If It Feels Like This, It's Not True Love

Em Unravelling


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When I was married many years ago to my first husband, I would dread making any social arrangements. I could never be entirely certain that on the day in question my husband would even be speaking to me. It was always possible that in the intervening period between making the plans and the event happening I would do something to displease him, and then his resulting mood would affect the whole experience.

On the other hand, of course, he might end up particularly happy with me that weekend. We might be on a giddy upswing and have an amazingly fun time together. But the fact I could never know which it would be — that polluted my whole life.

I was still addicted, though. Whenever one of the bad periods ended, I’d move into the thrill of the upswing with a feeling that bordered on triumph. I’d won him round again! He loved me! And then we’d be blissfully happy…until we weren’t. Again.

No one should live like that. It’s toxic, and like any toxicity in a relationship, the pattern is not only destructive but incredibly draining. I was tired throughout that marriage, not only from the endless nights of self-doubt and arguments but also because at my core I had no sense of any peace. I didn’t know where I stood at all.

I knew from the moment I escaped that marriage that I didn’t want to live like that again. It was one of the biggest lessons I took from the whole experience. And so, much later in my life when I had an ill-advised and destructive extramarital affair, I ended it as soon as I could see a similar pattern emerging.

Of course, my former lover hated that suddenly he was not in any sort of control, and as a result, he veered between angry and pleading with me for some time afterward.

I remember one particular text exchange with him very clearly. He had sent me a long message to ask, again, why I was so stubbornly refusing to give him the ‘one more chance’ he was asking for. I was so tired at this point and very lonely. I had already given him several ‘last chances’ and I knew that I could not do it again. It was not negotiable and I had nothing to lose by being utterly honest.

“Not knowing where I stood with you from one day to the next was damaging my whole self,” I told him in my texted response. “I truly hated it. It had to end. This will, in the long run, be better for both of us. There were good bits, but the bad bits were awful. They were destroying me.”

“I cannot fathom,” he swiftly replied, “how you’d rather have nothing rather than something…you’re basically writing all the good off completely and focusing on the bad when we know the good is SO, SO good.” He accused me of focusing only on the downs, of not fully enjoying the ups. He said that I was not holding on to the high points tightly enough to sustain me through each downswing.

I knew for absolute certain then that I had been right about the way things would have been with him. He believed the toxic lie. He could not apparently ‘fathom’ the concept of a stable bedrock of underlying respect and affection between two people in love.

Without my early experience, I think that I would have mistaken the wild peaks and troughs of my affair for passionate love. I suspect I would have still been in some kind of vacillating, push-and-pull relationship with my lover even now, years later. And I know that I would have been very very unhappy.

That’s why I am so keen to tell anyone who will listen: it doesn’t matter how good the good days are if they’re always followed by bad ones. By telling yourself that it’s normal you are enabling, you are creating, a toxic pattern that is unlikely ever to end.

All relationships, whether friendships or romances have points at which they’re absolutely fantastic, and other points at which they feel awry. Moments of absolute synchronicity and mind-reading closeness are almost inevitably followed by times when it feels that nothing connects quite right between you, there’s miscommunication after miscommunication, and the whole thing feels utterly frustrating.

That’s normal, of course. Nothing in life is constant. If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that we can’t take anything in our lives for granted, and during any relationship, it’s inevitable that there will be undulations. Even in the calmest, most peaceful union, there are external forces at play. (Quarantine, anyone?)

But there should still be an underlying structure. In a romantic relationship most experts tend to agree that the supporting structure should be a tripod: trust, respect, and affection. Those 3 things are a minimum. None of them should be absent. Not during the ups and definitely not during the downs.

The problems begin when the pendulum swings too far and the feeling of living our romantic lives on a rollercoaster becomes normal. Snagged by the “true love never runs smooth” message in popular culture and hooked on the stomach-swooping effects of dopamine, we can create in ourselves the belief that the joy of passionate love must of course be somehow balanced by the pain of crushing lows.

I have spoken as a lawyer to female clients in their 80s and 90s who are still afraid of their husband’s dark moods. Once you are in a cycle, it can’t end unless one of you breaks it. The problem is that because the cycle itself is exhausting, it is very hard to see clearly enough to create a break.

It is an addictive cycle, too. The joyous, loving high points are addictive, chemically so. It’s like being drugged. But you can’t go through your whole life drugged, and at some point, the withdrawal will catch up with you.

I am definitely not saying that wildly passionate relationships don’t or shouldn’t exist. I have no doubt that it’s possible to thrive in volatile relationships but the tripod should still be there: respect, trust, affection. If those things remain, then the rollercoaster stays fun.

If one of those elements is missing, though, it’s time to have a long hard look at the relationship. It doesn’t have to end. This isn’t binary; I’m definitely not saying that every toxic cycle is doomed. But the relationship will need some kind of work (therapeutic or practical) and effort from both parties to shore up those pillars of respect, trust, and affection before it can ever be a constant asset to your shared lives, rather than an intermittent and destructive liability.

And there’s no excuse, not even the excuse of passion, for any loving relationship to be anything other than an asset to both of you.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.


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