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How to stop self-sabotaging your new relationship

PHOTOGRAPHY BY TASHA TYLEE
WORDS BY GENEVIEVE PHELAN

From someone who recently has. 

If somebody asked me where I was this time last year, geographically, it would be at a bar, breaking free from a (not sure what number November 2020 was) lockdown. Mentally, I felt a bit shocking. My self-esteem was obliterated and my faith in the notion of love was hanging on by a thread.

I’d said those three little words aloud, to someone who definitely did not feel the same way back. And no, they were not audibly reciprocated. (Turns out tears don’t help with that.) In hindsight, I didn’t mean them either. It was infatuation and desperation at best, clutching at opportunities to keep someone around who really didn’t want to be there.


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My year 12 English teacher told me to treat words like currency, every syllable costing you a few dollars. If that’s the case, I’ve spent millions by now writing about last year’s romantic pitfalls, and allowing them to seep and creep into every prospect since. 

In recent months, I’ve met someone who feels like an impossibility. I think about all the things I’ve done over the years – the late nights, the flings, the foolish decisions, the embarrassing ones, the tears, the failed month-long entanglements, all of it.

I think about them and I wonder how someone of such unwavering integrity and a fortress-like moral code would be interested in someone who feels – at times – as insecure and as unpredictable as me. 

This is, I guess, the crux of why the subconscious desires to start playing the role of saboteur in your new relationship. In the first month of knowing this new man, I wondered where he’d been hiding out for all this time of shonky first dates, anxious waiting room hours (pining for a text back), and raging self-doubt.

I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’ve found something of a mythological creature here’. The extensive garland of green flags is documented here in great detail, for reference. It was pre-DTR (defining the relationship) that I had a slip-up. A mistake. Something that made me feel sick in the pit of my stomach and foul in every sense of the word.

I still don’t know what came over me to think I could do this to not only a) him but b) myself. It’s like everything was going so well, so reassuringly, so brilliantly and calmly, that I had to rock the boat. I pursued someone for almost seven months last year, only to find out they had been seeing someone else on-and-off for three years at a Peninsula pub a few days after Christmas.

I think I thought to myself, recently, in the context of New Guy, that nothing is certain. That I’ve been let down so many times prior, so how would this time be any different? (Note: all signs signalled it would be different, but the stories we tell ourselves are powerful, diabolical benders of reality).

I’d felt like such a naive idiot last year, and even earlier this year, for believing sleep-ins and cooked brunches and ironed shirts equated intimacy, or love. And despite coffee drop-offs, considered date nights, a gentle progression and unfurling feelings of ‘something more’, I couldn’t – in my absolute core – trust this fresh and promising thing to prosper. I just couldn’t. 

I don’t want to go into the details of what followed, or what I did. But know that for the last chunk of time, since being released from lockdown, I’ve felt really devastated in myself for disbelieving this New Guy would be the first legitimate one.

The first legitimate one, ever. It’s not with a shred of drama or hyperbole that I say I’ve felt the worst guilt, shame and self-loathing in my entire life. If I thought having someone else break my heart a little bit hurt, then I had no idea how much breaking my own a few more inches would feel. 

Anyway, fast-forward and we are in real-time. You’re up to speed. Basically, I divulged the broader lens issues and feelings that led me to this self-sabotage, in a moment of sheer anguish and anxiety over the phone.

Despite holding in the details and intricacies and most private feelings (that I probably never will divulge to anyone) that led me to that moment of jeopardising something real, I told him what my mindset was in the beginning, versus what it is now. I said I was sorry, and that I didn’t know where I stood before, but that this is all I want right now. And that is the absolute truth.

I think, in meeting someone new, we can project a vast spectrum of the feelings experienced in our past on them. And it helps nobody. It hinders our ability to see this new person for an entirely different entity, not a species to be vilified or demonised for simply existing.

I lumped all men into the same basket, and thought any new interest would inevitably disappoint me or leave me or be ‘in it’ for some concealed, ulterior motive. Maybe it was to pass time again, with our relationship starting in lockdown and all. 

Although 2020 Guy and New Guy are such polar opposites of humans, I feel like it’s been a long year of trying to tell myself I’ll be just fine on my own. Accepting that someone new can come in again, with all the complex, big, scary, warm, fantastic feelings that come with them was nothing short of terrifying. I did not want a male crutch again — one that I’d feel elated to see once a week, and then come crashing down in the intermission days, reeling from little bites of boyfriend behaviour. 

It’s only a few weeks ago that New Guy and I made things ‘official’. Sorry, I hate that phrase. But it’s like something clicked into place in my brain and I shifted gears. The emphasis we put on saying ‘This is a real, committed, exclusive relationship’ is, in some ways, silly. But in others, it’s a verbal, meaningful pledge of solidified reassurance. It is important to me, at least. 

Since then, we’ve done the meet-the-parents thing (with the meeting of my mum taking place tonight), shopped Ikea together without attempted homicide, and – speaking for myself at least – felt such a momentous groundswell of emotion, feeling and genuine adoration towards each other. I have never felt anything like it in my life before. That’s exciting, and terrifying. 

I think I’m going to use the last couple of months as a barometer. How I felt in the beginning (scared, insecure, unsure, doubtful) is something I won’t let taint the relationship I am in now. Whatever indelible mistakes and missteps and lessons I’ve accumulated in the past are staying there, but their lasting impacts will prevail. 

If anyone fears intimacy, realness, or commitment, I would tell you this: you are worthy of unconditional love. That’s not from another person, per se, but from yourself. You cannot expect to be fully invested in someone new without relinquishing some of the terrors and torments of relationships or situations or feelings past.

Something that’s helped me recently, in deciding to give this my all and ‘lean in’ to the unknown (at the risk of sounding very woo-woo) is trying to be presentIt’s been taking extra spin classes, talking things out with trusted friends, setting boundaries, and not feeling afraid to admit things that I am feeling here and now. And maybe, soon, it might be trying to find the courage to say those three little words again, but waiting until I truly, really, consciously mean it this time.

As it turns out, there is absolutely nothing you can do to alter history. It’s done, fixed, gone. We can only control our current, present narrative, and try not to look too far ahead into the future. I know I’ve quoted nobody here, made no references to books, and disclosed no intimate anecdotes, but I hope, for anyone out there feeling like they’ve fucked up or sabotaged something or feel a little bit unloveable at times, that this is a small slice of comfort.

When you’re honest with how you feel, and confront the ‘hard’ things head-on, you might start to feel at ease. Vulnerability isn’t always sexy, but I’ve learned it’s the best way to be the best edition of ‘you’ there is – for your sake, their sake, and the sake of healing those times you’ve felt broken before. You have permission to move on.

Genevieve Phelan is Fashion Journal’s Lifestyle & Careers Columnist. Her writing fuses introspection with investigation, calling on her own personal anecdotes and the advice of admired experts in the realms of intimacy, money, friendship, careers and love. You can find her here and here.

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