This post is adapted from my recent appearance in the “Show It Off” podcast. To listen to the full episode, check it out here: “Gifts of Ending the Toxic Relationship Pattern with Author and Former Single Mama, Karen Stanley”. To listen to other podcast appearances, check out this comprehensive podcast list.
The reason, ultimately, that I left my first marriage is because I really didn’t want to show that type of toxic relationship to my children as an example of what happens in a family. Because your children are watching. They’re not necessarily going to listen to everything you say, but they are watching your every action. My first marriage was not a good example for them to watch growing up. I hadn’t experienced what it could be like if you had two imperfect people that serve, help, and cherish each other. I didn’t want them to think my relationship dynamics with their father is what a marriage should look like. It’s such a miracle to have the kind of relationship that I have now where you can love and cherish each other. I want to talk about all the gifts that have come from having such a partner, once the universe sent him to me, and once I was ready.
The gift of learning how to live a new way of life
In that first year of my relationship with my current husband John, we were so in love and wrapped up in a new romance. We moved in together almost 5 months after our first date. There was no reason to wait for us—we’d known each other for years. We just knew. But, moving in was a bit of an adjustment.
There were a lot of things that I wish I would have done differently. I moved my kids from a good school to a not-as-good school, and they had some bad experiences there. I have a little mommy guilt for that. We all had to figure out how to live together. What were our roles in the new family we were creating? Everybody had to figure it out.
I’ve heard so many people say, “Oh, the blended family thing is a nightmare.” But what I found is exactly the opposite. If your new partner loves you, then they love ALL of you. And your children are part of you. They love you even if it’s frustrating, or there’s a fight, or if something’s going on with the kids that take attention away from them. They love you anyway. He knows they come first sometimes. And it was very hard to make that transition because I never had to give any of my attention to anyone other than my kids.
However, it’s not perfect. It’s messy, and everyone’s trying to figure out their roles. But after a while, you realize you’re also showing your children how you get through messy things, and how you learn a new way of life. And if you move again, it’s ok because all experiences are good. Especially the non-perfect messy ones. You’re constantly learning. And through all of that, your kids have a constant: My mom is happy. I know that her new husband makes her happy. My daughter even said once, “yeah, ever since you met John you don’t yell as much.”
The gift of safety & security
So many things come back to trauma. I’ve seen that in my own life, and I’ve seen that in my husband’s life too. He’s been through so much trauma from his childhood and previous marriage. It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing to have someone that you love and trust so much that you can help each other heal from the trauma, and make sure that you’re giving each other what you each need. I wouldn’t have that if I hadn’t ended the toxic relationship cycle that was creating trauma over and over again.
John and I read The 5 Love Languages book together. We both need love in different ways, and we both feel loved, secure, and safe if we have the love in our own love language—our cup is filled up. If there’s a day where the kids are struggling or something’s happened with school or I have to break a date with him to go see the teacher, we still have the safety and security. You know you’re ok.
When you’re in a relationship where you’re not safe and secure, you’re always on pins and needles, and you’re waiting to be blamed for something, it’s not a comfortable feeling. With real love and real vulnerability, you can deal with whatever comes your way with more compassion and patience because you have that love and security. It’s a wonderful thing, and I want to share that with people who may not have experienced that or know what that would be like. Our children, now, can see what it’s like.
The gift of new relationships
One of the best gifts of coming together with my soulmate is his children, to tell you the truth. I have a beautiful relationship with a new son and daughter. They’re in their 20s, and they’re very special to me. They’ve just doubled my love and joy! You can blossom a new relationship with a child of any age. Children in their 20s are still children. They still need you. It can be such a blessing to have the opportunity to grow a relationship, be an example, be a guide, be a listener, a coach, and a friend. And you get two new friends! And then they have boyfriends and girlfriends and your love and family keep growing!
Getting to know your partner’s children is such a gift, and an excellent opportunity to help show them that you can be with somebody that loves you the way you are. And that you can argue with someone and still be ok. You can make amends because you’re safe and secure. It’s a commitment that’s made every single day, and that commitment also brings freedom. I know that sounds so weird. Committing doesn’t sound like freedom. But with true love and true commitment, you are free to be yourself and tell the truth.
