For some people, a healthy relationship seems to be an impossibility. For others having any sort of relationship looks impossible.
There are usually distinct reasons behind these scenarios. As is so often the case with emotional and mental health issues, it is something that is formed during childhood years.
Although some relationship lessons are starting in schools now, for most of us our teachers on this vital subject were our parents. If their relationship was not very healthy or even completely dysfunctional – perhaps even an abusive one – then that is what we learned.
These relationship lessons were very thorough as they took place over many formative years behind closed doors. As children, we had to pay attention.
Paying attention to dysfunction
As children, we are all like sponges when it comes to learning, soaking in everything we see in the world around us. When we are children, our parents – no matter how they behave – are almost God-like figures.
So we respectfully pay devoted attention to everything they say and do. Even if we wanted, for most of our childhood we are unable to do anything else as otherwise we simply would not survive.
It means, tragically, that if our father always shouted at our mother, that’s what we learn is a way to behave. On the other hand, if we had a mother who always sulked for days when things didn’t go her way, that’s also a lesson that we learn over usually around two decades until we leave home.
But when we leave a home that’s not where it ends. We take it with us out into the big wide world.
Wired in the wrong way
Most often by our teens, we will have already started our own “romantic” relationships. By then we will have been “wired” in certain ways. All too often, and tragically, the wiring is completely the wrong way round.
So we will repeat the patterns we have been shown, that we have learned over those years. It could be that we witnessed an abusive relationship for two decades.
But just because we were, for instance, a boy who witnessed his father abusing his mother doesn’t mean we will end up being an abuser. If we are more like our mother in character we may find ourselves in similar abusive relationships – but as the abused partner.
We will be deeply unhappy. We know it’s not something that should be happening as we are shouted at, belittled, controlled, or physically abused.
Yet as it is something that we saw and witnessed so often growing up it has a sense of familiarity about it. We may not even realize that there are alternative ways of a relationship existing.
It could be said that we have become an expert in unhealthy relationships. In fact, a great many people in unhealthy relationships could not even define what a healthy relationship is like in any way.
What does a healthy relationship look like?
Lighthearted moods are the norm.
There is open communication.
There is complete trust.
Physical intimacy is normal – meaning cuddles, kissing, holding hands and sex.
Each partner has a distinct sense of self.
Teamwork exists, with both partners equally contributing.
There is the ability and desire to amicably resolve conflicts.
There is equal commitment to the relationship.
One partner has the power: there is only one who makes the decisions.
There’s unhealthy communication – with one partner never really listened to or allowed an opinion.
Disagreements are never resolved.
There are signs of control, such as only one partner having the money.
There’s no respect for healthy boundaries, so that one partner may feel as if they are constantly walking on eggshells.
Time spent together – there’s either too little time together or too much, which can indicate one partner is controlling.
Frequent criticism is aimed at one of the partners as a way to lower their self-esteem or even destroy their sense of self. This is mostly verbal, but can also mean such as eye rolling or laughing in an attempt to ridicule.
There is emotional, verbal and/or physical abuse towards one partner.
Because many people in an unhealthy relationship do not realize it is so dysfunctional, they either carry on struggling or at some point, it reaches a bitter end. If the people from such a relationship do not do any therapeutic work on themselves it will be most likely when they find a new partner that the problems will carry on as before.
More often than not these relationships are about two people who feel an aching emptiness and are trying to fill it. But this is something that needs to ultimately come from within.
When children witness an unhealthy relationship between their parents, it leaves them feeling unloved and unlovable. Childhood trauma including abuse frequently leaves someone feeling as if they were to blame, negatively impacts self-esteem and consequently, it makes it difficult for them to form close relationships.
Good therapy will help them find the love that is inside and develop that self-love – to know that they are completely lovable.
For some people, a “romantic” relationship of any sort never seems to really happen, at least not for more than a very short period or even totally eludes them. For many, the tragic truth is that they realize somewhere deep down that the relationship they saw at home between their parents was extremely unhealthy.
