Dating and Relationship Advice

I saw a tweet some months ago that I haven’t been able to find since. The tweet read something like, “A healthy relationship may seem boring to people who have become accustomed to the ups and downs of a toxic one.”

I’m in a relationship with a caring and generous person, a person I love. And yet there have been moments when I missed something that I couldn’t put my finger on. What I’m missing is that on-the-edge-of-the-cliff feeling that comes with a tumultuous and unhealthy relationship.

Once upon a time, I loved a boy. We never clearly outlined our relationship, never set boundaries. He cared more about drugs and the pursuit of pleasure than he could ever care about a person. For a time, I fancied myself an exception to this rule. The relationship operated on his terms. When he got bored or I couldn’t serve him in the way he wanted, I was put aside. When I asked for something I needed, he either blatantly ignored me, or called me clingy and pathetic. I was not the first he labeled this way. I’d heard him say it before, “That girl. Now that girl is crazy,” about women who reacted when he treated them badly. I was not an exception. While I’m not fit to diagnose him with a personality disorder, there’s no question in my mind that he’s an addict.

I know I'm not innocent in the perpetuation of our dysfunction. I told myself that he needed me because it gave me something to fixate on. I felt like I understood his sadness, and he mine. He always came back, charming and sweet, when he needed something, and for months I accepted him. I fed him, I gave him a place to stay, found him a place to live when he needed a home. Eventually, though, I hit my limit. I couldn’t forgive anymore.

I know our relationship turned deeply unhealthy. But I also know that the ashes of the love I felt for him still live in me now. He creeps up in my dreams, when I hear particular songs or jokes.

Less than a year after I quit him for good, I moved away to very small city. Even hours away, I experienced a split second of panic whenever I saw a mustached brunette who resembled him. But it was always an innocent stranger.

I tried my hand at the small dating pool my new town offered. The worst of the guys I dated after my year of celibacy was a former psychology major who worked with kids. I had high hopes. He was charming, and I felt nervous excitement around him—a familiar feeling.We went out for a couple of weeks. He pried into my past, asked me about the medications I took, but later used this information as ammo against me.

Then I went out with a cook, a coroner, and a guy who owned a dozen guitars. I felt very little for them. I began to accept that I would never feel real affection for a man again. I could talk to guys, flirt with guys, sleep with guys, but all my caring had been used up.

My now boyfriend entered the scene when I began my second year of graduate school. Our community was small, so it was typical to see many of your peers in and out of class. We often found ourselves the last at a gathering, oblivious to the departure of our friends as we got caught in conversation.

It took me a while to identify my feelings for him. I knew that I wanted to be around him. I knew that I wanted him to like me. But beyond that, I felt at a loss for how to describe how I thought of him. I noticed I felt bothered when an accidentally flirtatious friend reached out to touch his arm. I told her as much, and when she asked why, I didn’t know how to answer. Liking someone at all, especially someone who didn’t make me nervous, felt too weird to face.

Romantic relationships are impacted by the social anxiety I often experience. In a recent session, my therapist made a baffling suggestion, “Perhaps these anxieties that protected you in the past no longer serve you.” We are often so uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, and I lived for so long in the path of drama and hurt. The anxieties that I curled up with for so many years could no longer keep me warm, but giving them up felt like too big a risk.

The night my now boyfriend first kissed me I found I couldn’t wipe the goofy smile from my face. Since then we’ve traveled together, laughed together, fought and made up, and planned for our futures together. Our relationship is healthy and sturdy. He’s my closest friend and confidant. But still, my ex scuttles his way into my dreams. Sometimes, I still feel myself grieving the loss of his toxicity from my life.

So the trouble is this: good people can be deeply unfamiliar. Finding someone who treats me well and understands me is hard to do and harder to recognize. I keep waiting for my boyfriend to call me crazy, for him to dismiss my feelings as ridiculous, for him to tell me I’m too much or insist that I want something I can’t have. But he hasn’t, and he won’t. This is what my brain can’t make sense of. When you spend so much time on a ship, the land will start to feel unsteady. When I was young and went to an amusement park and rode roller coasters all day, the spinning and slamming sensations persisted when I laid down at night. Part of me still craves that ridiculous drama, the tumultuous drops and head throbbing turns. The trouble is tracing your own emotional fractures, loving them, and letting them be part of the past.