What Your Long History Of Toxic Relationships Is Trying To Tell You, According To A Therapist

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When someone questions my admittedly terrible dating history, I am tempted to challenge the assumption that I’m the problem. After all, why should I be held accountable for other people’s questionable behavior?

For a long time, I wondered why all those men couldn’t treat me right and overlooked the obvious fact staring me right in the face.

Loving people well and being disappointed wasn’t the problem. I am not responsible for their actions.

I am, however, responsible for my own. Why did I tolerate it?

Accountability and trauma recovery

It took hours of trauma therapy and diving into the deep inner work of healing before I realized the why.

The coping strategies I once used to survive trauma left me with reactions and decisions that just don’t seem rational from the outside looking in.

I outgrew the need for those skills but didn’t realize how deeply ingrained they were or how to replace them with new, healthier coping techniques that would allow me to thrive and not merely survive.

It took a long time to figure out just how much trauma had infiltrated my life, reactions, and decisions. It would take even longer to soothe my nervous system and break old habits to learn new ones.

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The problem wasn’t what other people were doing to me; the problem was what I was allowing in my life.

The difficult truth is that we cannot control other people or make them behave in the way that we think they should. We can’t make lovers treat us right or even treat us with the same love and care we show them.

We can only decide what we will and won’t allow and act accordingly.

I can hold other people accountable for their behavior. I can take a good hard look at abuse, love bombing, stonewalling, abandonment, and anything else that qualifies as unhealthy and call it out.

But I also have to hold myself accountable for every single time I allowed that behavior in my life, even if my trauma history makes it understandable.

I can hold other people responsible for their behavior and simultaneously own the fact that I didn’t set or hold appropriate boundaries in my relationships.

Accountability isn’t a one-way street. Yet, I spent so much of my life trying to figure out why the pattern kept repeating without realizing that it wasn’t about their behavior but about my response to it.

Relationships change. They’re beautiful in the beginning, or we wouldn’t enter them. They don’t always stay that way.

When once-healthy relationships are healthy no longer, the self-loving action is to address the problems and find solutions or, in the event that isn’t possible, to leave them.

What usually happens for trauma survivors is that we cannot accept that the unhealthy changes we’re seeing are permanent.

We think this new behavior is an anomaly and overlook the fact that we likely fell in love with the aspirational version of our partners that they showed us in the beginning and not their authentic selves.

That "best foot forward" can really mess us up. We don’t always realize that the first flush of the relationship might just show us the best it’ll ever be when we’re dating unhealthy people.

The reality will eventually set in, but we keep looking for the version of them that treated us right, wondering where that person went, what we did to cause the change and how we can fix it. We don’t even realize most of the time that this thinking is a direct result of unhealed trauma.

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The right track and wrong conclusion

Figuring out that we have unhealthy relationship patterns puts us on the right track, but we often come to the wrong conclusions.

We sometimes decide that men (or other genders) are the problem, that the problem is the toxic dating culture, or that we cannot trust our intuition to make good decisions about relationships.

The facts don’t actually support these ideas. Let’s break that down:

1. Ain’t no good in men

We might assume that the people in our dating pool just aren’t quality individuals. What we ignore is that trauma will make us attracted to people who aren’t necessarily healthy for us.

We ignore red flags. We excuse poor choices. We justify dating people who aren’t good for us.

The problem isn’t men. Or women, or another gender identity.

The problem is that we often choose attraction and chemistry over character and compatibility and then wonder why those relationships fall apart.

We’re so focused on the wrongs done to us that we don’t always look critically at our own behavior to figure out why these patterns keep presenting themselves to us or what we might need to learn from them.

We want to say that the people we dated were the problem. Yet, it isn’t that we were good, and they were bad. That’s overly simplistic. 

The problem is that we stayed once new information became available in the relationship because we valued our feelings more than the facts.

2. Toxic dating culture

First of all, dating culture is toxic because it’s filled with unhealed people doing the best they can, which admittedly doesn’t always seem like their best when we don’t know their history. It’s also filled with a lot of bad advice and outdated gender norms.

With all that being said, we can’t overlook the fact that we are a part of this toxic dating culture — and our contributions to it matter.

I had to ask myself how I was contributing to the toxic culture. As I healed from my trauma, I began to uncover small behaviors that added to the toxic environment like negative dating profiles, complaining about exes, or acting like dating online is the equivalent of digging through trash for treasure all the while being skeptical that a treasure exists.

None of that made anything better, and it cemented an unhealthy attitude that I didn’t even realize existed because of my trauma history.

Instead of looking at the system as broken, I began to see and acknowledge how healing impacts behavior. It made me more compassionate to potential partners, but it also helped me take responsibility for how I behave within a troubled system.

I stopped assuming other people were screwed up and started evaluating compatibility. I stopped prioritizing attraction and chemistry over character indicators.

I began taking responsibility for my choices and became the change I wanted to see in dating.

3. Broken intuition

The other wrong conclusion we often come to is that we cannot trust ourselves.

A toxic dating history can make us doubt our ability to make good decisions. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that the problem wasn’t that we didn’t have good intuition. We just ignored it.

Because we were lonely. Or because we were attracted. Because our self-esteem was damaged, or we were afraid to wait for something better.

There are so many reasons we get good information from our intuition and choose to disregard it. The truth is that our intuition is good, but we dismiss it until the problems become undeniable.

As we heal, we begin to trust that feeling that something isn’t right.

We don’t wait and hope it goes away. We don’t ignore what we’re feeling.

We consider all the facts and let them add up to form conclusions rather than trying to make them fit what we want to believe. We learn to trust ourselves because our intuition was always good — we just weren’t always good at listening to it.

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How to become a cycle breaker

It’s time to break our own toxic cycles and stop blaming everyone and everything else for our relationships.

Trauma is a factor we shouldn’t ignore, but it’s not meant to simply hold the blame. It’s a sign that we need to do the healing work necessary to become a cycle breaker.

Let’s be clear: A relationship that was once good should be over.

A person who once treated us well doesn’t get to keep holding a space in our lives simply because they once earned it. When the relationship shifts and becomes unhealthy, we’ll either find solutions with our partners to solve the problems, or we need to learn to let go.

It’s simple to say, but the reality of healing trauma is anything but simple.

I’ve cried through so many trauma therapy sessions. I’ve had to confront behaviors that made me uncomfortable to face. I’ve apologized for patterns I couldn’t see when my trauma was unhealed. I’ve practiced setting boundaries and communicating better even when it felt impossible to articulate my wants and needs.

I have compassion for the version of myself who made decisions informed by trauma. Now, my decisions are informed by my healing.

I’m not actively contributing anymore to my own pain by choosing or staying in relationships where the good has gone.

I’ve learned to honor and love myself enough to choose what’s best for me even when it’s hard — even when it would be easier to make a different choice.

I’m not holding on to any anger from the past. I’m not blaming dating culture, bad men, or faulty intuition for an unhealthy relationship history. I’m not wrapping myself up in blame or shame for doing the best I could when all I had were coping skills formed by trauma.

Instead, I’m living my life as a cycle breaker because I know my intuition is good, good partners exist, and the dating culture is only as toxic as I allow it to be.

When someone points to my long history of toxic relationships, I readily admit that I made some mistakes along the way — and learned from them.

My history — of trauma and relationships — doesn’t define me. My choices do.

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Crystal Jackson is a former therapist and the author of the Heart of Madison series. Her work has been featured on Medium, Elite Daily, Thought Catalog, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal, and Mamamia. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.