Last Saturday, I had a date with a very special person. She’s a girl who’s known me for longer than any other person who doesn’t share my last name. We’ve seen each other through jungle gym wars, sanitary napkin emergencies, pregnancy scares and career ruts. In a lot of ways, we’re in a relationship. Should the day come when we’re no longer friends, I’ll need years of therapy to get used to the massive emotional void in my life.
A couple of years ago, she started dating a man who makes my hackles rise. He’s a volatile, insecure, arrogant bastard who treats my friend like shit. And for some reason, she takes it. I don’t know why. My friend is freakishly good at judging character. If we’d switched places and I was going out with him, she’d have told me to run, not walk away from the train-wreck.
In the time she’s been with him, she’s lost many friends. Some of them have left because he’s more trouble than she’s worth. Other friendships, like ours, have become strained because of my obvious dislike for him. She’s walked away many times, only to return, feeling worse than ever. Because each time she returns, she knows she’s failed at doing something she owes to herself.
Walking out of a toxic relationship is a lot like following through on a diet. You know you’re miserable, you feel it each time you put on a shirt that seems just a little bit more snug than the last time you wore it, your friends are sick of hearing about it and you promise yourself every day you’ll start the diet tomorrow. Sometimes you get as far as restocking the shelves with healthier snacks and replacing the beer bottles with juice cartons. This time it’s going to be different. But all those well-laid plans go kaput as you find yourself digging into that one tub of ice cream at midnight.
Sounds familiar? By God, I’ve been there.
So the question is, why does she keep returning? As a child, you touch fire to see if it’s hot. It burns. Some of us try it a second time to see if it’s going to be any different. It burns again. By the third or the fourth time, we learn the lesson—fire is not to play with. Then why do we, as grown-ups, keep putting our hands back in?
The answer is simple—because we do a lot of stupid shit in relationships. And we put up with a lot of stupid shit. The problem is not that we’re drawn to fire; the problem starts when we refuse to learn that it will burn—every single time. The idea is to get to a point where with every relationship, we’re facing new shit. Relationships are hard. And even the most successful ones can start as a stupid gamble, or as a challenge to Murphy. Failing at relationships is natural. We just need to get better and smarter at failing. And we need to fail at new stuff each time.
My friend is standing exactly where I was a year ago. There was a time in our history when The Dude hurt me really badly. I’ve sat in coffee shops for hours, going through the sequence of events over and over with friends, trying to find some explanation for why he had such an emotional hold on me despite everything.
I hated him for making me feel worthless. But I was wrong. He didn’t make me feel worthless; I made myself feel worthless by not following through on what I knew was right for me. The day I understood that the responsibility for how I felt lay on my shoulders, I started calling the shots in my life. Some days, the victories were small—as small as going one day without crying. Other days they were bigger—not reacting when someone deliberately said things to upset me. But no matter how small the victory, I felt better. Simply because my self-respect was no longer a hostage of someone else’s actions. The feeling of reclaiming what was mine was empowering.
Somehow, things realigned themselves and we got back together. I know there are people who judge me for it. Our relationship is still far from perfect, and on the outside, to a lot of friends, it seems as emotionally destructive as the last time round. But only I can know the difference.
I don’t know if, like me, my friend will ultimately go back to him. I just hope that if she does, she goes back to new shit. Because new shit is just so much better.