makes me feel beautiful, even on the days I may not look my best. He loves me for me, no frills attached, and he wants the very best for me.

They say a good litmus test is to picture losing a parent or sibling….who would you most want by your side? If you TRULY cannot answer your partner, then they aren’t the right person. Plain and simple. A spouse needs to be there for the bestand very very worst life has to throw at you. If you wouldn’t want them there, then you need to ask yourself why. A big part of making relationship progress is allowing your true “primal” thoughts to come through without trying to squash, repress or change them. If you can sit in a quiet room and just BE, you will do yourself some favors. Sure, marriage and relationships take some work, but honestly? Not THAT much work. A true partner not only loves you, but wants the very best for you. They want to support you in every way. When they offer advice or criticism, it should come from love, not from jealousy, or anger, or fear of losing control. Relationships are NOT about control. Good relationships are about letting go and being yourself and knowing you are loved. A good relationship is about being your very best, and having support in being your best. Each and every one of you is amazing, and interesting and fabulous in your own right. Sure, somedays you may not like your thighs, or you made a mistake, or whatever it is. But honestly? You wouldn’t look at a little girl and say “ughm, look at those THIGHS!” so why do we treat ourselves so cruelly?

If you are in a toxic relationship, the first step is acknowledging it to yourself. Know that you CAN get out, and there are people who will help you. It is better to be alone than to be miserable with someone else. One of the hardest things to watch is a loved on in a bad relationship. I am going through that now. Someone I love is with a man who is at the very least, verbally abusive. I have tried and tried to get her help, and watched in triumph as she left, only to be crushed in defeat as she went back. He has alienated her from most of the people around her. She has pushed others away who speak badly of him. I am now trying to walk the fine line of offering my friendship and love while not disparaging him. She knows how I feel, but I also don’t want to make her feel that she must choose between us, or it’s a “them against us situation”. It kills me. I want better for her. Mostly, I want HER to feel better for her. Right now though, all I can do is keep the lines of communication open so that if she chooses to get out of that relationship, she knows she won’t be alone.

Whenever I think of all my past relationship mistakes I always feel poor self esteem led me down the wrong path. Not believing in myself enough, or loving myself enough put me in some precarious positions. Much of what happened to me was not my fault per say, but I take full responsibility for putting myself in bad situations or not walking out when I should have. Hopefully I can make amends to myself by letting others know that you deserve the very best life has to offer! Perhaps my daughter will magically come across this blog someday and know that she is far too precious to ever settle for a partner who doesn’t treat her as if she is priceless, because she is!

Be good to yourselves, Loveys.

Messy xx

2 thoughts on “We Got 99 Problems and Self Esteem is One. (or, Why Women Stay in Toxic Relationships….a Blog Reader’s Request)

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