It’s funny how we can sometimes mistake toxic emotions for love.

Actually, it’s far from funny; it’s downright disturbing.

Say we get obsessed over someone and they fill our minds constantly. Or they give us butterflies to the point we’re so nervous that we can’t be ourselves around them. Maybe it feels so “different” with them and we’ve never experienced such intensity before.

We’re quick to attribute it to this thing called “love”.

Well, let me tell you a story of a past relationship I’ve had where the highs were indescribable and the lows were just abysmal. It was so intense; it had to be love, right?

Even though friends tried to make me see it was actually toxic, I refused to believe it.

It was only after it was finally over, when I no longer had any physical contact with this person, and with the benefit of hindsight, I realised it was indeed true – it was the most toxic relationship I have ever had.

During the course of our three-year relationship, she slapped me twice. I had never been slapped before in my entire life. Not even by my parents as a kid. I am a gentle soul by nature and I just don’t have the stomach for violence, not even in films and for the life of me, I can’t understand the pleasure of watching a boxing or mixed martial arts match.

Anyway, I made excuses for her:

“I gave her reason to.”

Well, there were mitigating circumstances, the result of a misunderstanding… oh wait, there I go again.

Then she cheated on me emotionally (she insisted it never got physical) and the emotional affair occurred several times with the same person. I gave her chances because she seemed genuinely remorseful and again, I felt there were mitigating circumstances:

“I gave her reason to.”

Because it takes two to tango, right? I was far from perfect and had character flaws that caused my behaviour to be irrational at times.

And so I just kept on making excuses for her.

She promised it was over. She promised she didn’t want to be with that person. She promised she wouldn’t contact that person anymore. She lied.

Still, I gave her chance after chance.

And when she finally wanted to leave the relationship, I begged her to stay. The roles had been reversed, and she was now the one in the power seat.

What happened?

I was so lost and confused. I was hurting deep inside but I couldn’t see past my own shadow to be truly honest with myself.

How did I end up losing my sense of self-worth to such an extent? That I actually became the one begging her to stay, when she’s the one who kept cheating on me?

The level of denial within me was unreal.

I had never let anyone treat me this way before. I had never let anyone speak to me and treat me so disrespectfully in my life. Plus, I’m usually the one who leaves relationships (and I’m also usually not the one being cheated on). But here I was, fighting for something and someone who kept wanting to leave me.

Rationally, I could even say that if it was a friend of mine in this situation, I would advise them to leave in a heartbeat. But I just couldn’t extricate myself from the relationship.

It completely defied logic. And ridiculous as it now sounds, that was what made me think it was “love”.

Instead of seeing the glaring red flags, I used that rationalisation to reinforce the notion that this must be “love”. The situation was so messed up and yet I couldn’t let it go.

So it had to be “love”, right?

I’ve never experienced anything like this before; it must be unconditional love, I foolishly told myself.

Well I have to admit, when it was good, it was really good between us. That much is true.

But was that really what kept me hanging on for so long? Was that the main reason I chose to endure all that pain and heartache over such an extended period of time?

After much reflection, hours of counselling and being brutally honest with myself, I began to realise that I had allowed myself to be treated in such a manner that was so terribly damaging to my self-esteem and self-worth because I wasn’t in a good, healthy emotional space. To be frank, I wasn’t in the right state to be in a relationship to begin with.

I was punishing myself over my past “bad” deeds and on some level, I felt that I deserved to be treated badly. Part of me even believed it was karma. 

Upon reflection, I realised that a traumatic experience six months into our relationship had attributed to the situation. My aunt, who had raised me as my primary caregiver, tragically passed away while on holiday overseas. Not only was the sudden loss a crippling blow, the grief was compounded by the complex impact that the guilt, shame and regret had on me because I had not treated her well and we didn’t have a good relationship. Even with the help of counselling, I was unable to forgive myself for years.

I was also punishing myself over all the people I had hurt in the past; all the partners I had mistreated and all the hearts I had broken – when I was hurting, before I found myself and found peace within myself.

Finally, I also realised that staying in that maelstrom of drama that defined the relationship was a subconscious way of keeping myself stuck in life. The relationship was a bit of a minefield and with firefighting needed on a fairly regular basis, where was there any time left to deal with other important areas of my life like my career, finances and living environment that were just not working? These needed to be put in order and to avoid having to deal with it, I held onto an utterly draining toxic relationship that provided the best distraction and was the ultimate stratagem in self-sabotage. It was genius really!

This quote by Stephen Chbosky from the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower pretty much sums it up:

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

It’s so powerful because it’s so terrifyingly true.

We let people treat us badly because deep down, on some subconscious level, we feel we deserve it. Or we feel we don’t deserve any better. Maybe we feel we don’t deserve to be loved. Or we’re punishing ourselves for the past, like I was.

I’ve wasted three precious years of my life being with someone who wasn’t able to see my value – because I clearly didn’t see it myself. After months and months of post-breakup healing work, I’m only just starting to recover a semblance of my former self that I had so desperately missed for so long. It’s often worse when the hurt and pain inflicted don’t leave visible scars. The rebuilding process has been long and painful, and I’m still in recovery.

If you’re experiencing something similar, please know that you’re worth so much more and you deserve so much better. No matter what you may have done in your past. And if you feel like you don’t deserve better, maybe it’s time to do some internal work to find out what’s going on deep inside you, underneath it all.

There could be many factors as to why a person would hold on to a toxic relationship. And leaving one is always easier said than done. But if the people around you are seeing the warning signs that you are clearly missing or refusing to acknowledge, perhaps it is time to pay heed and take a good hard, honest look at your relationship – before it destroys you, or the both of you, completely.