10 Ways Growing Up With A Toxic Parent Changes What You Look For In A Relationship
It's hard for me to confidently say that something "good" came from growing up with a toxic parent in an abusive home. If I were to do so, I feel like I somehow give that toxic, abusive parent a "pass," like they "did me a favor" by being emotionally, verbally and physically abusive. However, there's no denying that growing up with a toxic parent changes what you look for in a relationship, and those changes are arguably the reason why I found the partner I have today, and the two of us have created a healthy, happy family of three that I never would have dreamed I would one day get to call my own.
I saw how devastating a romantic relationship can be when you've attached yourself to someone who doesn't value you as a human being. My father was abusive in every sense of the word, and beat my mother to the point that she was a shell of her former self. Thankfully, after enduring abuse for over twenty years, she left my father and I have had the honor and pleasure of watching her become the woman I heard about when I was little; the woman my grandmother would talk about with a smile on her face and a glow on her cheeks. My mother, by leaving her marriage, received the happy ending she deserved, but I'm not daft to the fact that so many women in abusive relationships with toxic partners aren't so lucky. So, I made a vow (when I was so very young and when I was in my twenties and helping my mother go through a divorce) that I would never end up in a relationship like the one I watched my mother endure.
That meant, of course, that I needed to change what I looked for in a partner. If I didn't want to end up with someone like my father, I had to make sure that I paid attention to specific red flags, stayed away from certain people who reminded me of him, and looked for things that truly mattered in a relationship and not just superficial signs that placate our need to feel wanted, needed and loved. So, with that in mind, here are a few ways growing up with a toxic parent changes what you look for in a relationship. I won't thank my toxic parent for altering my perception of romantic relationships, but at least I can say I have found my silver lining.
Your Weary Of Conventional, Romantic Gestures
Never once have I thought a bouquet of flowers or any other material item was at all romantic or endearing. On the contrary, I was somewhat afraid of them (and the people who offered them to me) and never asked for them as tokens of affection or proof that someone really and truly loved and cared about me.
I blame my toxic father for my aversion to conventionally romantic gestures, as he used those gestures to gain control of my mother. A dozen roses sent to her office or her home wasn't a kindness, but an attempt to make sure she "was where she said she was." An expensive gift wasn't actually a gift, but a power play, so my father could hold something over my mother; something that made her feel guilty and, in the end, securely his debt. So, when looking for a partner, I never cared to pay attention to what they could buy me or send me. What I looked for had to pass that shallow, materialistic and "romantic," level. Honestly, I had learned from my toxic parent that I couldn't trust simple gestures anymore.
You Value Someone's Ability To Communicate
I don't think I remember a single instance in which I thought my parents communicated effectively (or at all). My father controlled every conversation, put words in my mother's mouth or essentially made her agree with him; never really caring hear what she had to say or think or feel. From a very young age I learned the importance of open, honest and supportive conversation, because I never really witnessed it in my own home.
So, when looking for a partner I made sure to find someone who was willing, able and actually looking forward to communicating honestly. I didn't want someone who shut down; I didn't want someone who thought talking was "stupid" or "girly" or "unnecessary" or anything other than extremely necessary; I didn't want to find myself pigeonholed in a relationship, completely unhappy, because I picked someone I didn't feel safe talking to.
You Pay Attention To Someone's Confidence...
My father was (and I assume, still is) an extremely confident and charismatic individual. At least, he acted that way. Turns out, he was (and I assume, still is) extremely self-conscious and needed constant validation. That's why he was emotionally, verbally and physically abuse; anyone who is confident in themselves as a human being, would never feel the need to hurt another human being in the name of their own validation.
So, I was hellbent on finding a partner who was confident. Not in the fake, "I'll puff my chest out and be the loudest person in the room," kind of way, but in the sincere way that lets me know they are truly at peace with who they are as a person.
...And Whether Or Not They Seem To Know Who They Are, As An Individual
As a proud feminist who believes in gender equality, marriage equality and every other aspect of social equality that our culture is currently lacking, I looked for someone who was secure in themselves to the point that they didn't see other people gaining rights, as an affront to their own rights.
