Newsflash: Your Toxic Relationship Will Never Change — Unless You Do This

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woman covering her face

I’ve written here before about my college boyfriend, “Andrew.” 

To recap: Andrew was going through a lot when we dated: his mother, an alcoholic, was drinking to the point that it nearly killed her, and he was finally remembering deeply painful childhood memories that he’d repressed for years. Despite all of this, he categorically refused to speak with a mental health professional, instead “managing” his pain by psychologically abusing me.

In the seven years since Andrew has worked closely with a therapist. He’s apologized to me deeply and meaningfully — and as I’ve noted, though I don’t forgive what happened, I forgive him. Most importantly, he’s been in several healthy romantic relationships, in which he has consistently treated his partners with care and respect.

Slowly, Andrew and I have built a friendship. From the first, I’ve been clear that this is not a prelude to us dating again — he hurt me too much, and too deeply — and he has understood and respected my boundaries. But it’s nonetheless still obvious we dated all those years ago: We get along like gangbusters.

 To this day, we still know things about each other that no one else does, so we can talk about our lives from a place of honesty and vulnerability. We share our hopes and our fears. We laugh ‘til we cry. 

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As more and more time went by, I began to draw a tidy boundary around the past: That was then, this was now. Andrew and I had grown and changed. We had shed the roles that defined our broken relationship like a snake shedding its skin.

And then, this past week, I had a rude awakening.

We were at a college football game (of course), cheering on our alma mater with an equally zealous group of friends. Andrew was at the end of our row, then our inebriated friend “Emily,” than me. Our team was at third and goal — a critical moment — so I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the game. But I heard Emily shriek, “Andrew’s tickling me!” and then saw her, out of the corner of my eye, playfully shove Andrew, trying to get him away. 

I thought nothing of it — that’s their normal dynamic; Andrew is always trying to tickle Emily because she hates it so much. 

We scored, and suddenly, amidst all the raucous cheering, Andrew was trying to get my attention, saying I should stand between them, and Emily, laughing, was agreeing. This was all part of their usual shtick. I replied that I was trying to watch the game, that I hate being tickled (does anyone actually enjoy being tickled?), and that they could work it out.

“Then I’m leaving,” Andrew said and stormed off.

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Emily and I were certain he was joking. We’d all played out that exact interaction at least a dozen times; there was no reason this one would be any different. But Andrew never came back, and he went AWOL on our post-game plans, too. I finally texted him to ask if he was okay.

Nothing could have prepared me for the response.

His mom had started drinking again, he said. Emily had been drunk and harassing him, and it had reminded him of his mom and made him upset. He had asked for my help to mitigate the situation, but I hadn’t been there for him. I had dropped the ball. I had screwed up. It was my fault. I needed to apologize.

So I did, it immediately. I was sorry about his mom. I was sorry about Emily. I was sorry I didn’t have any idea. I wanted to be there for him. I wanted to help him. I wanted to do better.

Only hours later did I realize what had happened. Something external triggered Andrew’s deep-seated issues, and we both reverted immediately to our old roles: him blaming me for things that weren’t my fault, and me apologizing profusely and unquestioningly, then setting myself up to be his punching bag all over again.

It was deeply frightening to me. After almost a decade and thousands of hours of therapy apiece, there we were, right where we left off.

Sometimes, I think, a relationship — or an aspect of a relationship — is just fundamentally broken

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Despite the fact that Andrew and I can both behave healthfully and appropriately with other friends and partners, the pattern of our dynamic together when influenced by his mother’s drinking is too deeply engrained in both of us to alter. The only thing to do is take a step back, for both of our sakes. By enabling him, I’m not actually helping him at all, and I’m deeply harming myself in the process.

I called Andrew back and reiterated that I was sad to hear about his mom. 

As his friend, I said, I wanted to be there for him in this difficult time, but I couldn’t; I wasn’t willing to be hurt like he’d hurt me once before. I encouraged him to get back into therapy and to look into Al-Anon, which other friends of mine have had great experiences with. 

I also encouraged him to try to understand his treatment of me as part of his issues with his mother, so he can make sure he’ll never do it to anyone else.  He was surprised and saddened, but he said he understood.

I love Andrew. I want him to be happy, and I want him in my life. But how he processes his grief isn’t under my control — and I can’t allow myself to be victimized by it. I miss him, already. But the Andrew I miss is kind and considerate and a friend to me.

I hope to see him again.

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