Do any of these sound familiar?
For a long time, I daresay much of my lifetime, I lived inside a confusingly unhealthy relationship. I called it “love,” but it was a twisted, toxic brew.
Had you dared to draw attention to that, I would have stopped listening to you. I might have stopped seeing you. I might even have let you disappear from my life. Because while I was in deep denial about the fundamental nature of my marriage, on some level, I also knew you were right.
And it was embarrassing.
It was embarrassing that I had let things get so … out of hand. It was embarrassing that I was living a life that defied common sense.
But, as you may know, within that very tension lies the rub. If you are in a toxic relationship, chances are both of you are actually consumed by and ashamed of your situation, but the alternative of leaving, let alone surviving, is just too hard to imagine. It’s terrifying.
And because it frightens you to your very core, it can be paralyzing.
That paralysis may keep you in that same stagnant place in which you live only half-a-life for years. Forever even.
Now, years out of my nearly 20-year-old relationship, I see and live so differently.
You have to know this! You have to know that how you are feeling is really not unusual given the circumstances in your life.
You need to know this to feel less alone! And if you are willing to hear more, take in the following lessons I learned from my situation.
Nearly every day I meet women like me (maybe like you?) who tell me their stories of similar relationship struggles — how they lost their sense of self, and how they believe obstacles are holding them back from making a change in their relationship, even though they do believe a change would seriously improve their lives.
But I know by following certain steps, that positive change IS possible. And done well, it will surely involves connecting with real love in the future.
Here are 7 things I now know — hindsight being 20/20 and all —
1. I could not see clearly.
Maybe it was youth, lack of perspective, or the insidious nature of gas-lighting, but I could not see clearly in my relationship. I didn’t know who was to blame or who was wrong, so I guessed it was me.
I married in my twenties, and I’d been with him pretty much from the beginning of my adulthood. Our relationship was like a bubble. I had little to compare it to beyond my own family life. And guess what? That original family life hadn't been so healthy either.
You need clarity. When you are unable to see things for a long period of time because your relationship is complicated, you need to get outside the repeating loop of what you are telling yourself.
Takeaway: Seek feedback and perspective from a professional who is sworn to confidentiality. Meet with a divorce coach, a life-transitions coach, or a therapist — someone who understands your dilemma from a professional perspective and who can give you objective feedback.
2. I was ignoring my body.
My body kept reminding me that something wasn't right. I felt it and I heard it, but I shut the messages out. I over-rode the frequency of panic attacks. When I heard the jingle of his key at the door, I ignored the way my gut torqued. Sometimes bouts of stress sent me to bed in a self-loathing depression. Other times my neck ached and locked up. I even found myself no longer speaking clearly, and I acquired a stutter.
Listen to your body. When was the last time you went to the doctor? Don’t assume your little afflictions are run of the mill, or that the re-occurring illness, flu, or headache you're always battling come from time spent outdoors.
Takeaway: Chronic, long-term stress undermines our health. It can cause headaches, cramps, aches, depression, and has been linked to life-threatening illnesses. Nurture your body. It holds the wisdom you resist.
3. Fearing the unknown, I settled for what was.
Because I feared change, I spent my time justifying your circumstances. I accepted the pain.
In these relationships, you settle for the devil you know over the devil you don’t. Over and over again you talk yourself out of doing anything concerning your relationship, because you convince yourself your life could only get even worse than the hell you know now.
Learn what your rights are by meeting with a lawyer. And while you are at it, meet with a financial advisor.
Takeaway: Getting educated about what your rights are and how your money or lack of money would be impacted does not mean you have to go through with getting a divorce! It means you are finding out what’s possible so you can make a good decisions about staying, going, divorcing, separating, or even renewing your vows.
4. I was cynical about the possibility that my life held other opportunities.
If you choose to believe you have no choices regarding your relationship, what else in your life are you saying no to, too?
For me, I was so depressed I could not put myself in situations I might (also) fail in. And I couldn’t imagine a good thing might happen to me.
This dark attitude I had, and that other women have, shut me down to life. For some, it makes us desperately hungry for excitement. This either makes us extremely flat or spontaneous, a church mouse or a risk taker — and sometimes either one can lead to dangerous results.
Keep opening doors. Just because you see no hope in your relationship, that doesn't mean the rest of life’s doors are shut, too. In fact, going out with friends, trying new things, or looking for a (new) job — and getting it! — may be the spark that lights your way to changing things across the board.
Takeaway: Do something that inspires you. You will be amazed at what else it inspires you to do afterwards.
5. I modeled the WORST for my kids.
Oh, I used the kids as an excuse. But by staying where I was — too paralyzed to make a move and suffering from high-functioning depression — I was actually showing them how living half-a-life was a worthwhile endeavor. And it is NOT.
What are you modeling to your kids when it comes to facing life? Will your inability to resolve things have your kids teach them resilience in their own lives?
Takeaway: Show them Mother Bear Rules. Mother Bear may be wounded, but she still prioritizes her cubs. Stop and think. Center your attention on them. When you draw from your maternal energy, what is the best thing you could do for your children right now?
6. I ignored the clock.
Ever feel you just woke up and 10 years swept by? They did. They do. They’re gone!
Time flies. It’s almost as if the older you get, the faster the years go. What makes you think that hoping things will change will do anything to alter your reality when BLINK! Your life is gone!
Is this how you want your life story to end?
Takeaway: Life is for the living. You only have one chance to live it fully, completely, and truly to yourself, so that in big picture language, you have no regrets. What are you doing to make your life better, not more of the same?
7. I felt weak.
On some level I felt small and ashamed, because I'd let this relationship deteriorate to where it was. I felt that I let this happen to my life and was doing nothing about it, which meant that on some level, I felt I was to blame. When you don’t like yourself very much, you begin to think maybe you deserve all of the bad you are getting.
Do something different. Ask yourself where your confidence is on a scale of 1-10. If your confidence were buoyed, it would help with your decision-making. No matter the life challenge — divorce, empty nesting, long-term illness — our confidence is key to transforming our circumstances.
Takeaway: Be confident in who you are. Maybe right now you only feel confident that you are weak and that life is no good. Trust that. Now nurture your confidence by saying, “I hear you, Confidence, and I am going to take a step right now to lessen that feeling!”
What is your step?
Is it calling a lawyer for a legal education?
Is it checking in with your kids’ school and letting them know things are not perfect at home, but you are working on improving them — will Janie’s teacher please keep a special eye on her?
Is it getting back in touch with YOU, and going out with your girlfriends for a drink and a movie?
Is it talking with a professional who has seen your situation before and can help guide you through your feelings and help you determine what next practical steps are best for you?
Try tapping into the mantra of "Never again."
Never again will you endure this confusion or this lack of faith in yourself. You will not repeat your behavior of the past, because these lessons are engrained in you now, not only in your head but also in your soul.
You have learned that true love begins with love for yourself.
Divorce Coach Liza Caldwell is Cofounder of SAS For Women, a firm entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists and support strategies for you, your family, and your future. Email Liza now to let her know what your next step will be. "Divorce can be on your terms." ~ SAS For Women