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On Learning and Teaching Healthier Relationship Skills

By Erics Horenchka

I have no fucking idea what it means to be in a relationship and I’m pretty sure most people I have ever been in relationships with don’t, either. The last two years of my life have been all about learning what that fact means. I’m learning that the implications of this fact  are huge, and the reasons for that lack of knowledge are many. I am not an expert on relationships, in fact I have had some really major failures in relationships. Having cheated on almost all of my partners, being involved in several (and counting) emotionally abusive relationships, and having many friends whose relationship with me is defined by hurt, I know the only thing I am an expert in is failing, crying a lot, learning a bit, and trying again.

I am a white (Ukrainian on one side, and have no access to knowing the other side’s lineage), high (both in terms of my heels and drug use) femme, cis, manipulative, relatively charming, learning disabled, student, eating disordered, mentally unwell lady. I currently volunteer doing Partner Assault Response (PAR) counseling through a formal agency. I run 12-week groups and individual counseling sessions for people (mostly cis men) who have been convicted of domestic violence/sexual assault. These are folks who have abused and/or sexually assaulted their romantic partners and have been mandated by the courts to attend each session, usually to avoid (sometimes more) jail time, have their charges lessened or be released from custody. Obviously I hold a tremendous amount of power in these spaces, where at the end of the 12 weeks I write a letter to the crown stating what I believe their chances of ‘re-offending’ are and recommendations (i.e for more resources, such as drug treatment). The work I am doing of intervening with folks who are perpetrators of domestic violence involves teaching/learning the skills involved in being in healthy relationships. It does not feel as radical as I thought it would. It is much more human in its form. I try to tell myself and those around me that if you can’t trust how and why learning  basic relationship skills is important radical work, and inherently involved with transformative justice; that is okay, but it’s your truth and way of being. This isn’t to say the best way of doing this is through a formal agency/through court mandated programs, and for sure I am not always the appropriate person to teach this stuff. I often feel  that in our communities we use words like ‘Transformative Justice’ as catchy, sexy words and our heads go to this amazing, big work where we get to use such phrases and radical sentiments. However, I think my experience has been a key element of this radical transformative work: I’m just learning/teaching some basic shit (which I struggle to apply in my own life) and having conversations about being in relationships with our self, the world, and others and hoping that will lead to less hurt in this world.

There are all sorts of lessons I have learned from my work with these men. Confusing and unsolved questions and ‘facts’ have arisen inside me and have made me question some of my earlier simpler radical ideas, that I once thought set me apart from the average person. I am learning the complexity of trusting the police’s accounts of an event more than the people I am supporting (men who abuse), the therapeutic value of humanity, self worth and accepting contradictions in both my own and other people’s stories and beliefs.

Anyways what I do is talk with people about some very basic relationship skills. These lessons  would be learnt if in a different, non-colonial world from elders, family, teachers, the land, and from ourselves rather than a nice, business-casual-wearing white women in a place where people find themselves in to avoid jail.

Reasons for unhealthy relationships and abuse:

The work I do is a product of colonialism. The work I do is a product of jails, of schools with curriculums that ignore the most important lessons and stories. It is a product of a world where people, like me, do not know how to interact with and be in relation. Furthermore, the reason I get to be the one doing this work is a result of white supremacy. I think there is amazing, powerful and useful stuff to be said (and being said) about colonialism and a lack of ability to be in healthy relationships, I am not the guy to be saying that stuff. I do have to be honest though that it guides some of my work.

It is common in many traditional ways of being in the world, that learning to be in relationships comes from the land, it comes from family, the work done in day to day life. The lessons/tools for relation comes from all around us, the basis of being in this world, is relationship. It is the heart of self. As I learn about my peoples traditions and the way they relate to each other and the land, I’m seeing the ways capitalism/globalization has ruined being able to foster healthy relations and the negative impacts that has caused through domestic violence.The ancestors that I know of create beautiful eggs, which at one point symbolized the sun, and the way the sun creates and sustains life to give thanks to the sun and celebrate their relationship to light. Nowadays though, the creation of these eggs, and the reason it is done is lost; it is about creating ‘art,’ it has been commodified and de-spiritualised and is no longer a ritual of relationship. Many acts that support relationship have been lost. The stuff that makes up our day to day life no longer fosters a sense of relationship/self in relationships. Instead of harvesting potatoes with my grandmother I am anxiously glued to facebook awaiting more likes. I have no time or energy to reflect on who I am in relation to the creations around me; I don’t know what the content of my relations are. It is ironic, as we live in a world/culture that holds romantic partnership up as the most important thing(see any romantic movie, tv show, etc), yet never teaches us how to be in healthy relationship.

