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Please read this disclaimer before reading this story. 

DISCLAIMER: In this series, we will be covering stories on Toxic and abusive relationships. This may be a triggering topic for some. This particular story mentions instances of emotional abuse.  Kindly remember to be mindful of your mental well-being and that of others when reading and sharing this story.

My ex would criticise me over what I can term as small things. For example, he constantly told me, “I don’t understand how you’re so small, but your fingers are this chubby.” This happened at his house. He grabbed my hand, looked at it and just started laughing at my fingers. Another thing he liked saying was, “I don’t understand how you’re this small, but you have a bit of a tummy.” He’d touch my tummy, play with it, and emphasize how I had ‘a bit of a belly.’

I was involved in quite a number of extracurricular activities, and Babe would tell me I was doing too much. Once, he told me that he didn’t want to see me running for the student council. To me, it felt like he was criticizing my ambition. Now I can laugh about it, but then it was the absolute trenches.

There was a time I participated in a competition, and my team didn’t make it to the semifinals. We got eliminated, and I felt very sad about it. My mood changed even in my messages to him. I moved from normal chatting and then gave him a not-so-happy-go-lucky response. This was right after we had been eliminated. I went home that day and didn’t speak to him.

The next day I reached out and told him that my team had been eliminated from the competition. He said he could tell because I became cold towards him and was mean to him. He didn’t try to meet me halfway or show me any compassion for my disappointment. Instead, I was the one who ended up apologizing. I went and delivered cupcakes to his house in apology. He told me, “Just because you’re going through a rough patch, you shouldn’t take it out on me.”

I didn’t understand what he meant by that. How was I taking anything out on him? In retrospect, I now have the language to describe what I was going through then. I didn’t have the capacity to cater to him because I was hurting. I told him as much, of course, in different wording  and he was adamant that it was a situation that called for tough love. He was like, “You lost, you lost! But you keep on moving. You don’t take it out on other people.” That was just one situation where I needed his care and consideration but was met with criticism instead.

The funny thing about Babe is that he expected care when he was going through something, despite all his talk about ‘tough love’. He was like an egg while going through tough times – very fragile. But tough times for him were complicated because I can never be too sure now if they were actual tough times. He would say he was going through something and use that as an excuse to pull away. However, as he was pulling away from me, he would get closer to another girl. So in retrospect, were they actually tough times? I don’t know.

I can think of one instance where he talked about how he claimed to be homesick and really missing his family. I would take that as a chance to lean in and be extra caring towards him. There was a time he said he just wanted to go on a walk, and, despite the fact that I had exams, I decided to take a reading break and go on a walk with him. That’s an example of me giving him care and him receiving it.

There were other times he could reject my care when he was having a hard time. He’d tell me he needed a break from our relationship. It would always come out of left field for me, but mtoto akililia wembe mpe (when a child cries for a razor blade, let them have it). I would shrug and be like, “If that’s what you want.” For me, a break means we are still together, but perhaps not communicating for a set period. Aside from this break being for a flimsy reason, Babe would act as if our relationship was over. He went around gallivanting with other women. Eventually, he came back and told me things like, “I’ve had time to think, and I miss us.”

The first two or three months of our relationship were okay, but it felt like I was walking on eggshells after that. We were on and off for a year, and I can’t think of a time when I felt like I could let my guard down and do something as simple as have a laugh. I am trying to think of even a one-off situation where a joke had been cracked, and we were laughing, and I can’t think of one.  

I wouldn’t say I felt happy in that relationship. The highs were really high, but the lows were really low. I may be intellectualizing here, but now I ask myself, were the highs really high, or because the lows were really low, on a scale of one to ten, you’d be happy to get a three on the high side? As compared to where you were before, which was in the negatives? So no, I wasn’t happy, but I had moments where I could be satisfied with the thought that he was there with me and we were not fighting. Things were as okay as they could be in those moments. But I never had a state of bliss where I could genuinely say I was content and happy to be there. I experienced more contentment with the absence of the negative than anything positive.

Right now, when I think of a healthy relationship, I believe physical and emotional safety is so important. Emotional safety, for me, looks like thoughtfulness and caring. Thoughtfulness includes something like projection in that you can anticipate what your partner needs and do something that can ease their burden or provide comfort. 

A simple example would be if your partner had exams or was going through an intense period at work, and the one thing they have to do regularly is cook; you can choose to take that off their plate and deliver a home-cooked meal. You don’t even have to eat with them or spend time with them, but just giving them some food to keep them going through that period would be helpful. It doesn’t have to be that grand, but that’s just an example of some forward-thinking.

A healthy relationship is also a stable one for me. I want to know that my partner and I can have misunderstandings, conflicts, and bickering, but we will work them out fully. I don’t want to experience that precariousness where I worry that if we are fighting or have had some form of conflict, it may mean we are no longer together.

I have an insecure attachment style, and I’m working towards a secure one, but a healthy relationship should be secure. Even with insecurities or insecure attachment style, I don’t want to see my partner talking to a girl, and I’m like, “What’s going on over there?” or vice versa. I can feel some jealousy, sure, but I know that nothing is going on. I want to get to the point with a secure attachment style where it doesn’t bother me even if I see my partner schmoozing with other people (of course, in a friendly, non-flirty way).

Finally, a healthy relationship should make room for all the types of people I can be. I can be moody, happy-go-lucky, ambitious, whatever it is. I should be able to be myself in totality. No one should feel the need to put on a show or perform happiness, contentment, or confidence. You should be able to be sad and cry over trivial things and not-so-trivial things, and there’s acceptance of that.

When I was in my relationship, I was given advice, but I kept going back over and over again until I got to the point where I was tired of myself. That is when I told myself I had to leave and stay gone. I also know someone who was in a similar situation and I tried to tell them that there is no world in which their relationship would end well and that they needed to leave, but she also kept going back. She eventually left and stayed away, maybe because she also got tired of herself and the situation.

A friend once told me, “If you get back together with Babe, I’m no longer talking to you.” That only meant that I could get back together with Babe, but chini ya maji (covertly), and not tell them. 

A week or two later, she apologized and recognized that wasn’t the right approach. She told me I was free to do what I wanted, and she promised be there for me. That’s the same thing would do, if circumstances were reversed. I’d try to shed light if a friend of mine went through something similar. If you tell someone going through something like what I went through that it is not good, or it won’t end well, it won’t be of help because they won’t listen. 

A better approach would be to ask them what their ideal relationship is. Make them poke the holes in their head and plant the idea there that their relationship may not actually be the ideal one they have in mind. They will realize they’re not being treated how they would like to be treated. Ask them to think about what they want. Is that relationship what they really want? Would they be happy if that dynamic remained unchanged three months from that point or even six years later? Would they be happy if their daughter or son were in such a relationship?

Akilia leo na arudi kesho, ni sawa It is okay if she cries today and comes back tomorrow). Two weeks later, if they do the same thing, ni sawa pia (it’s still okay). Just be there for them. It takes a while. They have to get tired of themselves and their own shit before they leave, but they need someone to be there for them, support and encourage them even as they rake up the courage and intent to leave. They’ll probably need someone to be there for them even more once they’ve left.