Parenting

Have I Ruined My Children's Perception Of Healthy Relationships By Staying In A Toxic One?

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From the moment I knew I was going to be someone’s mom, it was always going to be 100% about them. To say the sun rises and sets with my children is no exaggeration. I wanted them to grow up like I did, with their mom and dad showering them with unconditional support and love. I guess back then I thought that meant we had to all live in the same house together, even though it meant marrying their father.

Our relationship set off red flags from the beginning. In the mid to late 2000s, we didn’t talk about toxic romantic relationships for what they were. They were simply hard. Whenever I would turn to someone with my concerns, I’d get the well-meaning, “Everyone goes through rough patches, you know? And, of course, “You don’t air your dirty laundry.” And so I didn’t. We continued on as a barely-held-together familial unit for another decade.

It wasn’t until my kiddos were older that the thought ever crossed my mind that maybe, just maybe, staying together was doing more damage than living apart. The damage, in my case, was mental and emotional, suffered by myself and the littles. I took on a lot. And it’s incredibly easy to say it’s okay. I can take it if it means my kids are happy, healthy, and safe.

Self-compassion isn’t something most moms are great at. Or, at least not me. Every decision I’ve made since they were born was thought of in terms of how it would impact them. How do I model kindness for them? What can I do to help them fall in love with reading? When they start getting interested in boys, what can I do to help them guard their hearts?

It was never about me being a strong enough, good enough mom to withstand the toxic times. It was about me having enough self-compassion to realize I never should have had to put up with it. It wasn’t until I had the lightbulb moment and realized I can model as much positive, reassuring, kind behavior as I want, but staying in a toxic romantic relationship with their dad gave their eyes, ears, and hearts unforgiving lessons about relationships.

If I didn’t set the example of how two people should treat each other in a romantic relationship, the rest wouldn’t matter. They would end up in the same place I did.

I wasn’t about to let that happen. People didn’t understand it; not my Catholic-bound mother, not my in-laws, and somehow, my ex even feigned surprise. After all this time, he’d ask me, why now? I’d repeatedly told myself that the damage had already been done, but that simply wasn’t true.

The unwinding is uncomfortable and hard. But a different sort of hard than the previous 10 years had been. I felt like I could finally breathe again, unafraid to set off an argument over something minuscule. No longer did I have to bite back tears at dinner and wait until I got in the shower to release them all and sob until there was nothing left. It’s been hard, but nothing compared to how devastating it would have been to hear my children cry to me years and years from now about their own toxic romantic relationships.

At the end of the day, I decided I’d rather suffer through this new, different kind of hurt and uncomfortableness than set the example that relationships like ours were okay. Or even normal. I knew I would never be able to forgive myself if I failed them by failing to stand up for myself. The first step in showering my kids with unconditional love and support is leading by example. While as parents we hadn’t done the best job of showing them what a healthy relationship looked like, we still could help them see what toxicity looks like to make sure they never have to endure it.

So, if you’re struggling with a toxic relationship, know that it can get better. There is a whole lot of second-guessing and feeling stuck, but in the end, you’ve got to take care of yourself. When you do that, you’re in a better position to love on, and cherish every moment spent with, your children. Because not only do they deserve the world, but they should be able to get to know their mom as a happy person. What’s more, you deserve that and nothing less.

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