This may frighten them from having any relationship. Sometimes it is the case, for example, that the son of a man who was continually abusive to his partner identifies with his father – but is terrified of becoming the same sort of man if he gets into a relationship.
So he will avoid them. If a relationship does start, he will at some point before it can develop too much, subconsciously sabotage it.
None of this should be to blame the parents in an unhealthy relationship for not teaching us well – as it is all usually intergenerational. Most often it is as addiction expert and bestselling author Dr. Gabor Maté says when talking about trauma and addiction, those unhealthy relationships are a consequence of “the compressed torment of generations”.
So it is normally the case that two people who grew up witnessing dysfunctional relationships between their parents will find each other as adults. The dysfunctional relationship pattern persists – and if they have children it is unwittingly handed down.
Thankfully, there are proven successful ways to break this cycle of dysfunction. In the first instance, it’s to simply know the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship.
To discover if a relationship is healthy, ask the following questions – and if “yes” is the answer to most of the questions, then your relationship is healthy.
Do we equally give to each other?
Can I be who I really am in the relationship?
Is my life better with my partner in it?
Does our relationship have meaning?
Are we aiming for the same type of relationship?
Am I encouraged to develop and grow by my partner?
A breakup doesn’t just end a relationship. It can destroy your self-worth and leave you feeling lonely and unwanted. It can be a devastating blow to your mental health, especially if you are still in love with your ex. But there are ways to move on and come out of it stronger and healthier.
It can sound easy and even patronizing to suggest that you should think about your mental health when you’re at your lowest and deeply vulnerable. It can feel like your whole life’s come to a halt. That all your hopes and dreams have turned to dust.
Maybe all you want is to be left alone and figure out what went wrong. Probably you need to analyze all your actions and wonder whether you could have done anything differently to be with the person you still love.
But here’s the unavoidable truth: That’s never an objective assessment, more so when you’re in love with your ex. From “what went wrong” to “it’s all my fault” is a quick and painful journey. It’s an inward spiral that only worsens the wound.
The only way out of it is to move on. While it may seem impossible, here are five baby steps you can start taking right now.
1. Cut off all communication (Both direct and indirect)
For the sake of your physical and mental health, this is the first thing you’ve got to do. You don’t have to know where they’re, or who they’re with. Cut off all contact with your ex.
Yes, it can be crushing to be out of their lives. But now the priority is your own journey and they don’t have a place in it. It’s time to focus on yourself and not on your ex’s social plans.
You should also know that there’s no way you can be just friends with them anymore. No matter what you may have read or seen, that rarely works out well in real life. It can be a painful and ultimately futile attempt to revive and hold onto a relationship that’s ended.
To put it simply, no, you can’t be friends with your ex. Maybe years from now, when both of you are in healthier and happier places, probably you can be cordial and even be acquaintances. But right now, you shouldn’t try to be in their lives.
So, get out of their social media networks or chat groups. But being actively disconnected is only part of the solution. You shouldn’t passively try to be close to them either. You shouldn’t check up on their activities through social media or common friends.
Remember, any direct or indirect communication with them will trigger memories of the past and even dreams of the future. Those are the things that’ll pull you back when you should be focusing on moving on.
2. Forgive the past
Understandably, breakups usually fill people with regret and anger. You’re constantly thinking about what else you could’ve done. Or you’re angry at your or your ex’s behavior. Or even at the circumstances that forced you to act the way you did.
The more you think about it, the more you get pulled into that vortex. If there was betrayal involved, things can get quite problematic. Every time you replay an event or conversation, it would hurtle between regret and anger.
The feelings become intense when you realize that there’s nothing you can do about any of it. That creates a vicious cycle of regret leading to anger leading to helplessness leading to regret. This can be traumatic if you still love your ex. In such a situation, you’ll be willing to overlook their flaws and find mistakes with your personality.
That’s a downward spiral that will prevent you from moving on.
