The right love, feeling wrong

Last year, I went to therapy. This was definitely not my first time in the chair, but it was the first time I’d ever sought out counselling without a major trigger (eg, when everything imploded with X and my marriage and I was desperate for someone new to cry on). It was a calm choice.

I called a therapist my friend recommended, made an appointment, and rocked up for no clear reason, other than that I simply couldn’t stop the merry-go-round of thoughts in my head. I was consumed by it. All I could think about, still, was what I did with X and why and how I had done it. The way I’d so willingly thrown my whole life into freefall. I’d jettisoned everything I had thought my life stood for, that I thought I stood for, and I’d done it so quickly. I was obsessed. I fretted over all the tiny details. I worried that deep down inside I didn’t know myself. So I booked the appointment.

It felt self indulgent and wrong, sitting in a dark cosy office with its miasma of vanilla air freshener, the pristine whiteboard, the glass of water and tissues within easy reach of my comfortable beige armchair. I felt like a fraud with no real story to tell. But the counsellor was good, as my friend had said she would be. She poked gently at my embarrassed self-consciousness, peeling with expert fingers at the layer of self-deprecating humour I’d wrapped myself in. I started talking.

“I just can’t stop thinking about why I became involved with someone so – BAD for me,” I told her, eventually. “I knew he was bad for me and I still did it. I never felt safe when I was with him, but I still wanted him more than I wanted any other part of my life. I chose him over my own children. I don’t know why I did it, not when my husband is so good to me. I’d thought we had a happy marriage. Now I don’t trust myself or anything I think and feel because I know I can let myself down.”

I told her of how, during my time with X, I had felt completely powerless every day. I never knew from one minute to the next whether he would even text me again, or what tone he would take when he did. His moods turned darkly, on invisible sixpences, and I was always to blame. I told her of how I would wake in the morning, in my rented house, and be entirely at the mercy of his mood to set the tone of my day. If his morning greeting was late and sour, I’d be filled with acid panic, unsure of what I could have done overnight to stop him loving me as much. If he rang early, and he was cheerful, then I was buoyant – the day was suddenly sunny, whatever the sky said. (At no point had I ever considered my own mood, or how I deserved to be treated, or why I would so passively take his treatment of me as my due).

“The thing is that I would never, ever have let my husband treat me like that,” I explained. “And he just…wouldn’t. From the moment we met, I knew he knew my worth, and he never lost respect. Even when he found out about X, even when he was firm and cold and set boundaries, he was never cruel. He’s just a good person, a better person than me.” I couldn’t understand why I had turned my back on that, I told her. I couldn’t understand why, when I was so loved and so understood, I’d still turned to X. I had assumed at the time that it was love, what I shared with X, because how else could I make sense of my manic compulsion to gain his approval and to be near him? There was no answer to be found in logic. I’d made a bad choice but at the time it had felt like the only choice to make.

My counsellor listened carefully. She asked me many questions about X, about how everything started, about how and why I ended it; and then, suddenly, she changed tack. She went right back to my childhood. Inside, I rolled my eyes. Wasn’t this the punchline to every therapy-based joke ever made? They fuck you up, your mum and dad. We know this. “I mean, my mum loved me,” I said. “She loved God and religion more, granted, but she did love her daughters. She made us all sorts of chickpea based snacks, remember. She wasn’t even a shouty mum, except, you know, if we’d sinned or done something a bit anti-God.”

“But you were always competing, weren’t you?” my counsellor asked, gently. “You always knew, for a fact, that you’d lose to God. You were fighting for for your mum’s approval, all the time, and you always knew on one level she disapproved of your behaviour because it was sinful. That’s how love feels, for you. You feel most at home when you’re not measuring up.”

I could almost hear the click of the penny as it slid neatly down into its slot. “That’s how you think of the right sort of love,” she said, and everything went click-click-click into place in my head. That’s why I’d been so compelled by X; his endless lofty disapproval, his gaslighting, the daily will-he-won’t-he. On a deep and unseen level it reminded me of being a child and wondering, every day, whether what I said and did would glean me a smile from my mother, or a disappointed frown and a prayer for my forgiveness.

By contrast, being loved steadily and unconditionally, in the way my husband had always gently offered – that felt wrong. As I reached that crisis point of my thirties, the panic of the empty nest yawning, I pulled away from it on some level. I went looking instead for the magnetism of all tte darker things that resembled love, but weren’t. In the blanket of self-doubt and all the casual, dismissive put-downs that X shrouded me in, I’d found a solace of sorts, because it felt like home.

I wasn’t “healed” the moment this was pointed out to me. It wasn’t a quick fix. But there was a safety in the fact of a “why” for me to lean on. I didn’t want to shift blame; all my bad choices, I’ve made myself, with no one else to blame. But I did want a hook to hang my fear of my own self on, something to work on, and this was it. I was glad I’d made the appointment.

I love you-printed surface

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