Dear New Romantics,
You’ve been talking to a babe you met online for a month now, and you can’t wait to finally meet face-to-face soon. They’re exactly the kind of person you’ve been waiting to find, and you have high hopes for how your relationship can develop off-screen.
One night while you’re chatting away joyously, you get a text from your ex, saying she’s finally ready to talk about your relationship that ended 6 months ago. This kinda bursts your bubble. You were doing well, basking in new relationship energy. So, being pulled back into the pain of your last feels like a downer.
Your new crush notices your delay in the text stream and they check in to see if you’re okay.
“I’m sorry,” you type back. “I just got a message from my ex saying they’re ready to talk, and I don’t know what to do.”
Your crush responds with a vague platitude and a note that they’re going to bed. It doesn’t feel great, but you brush it off and go to bed.
You wake up to another text from your crush, saying: “I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you, but you seem a little hung up on your ex. I’m not sure you’re healed enough to be in a relationship yet, and I deserve better than that. Good luck!”
Are you serious?
Did you just get dumped for being human, or did you actually do something wrong here?
Getting the “It’s not me, it’s you” treatment never feels good. But it especially stings when you get dropped just because you still have shit to work through.
Because, uh, we all have shit to work through.
I asked my Instagram followers (albeit informally) if they think people should be healed before they date, and 90 percent of the 700+ respondents said “yes.” But when I asked folks if they, themselves, are healed, only 2 percent of 800+ people responded affirmatively.
There’s a common idea that suggests there’s a base-level of self-actualization required before you can earn connection with others (“You have to love yourself before you can be loved by others,” anyone?). But what these proclamations don’t take into account is that healing is a process — one that we’re all going through and one that doesn’t really end.
What’s more: some of our healing can only be done while in relationships.
Relational healing is the idea that because some wounds occur while in relationship with others, those wounds can only be healed through relationships with others.
Say a previous relationship ended because your ex cheated on you. That betrayal could have cut deeply — especially if you’ve experienced other examples of betrayal or abandonment earlier in life. These old wounds being opened might result in some trust issues when trying to make new connections. Maybe you grow suspicious of your partner’s actions — and in attempt to guard yourself against more possible hurt, you start to adopt some controlling or combative behaviors.
This behavior isn’t great, but it makes some sense in the context of the wound. If your partner is empathetic, forgives you for any maladaptive behavior, and works with you to figure out how you can feel supported, this can be what’s called a healing relational experience.
It teaches the brain that there is an alternative script for relationships, and a scab can start to form on the emotional wound. The more healing relational experiences you have, the more open you may be to rewriting the narrative that your pain or trauma falsely provided you.
It’s very difficult to heal relational wounds — which, let’s be honest, make up a huge part of the pain we carry — without collecting new experiences in relationships. And this is why it’s deeply important to have the opportunity to form safe and supportive relationships. They actually give you an awesome laboratory in which to work through your shit.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we can do whatever the hell we want, and then shrug it off like, “Oops! Trauma!”
Sometimes, when folks say that we don’t seem “healed enough” for them, what they’re trying to communicate is that we’re showing up to the relationship in a way that’s not supportive to the strength of the connection.
The issue isn’t that we haven’t reached the destination of “healed” (because, again, who has?). The issue is that we haven’t come to a place in our process where we’re aware of how our past hurt can impact our present and inadvertently hurt others. Perhaps, we’re not taking as much care in the process as we should be.
Putting pressure on ourselves to be healed quicker — like flipping a switch — isn’t helpful. What we can try instead is consider what it looks like to progressively heal, and hold ourselves accountable to those measurable steps!
Here are some questions we can ask ourselves to determine what active, progressive healing can look like for us:
- Am I processing my wounds in therapy or a similar environment? Therapy isn’t the only place where we can process pain. Peer support groups, workshops, and even some self-help resources can work similarly! The key here is that you’re dedicating regular time and energy to peeling back the layers of your experiences so that you can better understanding how you show up — and what work you have to do.
- Am I aware of and am I working to shift my hurtful relationship patterns? There’s a big difference between being aloof to the ways in which you hurt people and being able to name them, even if you haven’t been able to make meaningful and lasting change yet. To start, think through feedback you’ve received in the past and look for patterns in what folks have expressed. Those are growth areas to target.
- Am I open to feedback about how I’m relating to others? We’ll never know all of the ways that we hurt people, which is exactly why our work is never done. But we can practice being receptive to loved ones’ feedback about our behavior, trying to see it less as criticism and more as opportunity. When someone tells you that you hurt them — especially more than once — try to sit with that information, instead of denying it.
- Am I accountable when I cause harm? Our role in connection with others is to be responsible for how we show up. That means when we hurt people, we owe it to them to acknowledge, validate, and attempt to repair the harm. Remember: owning it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person — and it certainly doesn’t mean that your wounds are less significant. It’s just an acknowledgment of the complexity of being human.
- Am I practicing regular self-reflection? Being in connection with people who we trust is awesome because they can offer us reflection for our thought processes and behaviors. But our loved ones aren’t our therapists. And people (especially marginalized people) might not want to form relationships with others if they feel like they’re responsible for their healing. Understanding yourself is a you job. And whether you use journaling, meditation, or a workbook to guide your self-reflection, introspection is a must.
You’re deserving of love and care, no matter where you are on your healing journey. There’s no way to truly heal without it! But it’s possible to hold compassion for your healing process while reducing harm to others at the same time. And that sweet spot is the real, much more manageable goal.
Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.