You can learn a lot from past relationships if you’re willing to look beyond the pain.
1996 was one of the craziest, most turbulent years of my life.
I’d recently learned I was adopted.
I was facing a prison sentence for my illegal drug manufacturing-related crimes.
And for the first time in my life, I fell in love.
Jennifer was one of the most amazing women I’d ever met. She was beautiful, smart, sexy and witty. Wherever we were, male heads would turn almost 180 degrees to get a second look at her.
I fell completely in love with her.
The feelings I experienced were powerful, euphoric and magical. I’d miss her even if she was gone for a few hours. I’d get goosebumps just by talking to her. I felt an almost electrical charge of energy when we were together.
We stayed up talking until 4 am in the morning. We lived together, talked, read, cooked and grew closer each moment of each day.
Being with her unleashed so much dopamine in my brain that I felt like I was on a drug. And like many drugs, there would be a price to pay for the high.
Lesson #1: Relationships won’t solve your problems
I grew up poor, with a very abusive alcoholic father who constantly beat down my self-esteem. I had a lot of anger at the world and a very negative attitude.
I felt worthless. I thought that being a drug dealer would be my biggest accomplishment in this world. My low self-worth caused a shit storm of problems in my life.
Jennifer grew up with an abusive step-father who raped her for years. During one incident, her mom walked into her room and saw her step-dad in bed with her. She callously closed the door and pretended she didn’t see what obviously happened.
Jennifer and I were trapped in those mental prisons of anger, negativity, low self-esteem and shame for most of our lives. The entire world let us down, but we thought we could save each other.
We believed the love and devotion we developed over the last three months could forever eradicate a lifetime of emotional and mental baggage.
A relationship can’t solve our most debilitating problems. Those warm and fuzzy feelings we get from relationships will only distract us from our underlying problems. Relationships numb the pain but actually make our problems worse because we’re not confronting the problems that cause the pain.
When two damaged people enter into these alluring unions, a downward spiral of codependency begins. We tolerate each others’s bad behavior.
We’re stuck in a web of dysfunction as the relationship deceptively makes us think our lives are finally getting better. We tell each other that we’re fine. We’re preventing ourselves and our partners from learning, growing and overcoming the demons that have ruined our lives.
To solve this problem, first be aware of the signs of a codependent relationship, such as: tolerating the other person’s bad behaviors, not setting healthy boundaries, jealousy, controlling behavior, excessive fear of abandonment, a high need for approval and validation, and difficulty saying “no.”
Next, realize that you are the only one who can solve your problems. You can’t depend on your significant other, family, friends or other people to save you. Other people can help you, but you ultimately have to make the decision to change by doing the hard work.
Finally, work on yourself. Identify and resolve all those things that are stopping you from being the amazing person you were meant to be. Get rid of the excessive jealousy, insecurity and neediness.
Set strong boundaries and live authentically. Love yourself first. The following lessons will give you some guidance in these areas.
A happy, successful relationship is two people who are independent, healthy and secure. The love they have for each other is based on trust, respect and compatibility.
They’re not dependent on each other for happiness or validation. They’re not emotionally needy.
Erich Fromm describes this vision of healthy love:
“Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you. Mature love says: ‘I need you because I love you.’”
Lesson #2: Think before acting on strong feelings
Anytime you experience a powerful, earth-shattering feeling, first question the validity of that feeling. These types of feelings are oftentimes followed by overreactions and terrible decisions.
Think of those times you were extremely pissed off at someone and then said something you regret to this day. Think about the time you were filled with so much rage, you hit or threw something.
I used to break so many home phones in fits of rage that someone later bought me a phone made out of the same material flip flops are made of. It refused to break, no matter how hard I threw it.
Just because you feel something strongly, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Those emotions-on-steroids can blind us to reality.
They can shut down the rational part of our brains.
My strong love for Jennifer caused me to make many bad decisions, one of which was marrying her five days before I turned myself into prison to begin serving a 2-year sentence. I did this despite evidence that she had a drug problem and a shit ton of unresolved emotional problems.
The end result? She spent the money I gave her on drugs, left me for someone else while I was in prison and stole my identity to get more drug money.
Not all powerful feelings lead to bad relationships or decisions. But the risk is there. Be careful.
When you feel the overpowering euphoria of love, and you’re about to make a significant decision, ask yourself these questions:
- Does it make sense to do what I’m about to do right now?
- Are there warning signs I’m not seeing?
- What advice would I give to a friend who were in my situation?
Then talk to a few trusted friends or family members about your situation and get some outside, objective opinions.
Lesson #3: Set strong boundaries
If you don’t set strong boundaries, you can lose yourself in the relationship.
It’s so easy to lose yourself.
You don’t disagree with your new partner because you don’t want to create friction.
You find that some of your partner’s opinions and values are totally unacceptable, but you stay silent. You avoid conversations that will shine a light on the differences between the two of you.
Me and Jennifer alternated between dysfunctional states of codependence in which we lost ourselves and our problems in the relationship and times when we were afraid to disagree with each other because neither of us wanted to risk losing the other.
We were insanely needy and insecure.
One of the worst ways to lose yourself is to change your beliefs and values when your mate doesn’t agree with them. When you look back at the wreckage of the relationship, it’s easy—and very disappointing—to see that you gave up who you were for someone else.
The solution to this dilemma is simple: set strong boundaries from the beginning. Make a list of what you’re willing to accept and your deal-breakers.
Define your core values and the non-negotiable beliefs that matter most to you.
