By Michelle Horton
If you’ve never sat on a stranger’s couch with a box of tissues in your lap, bawling your eyes out as a kind-eyed man smiles without judgment or criticism, then you don’t know what you’re missing.
After the weight of my husband’s opiate addiction threatened to suffocate me or drive me mad — whichever came first — and after discovering my own codependency issues, I was serendipitously led to a retired therapist who lives in walking distance from my house. I needed help (desperately), and I still can’t believe my good fortune at finding a therapist so perfectly suited to my specific issues. Not only had he worked in addiction treatment for decades, but he also had a couples therapy business with his wife. This man has lived through multiple marriages, good and bad relationships, and has counseled hundreds of couples (if not more) throughout his career and he’s never shy about sharing those life experiences with me.
As someone who got married extremely young and struggled with knowing where my “wifely duties” ended and where my obligations to my own well-being began, I needed some guidance. Not only was I given a safe space to vent and cry and rant, but I left each session with at least one phrase or light-bulb realization that profoundly resonated with me.
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Here are eight brutally honest lessons I learned about love from my therapist:
1. Love is about reciprocity.
On the surface, one might scoff at such a statement. Love isn’t contingent on what we get back, right? Love doesn’t keep score, doesn’t need anything in return, isn’t needy. Yet the very basic definition of love — caring about the health, happiness, and well-being of someone over ourselves — should be reciprocal. If you’re in a relationship where you’re always giving, giving, giving to the point of depletion, and if you aren’t feeling important, cared for, even considered, then there’s something else going on besides love. Even though the scales won’t always be balanced, the love in a marriage should be reciprocal. It’s such a basic concept but really helped to put things into persepective as to what I’m giving vs. what I’m receiving.
2. “This is an abusive relationship.”
A blunt statement that changed my life. I spent over 5 years in a marriage that was abusive and I had absolutely no idea. He never hit me, never yelled, never called me hurtful names — and yet the abuse was there, hidden beneath my excuses and justifications for his behavior. Sometimes it takes an objective, outside perspective to shine a light on a truth you didn’t want to see.
3. You can’t be the supporter and the enforcer at the same time.
This was in the context of my husband’s addiction and my enabler tendencies, but it applies to my marriage and parenting, too. Enforcing boundaries and rules isn’t easy (especially for someone like me, who wants to perpetually support and love everyone in my life), but it’s important. And, no, it’s impossible to be the enforcer and the support system at the same time.
4. Not all relationships are meant to last.
Here’s a hard truth that transcends every “’til death do us part” vow. My therapist has a rolodex of examples, some personal, some professional, of relationships that needed to end. Some relationships are toxic and damaging and sometimes a relationship reaches a point where there’s nothing left to learn from, no way left to grow together, and has to be let go. That doesn’t make the relationship a failure — we learned something from it — it simply makes the relationship over.
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5. Sexual attraction isn’t everything.
Just because I’ve historically been most attracted to damaged, baggage-carrying men doesn’t mean I’m meant to be with them; it just means I might not be as healthy as I assumed. When my therapist told me that his healthiest relationship is the one that started with little to no “spark,” I initially felt sad. How could you be in a relationship where there’s no heat, no fireworks? But from a wiser perspective, a “spark” isn’t always a green light. In fact, in many cases, it can be a red flag. In future relationships, I’ll ask myself why I’m attracted to a certain man before trusting my sex organs.
6. You can never love anyone until you love yourself.
This was phrased more like, “Have you reached the realization that you really can’t love anyone until you love yourself first?” As if loving myself was a marker on the way to true healthy thinking, a marker I’d eventually pass. Of course I nodded, given the very familiar cliché that everyone thinks they understand. I’ll be honest, it took a good six months of consciously practicing self-love before I realized the depths of that statement. After finding a more tender, compassionate attitude toward myself, I was able to understand how other people need to be loved. Beyond romantic love, contractual love, tough love, I-love-you-but-I-don’t-like-you love, there’s the true essense of pure LOVE — in all its warmth and softness, a love that can only be understood through experiencing it from ourselves to ourselves.
7. “He might not be capable of loving you.”
“Is he capable of loving you?” my therapist asked one day. It was a question I’d wondered many times, as I mulled over his damaged past, his abusive tendencies, his disease that makes him self-centered and manipulative. Maybe he’s loving me the best way he can, but is it enough? After asking myself this question in the quiet stillness, the answer was something I always knew, deep down. Maybe we should stop asking our partners, “Do you love me?” and start questioning if they can love us the way that we define love. Just because he understands love differently, and just because he has certain walls in place that prevent real love from seeping through, doesn’t make him a bad person. It’s not personal, but it’s also not my problem to fix.
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8. The best thing you can do for your family is to be healthy.
My therapist doesn’t define “healthy” with a BMI number or a specific diet. Healthiness, rather, is having a clear mind, strong boundaries, and a pulled-back perspective on life. And being healthy, from that definition, gives us the ability to offer our best selves to our partner and children.
This article originally appeared on YourTango.