It’s taken me a generous distance, as well as a healthy break from the pain, to realize I don’t understand what my mom thought of me. In my earliest years, I believed she loved me, cause none of her demands were unreasonable. After all, children are often helpless and don’t even know what’s best for themselves. Then I grew up, and developed an identity of my own. That meant I had distinctive needs separate from hers, and she would deny every one of them unless they were in line with what she wanted. It was impossible for me to believe there was any love at all when she was the cause of so much of my pain. I’ve since come to realize that relationships are full of nuances, and that it’s possible to love someone wholeheartedly and be terrible for them at the same time.
Regardless of what my mom thought or felt, the fact that matters most is that nothing she did in our relationship was for my sake; every decision or action she made was to further her image as a “good parent”. As a result, the relationship was almost purely toxic. The last incident was a perfect example of how little my feelings mattered to her, and how she was more concerned about the way I made her appear to others than for my wellbeing. Perhaps in her mind, she truly believed she loved me, but any intention was consistently tainted by the trauma she’d end up causing. The fact that she refused to apologize — even after she knew she did something wrong, even if it was for the sake of reconciling with her only child — shows how little I meant to her as a son (and how ill-suited she was to be a parent).
Afterward, she’d send me gifts or call to talk, pretending as if she didn’t nearly kill me, as if I’d never suffered as a direct result of her actions. The only way I could get through to her was by hanging up. Disconnecting. Since she couldn’t learn, change, or understand what she put me through, I had to take the step of severing the relationship for the sake of my mental health.
It wasn’t until a falling out with an ex that I fully understood the importance of taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, regardless of intention. When I confronted her about bailing on me one day without any explanation, she said she didn’t feel bad and would never apologize to someone unless she meant to hurt them.1 That’s when I learned how much it matters to apologize for something as simple as being late, a lesson I’m grateful to have received at an early age (and before I messed up any important relationships). Regardless of how small her mistake was, and even though we were simply friends at that point, I didn’t want to spend any time with someone who felt no remorse when she’d hurt me, especially after I’d put myself out there and apologized for my role in the way we fell apart.
This point was especially driven home to me by a person I once considered my best friend. Before I started therapy, I couldn’t help but repeat the unhealthy patterns of my youth, and this friendship was a perfect example of how I’d constantly try to get close to people who wouldn’t return the effort I put in. He hurt me several times in the course of our relationship, but I kept much of those feelings to myself, and they ate at me inside. It’s all I knew. I believed that’s how relationships functioned, and submission is how one showed love, cause that’s what I learned from my parents.
Eventually, the pain was significant enough that I had to question whether the relationship made any sense. Through tears and gritted teeth, I apologized for not being open sooner about my feelings, for not giving him a chance to understand my side, even though I was the one crying. It was a way of taking responsibility for my part in that pain (and certainly not an easy thing to do in the moment). He tried to convince me that things would be different and he’d be a good listener from that point on, but when I brought up how his actions had hurt me in the past, he refused to take anything I said to heart. I could have given him more time to learn and grow, but he made it clear he wasn’t interested in changing his behaviours or even trying to understand my side. He was who he was, and expected that to be good enough for me. It was completely heartbreaking; I knew the friendship wouldn’t work after I’d already tried everything on my end to compromise (including therapy), while he thought things were perfectly fine. I’d been so much happier and healthier after separating from my mom, and when he tried to reach out to me afterwards in the exact same way — as if my feelings meant nothing — parting ways simply made sense.
This narrative has influenced every relationship in my life.
I lived an eternity under the regime of parents who refused to take any responsibility while they actively hurt me, and consistently put the blame on me for being overly sensitive. Then for more than two decades, I was best friends with a person who’d tell me any pain he caused was my own fault. At this point, the only people I choose to spend time with have done enough emotional labour to outgrow these attitudes.
After all, much of my therapy involves working on myself, and that includes figuring out important duties in my relationships, as well as how to function better with the people I’m involved with. That also means putting myself at risk of getting hurt, by being open with my feelings and assertive with my needs. These are all things that take me a tremendous amount of effort, and I no longer have the energy to teach someone how to appreciate or return that effort.
That’s why I surround myself with people who already know how to take responsibility for their actions, without trying to justify them with excuses. Who reflect on their behaviours when conflict arises, instead of reflectively placing blame on others. Who understand how hard it is for me to vocalize my pain, and thank me for expressing it. Who value my feelings, instead of ignoring them or holding them against me.
Trolley is a great example: years after he moved out, he apologized for hosting parties above my bedroom when he discovered how thin the floors were. It wasn’t something he had to do, it wasn’t something I brought up, and I know it wasn’t easy for him, but he did it anyway. Not because our friendship was in jeopardy, not because he had something to gain, but because somewhere along the path of life he learned how to be a decent human being2, realized he did something that may have negatively affected someone else, and cared enough about their feelings to put himself through the discomfort of an apology. It was a huge sign that I actually meant something to him, and the reason I can feel secure in our friendship when we haven’t spoken in ages.
Those kinds of gestures may not mean much to other people, but being starved of emotional validation means they go a long way for me. It’s the same reason I have such a profound appreciation for Heather. My capacity to love her is directly related to the amount of trauma I’ve suffered. On top of that, I’ve always admired her for being far more knowledgable in areas where I’ve historically been weak; treating others with respect is a subject, after years of learning and growth, in which I’m fairly well versed, and she’s still ahead of me.
I used to think I had to trust that someone wouldn’t hurt me in order to keep them in my life, but I was wrong. Over the natural course of any significant relationship, someone is bound to get hurt, as I’ve learned with Heather. In our time together, some of her honest mistakes, combined with my emotional damage, have left me wondering if I could trust her — or anyone else — again. The thing that matters is that we’ve always been able to work out those disconnects, cause she has no difficulty acknowledging my feelings and apologizing3. The times she wounds me become opportunities for her to mend my broken hands, and for us to grow closer.
Those are the kind of people I want in my life, the relationships I’m willing to cultivate now, and I’m only starting to understand how much my past has put me on the path I’m currently on.