Toxic relationships can have an affect on a person for ages - even after they are no longer in that situation. People learn survival techniques based on what's likely to earn them the smallest amount of scorn or abuse possible. Those coping mechanisms may be what we have to do in toxic situations, but when it's time to enter the world of healthy relationships those same coping mechanisms can be the proverbial iceberg to our Titanic.
Some of us learn to lie to avoid the fight, or we learn to hide things about ourselves so we don't have to be judged. I, personally, learned to give explicit and overly detailed accounts for every moment of my time and every dollar I earned. I would fret every single moment that I wasn't at home because I knew I needed to know every single detail for questioning later. Otherwise, I would be accused of lying or cheating or whatever else. Even if I drove to do errands my partner sent me on, I would need to remember exactly which route I took, note times and names of everyone I spoke to, remember the colors of the cars around me and what people were wearing etc. Any and/or all of it could be on the "test" later and I had no way of knowing what the punishment for failure to answer his random questions quickly and to his satisfaction would be.
One Reddit user asked:
So it turns out I'm not the only one who has learned to be unhealthy in response to a situation that was unhealthy. I mean... it makes sense when you think about it. Toxic water is what gave us the three-eyed Simpsons fish, after all.
Happily, quite a few people can attest that yes - it gets better; but it takes work and time. Here are some of the most popular responses, edited for language when needed.
I had to learn to stop saying sorry for things that were not my fault. I had been conditioned to kind of feel guilt for every bad thing that happened to people around me even when it literally had nothing to do with me. I had to not only learn to stop that, but also stop finding insane ways to justify how it was my fault. I was refusing to let my non-abusive partner take any responsibility just because my abusive one never wanted to accept any and convinced me to go along with it. For example, let's say my husband leaves the oven on. I apologize and insist that I must have distracted him so that's why he forgot and I'm so so sorry. Meanwhile my non-abusive husband is like "ooooooookaaaaaaaay" and doesn't understand how I could possibly think it was my fault.
Luckily, later in life I met someone who helped me stop, take a breath, and think before apologizing. I don't think he had any idea how that helped me. I think he was more annoyed or confused by the constant apologies, but he helped me recognize when it was actually appropriate, and even when to choose not to apologize.
Finances and Rationing
My abuser used to control me with finances; I'm disabled and don't have much income so he was the one who handled much of our money. He volunteered to do so, of course, and I didn't realize it was a method of control until I was eventually freed of his manipulation. If I asked to go grocery shopping, for example, I got yelled at for costing him money. It was only "safe" if the shopping was his idea. I got out of that relationship in 2016.
Earlier this year I moved in with my current boyfriend and found myself rationing my half of the groceries (I'm vegetarian and he isn't so we tend to each buy our own stuff for meals). When we got low, I'd go into "survival mode" and only eat one or two meals a day, hoping he would notice we were low on food and suggest shopping soon. He works all day and didn't notice immediately.
When he found out, he was horrified. He sat me down and explained that since he didn't cook much, he didn't tend to notice what our food supplies were like. He assured me, while I was crying HARD from both shame and fear, that if I was ever close to running out of food, it was safe to talk to him about it.
We've since set up a "food fund" so that if we're ever low and he's not around and I'm out of spending money, I have the ability to buy more.
Honestly most of the healing I've done has been because I've noticed a strange behavior in myself and eventually opened up to him about it. We address it together and find a solution.
I call it fretting, and I had to learn to stop doing it to my husband. When I would get home from work before him, I would get so worried and freaked out about him thinking I was lazy or getting pissed if some random chore wasn't done. So I would like quietly follow him around the house fidgeting with my hands, waiting for him to figure out what he was going to be mad about, so I could fix it before he got too mad. Like if he went in the kitchen to put his lunch box down and if he tried to move a coffee cup off the counter I'd rush over and take the cup from him. Extra bonus freaking out points if he had a long day at work and was quiet.
To be clear, he has never once said or done anything to warrant my fretting. Thanks mom!
It took a while, and mainly it came down to him asking me what the hell I was doing, and us having a lot of long conversations. Hes a good man. Imma go hug him now.
Keeping secrets. Useless, stupid secrets about things that don't even matter.
Yep me too on this one. I would tell small lies purely because it was easier than dealing with a controlling psycho argument.