If a man didn't believe in marriage equality, I knew he wasn't the person for me. If a man didn't think a woman should work after she had a baby, I knew he could kick rocks in his respective flip flops. Not only does the belief in social equality proof that you're, you know, a decent human being; it tells me that, as a cisgender male, you are confident enough in yourself and know yourself well enough that you're not threatened by people who are different than you are.
You Make Sure They Value Alone Time
My father never, ever, let my mother spend time by herself (or with her friends, for that matter). He was so insecure and in such a desperate need to control every aspect of her life, that he didn't want her to spend any time away from him.
I saw that toll that took on my mother, and the essential freedom she lost in the name of an abusive, unhealthy marriage. So, when looking for a partner I made it perfectly clear that even when I was completely committed to someone (and living with someone and even after I had a baby with someone) I would still be spending time alone. In fact, I wanted to find someone who valued their alone time, too. I knew that if we could be both together and apart, happily, we would be in a healthy relationship that wasn't built from jealousy, fear, or anything other than mutual trust.
You Don't Consider Marriage The End-All-Be-All
I'm sure you could argue whether or not my aversion to marriage is a healthy reaction to my parent's toxic marriage. However, I don't consider marriage to be the end-all-be-all of romantic relationships. I don't think marriage automatically means two people truly love and value and respect and trust and honor one another, because my father didn't do or feel any of those things when it came to my mother. I don't think that marriage is the only way you can truly show that you're committed to someone, because my father cheated throughout his marriage and my mother was miserable.
When looking for a partner, I didn't worry about whether or not they were "marriage" material. I worried about whether or not they were "partner" material and, to me, all that mattered is that we were compatible, respectful and kind to one another.
You Want An Equal Partner In Life (And Anything Else That Might Happen)...
My father believed in gender stereotypes, and demanded that my mother adhere to them. She had to quit her job as soon as she became pregnant; she had to stay at home with the children while he contributed to the family financially; she had to be the one to cook and clean and take care of the kids day and night. I watched as my mother lost herself, piece by piece, while my father continued to pigeonhole her into a box society had arbitrarily decided she should fit in.
I knew that when I found a partner, they wouldn't think that procreation automatically meant the end of my career. I knew that I wanted to find someone who saw me as their equal, because that's exactly what I am. I knew that I was never going to allow anyone to tell me how to live, especially if it meant using sexist tropes as a benchmark for my life.
...So Their Thoughts On Gender Equality Are A Make-Or-Break Deal
To each their own, I always say: until "their own" impedes the inalienable rights of others. I know, deep down in my soul of souls and my gut of guts, that I could never date or be with someone who wasn't pro-choice, who wasn't pro-marriage equality, who didn't believe in transgender rights and who didn't want to see this world become a more equal place. I know I couldn't be with someone who didn't view me (or others) as their equal, because I know exactly what a relationship looks like when one person thinks they're just better (and therefore, more worthy) than someone else.
You Pay Attention To Their Family, Too...
I'd be lying if I said that I don't pay attention to someone's family when I think about and/or consider dating them exclusively. In fact, during one relationship, it was someone's family that kept me around when I probably should have bailed six or so months earlier. Clearly, that isn't healthy, but I know the kind of impact someone's family has on them, and I know that I can learn a lot from someone by studying their family.
...But You Know, In The End, Their Past Doesn't Dictate Their Future
However, someone's family is not indicitive of a person entirely. If someone were to look at my family dynamic, they probably wouldn't want to have anything to do with me. However, I know that I am not my toxic father and I will not end up in a relationship like the one my mother suffered through for over twenty years. Where someone comes from, while important and clearly impactful, is not the nail in the coffin of their future. If someone came from a "bad" family, I wouldn't dismiss them entirely. Sometimes, growing up with a toxic parent is all you need to realize that you will do whatever it takes, to find someone who is the opposite.