You know the ones. Before we know anything about the intricacies of real adult relationships, we’re being fed fairy tales about what those are like. Prince Charmings on white horses, love’s first kiss, rescuing from towers, fair damsels in distress, and gallant knight. All enabled by seemingly very under-protective parents who don’t hesitate to sell their beautiful daughters to terrible tyrants to raise their credit score. Some of us go the other way and fall for the villain (The Beast), who may or may not have a handsome prince trapped inside his prickly exterior. Some wait once upon a time and forever (and ever and ever) to be rescued from dire circumstances. If a young bride happened to end up with a villain (Blue Beard), then she simply had to outwit him using her beauty, virtue, and male relatives, and all would be well.
See where I’m going with this?
Fairy tales are fun because they’re simple; they’re not supposed to be instructive. Little children don’t understand the complexities of relationships when they are developmentally stuck in magical thinking. Which is a wonderful part of childhood. You can’t let children know right out of the gate that the world can be a terrible place. In the beginning, it’s our job to protect their innocence, for as long as we feasibly can. Fair tales can be moral parables, just fun and frivolous, or downright macabre (Brothers Grimm, anyone?). What’s important about them is that their fantasies, not reality. What becomes problematic is when we drag the magical thinking of childhood into our adult lives. Into our partner choices. Which are arguably some of the most important choices we’ll ever make.
Men have their own fictional archetypes to contend with, especially with their identities as rescuers and providers of damsels in distress, and someone better versed than me is (hopefully) addressing this. What I want to say to femme-identifying people is this:
Love doesn’t have magical healing powers.
No matter how good you are, how perfect a wife and mother, how supportive, how loving, how caring, how considerate, how compassionate, how understanding, how sexy, how maternal, what a good cook, what a safe space you provide, and how well you take care of everything, you can’t undo another person’s damage. You can’t make a half-person whole. You can’t love someone into having a conscience. You can’t wait patiently or long enough to turn an abusive person into a loving one.
Just think for a minute of a bad habit you’ve tried to break, that you were really committed to. Like quitting smoking, or eating cookies before bed, or buying more shoes than you can afford. Or even harder things, like showing up differently in relationships or at work. Or growing spiritually. It’s hard work, isn’t it? It takes a long time. Even when you really, really want it, it’s typically a long, gradual process.
So then consider how hard it would be to get someone else to change, when they don’t want to, or think nothing is wrong.
We can’t wait in our towers for change. If we want change, that’s our job. If other people want to change, that’s entirely on them. While love can be a supportive factor, when it comes to abuse or addiction, being unconditionally loving and supporting is actually something else. It’s enabling. And that’s understandable, because love and attachment are powerful forces. And no matter what, even if we stay, knowing what we are in for, the abuse is still never our fault. What I want to (lovingly) remind you of, is that you have agency. You have resiliency. You have creativity. You have so much love to give those who are capable of receiving it and giving it back in a healthy manner.
You are actually the only person that your love has the capacity to heal. Healing is not a passive endeavor, sprinkled like fairy dust from one person onto another, or even through day-to-day proximity or modeling. I don’t heal people. I partner with people who want to heal and become a teacher, a mentor, a supporter, a guide. But I’m not the one who does the work inside to make different choices, think differently, regulate feelings, and move through life in a new, vulnerable way.
Can people inspire us to heal? Well, sure, of course. But we can’t sacrifice our own happiness in the hopes that our virtuous, loving ways will rub off on someone who has demonstrated more interest in harming than healing themselves. And unfortunately, some will use their broken wings as bait to get you and keep you locked in that very tower you so badly want saving from.
Here’s a fairy tale I’d like to see more of: Once upon a time, the Princess meets Prince Charming, but after a few dates of love-bombing, fast-tracking, and future-faking, she decides that his tactical “charm” is not for her. She blocks him from her phone after he doesn’t take no for an answer, and moves forward with her life. Because the Princess has her shit together, and has both self-esteem and self-compassion, she’s neither waiting for rescue nor interested in a Project Prince (otherwise known as a Frog Prince). Instead, she just lives her life. One day she comes upon a different kind of prince, so different, in fact, that she at first doesn’t recognize him as a prince at all. She just feels comfortable and safe with him. He’s not Instagram-perfect, but he’s authentic, consistent, and respectful. Because they don’t know each other, they take their time telling each other their stories, laughing, sharing their ups and downs, and learning each other’s values and beliefs. Over time, they build trust and love, and because they are both giving to the relationship, and both solid individuals on their own, they create a strong bond that sustains them both through the trials that life brings. They make each other’s lives’s better.
And while I don’t have a crystal ball, I’m pretty sure Couple #2 has a much greater chance of living happily ever after.