There are a lot of myths out there about relationships, love, heartbreak and dating, and many of them are widely believed and quoted, but immensely unhelpful. I can’t claim to be an expert at relationships (although I was with someone for 21 years so that must count for something, surely?) but as it turns out, I am an expert in the other three, so as a public service I thought I’d give you my thoughts on some of the more popular bullshit that people will tell you. All based on my personal relationship experience, my study in psychotherapy and my own years of therapy.
(There are so many of these, I’m going to spread them over a few posts, so here’s your first installment)
Disclaimer 1: you may vociferously disagree with some, or all, of this, and that’s ok.
Disclaimer 2: just because I know this stuff doesn’t mean I do it all. But I feel like knowing it is two-thirds of the way there.
Myth 1: Time is a healer.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, just by the steadfast passing of time, all your most painful psychological wounds could be healed? It’s a compelling and attractive idea, so it’s no wonder people will tell you this, but it’s also absolutely not true and if you believe in it you will be doing yourself a disservice.
The reality is that time is only a healer if you do the work of healing. This means really honest self examination, probably therapy and being willing to confront difficult feelings about yourself and your experiences. Of course, the passing of time does make things less raw, less of a continuous, preoccupying pain but that is not healing. That’s just memory fading, and life moving on. You’ll start to feel ok again. You’ll be telling yourself you got this, you’re moving on. Time is indeed a healer.
If you have a wound though, it’s still there.
The problem is that if you just let time pass, what you learn to do is to protect that wound. You keep it safe from ripping open, from becoming painful again. Instead of confronting and working through your pain, you stand in front of it in a constant state of high alert looking for anything that might be a threat.
At its worst, this behaviour will prevent you from getting into the sort of relationship you seek, as to potential partners your distance and unwillingness to leave your command post will look like a lack of interest and a problem with commitment. You’ll be left wondering why your relationships never work out. But eventually, you’ll start to feel more comfortable. You’ll probably get into a relationship again. You’ll look pretty functional just so long as not too much is at stake and you don’t – through the feelings you are developing – start to feel vulnerable. Relationships require both the willingness to be vulnerable and courageous – Brene Brown is great on this, so I won’t go on about it. But once you start to feel vulnerable you start getting nervous. You’ve got to protect that wound. You need to keep looking out for any signs of danger. And then when you perceive that a threat is there, you can’t help but to let fight or flight kick in. And that’s when it will all start to go terribly wrong.
The thing is that, when you are in flight or fight, the oldest, most prehistoric, most unregulated part of your brain kicks in. Your autonomic nervous system can’t tell the difference between an imminent attack by a sabre tooth tiger and the fact that your boyfriend didn’t notice you’ve had your nails done. Your heart races and you get that horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach. But most importantly your thoughts become scrambled and before you know it, you’ve persuaded yourself that he doesn’t love you, that you’re fundamentally unlovable and you’ve thrown in the towel. Despite any real evidence to the contrary. Self sabotage 101.
The good thing though, is that your wound is safe.
Or is it?
The only way to prevent all this is to be brave. Confront that fear, do the healing. See the therapist, read the books. It will take time. But at least at the end you might be healed.
Myth 2: No one can love you until you love yourself
In the past I didn’t believe this and it annoyed the hell out of me when people said it. This was mainly because it seemed so difficult. How could I love myself when the people who should have loved me didn’t? Surely the answer to this was to get someone to love me, which would provide irrefutable proof of my lovableness? And then I’d be able to relax into loving myself.
The problem with not loving yourself, being unable to see your own strengths, your beauty, your worth and your contribution is that living with self loathing and a sense of being unlovable is a pretty bleak place to be. And so we look to others to reassure us that we are ok. We try all sorts of ways to feel loved and to feel validated. At its least concerning level, we diligently document our brilliant lives on Facebook or Instagram, carefully curating the posts so that our inner pain can never be discovered, and drop subtle hints about the more difficult things in the hope that someone will be interested enough to ask if we are ok. And then we stand back and watch the likes come in. The more likes we get the more liked we are, right?
At its worst, we get into a relationship with someone and then make them responsible for making us feel loved. But this is way too much of a responsibility for another person, even if they actually do love you. For one thing, if one partner has healthy self esteem, it creates an imbalance in terms of the focus of the relationship – because rather than loving one another equally, one person gets burdened with loving their partner enough to fill up the emptiness they feel about themselves.