When I think of this stuff I think of the way one may relate to a tree, you may walk past it every day, you may or may not have thoughts about that tree, you may or may not have big feelings about that tree. Regardless though you are in some kind of relationship with that tree, whether you acknowledge it or not. And if you are not aware of the content of that relationship, who you are in it, the dynamics of it; it is unhealthy one. If you never sit and own and chill with those feelings it/the relation created inside of you; it’s not healthy. Maybe it is a giant oak, that is trying to teach you a lesson in forgiveness, or a struggling willow reaching out to you for a little help, or to convey its anger at you. Maybe the tree reminds you of a abusive ex partner or a time of death, maybe your people use to make baskets out of that willow in order to carry eggs or medicine in them. You may or may not know what feelings that tree triggers in you, it may be rage, love, abandonment, excitement. That tree provides you with oxygen, toilet paper, calmness. You may trigger huge feelings in that tree or deep dark resentment. But in the context of this world, all you know about your relationship to that tree is that it’s there and maybe that it does some good things for you, and maybe its given name. The fact is though, you and that tree have a history, a relationship. You have conflict and needs but without learning to hold that in yourself, unpack it and acknowledge it, you will never be able to be in healthy relations with the tree or to learn the lessons you have in order to glean from the relationship. You will also not be able to be in healthy relationships with others. 

Things to understand before talking about being in healthier relationships

It is often said that in order to love others, you must love yourself first. Or that the most important relationship is your relationship with yourself, as it guides all of the other relationships you’re in. I don’t think the sentiments behind these thoughts are untrue, however they are very individualistic, and colonial in their form. The fact is, in the absence of a relationship, it becomes impossible to answer any question. It is our relationships that helps us grow and be human. A lot of being in a relationship is learning how to deal with the growth and self-talk/thoughts that relationships bring up. It’s true that the work we do outside of relationship is important and inherently tied to our ability to be in a good relationship. And it’s true a lot of being in a healthy relationships with others is based on our ability to understand and process our emotions and reactions internally. I find it an important line to tow; to own that your relations are what build and create you, but that you are also responsible for the content of those relations and how you are in and outside of them. 

            A key part of being in a relationship is listening to and understanding how someone else experiences us, but how could we possibly do that if we don’t experience ourselves? The same goes with our own gifts, if we can’t enjoy our gifts, no one else can either. Know your limitations, so when they are pointed out to you, you won’t explode. You also won’t experience co-dependency. This does not happen in a linear fashion though as (the abliest and kind of fucked up) sentiments like: ‘ove yourself before you love others’ implies. 

            Relationships often lead us to a place where we see contradictions that is important. I have found in my relationships where I hear and learn things that I believe to be true that I don’t fit within who I am currently. This leaves me needing to expand my ideas of who I am and what beliefs I carry. It is the space, and time you spend within that space, between my two selves that is important and transformative. When we’re in relationships we have to learn how to come home to ourselves and interact properly inside the home we create in ourselves. What are your house rules? How do you follow them?! We have to learn to become a container big enough to hold our own shit. We need to create a container (a space) within ourselves that has the capacity to reflect, hold, challenge, cradle, smash and love our emotions and reactions; building this is the work of stopping abuse. We need to be able to take a step back from this container and look at it. When I think of my own container I try and locate it in my body. For me it lives in my guy, just below my naval. I can close my eyes and picture it, splash around in it, and ideally expand it as needed. Which allows me to examine the stuff inside it. This is part of learning how to come home to ourselves. We need to be able to have a space to bring our lessons to that is comfortable and safe and not full of traps and distractions! 

            These are just a few of the things I have learned along my path to building better relationships. 

For practical tools to help build. healthier relationships see: “Relationship Tools

Erica Horechka

Erica is a high femme white queer lady living her days out in Guelph. She spends her time navigating her too big feelings, learning to support folks in unhealthy relationships/folks with abusive tendencies and trying to get to the bottom of things people say, do and think. You can find her nattering about joy, deep pain/unwellness and how cool it is that people have capacity to find new stories for themselves!

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