Yes. I lie about the dumbest stuff and don't know how to stop. There's times where I actually believe whatever I've made up in my head and I have to investigate whether or not it actually happened.
You don't have to lie about a situation -- making it either completely your fault or completely someone else's -- anymore so they don't hit you. It's a rough road, unlearning lying for survival, lemme tell you that lol
How To Argue
I needed to learn that talking about my feelings was healthy - or even an option. I was taught to bottle up most of my problems growing up because my mom didn't want to hear about them, then as I became an adult I would lash out in anger and get somewhat the results I wanted. So the only arguing skills I have are anger and shutting down. My wife is a saint for understanding but I feel so bad that I don't know how to convey emotions like an adult. It's like pulling teeth trying to express myself.
Flinching. What got me out of that was realizing that I'm taller and stronger than most people. I couldn't tell you how to avoid it if you're less "physically gifted" than me, though.
I hate it when people laugh when I flinch
"Haha you were hit as a child and it still scars you as an adult"
Last week my boss was 'play scolding' me, but he kept swinging a roll of wrapping paper around as he did, any time the roll went over his head I would flinch, I flinched like 3/4 times in a few minutes, only one co-worker took notice and laughed
I try very hard not to flinch, it hurts my boyfriend's feelings when I do, but if someone is mad at me they really need to keep their hands to their sides
Dodging and flinching are very hard to unlearn. Even now a decade after the fact I tense if someone is behind me and become flinchy if people are angry. It just takes time. Sometimes I hold myself as still as possible so that when people are angry I can observe them instead of waiting for a blow. Even with repressed memories my body knows.
Get Out Of Your Head
Still trying to unlearn it, but shutting down. If a conflict arises or we're trying to discuss an issue I shut down. I was 100% used to my ex exploding, yelling, sobbing, and having those emotions get worse if I tried comforting him or saying anything really, so I just withdrew into myself for awhile. My current SO is very good at communicating and doesn't explode or get upset at me when I instinctively shut down. He's always telling me to get out of my head. It helps, that's one of the things that makes him great.
Not hoarding food away. Mostly I've stopped that by having small amounts of nonperishable, sealed high-calorie food that I know where it is (like protein bars) so that the urge not to waste ANYTHING isn't nearly as strong, I can remind myself that I'm set.
I just now these past couple of years stopped having stress dreams about trying to pack as much high calorie, nutrient-dense, non-perishable food into a bag as possible.
I had a similar discussion with my girlfriend (now ex). I tried really hard to eat healthy and fresh food, but she constantly liked buying boxed items and frozen food. It grew to arguments because I didn't like the temptation of boxed Mac N Cheese.
It wasn't until she thought about it and we talked - she grew up without a lot of food and an uncaring mother. She was terrified of running out of food.
The next day, we bought a box and filled it full of non perishables and stored it in our closet. Her favorite canned food, Boxes of Mac N Cheese, etc. It didn't cost us much, it gave her peace of mind, and we started to eat a lot healthier.
Responsibility And Expectations
Closing myself off emotionally. I still struggle to form close relationships or even take interest in other people. One thing I did unlearn (mostly) is making other people take responsibility for my feelings. I don't know how exactly I did it, but after having a hissy fit with my therapist for telling me I can't rely on other people to comfort me all the time (I was angry because I didn't know how to comfort myself), and then having a talk with my best friend about this, I somehow slowly learned not to blame other people for me feeling bad.
I also had to learn not to expect of them to make me feel better. It also helped understanding that my expectations could not always be met and to appreciate the fact that people at least try. They don't have to and I need to do my own emotional weight-lifting.
It's Okay To Be Criticized
Sometimes it's okay to be criticized. It doesn't mean you're in for a verbal whooping, it doesn't mean that the boss hates your guts, and it doesn't mean you're a worthless POS. It just means you're human, and you made a mistake. People tell you you're doing it wrong so you can do it better, not to laugh at you.
When I started working, if I didn't know how to do something I had a really hard time asking for help. Usually I would just wing it, and I would usually get it wrong, leaving others having to finish it for me when they found out.
I have had to learn that it's okay to say: "Excuse me, I haven't seen it done like this before, can you please walk me through it?". It's okay the second time to go: "Oh okay, so I do A first, then B, then C?".
It might take you longer to do it the first couple of times, but at least you'll learn, and the others can trust that you know your shit.
Winging it is what will get you in trouble.