When I first sat down to work on this post, I had not intended for it to be a part of the Why We Stay series and yet…it so obviously is. It all began when, once again, I found myself crying my eyes out over Grey’s Anatomy because the storyline was a metaphor for my own life.In this episode, one of the characters (a recovering addict) had a brain tumor removed. A tumor that she had for ten years without knowing it. A tumor that has impacted every decision she has made, again, without her knowing it. The tumor led her to make impulsive, erratic and often dangerous choices that left those around her confused and, often, hurt.Then, after the tumor was removed and she was cleared to go home, she insisted that something didn’t feel right. Something was missing. She poured over her charts and her scans and had her intern do the same because she was looking for the reason why something felt “wrong.”Finally, the intern came to her and told her that for the last ten years she had been living in danger and that now, for the first time, she was safe. He suggested that maybe what she was missing was the danger and that being safe was so foreign to her that it actually felt wrong.
I feel like this woman.And I feel like this is one of the reasons we stay in toxic relationships and, more importantly, why we are drawn to them to begin with.
I recently went to Houston for a family of origin intensive where I spent four days putting together the pieces of my traumatic childhood, which I genuinely used to believe was totally great. I was able to finally see how the abuse that I suffered as a child led me to every impulsive, erratic and often dangerous choice that I have made. At the end of the weekend, I felt like a tumor had been removed and I could now see so much more clearly why I made those decisions. I had always intellectually understood that there was a connection but this weekend allowed me to experience the connection in my body. I was able to feel and process the pain.Recently, I had the awareness that at some point in my life it became okay, even necessary, for me to be unsafe in order to get my needs met. After this weekend, I realize that point happened in my childhood. Probably even before I learned to speak. What I came to understand was that living in an unsafe environment became the norm for me. So that when I met unsafe people, they felt familiar to me and I chose to not only be in a relationship with them but to believe that they were the only way for me to be okay, to be safe and to have my needs met. This belief was so powerful that I often made impulsive, erratic and dangerous choices. I chose to stay in an unsafe marriage for years past when a “healthy” person would have left. Even after I finally left, I have struggled to stay away because being on my own is scary.
Now I am wondering if what actually feels scary to me is the unfamiliar feeling of safety.
The irony is that for so long I have been terrified of being alone but I am actually so much safer on my own than in the numerous toxic relationships – romantic, platonic, familial or otherwise – that I have been in.If you take this knowledge and apply it to all of us who have stayed in abusive relationships, you can begin to understand why we stay. Our abuser feels safe to us. They feel familiar. They feel like family. That’s how I felt when I met my ex. I was wildly attracted to him. I told all my friends that he felt like family. He felt like coming home.Once our “tumors” are gone, our work is learning how to live in real safety. We must learn how to protect ourselves through boundaries, accountability and listening to our own voice. Not the voice that tells us that we can’t make it on our own because it lies. But the voice that says that we are smart, trustworthy, capable and deserve to be happy. Most importantly, we must listen to the voice that says we have the right to feel safe and that we get to decide what that means.By the way, the limiting beliefs (and that’s what they really are) that keep us in unhealthy relationships can impact ALL OF OUR RELATIONSHIPS. The unhealthy relationship that many of us get stuck is the one we have with our job. Be honest. Do you tolerate bad behavior at work that you would never put up with at home? Or are you tolerating feeling unsafe at work and at home? Whatever the answer is, I’m here to listen. Judgement free. Because, sister, I’ve tolerated it all. And in case you missed it the first time, I’ll say it again:
You have a right to feel safe.
Any relationship that requires you to sacrifice this right is no relationship you want to stay in.No matter the size of the paycheck.
Until next time,xoxo, Jenni