When I came across these words, their truth resonated so deeply in me that I nearly cried.
Because, if the three men I had spent the better part of my life loving hadn’t shown up for me in the ways I needed, I had taught them that that was okay.
What I had learned about love from my mother was that the only way to love is unconditionally. She sacrificed everything for her family — gave up her career to raise us; went without the things she wanted so that we could have what we needed; basically subsumed all of her needs and desires for us.
So I took that model into my romantic and even platonic relationships. The men I loved had also loved me, I do believe that. But that’s, to some extent, irrelevant. Love is easy in the abstract. Where the rubber hits the road is how you treat the people you’re in relationship with. How closely your actions align with your words. How you show up for your partner — or don’t.
My first love always knew exactly what to say to make me feel loved, cherished, and desired. He just got me. Unfortunately, there was often a chasm between what he said and what he did (or, rather, what he didn’t do). I don’t think he intentionally lied to me, but he definitely struggled with the follow-through. And I never held him accountable, never did anything but forgive him and continue to love him unconditionally.
My best friend, who’d moved to Silicon Valley for a tech job, said that California never felt like home until he met me. For years, we wrote songs and performed in a band together, went surfing and snowboarding together, even traveled to foreign countries together. I was there for him through every minor setback and major life transition. I ignored how he wasn’t prioritizing our relationship, like scheduling things that cut into time he’d committed to spending with me. But at the dissolution of my marriage, when I needed him the most, he started dating someone who was jealous of our connection, and he didn’t fight for our friendship. And just like that, he disappeared from my life.
For seven of the years we were married, I was the only one with a steady income. The pressure of trying to make enough for us to live in the Bay Area (the cost of living here is astronomical) meant that I worked. A lot. I had my full-time job and was often hustling on the side. While my husband…didn’t. I resented that my brilliant husband who had majored in computer science couldn’t figure out how to be gainfully employed in Silicon Valley, while I (a humanities major working in the nonprofit sector) worked all the time and still couldn’t afford the things I wanted.
I would express my frustrations on occasion, but I never wanted him to feel worse than he already did. And how often do you want to have the same fight, especially when nothing ever changes?
The kicker was, he wasn’t even grateful. “I always thought you should work less,” he told me flatly at the end of our relationship.
So there was the truth that punched me in the gut: you teach people how to treat you.
After two decades of relationships in which I was giving so much of myself and not getting what I needed, I really had no one to blame but myself. I had implicitly taught the people I loved that even when they didn’t appreciate me, prioritize me, or honor their commitments to me, I would continue to love them and be there for them.
It was a pretty devastating truth to face.
I made a conscious effort to shift how I related to other people. I started by figuring out how I wanted to be treated. Then I reinforced good behavior. And stopped tolerating subpar behavior. I declared my life a drama-free zone, and actually enforced it.
This was easier to do in new relationships, where patterns hadn’t already been established. The guy I was dating who decided to go on a 40-mile cycling excursion with his co-workers on the morning of what was supposed to be our date day? I told him I had no interest in sitting around with him exhausted post-ride and went on a date with someone else.
The boyfriend who would take me to places he knew I’d want to photograph; pretend to be asleep so I’d continue to serenade him to wake him up; cook for me and treat me to epic meals — I was as clear about how much I loved those things as I was about how unhappy I was with his inability to remember I existed when we weren’t together. (He wasn’t my boyfriend for very long.)
Eventually, I had the courage to enforce boundaries with older relationships. The friend who only called when he needed a favor? No more favors. The friend who kept assuming bad intentions and projecting her insecurities onto me? I decided that didn’t fit into my definition of a drama-free life.
The people in my life now are all amazing. They love me for who I am, appreciate what I bring to their lives, and show up for me in both practical and emotional ways that make me feel so loved and supported. And it turns out — most of them didn’t need to be taught how to treat me. I just needed to be more discerning about who deserves to be in my life in the first place.