The solution to that’s not to disregard the past. You can’t forget your way out of such a profoundly emotional experience. What you’ve got to do is forgive your past. You need to objectively state what happened, either in a journal or through self-talk.
Then you need to forgive your ex’s actions and importantly, your own. This isn’t a sign of weakness but the utmost strength and maturity. By forgiving the individual and their actions, you’re not condoning them. You’re merely stating that you won’t have any negative feelings toward them anymore.
This can’t be a one-off event. Even if you forgive yourself or your ex today, chances are, something might bring back their memories tomorrow. You’ll have to consciously forgive again until you begin to recall the events without the underlying emotions of regret or hate.
3. Let’s get real
There are two facets to a relationship; the one that’s real and the one that’s a fantasy. Unfortunately, after a breakup, people tend to hold on to the fantasy more than the reality.
This fantasizing covers both the relationship and the individual involved. So, when you say that you’d love to go back and be with them because it was the most beautiful and fulfilling part of your life, you’re not objectively reflecting on the relationship. You’re describing a fantasy version of it.
Because if it had been perfect, it wouldn’t have ended. Things happened for several reasons. When you look back at your relationship, you’ll only be cherrypicking the good parts, leaving out all the bad parts.
The painful parts of the relationship – and the individual responsible for it – may get blurred as you exaggerate the good bits. To improve your mental health, what you’ve got to do is realistically reflect on the affair.
There might have been a joy in it but there would also have been unmistakable pain. That’ll give you the complete picture of what you just went through. It’ll also help you develop a realistic version of your ex.
To make this process impactful and long-lasting, you should journal your thoughts. Writing down all the aspects of your relationship will help you form an authentic picture. It’ll also guarantee that you don’t recreate it any other way tomorrow. When you write down how it truly was, the process will liberate you to move on.
4. Understand that it’s natural to still love your ex
It’s problematic if you were to suddenly feel hatred for your ex. It’s quite natural to have mixed feelings and hate them one second and then lovingly miss them the next. Our emotions don’t always follow a linear path. There are ups and downs and some unpleasant turns in between.
So, if you find yourself in love with your ex, don’t blame yourself for not being able to move on. Those are the residual emotions from your relationship. What you once felt for them was true and profound and it’s not easy to switch off that side of yours when a breakup happens.
In fact, you should tell yourself that it’s not a bad thing. The fact that you still feel love only proves that you’re human, capable of giving and receiving love.
But what you should also tell yourself is that it’s a different kind of love. It’s an evolved, mature state of emotions that’s different from the possessive aspect of romantic love. This one’s about nostalgia, and acceptance.
Think about it this way. It’s the love you feel toward a place you may have visited in the past. That trip was good. But you don’t have any plans to go back and relive it. You’re ready for new adventures.
5. Don’t forget to love you
What’s the strongest indicator that your mental health is above par? You love yourself. More accurately, you understand, accept, forgive, and empathize with yourself. The reason it’s a good reflection of your mental health is that it’s one of the hardest things to do.
Especially if you’re coming out of a relationship with an ex you’re still in love with.
You’re extremely vulnerable at this stage, wondering whether you’re worthy of love and whether you’ll ever find anyone like your ex. The answer is not to look outward but strengthen your inner core.
The key is to change the way you talk to yourself. Get rid of any negative talk and remind yourself that you have everything to light up someone’s life and that in turn, that someone will light up your life.
The fact that it didn’t happen with your ex is not a reflection of you or your ex. It was due to those exceptional circumstances. You’ll continue to attract love because you’re filled with qualities that draw people toward you.
Moving on from an ex you still love is important for your mental health. It’s a process that will have its good days and bad days. But what you’ve got to do is remind yourself that things are getting better every day. And that you’re shedding the past, getting rid of your emotional baggage, and coming out of it stronger and healthier.
Love addiction has been the motivation behind pop music culture and movies for decades. There was Robert Palmer’s hit song, ‘Addicted to Love’ and Meg Ryan’s 1997, classic movie borrowing the same title.