What my worst relationship taught me

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Story highlights

  • Christi Paul survived an abusive four-year relationship
  • From that experience, she learned to be happy alone, set clear boundaries and practice the power of forgiveness

Christi Paul is anchor of CNN's "New Day Weekend." She is passionate about sharing her story to help and inspire the lives of other women. Join her this October and lend your voice to Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)Being belittled. Being shoved. Being threatened. This isn't bullying at school or work -- it's abuse at home. It's the ugly, violent truth hidden behind closed doors across America. It's the smile you fake as you leave the house, wishing you could get in a car or a bus and take it all the way to a new life.

Christi Paul
I was there at one point in time, so I get it. And when I finally walked out the door, I had hope. It was buried beneath fear, anger and confusion, but it was there.
    Before you enter into an abusive relationship, you think you're one kind of person, but after, you often wonder who you really are. How did you allow this in your life? Why didn't you leave sooner? Why didn't you fight back?
    These answers will vary from person to person, but behind the tears and the turmoil, there is freedom. When you finally determine to leave, you experience the kind of freedom that lights up your soul and sparks a die-hard determination to fight for it every time it's endangered. In other words, there IS life on the other side of pain.
    Here are three of the best things I learned from my worst relationship that serve me so well now.

    1. Our purpose isn't diluted when we're alone.

    Of all the things I thought I was, there was something I didn't know about myself until after that relationship -- I was relationship-dependent.
    I was perfectly comfortable having my own job, hobbies and friends. But at the end of the day, I craved being part of a pair. I found security in the knowledge that I had a significant other, even if he wasn't next to me all the time.
    That co-dependency was a wicked need waiting to pounce in moments of vulnerability. But after four years of a relationship that brought me to my knees, praying for a way out countless times before I was actually willing to TAKE that way out, I realized the bliss of breathing my own air, of choosing my own way and of inhaling the simplicity of waking in the morning to a quiet peace.
    I realized I'd rather be alone than be with the wrong person. Not only am I then available when the right person comes along, but I am free to pursue my passions and to do so on my own terms.
    You see, when you're with someone who holds you down, who hurts you emotionally, physically or psychologically, your desires, talents and intentions cannot blossom. And over time you lose your sense of purpose.
    But the truth is you don't need a significant other to give you purpose. Your value is wholly intact, independent of a partner who may or may not validate you.

    2. We have to set boundaries.

    I was really bad at this. I am a people pleaser. I want everyone to get along. I want to avoid conflict. I gave more credence to someone else's opinion than my own. Sound familiar?
    But here's something I've learned; normal people don't try to destroy each other. How someone treats you is a reflection of him or her more often than of you. You have a responsibility to yourself to set boundaries with people who aren't good for you. And you know who they are -- the ones who are easily enraged, who constantly make jokes at your expense, who compete with you on an unhealthy level.
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    I'm not saying those people are bad. We're all wired differently and we all carry our own experiences with us. But are those people good for you? What do they bring to your life? You have a right to build that boundary and protect your space. Surround yourself with people who respect, support and celebrate you.

    3. Forgiveness is not easy, but it is necessary.

    I didn't fully, deeply feel freedom until I forgave him. And this lesson has come in handy, by the way, with other relationships since him.
    While I relished my new independence, that searing emotional pain didn't dissolve simply because I changed my address. But holding onto anger didn't protect me from future heartache either.
    Experiences make you wiser. Resentment makes you decay. Bitterness will break you if you don't find a way to break it. And quite frankly, that animosity you hold onto continues to give power to the person who hurt you. Why should you keep letting the past take swipes at you in the present?
    Know this about forgiveness; you can forgive someone and still cut them out of your life.
    Forgiving them doesn't make them suddenly safe for you, but it does give you the space to be genuinely free.
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    That said, even years later, I still have days when I'm overwhelmed or frustrated or scared. I, like you, am human & beautifully imperfect. And you know what? I know he is too, and I truly wish him well. I want him to be happy and whole. There's good in him.
    There's good in everyone. There's good in you. But recognize that not everyone is good FOR you.
    So if you find yourself relating to all this, please know you can wave goodbye to your abuser and love him or her from afar. Get comfortable with being alone. And when you look back at the relationship you thought would break you, recognize you're still standing. Because you will be.