My partner cheated on me on Strictly, but it took another heartbreak for me to quit toxic love

<span>Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

For some people, heartbreak looks like inhaling a chest freezer’s worth of Ben & Jerry’s, sitting saucer-eyed in the bath like a sad frog, or screaming your way through Alanis Morissette’s entire back catalogue.

For me, heartbreak looked like a flight from Los Angeles to New York in March after yet another “romantic estrangement”. We started experiencing turbulence somewhere over Nebraska. The plane lurched, lights flickered, and a bowel-emptying plunge took those who had not belted up out of their seats. Masks dropped, adults prayed and children screamed bloody murder. Me? I just sat staring straight ahead, uncaring. My heart had been ripped out a couple of days earlier. I was already dead.

This feeling has happened to me once before, publicly, in 2018 when my boyfriend at the time was papped kissing his dance partner from the television show Strictly Come Dancing – on my birthday. After I put a statement out detailing his gaslighting behaviour, news of other affairs came out publicly, too. For a brief while, I was one half of the poster couple for toxic love. I hadn’t even known that love shouldn’t look like it did for us, that an insidious loss of joy, opinion and confidence wasn’t what was required of me. I just thought relationships took work and compromise, and weren’t always plain sailing, and a whole host of other unhelpful soundbites I had filed away over the years to justify the daily pain.

Here’s something else about toxicity – once you know about it, you see it everywhere. After I left him, my eyes were open to the toxic messages rammed into pop culture. Ever since I was capable of conscious thought, Disney and Jane Austen and Julia Roberts films have all made it clear that my mission was to shed parts of my life in order to step into a man’s. Add to that the fact the only women I had ever seen fall in love or have sex in films growing up were thin and beautiful (unless they’re shamed for being “chunky” like Martine McCutcheon in Love Actually or Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones’s Diary). The only emotional abuse victims I had ever seen on screen were portrayed as submissive, terrified Little-Mo-from-EastEnders types and nothing like me at all, and the only perpetrators were snarling domestic terrorists. No wonder I couldn’t recognise toxicity when it was right in front of me. No wonder I felt lucky to be loved in whatever form it took.

In the two years after the Strictly incident, I worked very hard pulling out of my body the sticky, tar-like residue that gaslighting leaves you with. I met someone new. Someone sensitive, kind, thoughtful. We were ecstatically happy. We moved in together, then we moved to LA, and two weeks after arriving in the US he broke up with me. Two days later my shattered heart was being thrown about 30,000 feet over Nebraska.

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But my heartbreak hadn’t come from being dumped. It had come from the inescapable knowledge that, though they had been very different men, I had behaved the same in both relationships. I had shrunk myself to tiptoe around their difficulties. I had prioritised their needs to the point where I couldn’t remember what mine were. I had exhausted myself watering a plant that was already crispy and brown, kidding myself it wasn’t dead.

The heartbreak came from knowing I would never be rid of toxic love – ever – if I didn’t acknowledge that the only thing all the toxic situations in my life had in common was me. The difficulty with quitting toxic love is that to truly be rid of it involves a long, hard look in the mirror. And for those of us who are self-critical enough as it is, looking in the mirror can feel much more difficult than repeating the same mistakes until we die.

How has the healing journey been? Godawful, excruciating, exhausting. Was it the right thing to turn it around on myself? Absolutely. It’s not self-blame, it’s taking responsibility. The moment you accept that the only thing you have any control over is yourself, that’s when you start creating healthy boundaries instead of pompous ultimatums, and checking in with your own emotional needs instead of believing yourself more desirable if they don’t exist. When you face up to the fact you’ve been wafting around picking up broken-bird boys and nursing them back to health, like a Disney-princess Florence Nightingale, because it distracts from the real broken mess – yourself – that’s when you can expect something to change.

Healing involves a huge amount of discomfort, but refusing to heal? You might as well sit and wait for the plane to go down.

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