Don’t shy away from the things that define who you are. If you do, you’re doing a disservice to yourself and your partner, who may never know what you believe or how you feel because you didn’t have the courage to talk about it.
Communicate your deal-breakers, values, beliefs and opinions with your partner. They won’t always agree with you. There will be conflicts, but healthy conflicts make the relationship grow into a healthy union.
Great communication lets both people know if they’ve done something wrong. It’s the catalyst for compromise and finding common ground.
Staying quiet and avoiding conflict only causes underlying differences and problems to simmer and then one day explode like a powder keg.
Setting strong boundaries requires courage. The courage to be authentic. The courage to stand by your values and beliefs, even if it means your partner may walk away. If they do walk away, then the two of you were never really compatible.
You saved yourself a lot of future headaches.
Farah Ayaad makes this clear:
I choose losing you over losing myself and I would rather be abandoned by you than be abandoned by me.
People generally like and respect authenticity. When you set your boundaries and clearly communicate them, you’re setting the stage for a happy and healthy relationship.
Lesson #4: Love yourself first
“I think the problem is that we depend on our lovers to love us the way we should love ourselves.” — Humble the Poet
Love begins with us. We have to love ourselves before we can love others in a healthy way.
All of us have those moments when we feel less than. We don’t look good enough. We aren’t smart enough. We’re not really good people.
When these feelings of inadequacy are really strong, it affects our relationships. We doubt our partners. We become insecure.
We doubt ourselves. We doubt our inherent value as human beings.
We unconsciously don’t believe we’re lovable. We can start to believe that the relationship we’re in now is as good as it gets, so we’d better do what it takes to hold onto it.
This can be really dangerous when we’re in an abusive or toxic relationship. We’re more likely to endure it because we don’t think we’re good enough to find a better one. Think about the millions of people who stay in abusive or unfulfilling relationships because they don’t love themselves.
Looking back, there were a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t have married Jennifer. If I truly loved myself, I would’ve ended the relationship when I saw the first danger signals.
The solution is simple but oftentimes difficult to implement: love yourself because you can’t truly love others until you truly love yourself first.
Lesson #5: Let go of negative emotions
When a relationship we really cherished ends, we feel a lot of negative emotions. If we believe the other person is at fault, we feel anger, confusion, animosity or even hatred. If we know we caused it to end, we’ll feel guilt, shame, or regret—or all of these things.
Although negative emotions do serve a useful purpose, if we hold onto them too long, they’ll poison other areas of our lives. A woman who hates her ex-husband because he cheated on her refuses to trust other men. She hasn’t had a relationship with anyone in over 14 years.
A man who hasn’t forgiven himself for allowing alcohol to ruin his past relationships now believes he doesn’t deserve to be happy. He continually attracts women who mistreat him or are totally incompatible with him.
When I got out of prison and found out Jennifer cheated on me, used the money I gave her for drugs, and stole my identity, I hated her. When she refused to contact me, I hated her more.
The more we loved someone, the more we’ll hate them or be angry at them when the relationship ends.
When you feel negative emotions after a break-up, don’t repress or avoid feeling the negative emotions. This will only make things worse.
Allow yourself to feel all of the bad emotions. Embrace and accept that you’re feeling them.
Don’t judge the emotions or judge yourself harshly for feeling them. Realize that you’re human. You loved that person and now you’re hurt. It’s ok to feel this torrent of painful emotions.
Give yourself time to grieve.
Next, slowly start letting these negative emotions go. If you did something wrong, have compassion for yourself. If the other person did something wrong, have compassion for them.
Forgive yourself or the other person.
Use empathy to understand why they did what they did or why you acted a certain way. Empathy doesn’t mean you agree with the bad behavior. It means you understand why. You understand that we’re all human and make mistakes because certain things happened in our lives.
The hatred I felt for Jennifer slowly turned into anger. The anger slowly changed to empathy and understanding.
I was finally able to forgive her—not for her, but for me. It allowed me to move forward with clarity, happiness and a sense of freedom.
Lesson #6: Don’t regret falling in love
A lot of us regret bad relationship decisions we made. Don’t do it.
Regret can make us feel like we failed in a big way. It can erode our self-esteem, which will probably already be very low after the breakup.
Don’t look at that past relationship as a vacuum that’s sucked the happiness out of your life.
Look at the void as a space for new and better possibilities.
The lessons you learned from past relationships will better prepare you for better future relationships that will bring new meaning and happiness to your life.
Look at the past mistakes as great opportunities for growth. Our biggest successes are oftentimes the result of our biggest failures.
Remember the good things about the person. Remember those incredibly great times the two of you had.
Love takes courage. The courage to be vulnerable and risk being hurt. The courage to put your heart, soul and faith in something that has an unknown ending.
Don’t beat yourself up. Love yourself for having the courage to give love a try.
I last saw Jennifer while I was in prison in June of 1998, shortly after my mom died. Soon after that, she stopped replying to my letters. Her phone was disconnected.
I never heard from her again.
In early 2018, a mutual friend of ours told me that Jennifer had moved to Oklahoma, quit doing drugs and started a new family.
She also told me that just before Christmas of 2017, Jennifer tripped and fell into a bathtub in her bathroom. She hit her head and fell unconscious.
Days later, her family decided to disconnect her from life support because she was brain dead.
I sometimes wondered how things would’ve turned out if she had never been raped and grew up in a good family. What would’ve happened if life had dealt us entirely different cards? What if we met under different circumstances? What if I never went to prison?
Then I stopped thinking about “what if?” and just thought about her beauty, witty personality and the incredible, but brief times we had together.