It is a Tuesday afternoon, and you are a ball of nerves as you walk down the plaza toward your favorite coffee shop. It’s the same place you’ve camped out in, tucked away in the corner on so many other afternoons — but today, you’re going there for a date. And not just a date — it’s the first date since you got out of a toxic relationship.
“You know who you are now. You have done so much work, Amanda. You know now not to bend and bend and bend for another person. You know how to not lose yourself,” your mother reminded you, on the phone earlier.
But dating again is still really hard, and you still feel uneasy about what will happen once you get to the coffee shop — and you can’t help but see a stream of “what if’s” run through your mind.
What if this person turns out to be toxic too, but you still can’t recognize the unhealthy behavior?
What if it’s too hard to be vulnerable?
What if you can’t trust yourself after all?
Did your unhealthy relationship damage you with all the gaslighting?
What if you can’t do this?
You can’t help but be afraid that you haven’t grown as much as you thought, and that you aren’t actually capable of being in a healthy relationship.
But then, you think back on the work you’ve done and you’re reassured. You think about the people you have in your corner. You think about the things you know now that you didn’t before.
You open the door to the coffee shop. And you see the new person, and he has a kind face, so you breathe a little easier. You both order different lattes and he chats with the barista, and when you sit down, he asks what your Love Language is, about your dreams, and how you feel loved and valued in a relationship. You tell him that you don’t quite know how to answer that, which is an honest answer, as you have never been in a healthy one. You give him the Spark Notes, and you talk for another hour before he has to go back to the office.
Your phone has been in your bag the whole time, with group texts from friends wanting to know the details and gush with you later about the two-hour coffee date that felt like ten minutes and ended with a plan for dinner that weekend.
But in all the gushing, you start to worry. You worry if you said too much. You worry that you shouldn’t have told him that you have a mental illness, that you struggle with anxiety, or depression, or both depending on the day. You especially worry that you mentioned your previous unhealthy relationship, with a man who was abusive. You worry that he’ll discount you as damaged goods after hearing that, and will slowly stop responding to your text messages. Something that has helped you heal is authenticity — owning your story — but you worry that you should have, well, held all of that back. You worry that you were too much, which is something you heard a lot while you were in your unhealthy relationship.
As you walk up to the restaurant for your second date, you remind yourself that the unhealthy relationship you walked through was a teacher instead of a setback because you took the time you needed to heal. You decided not to let it hold you back, so you took notes on the hardest parts and worked through them. You said yes to a third date remembering that you have what it takes to date again because you have good instincts and you can trust yourself because you know what a healthy relationship looks like now.
You know now that you deserve to be in healthy spaces.
You know now that you don’t have to apologize for asking for the things that keep you well, and balanced.
You know now that the fact that you’ve been through an unhealthy relationship is n’t baggage – it’s just context that someone who wants to love you well will need in order to do just that.
Even if you do not stumble upon them anytime soon, and even if the man in the coffee shop does become distant for whatever reason and this was just an exercise in bravery – you have what it takes to decide if something is healthy or unhealthy. You have better tools. You have learned to use your voice. You have group texts full of friends cheering you on, and welcoming your questions in case you’re unsure of something. Mostly, they reinforce your bravery. So does your therapist.
Things don’t stick with the man in the coffee shop, because you figure out that time with him is not a healthy space. He was nice to you, but the initial excitement fades when you realize that on your fourth date, he forgot to ask about your life for the entire two hours. You take brave steps and voice your needs — for things like letting you know when it’ll be a busy week at work and he may not be great at responding to texts or asking about your day.
You know now that a healthy partner will show care and compassion by valuing your opinions, but the man from the coffee shop never really even asks what you think or how you feel about anything — which makes you feel anxious, like you aren’t interesting, and that you’re only his guest at the dinner table to hear about what he likes, what he thinks, and what he needs.
You know now that a healthy partner will make you feel respected, but you feel more like you keep showing up to show-and-tell instead of dates. You don’t even feel heard, much less respected. None of this necessarily means anything is headed toward becoming abusive — something you fear — but this certainly doesn’t feel like a good fit for what you need after being with an unhealthy partner and that’s ok.
Your inner voice chimes in, and your gut tells you something is off. It is tempting to continue to only talk about the pretty parts to your friends — how he always opened the door for you — but you tell them the whole story instead. He may have asked you how you felt loved and validated in a relationship on that first day in the coffee shop, but you begin to wonder if he even listened to your answer.
You know now that part of what kept you in an unhealthy relationship for so long is that you were isolated. You didn’t tell people the truth about how bad things were because when you did, they told you that you should leave, that he was bad, that it was all wrong. They tried to drag you to safer places; they tried to get you to skip steps. Of course, you knew things were bad – but you weren’t in a place where you could walk away for good yet, so you couldn’t hear them. But you took some time after that unhealthy relationship to heal – and now you know not only how to use your voice, but how to trust it.
You know now that you are not damaged goods, and the unhealthy relationship that hurt you so much is also the reason you have grown and learned so much.
You know now that you are on a journey, just like the man in the coffee shop. You hope he finds peace in his journey, are assured that you will find it in yours because you know now that it’s more important to trust your gut than to bend yourself into something that isn’t right.
You feel proud of yourself. You feel stronger now. You feel less anxious, and you thank yourself for validating your own feelings — for owning your story. For trusting your gut. For claiming your right to healthy relationships.