For years I said I was never going to get married again. “I don’t want that. I want my freedom. I’m going to do whatever I want.” I believed that being in a relationship meant you don’t have freedom to do what you love to do. But when you’re with the right person, he wants you to do all the things that bring you joy! He wants to help you make your dreams come true. He’s by your side urging you to fly higher and higher! He’s helping you go further. I had never had that kind of cheerleader before, and it is freedom. He’s not insecure, he’s not worried—he loves it! He’s so proud of me and wants to shine the light on me. He’s so happy when I’m doing a podcast, or writing a blog, or talking to our sons or daughters. He celebrates it. He loves anything that makes me happy.
To be truly celebrated and cheered on for who you are, and to have someone that wants you to shine brighter and do more and more is an incredible feeling that I’d never had until I married John. Please find a place in your heart to hope for that in your future. If it can happen to me, it can happen to you, mama.
Working through the trauma a toxic relationship brings
We’re all healing from something. We all have been traumatized. And we’ve created beliefs not only around the nature of relationships but around ourselves because we can question everything. “Is what he said really true? Am I a bad person? Was I really wrong? Is there something I could have done to keep the marriage together?” I have never experienced the death of a spouse, and I would never dream of pretending that I know what that’s like, but my therapist told me that divorce can sometimes be harder than the death of a spouse because you tend to wonder if there was something you could have done to prevent it. “Could I have done something differently? Is it my fault?” When it’s the death of a spouse there’s nothing you can do. It just happened. There’s no blame or shame.
It takes time to get through the trauma because it’s of the death of a marriage. That is what it is. It’s a death. You have to grieve, and then you may create beliefs thinking that is what “marriage” is. Your former marriage is the definition of what marriage looks like. But it’s absolutely not true. That was just your partnership with that one person. Shifting my thinking to “that one person was a teacher,” and start thinking about what you learned and what you loved. You loved something about your marriage, otherwise, you wouldn’t have married him.
Let it go!
Some Moms I’ve talked to just lock up all their emotions about their past relationship into anger and don’t even think about the good things, while some others mourn the loss of the men they thought their exes were. One of the exercises I talk about in my book is the “Letting It Go” exercise. When you really look at the truth of your relationship and find all of the things that you really appreciate, it helps heal your anger, your heart, and your resentments.
One of the steps is to write all of your resentments down. Write. it. all. out! I had pages and pages of resentment—which is just blaming another person, and that’s not helping you. It’s not going to help you evolve, or have forgiveness in your heart. It’s not going to help you have love and attract love. It’s going to keep you guarded. “I don’t want that to happen again so I’m not going to open my heart.” Write it out then let it go (burn it, even).
One of my favorite books on my resource list is Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser. She talks about your heartbreaks. When it breaks, it breaks open. It has to be shattered open so you can be open to healing, love, learning, your next chapter, and someone who will take care of and love your heart deeply. I have on my soul mate list: “My soulmate keeps my heart and my body safe because it’s his first priority. The only thing that he cares about is my wellbeing and my safety.” It’s such a miracle to have a partner like that. That’s why I want to talk about it as much and I can.
I know someone is reading saying “I don’t want another abusive husband.”—of course you don’t! You don’t want what you had before. But try to find ways to see what you contributed because of what you knew at the time of your toxic relationship. Figure out what your unhealed wounds and trauma look like. It’s okay that your beautiful amazing spirit might be a little bit broken. Because when you become aware of your wounds, you can begin the work of healing them.
We fall for what Greg Bear calls “imitation love” in his book Real Love and get into one toxic relationship after another because we don’t have self-confidence, self-love, and we haven’t healed and learned enough. We fall for imitation love every time if we don’t have the strength, courage, and confidence to love ourselves. Because if we love ourselves and our souls and what makes us unique, we won’t fall for fake love. You won’t be attracted to people offering imitation love and you won’t attract them either. You won’t even meet them.
When I met my first husband, I fell for imitation love. He’s a big huge guy. I was a young, vulnerable girl who’d been kind of broken. I had this illusion that I needed saving, and he provided hat illusion that I was safe. He was going to keep me safe. I felt like I was in danger all the time. I was outcast from my religion, I was sexually abused as a young child, and I spent a lifetime feeling like I was broken and damaged goods. Of course I fell for the first person who gave me that illusion of safety and comfort! He wanted to marry me even though I was broken.
So if you don’t believe that you deserve to be loved and cherished and adored, then you’ll keep falling for somebody who might be “pretty good,” or love you in spite of your flaws and your brokenness and mistakes. Once I shifted my thinking and grew my own self-worth and self-confidence, I attracted real love. Someone who loved me exactly the way I am. And guess what? We are the way we are because of the things we’ve gone through, because of my DNA, because I’m inherently bossy, because I’m a hard worker and bit stubborn, because of what I learned in the past.
