VALENTINE’S DAY, 2014. “How’s everything between you two?”
It was Valentine’s Day and I was having breakfast with my mentor. The conversation had inevitably drifted towards me and my then-boyfriend, whom I was meeting later in the evening.
Whenever leaders and friends asked me about our relationship, I always gave my default answer.
There are difficult moments, but we’re good.
I tried to not let on as much as I actually wanted to.
My eyes were fixed on the cup of tea in front of me and I prayed she didn’t notice that muscle twitch in my face.
The truth was, we weren’t good.
I felt that by keeping quiet about our troubles meant that I was honouring him. Don’t air your dirty laundry, I was taught. What if I lose his trust by confiding in others?
I told myself that maintaining a relationship is hard work. Getting put down, the disappointment, the hurt, the crying, the fighting … It’s all part of the package.
But … Was it really?
Nobody knew that I was more fearful than I was excited about meeting him for dinner later that night.
That would also be our last dinner together. A week later, we broke up.
Where did we go wrong?
AUGUST 2013. We had been great friends, we shared many things in common and we dreamed passionately for the same things for God. In the eyes of many, we were a dynamic pair.
He would make a good life partner. I’d thought to myself. That was what he told me too. We talked about our future, the family we would want to build and our life together ahead.
Everything was great.
I must’ve missed it, but one day it all just changed completely.
He became withdrawn and distant. Suddenly everything was an issue. He wouldn’t be satisfied over whatever I was wearing, or how my skin looked that day. He would text me after his swim class and call me out on my lack of sportiness and my unathletic build.
He started complaining about my introspective and pensive nature. One night he texted me at 3am: You should do something about your skin and those pores.
Maybe all those things were valid. But why did it hurt so much?
FEBRUARY 2014. Two days before the break up, I was in a corporate prayer meeting in church. He was sitting right in front of me.
I couldn’t pay much attention to whatever that was going on. My mind was in a state of mess as I thought about how pained I was to be in this relationship. This isn’t the relationship I wanted.
As I stared into the back of this familiar stranger, I was finally faced with the truth I’d been escaping from.
I was in a toxic relationship.
WHEN ABUSE TURNS INTO SELF-ABUSE
There is a fine line between speaking the truth and outright verbal abuse.
My ex had always ended every of his “critique sessions” with “this is all for your own good”.
And for the whole of our relationship, I believed it. I made myself believe it.
But like what Timothy Keller said before in one of his sermons, “Truth without love is imperious self-righteousness. Love without truth is cowardly self-indulgence.”
Both are selfish, and equally hurtful.
By listening and believing to his every word and action, I lost sight of who I really was. Who was I? I no longer knew myself.
I started to hate myself. His emotional abuse had turned into my self-abuse. Unknowingly, fear had replaced excitement and joy. I was always in anticipation for our next blow-up.
BREAK UP? CAN OR NOT?
It is extremely uncomfortable to talk about breaking up in the church. In a place where love and relationships are (rightly) celebrated, those trapped in failing and unhappy relationships often remain silent and hidden.
Is it okay to break up?
That question crossed my mind countless times. I’d even asked a trusted girlfriend from my cell group the same question, and she’d assured me that “it’ll all get better”. After all, that’s the outcome that all of us want to our problems. Who doesn’t?
Some weeks after our breakup, a friend who came alongside to comfort me asked me a question I’ll never forget.
Do you think your relationship glorified God?
A show reel of every single moment in that relationship started playing in my mind, and I knew deep down that my “no” resounded much louder than my “yes”.
Yes, building and maintaining a relationship is hard work. Sometimes it is painful. But if the relationship is always painful, how is it even glorifying God?
There are mainly two ways to manage a toxic relationship.
1. Set healthy boundaries
In the book “Boundaries” by Dr Henry Cloud and Dr John Townsend, they explain that boundaries can manifest in the physical, verbal, emotional, mental and social. Things that should be considered within these boundaries can include feelings, beliefs, behaviours, values and limits.
If we don’t set limits, we remain a prisoner to the wishes of another person – healthy boundaries help us to love and serve one another better.
We usually think that setting boundaries can be selfish or hurtful. We fear that by setting boundaries, we’d risk losing a relationship. Yet if we don’t set limits, we’d remain a prisoner to the wishes of another person. Healthy boundaries actually help us to love and serve one another better.
2. Cut off unhealthy relations
While the ending of relationships isn’t the most recommended solution to most problems, sometimes the most extreme boundary will happen in the form of cutting of unhealthy ties.
Galatians 5:1 tells us that, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
I don’t presume this of you, but Jesus died to set me free. By consciously remaining in a toxic relationship, I was just restraining my God-given freedom.
In our emotionally abusive relationship, I was hurt through and through and I didn’t know who I was anymore. I had lost all ability to empathise or to show compassion because my pain had worn me out.
I’d become extremely bitter, not just towards him and myself, but to others in happy relationships. We simply loved each other better as friends than we did as a couple. It was never going to work out.
Instead of pleasing God, I was busy with trying to appease him.
But I was never going to be able to “fix” his problems or behave “perfectly” enough to make him happy. In fact, there was nothing I could do to make anything better.
In attempting to do so, I was only snuffing out God’s light in my own life. Not only did our relationship failed to glorify God, it was the complete opposite of what is expected of a healthy relationship – which is selfless love, unreserved kindness and unending grace.
SOME THINGS JUST WON’T CHANGE
MARCH 2014. It’d been a month since we broke up. One night while walking down a long, dark road alone near church, I got very upset at this barley drink I’d just bought. It tasted so bad and was a complete waste of my money. But I didn’t want to throw it away.
I’d only just bought it. I invested my dollar in it. I wanted something to accompany me for the long walk, and also because I’d hoped that it’ll taste better later.
But that barley drink didn’t taste any better 2 kilometres later, so I finally decided to chuck it into the bin.
Right then, I had an epiphany.
My relationship had been like that barley drink.
Even though it was all going south, I wasn’t willing to let go of it for good. Because it’d only just begun. Because I invested this much of myself in it. Because I wanted the companionship, and because I thought maybe after a while it’ll all be better.
But that barley drink didn’t taste any better 2 kilometres later. Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? (Jeremiah 13:23)
Four years have passed, and I still don’t miss it.