But also, if you haven’t done the work and are still running to a script that tells you that you are unworthy and unlovable, loving you is going to end up like pouring love into a leaky bucket that will never be filled. Because that voice is really loud – loud enough to make sure that you never feel loved, no matter what – and you’ll be on the lookout for signs that support your world view. You’ll find yourself ignoring things that you should be noticing – the small acts of love that take place every day – and focusing on the bits and bobs that prove you are right to think that you’re unlovable. You will end up feeling resentful that your partner doesn’t love you enough and your partner will feel confused and exhausted. And they will also feel unloved, or at the very least, unsure – because your focus is not on loving them, but on ensuring that they love you.
And every time you feel unloved, that ancient bit of your brain is going to kick in again and you’ll start behaving like a crazy person.
Learning to love yourself is hard, and sometimes the relationship you’re in is part of why you don’t. But it’s more likely to be a bit more ingrained than that – in that you’ve ended up in a bad relationship because you never actually learnt to love yourself in the first place and you’ve accepted what you think you’re worth.
Again – the only way to avoid this is to do the work. Do the therapy. Practice self reflection. And be really honest with yourself about how you might have contributed to the things that go wrong in your relationships. This doesn’t mean you should take the blame – this just means being really clear about what was your shit and what was theirs and then focusing on working on yours only. Don’t worry about theirs. Don’t even bother telling them about it, tempting though it is*. That’s their journey.
And if you’re finding it hard, fake it until you make it. Shout down that voice in your head and tell yourself every day, every time you feel like you might be waivering, that you’re beautiful, you’re clever, you’re enough*. Or whatever it is that you need to hear. Eventually, if you work hard, you’ll believe it.
Myth 3: If it’s meant to be, it should be easy
News flash people: relationships are hard.
When you are young, things seem so straightforward. Almost from birth we are sold the idea that we’ll meet someone, fall in love and live happily ever after. Simples. For some people this happens and that’s wonderful. I actually have quite a number of friends who met as young teens and here we all are in our 50th year, and they’re still together. I’m going to assume that they are happy – certainly they are happy enough to still be married.
However, I’m going to hazard a guess that, despite what their Facebook feed might suggest, most of those couples will have been through challenging times. They will have let one another down over the years or disappointed one another. They will have been bored and wondered where the excitement has all gone. They may have had moments when their head has been turned by someone else, and some of them may have acted upon those feelings.
But they are still together.
This won’t be because it was easy. It will be because they chose not to give up, and to ride the storms.
The reality is that all relationships are difficult – even the good ones. And when you enter into a relationship older I believe it gets harder. Maybe your previous partner left you for someone else. Maybe they treated you badly. Perhaps you had an affair which destroyed your marriage and left you deeply regretful. Whatever the reason, you will enter your next relationship with a certain amount of baggage.
Even if, as I’ve mentioned above, you’ve been doing the work, exercising your new found self knowledge in the context of a new relationship can be tricky. Perhaps you had trouble setting boundaries with your previous partner – but now you’re so keen not to make the same mistake, you’re laying down the law like a dictator with your new one. Or maybe your last partner told you that you didn’t help out enough around the house, so now you’re in a domestic frenzy almost permanently, but constantly looking for reassurance that your efforts have been noticed.
I think that the main thing you can do to make relationships easier is to acknowledge that they take time, and that it might take some years to get used to one another on a really deep level. And that there are going to be times when you feel like it would be better just to walk away.** I’m not talking about relationships that have just begun, of course. I’m talking about relationships where the limerence has gone, you’re committed and you’re into the day to day business of being together. But if you hang on in there, roll with the punches and learn together, maybe you’ll be able to laugh together in 20 years about what nightmares you both were at the beginning.
Myth 4: Closure
Again – bullshit.
People often talk about needing closure at the end of a relationship, and in my view, they end up torturing themselves looking for it.
This is because what they mean is that they want to try to understand not the things they did, but the things their partner did.
I’m here to tell you, that’s never going to happen. You are never really going to understand, and it’s not your business anyway.
It’s hard to enough to understand why we do the things we do ourselves, let alone start thinking we are going to be able to understand the internal machinations of other people. Even people we’ve loved.
The only thing you can do – and really the only useful thing you can do in terms of future relationships – is to work on why you did stuff. Because, unfortunately, no relationship really ever ends because one person was the embodiment of evil and the other was an angel. We all contribute to everything, and believe me, you will have done things. The things you did, don’t in any way condone or explain the behaviour of your partner – they are responsible for that – but you can learn from them. You may decide you would do some of the things you did again in similar circumstances, but you might think that there is also some stuff you can work on. I’d be surprised if you don’t.
So instead of closure, look for acceptance and then learning. Accept it’s over. Accept you’ll never know why your partner did this, or said that. And then learn from it all.
*I will admit to being particularly bad at this
**of course sometimes that might be true, and I’m not at all advocating staying in a relationship where you’re not happy. But make sure you definitely can’t be happy before you end it.