When I found out that my parents’ break-up was due to my father’s infidelity, all I could think about was that my mum, the person who I believed to be the strongest, most inspiring woman in the world, had been reduced to tears almost every night thanks to a man’s wrongdoings. And that man was my dad.
Now, 16 years later, I still have vivid flashbacks of sneaking behind my mum’s bedroom door and watching her crying. I wanted to hug her but instead I froze. All I could do was watch while holding back tears myself. At the time, I didn’t realise that this moment in my childhood would have a lasting impact on how I would one day perceive men.
Witnessing my mum go through all of this made it hard for me to trust men, and it’s something I still struggle with today. According to research conducted by clinical psychologist and author Ana Nogales, which explored how a parent’s infidelity can impact a child, 80% of people surveyed said that the infidelity they witnessed as a child shaped their outlook about romance and relationships, while 70% describe the infidelity as affecting their general trust in others.
As I got older, I watched the women in my family experience men cheating on them and long-winded divorces, which further reinforced my perception of men being the cause of women’s emotional strain.
As I got older, I watched more women in my family experience men cheating on them, resulting in long-winded and painful divorces. This further reinforced my perception of men as being the cause of women’s emotional strain.
I concluded that men were incapable of treating women right. I assumed that eventually they would just end up hurting me — as they did the majority of the women in my life. I struggled to be vulnerable with my first long-term boyfriend out of fear of him hurting me in some way and let’s just say, he didn’t disappoint.
And it’s not just me. “My parents separated when I was 7, at the time I was happy they divorced,” says 29-year-old Alisha from London. “My mum was completely hurt with everything from her past and she always said to me, ‘don’t trust men’.”
“The fact I never saw my mum in a proper loving relationship made me lose hope that I would ever see it for myself,” Alisha continues. “Maybe her words about not trusting men even contributed to ruining a potential relationship. There was this one time I met my perfect guy at around 17. We dated for a year. My mum told me to break up with him because ‘he’ll probably cheat on you’. I stupidly broke up with him and listened to her because I thought she could be right.”
From a young age I would overhear older women in my family talk about being incapable of trusting men, and even though it wasn’t done intentionally, these statements further reinforced my perception of men.
My therapist helped me to realise that while some boundaries are important, I needed to stop assuming all men weren’t trustworthy and would eventually hurt me if I wanted to allow myself to have a healthy, loving relationship. After some convincing, she finally got me to admit that a healthy, loving relationship was what I actually desired. I had just assumed it wasn’t possible due to the emotional damage I had seen the women in my life deal with at the hands of men.
That’s not to say my therapist has advised me to lower all defences and head into all future relationships with my heart on my sleeve; self-preservation is still important after all. Having personal boundaries and a clear idea of what you will and won’t tolerate going into a relationship is a must, but learning to be vulnerable with a partner is important too.
“Often, women will have a strong desire for a loving relationship with a protective man but equally fear abandonment, rejection or shame,” says trauma, sex and relationship therapist Cate Campbell. “It’s much more difficult to lose the defensiveness and protective strategies acquired in childhood when your expectation is of being hurt.”
Therapy is helping me to change my toxic perception of men and by doing so I’m giving myself the opportunity to at least pursue the idea of being in a romantic, healthy relationship with a man.
Seeking therapy and counselling can help to alter women’s relationships with men. “Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) is particularly good at changing women’s attitudes to what happened with their fathers and other men and systemic therapies are then also helpful at repairing damaging relationships between all family members,” advises Cate.
She continues: “Systemic therapies are also helpful at picking up external issues which feed into the woman’s experience, such as gender bias in the family, and recognising intersectionality and other areas of oppression.”
Therapy is helping me to change my perception of men and by doing so I’m giving myself the opportunity to at least pursue the idea of being in a relationship. This has given me the courage to start dating again, but this time around with a more positive mindset. Unsurprisingly, due to how things ended between him and my mum, I did end up going through a phase where me and my dad weren’t on the best terms but I’m thankful for the great relationship we now have.
I’m not saying that those voices telling me not to get too comfortable because he is only going to end up hurting you don’t pop up in my head from time to time, but thanks to therapy I’m learning how to minimise them. I’m now taking control and no longer letting my childhood experiences deter me from building healthy romantic relationships with men.
Find out more about the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) on their website. The BACP also provides a directory of qualified counsellors and therapists.
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