I’ll admit it: when my Talkspace editors suggested that I write about how to overcome harmful relationship patterns, my first thought was “Hey man, I wish I knew.”
I, like most of us, have had my fair share of bad relationships, from “it’s complicated,” to “it’s really complicated,” to abuse (and there’s no Facebook status for that). I, like most of us, have gone into each new relationship hoping it will be different this time, but worrying that old patterns will come back to bite me in the derrière. And I, like many women and queer people, have swiped through a dating wasteland of those too eager to show me their genitals, wondering why it has to be so difficult to find someone who will treat me with respect. And of course, I’ve had my fair share of wonderful moments, sweet partners, and fulfilling relationships, too.
But in a world where many of our experiences of intimacy are marked by trauma or negative patterns of behavior, how can we work through the bad stuff to find enduring, healthy love?
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If you ask my mother, she’ll tell you that “you should be with someone who thinks you’re the best thing on planet earth.” I generally roll my eyes at this one, because it’s easy for her to say — she started dating my father when she was 16, and they’ve been together for 40 years! — but you can’t exactly conjure up a partner who thinks you’re awesome by snapping your fingers.
So what’s a person to do? While I definitely don’t have all the answers to this one (hey friend, we’re in the struggle together), there are some things that science, mental health professionals, and my mom all agree on. Here’s what you and I can keep in mind as we continue our journey toward healthy love.
Learn to Value Friendships
I was in my therapist’s office, weeping and gnashing my teeth (so to speak) about a pretty bad romantic situation, wondering if I was doomed to repeat these toxic dynamics in all my relationships for the rest of my life (which, yes, in retrospect I realize was a pretty overblown statement). The therapist asked me, simply, “What examples of healthy relationships do you have in your life now?”
Mind. Blown. Whoah! I thought, as I listed off all the people who cared about me: my family, my roommates, my friends, my ex who was very sweet, the professor helping me with my thesis…
We’re taught to prioritize our romantic relationships as the defining intimacies of our lives, but this simply isn’t true. Whatever obstacles we may have in our romantic lives, it’s a mistake to think this somehow means we’re bad at relationships, period. Sexuality and romance can be fraught for many reasons. But guaranteed, there is someone in your life with whom you have a genuine, lasting relationship, whether this person is a family member, friend, mentor, or child.
Remembering that there is love in our lives helps us change the “I’m so bad at relationships” mental script — and in turn, teaches us what we value in intimacy.
I Know You’ll Roll Your Eyes at This One, But Yes: Love Yourself
I know what you’re thinking: it’s easy to tell someone to love themselves, but it doesn’t actually work like that.
And yeah, you’re right. Self-love isn’t something we can just turn on like a switch, and experiences of trauma, abuse, and bad relationships can make it difficult for us to cultivate positive relationships with ourselves. This can lead to a vicious cycle, where feeling bad about ourselves causes us to expect bad treatment from others, which in turn makes us feel worse about ourselves. Feeling empowered, on the other hand, can help us heal and cultivate healthier relationships in the future.
And there are things we can do to better our relationship with ourselves. Self-compassion is a good start. Self-compassion is a gentle acceptance and love we can direct toward ourselves, the kind of enduring and non-judgemental love you’d feel towards your little sister or your BFFL. Self-compassion means accepting our flaws and accepting that we might have long and frustrating romantic journeys, make mistakes, and even repeat mistakes. That’s okay: we’re all human.
How to Practice Self-Compassion
We can learn to become more compassionate toward ourselves by:
- Treating ourselves with kindness. Noticing patterns of negative self-talk is the beginning of greater compassion.
- Cultivating happiness. While we may think that success in work and relationships makes us happy, research reveals the opposite: happy people are more likely to be successful, with happiness preceding success. Cultivating happiness doesn’t require major transformations. In fact, you can do it right now.
- Giving back. One of the tenets of self-compassion is recognizing our common humanity. People who prioritize caring for their communities are happier. Give to yourself by giving back.
Remove Traumatic Barriers Through Therapy
Therapy can be a great way to work through negative patterns of behavior and develop the skills to build happy, healthy relationships. Survivors of trauma, like childhood sexual abuse and intimate partner violence, are also at higher risk of revictimization. It can be easy for us to blame ourselves and to think that we’re simply “not good at relationships,” whereas the truth is that trauma really isn’t our fault and we can have healthier experiences going forward.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques addressing PTSD and depression symptoms in trauma survivors have been shown to reduce rates of future victimization. So if you have a history of trauma — or you simply want to build healthier relationship patterns for the future — it’s always a great idea to talk to a therapist.
Love Really Is a Journey
I know everyone, from the writers of fashion magazines to your Aunt Rosa to, well, me, is trying to give you advice on how to find healthy love. And I know that sometimes, all this advice can make us feel even worse about ourselves. Issues like not having a supportive long-term partner, or having a history of toxic or abusive relationships, leads us to believe we’re problems to be solved.
You’re not a problem to be solved. I’m not a problem to be solved. In a world where many of us struggle with trauma related to love, it’s not surprising that cultivating healthy romantic and sexual relationships can be a challenge.
But I’m not giving up and neither should you. Because even though I roll my eyes when my mother says it, it’s true: we all deserve to be with people who think we’re the best thing on planet earth.