I dedicated my twenties to making relationship mistakes. I did a little thing I call relationship overlap (it sounds better than cheating, doesn’t it?). I’d keep my eyes open for someone new when I was getting ready to exit my current relationship.
Even if I was the one jumping ship on a relationship, the unknown of being alone was so scary to me that I felt compelled to have someone — a life raft — waiting. Not my finest hour, I know. What took me forever to truly get is this: you can’t ever be in a healthy relationship until you are healthy on your own first.
While I lived alone, I always had a boyfriend. I feared not having one. In my twenties I thought it’s just what you do to be happy. You get a boyfriend. It didn’t occur to me that I could be complete and whole alone. Back then I didn’t realize the relationships I chose reflected the issues I still had to fix with myself.
I got into a relationship that felt like home, but my childhood home wasn’t good. This guy seemed so charming in the beginning, but he quickly became very controlling. It started with, “Where were you?” and it quickly escalated into him having a problem with everything I did. My clothes were too revealing if I dared to wear anything my size. He was convinced I had a thing for every male I knew. A sous chef by day and bartender at night, he grabbed a guy by the throat once for looking at me too long. For two years I was faithful and tried not to provoke him. I know what you’re thinking: why did I stay?
Sometimes we unconsciously make dating choices that repeat patterns from childhood where we got stuck. And the adjectives I’d use to describe this guy definitely describe my childhood too: dangerous, unpredictable, cold, intense, dramatic and controlling. I recreated the adrenaline rush of childhood with this volatile guy. And yes, I hoped I could be the one who would fix him … just as I hoped I could fix my parents.
I tried to leave him but it never stuck. My psychologist tried to wake me up with, “You staying in this relationship is like Monet playing with crayons.” So I tried to use his belief in me to leave Mr. Controlling for good, but my fear of abandonment kept me in a cycle of ending it and going right back a few days later.
Enter relationship overlap. I met a super sweet man who heard of this tumultuous relationship I was in (it was a small town) and he wanted to rescue me. He was a programmer consulting at the company where I worked. He wooed me with roses. He was safe and stable. He was my escape hatch.
I was about to commit the biggest relationship mistake, again. I wasn’t healthy yet, so my chances of me being in a healthy relationship were: nil.
I didn’t take time to be alone and be OK without a boyfriend.
I was trying to soothe my fear of abandonment with the next boyfriend.
I still had a foot in the door with Mr. Controlling.
This next guy looked like a prince because of where I was coming from, the relationship I was trying to exit. I traded dangerous for safe. I traded angry for kind. I convinced myself I miraculously found my prince to save the day. It quieted down my fears. So I did what anyone would do in my situation. When he asked me to move across the country and live with him, I said "yes."
It wasn’t until years later that I realized I let my issues make my next dating choice. I wasn’t compatible with this prince. He wanted a Ground Hog Day kind of life where our days would all look similar. He didn’t like to leave our condo much. He was stiff in social situations unless he was drinking, and I was bored. Worst, I realized he was a band-aid over my biggest fear and not someone I wanted to spend my life with.
This is the biggest relationship mistake you can make: thinking you can be in a healthy relationship when you aren’t healthy as an individual first. You can’t let your issues make your dating choices or hope your dating choices can fix your issues.
Fast forward to today and I’m happily married with a healthy, loving and fulfilling relationship. To get here, I had to do some work on me. I had to get to a place where I loved the freedom of living alone and loved my own company. I had to get to a place where I wanted a relationship and didn’t need one.
If I could go back and talk to my 20-something self, I’d tell her: You will never find a healthy relationship until you are healthy (and happy) by yourself first, so go be brave and face your fears.