I’ve had a lot of relationships in my lifetime run their course, but it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I finally realized that I should be in charge of who I walk away from. When I was a kid, I used to race to my parents’ front door and throw myself against it, blocking it from my next door neighbor who had just spent the last hour scribbling crayon on my wall and ripping the heads off my Barbie dolls. She was a menace but I didn’t want her to leave me. Even as a five year, naive little girl, my self-worth was dependent on who hung around me. I’m sad to say it’s a trait that lingered long past high school.
I grew up in a household that treated in-laws like outlaws. My mom used to be able to flip a switch—love one day, hate the next—when it came to practically everyone in my family. I watched myself not being able to attend family birthday parties and weddings and family reunions. I saw my father sit out on family barbecues and Thanksgiving potlucks on my mom’s side of the family. And I didn’t think it was normal—especially since everyone I went to school with had families so large that there’s no way they could remember all their cousins’ names. I envied them, and so I swore to my cousin that when I was older and became an adult myself, I would never follow suit.
But I did. Thankfully.
I eventually learned why my parents felt the disdain they did for certain members of one another’s families. While some of it was over petty jealousy and minor infractions that would eventually be cured, the relationships they walked away from involved those that never stopped treating them poorly. They were relationships that were ignorant, self-involved and hurtful. They were relationships that spent more time trying to point the finger then overcome their own self-doubt and responsibility. They were people who didn’t make my parents—and by proxy, me—a priority. And by making us a priority, I don’t mean stopping their entire lives for us—that would be absurd. I mean they failed to take our situation into consideration when it was appropriate. They failed to be understanding, sympathetic, and supportive, especially at times when we needed family the most. Especially during times when family is supposed to be there. Especially if my parents provided support to them when the shoe was on the other foot.
After my mom died, I became intuitively more aware of who was there for my father and I, and it wasn’t many. When my father was rushed to the hospital coughing up blood after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer, my brother showed up at the waiting room just to tell my why he didn’t care about what was going on, all while making sure our father’s toes weren’t exposed to the kind of chill that only lives in hospitals. I learned rather quickly that family isn’t owed your kindness and respect if they don’t give it. At the end of the day, it’s not your fault who your family is.
The unedited truth about being the one who walks away all comes down to what you’re willing to tolerate in your relationship. That’s something only you can decide and unfortunately no one else. I’ve been told somewhat recently that I have exceedingly high expectations, and you know what? Good, I’m glad. Because that means I know how I deserve to be treated.
In many ways, I think Gen Z has it easier than us millennials because they aren’t afraid to seek out the truth and be confrontational in an effort to get the root of the problem and solve it. Regardless of whether or not you agree with their methods is not the question. I recently read an article where Gen Z’ers talked about how they would parent differently from previous generations, and I’ve got to be honest—can they adopt me? Among their various answers was one that really stuck out to me: They said they would explain why they were saying no to their child or why they were being punished as opposed to simply saying, “Because I’m your parent,” or “Because I said so.”
This is a stark difference to millennials, who grew up hearing just the opposite. As a kid, I didn’t really understand why I couldn’t go to my dad’s family reunion or why my dad sat out on a Memorial Day barbeque. I was sheltered from their reasonings for doing so, and in truth, maybe it would have been better to learn up front what their motivation was for making those choices in the first place. Perhaps it would have saved me a lot of time trying to prevent the demise of relationships that were more than one-sided. Ultimately, I take responsibility for my own decisions but I can’t help but wonder if it would have turned out differently; I can’t help but wonder how much pain I wouldn’t have caused myself had I not tried so hard to prove my parents’ decision-making wrong.
It doesn’t matter what kind of relationship you end up leaving, whether it be familial, friendship, work or even an acquaintance. I’ve spent so much time trying to do “the right thing” for someone else even when it wasn’t deserved, even when it came at the expense of my comfortability, even when saying “yes” was like giving them carte blanche to continue disrespecting me. And for what? For the sake of looking good and maintaining the status quo. For the sake of trying to prove that I was worthy of being loved and being accepted, even though I didn’t accept myself. Despite my increase in years, I was only pretending to be an adult because I was still very much that little five year old girl who didn’t want the neighbor who harassed me to leave my home. I wanted her to like me. I wanted to be considered special, even though there was no evidence that she treated me as such.
Here’s the thing: Real relationships don’t involve mistreatment. Real relationships don’t tally all the good things they’ve done for you in an effort to throw them back in your face when it’s convenient for them or when it’s being used as a manipulation tactic to keep you under their thumb because they feel so meaningless. Real relationships aren’t like that, and if that’s what yours involves, it’s not true. It’s not genuine. If you’re only saying yes to an invite because you think you have to, because they said yes to yours and it’s only fair, it’s not a genuine relationship—not for you, at least.
I think back to my wedding and how we invited over 100 people. There were only about 10 people there that I genuinely talked to every single day. There were only about 10 people who I trusted to help me get through difficult times; 10 people I trusted with my secrets and my flaws; 10 people who, despite not being the world’s most perfect person, considered me a perfect friend, a perfect daughter, a perfect cousin, because to them, I was—I am.
The unedited truth about being the one who walks away has everything to do with finally understanding what you’re worth and what you want out of life. It doesn’t always mean you’re walking away from bad relationships, either—sometimes you’re walking away from people who, despite being good, just simply aren’t good for you. And that’s okay. You don’t owe anyone a justification. Walking away isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a symbol of strength—strength you have to call it quits over a relationship that doesn’t serve you. At the end of the day, life is just too damn short to spend it with people who, despite all you are and all you’ve done, will never genuinely accept you for who you are. You’re worth more than what someone is willing to tolerate, even if you haven’t fully realized it yet.