My first boyfriend was skeletal with strawberry blond hair to his shoulders. He liked going to raves and pre-gaming with ecstasy.
I played the “Who can scream the loudest?” game for over a year with the next guy I dated.
After him, was a drug addict who nearly took me down with him.
Then one who cheated on me over and over again with a woman I knew.
Then one who made up whole aspects of his personality just to hook me, and then another that treated me so badly for so long that I don’t even know how I finally had enough strength to leave.
When I dragged myself into therapy after all of those terrible relationships, I finally heard exactly the advice I needed to start looking at and addressing my own relationship issues.
It’ll sound weird at first, but keep reading.
Dr. Cynthia’s small office reeked of frankincense and was decorated with lots of bright colors and affirming quotes.
As soon as I sat down on her couch, she asked me, “So why are you here?”
After I’d been talking for probably 15 minutes straight, she interrupted me.
“Tara?” she said.
I blew my nose.
“I need you to hear me when I say this,” she said.
“Okay . . .”
Then she gave me exactly the advice I didn’t know I needed to hear:
“Water seeks its own level.”
I looked at her like she was crazy. “What? Water?”
“Water seeks its own level,” she repeated.
Then she said, “Let me ask you this: Did you keep dating these guys after you knew things weren’t great?”
I wiped my nose. “Well, yeah. Sometimes for years.”
“Do you think you were healthy while you were dating them?”
I thought about it for a second and said, “Well . . . no.”
“It’s not likely you were,” she told me. “It’s actually probably more likely that you were as unhealthy as they were. Because you stuck it out, you had a part.”
I argued with her then: “What do you mean I had a part? So-and-so was abusive!”
“He was, but . . . you kept dating him. You knew there were red flags from the very beginning that you ignored. You had a part to play in that.”
I looked at her like she was crazy again.
Regardless of whether I felt comfortable admitting it then, I’d stuck around in each of those relationships, far past when I should have. That meant there was something about me that had caused me to do that.
“Water seeks its own level” means much the same as “birds of a feather flock together.”
What I learned is that we are going to be attracted to like-minded individuals.
A healthy person is never going to date an unhealthy one, especially not long-term.
When we look at the person we’ve been dating a while and judge them as “crazy” or “bad” or some other negative adjective, we need to take a good long hard look at ourselves.
Personally, I’d gotten some things out of dating the men I had.
I’d been able to be a victim and evoke pity in the people around me. I’d confirmed how terrible I felt about myself by letting people treat me just as terribly, and I’d deflected and avoided dealing with my own issues and problems by dating people I believed were “worse” than me.
When I looked at my relationship issues that way, it shocked me.
Those men hadn’t been the problem.
I had been.
If I’d been healthier, I would have never dated them. Especially not for years.
So what was there to do?
“Raise your water level,” my therapist told me.
What she meant by this is to get myself healthier. If I was healthy, I’d attract healthy people.
Here are the things my therapist suggested I do to be healthier:
1. Learn yourself.
Take yourself to a restaurant you like or have always wanted to try. Sit down at your table utterly alone, and order whatever you want to.
Get a fancy bubbly or stiff drink. Eat poached eggs or beef tartare. Take yourself to the movies. Read a good book. Take a dance class. Start writing.
Do whatever your heart wants and try to figure out the truths behind them. Maybe you prefer the outdoors or you really want to live in a city. Maybe you’re an introvert trying to pretend you’re an extrovert. Go back to the beginning if necessary and do those things you loved doing as a kid.
Do all of this without judgment. You’re pretty special, and you should learn to love yourself.
2. Learn what you want.
Are there any dreams or ambitions you’ve strayed from? Or are you uncertain about your present, but you just know you don’t like it? I distracted myself with relationships to avoid pursuing the goals I wanted to.
Have you been planning on going back to school? Is there a trip you want to take? Do you need to change your job?
Do it. Now. Why wait? You can shape your own life. You don’t have to wait for anyone else to do it.
3. Do things you love.
You’ll never be happier than when you truly love yourself and are doing things that you love. Further, you’ll pick other people who love you for you when you love you for you.
I did a lot of things when I was dating that I didn’t even remotely like. I attended raves. I wore earplugs to concerts. There’s a difference between concessions and annihilations. It’s always good to compromise with your partner (“We go to the concert for your favorite band, and then we go to the bookstore for me afterward.”), but I annihilated my interests. I pretended I was interested in what my partner at the time was.
In this time of cultivation, find those things you love, those hobbies or activities that you couldn’t stand being without. Do them until they’re a part of your life.
4. Get a community.
Many people often find a “community” while doing a hobby or activity. They join a cycling group. They sign up for a bible study or start volunteering.
Whether you find some people while changing yourself or if you already have them, make sure you have people in your corner: kind non-judgmental supportive folks.
5. Seek help.
I needed a therapist to work through some of my deep-seated childhood issues as well as some of the trauma I’d accrued dating some not-so-great people. I also needed structure and accountability. My therapist provided that. Check out some free or low-cost mental health services here.
You might have some great friends in your life that can provide that for you. Just know that responsibility is painful and that the work to change ingrained patterns is difficult. You will need help and support along the way. You’ll need reminders that you’re worth it.
Those steps read easy, but like so much in life, they aren’t. Real work takes real courage.
We all deserve to be healthy and to have healthy relationships, and they are connected. The best advice I received during my time of growth was, “You’ve come a long way when you start making new mistakes.” You’ll always make mistakes, but if you’re making new ones, it means you’re growing and changing and taking risks.