The miracle of giving and receiving real love
It is such a gift to have real love, and be cherished for what makes you unique from everybody else. And it’s a gift to give that to someone else. Most of us haven’t experienced that, and we haven’t truly been able to give love to someone who deserves it and gives us love.
There’s a pretty good chance that your partner is healing from trauma in one form or another. Men have a harder time talking about that, but it’s very powerful to be a woman with our healing abilities. We can help the person who was meant to be with us, to give love that they’ve never had, and to help them heal. I remember the first time John cut himself and I ran and got a bandaid and put it on him. He said he had never had anyone put a bandaid on him before. That’s how horrible his childhood was. I cried.
Giving that compassion to another human who is giving it to you is a gift from God. I don’t think it’s possible without a partner that knows every single thing about you—all of your history, flaws, and mistakes you’ve made (and are still making). And he’s still there. He still has your back no matter what. I didn’t think it was possible because I’ve never had these feelings or this experience before I married John. No matter what has happened in anyone’s past, there truly can be real healing and real love ahead.
The gift of open communication
I’ll share one final story. A few weeks ago, John and I were having little snaps at each other here and there. I kept thinking about what was happening and what was really going on. It dawned on me that, even five years in, we still have filters from the past that translates what I say. Sometimes I say something (like in this instance it was “Be careful driving!”) and by the time it hits his ears, it translates to: “You’re a piece of shit and you do everything wrong.”
I prayed for a few days asking God to give me the right words, the right tone, and the right time. A few days later, we were sitting in the pool, and I said to him, “I want to talk to you about something, is that ok?” I could see him tense up and everything about his body said Now what did I do?. I said: “I love you more than anything, and my biggest fear is that something would happen to you.”
When he was going to get ice and I said to him, “be careful driving.” He snapped back at me, “oh my gosh, you’ve been telling me what to do all day long.” My old self wouldn’t have let that go, but I’m learning that I need to be calm, understand that kind of thing has nothing to do with me, and that I’ll have the right words with the right tone at the right time later. So this was the time.
“When I say ‘please be careful,’ you hear me say ‘you’re a terrible driver.’ You immediately go on the defensive and say to yourself, ‘I’ve been driving longer than you. I’ve never gotten in a wreck so don’t tell me what to do.’ No one likes to be told what to do. I have failed at communicating my concern. I’m not trying to tell you what to do. I just want you to come home safe.”
That conversation gave me the opportunity to see his demeanor totally change—“Oh my gosh. I understand what you’re saying. It makes me feel so much better to hear you say that you love me, and you just want me to be safe. Now I know that that is the underlying of everything single thing that you say.” And I know what’s probably more important than what I say is how I say something. So, I’m going to work way harder at saying things in a better way in the right tone at the right time.
The gift of intimacy
We’re all fragile in certain ways. We all have triggers from our past. And being told what to do/attacked is his trigger. So if I say it with extra kindness and love, then he doesn’t interpret it in an attacking way. I was able to express it the right way with God’s help—with love and compassion. It showed me how important it is for me to show compassion and love to my person.
We’re healing as we go every day. That lets you create true intimacy. No one is going to exploit me. No one is going to yell at me. No one is going to be mad at me. And he’s healing at the same time. That’s a true gift of having a partner. We help heal each other, and we’re growing together every day. That’s such a beautiful thing.
The only way to experience true intimacy is by having those hard conversations. If you don’t have a partner who you’re learning and growing with, then you’re not having those conversations and you’re missing out on that opportunity to create true intimacy in your life. It enhances all areas of your life. It helps your relationships with others too. It helps me be softer. It makes me want to try that with my daughter next time we have a snap. How are your children going to learn how a husband and wife have a spat, repair it and move on without an example?
I am allowed to be vulnerable and share all of my thoughts, good or bad. I’m allowed to have bad days. I’m allowed to have bad hair and bad breath because it’s ok! You’re a human being. You’re allowed to be a human. You have a safety net. Your partner loves you because of everything that makes you human.
The gift of a bright future
Mamas, I know you may be healing from whatever trauma has happened in your life right now. But I plead with you now to hope for a wonderful future outside of the shadow of your toxic relationship. You can heal. You can feel better. You can attract someone who cheers you on and helps you fly. If it’s possible for one of us, it’s possible for all of us.
Wishing you all the healing and happiness!
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