In between my tossing and turning in bed tonight, my mind began wandering in a typical autobiographical way. Humans have this unique ability to engage in narrative thinking—the ability to look back on our experiences and create significant connections in our memories, which produce meaning.
Narrative-thinking is a brilliant superpower because it allows us to reflect and learn from past experiences. As my brain helplessly engaged in narrative-thinking instead of drifting off to sleep, I wandered back to past relationships. Consequently, my memories led me to form a belief of what a relationship looks like.
As a woman, I grew up with messages of what love looks like.
Opened doors. Pulled out chairs. Scraping ice off your windshield for you.
I grew up with messages of what sentences love should say.
You’re unlike anyone I’ve ever met. You’re my best friend. I can see a future with you.
I grew up with messages of what love should make me feel like.
Giddy butterflies. Flushed cheeks. Quickened heartbeat.
In short, I was taught what love looks like. However, I was never taught what love doesn’t look like. I was never taught what love doesn’t feel or sound like. This set me up to have rose-colored glasses and a naive acceptance of being treated poorly.
I was so busy remembering what love sounded like in the beginning that it drowned out the sounds of what love was not in the present moment. My instinct to look for the good allowed—for the brief moments of butterflies—to justify the immense, overwhelming moments of insecurity, anxiety and doubt. I blamed myself. I ended up stuck in a relationship where I was not valued and was without the tools to distinguish between love and mistreatment.
I ended up stuck in a relationship where I was not valued and was without the tools to distinguish between love and mistreatment.
So tonight, I wondered—
What if we taught girls what love does not look like?
What if we taught girls what love does not feel like or sound like?
Would this produce women (and men, for that matter) who know not only what to look for in a partner, but also what red flags to look out for?
I have to wonder if having known these parameters from the get-go would have saved me from tolerating boys who fed me poison and told me, “That’s honey. You just don’t know what honey tastes like.”
I have always thought my story and my upbringing was unique. Surely not every woman was taught to withstand toxicity, abuse, manipulation and mind games in the name of love. Surely not every woman has fought their instincts with excuses like, “I know that wasn’t right, but do you remember when he was there for you in that emergency? Do you remember when he made you breakfast in bed?”
Let me just say this now: Past good does not make up for present mistreatment. If a medicine no longer aided you, then would you continue to take it simply because it used to help? Of course not, and you certainly wouldn’t continue to take it if the side effects were harmful.
Past good does not make up for present mistreatment.
I want to write to the girl, boy, woman or man who was told what love was—and never what love is not.
Love does not prioritize itself over you, time after time.
Love does not manipulate or gaslight.
Love does not ask you to quench your desire to be valued, to be seen and to be heard.
Love does not silence you.
Love does not leave you uncertain or insecure.
Love does not turn away from you when you are in need.
Love does not give up on you or walk out on you.
Love does not make you feel isolated or alone.
Love does not call you “too much” for being human.
Love does not see loving you as a chore.
Love is not unpredictable or inconsistent in its affection.
Love is not shame-producing.
Love is not quick to point the finger at you without taking any responsibility.
Love is not only words without action.
Love is not impatient with gaining your trust or learning your heart.
Love is not reluctant to grow or self-reflect.
Love is not impatient with your own growth or self-reflection.
Love is not compromising your worth, self-respect or values.
Love is not setting yourself on fire to keep another warm.
Love is not self-centered.
Let me say that one again for the people in the back: Love is not self-centered. Yes, it is important to know what you deserve, but it may be even more vital to know what you do not deserve.
It may be even more vital to know what you do not deserve.
You, dear one, owe it to yourself to have guidelines for what you will not tolerate. It is up to us to teach others how to treat us.
Perhaps, if we walk in this light—in this awareness of what we do and do not deserve—we will be women who walk taller, stronger and wiser. Perhaps, we will raise women who walk in the same way. Perhaps, we will be the ones who change the narrative.
All my love,
Have you ever been in a toxic relationship? Were you taught the difference between what love is and what love is not?
Image via Margaret Stokman