Sadia Azmat Column. Illustration by Heedayah Lockman
Illustration for Hyphen by Heedayah Lockman

Are relationships toxic, or is it just people?

It’s often said that you can’t love anyone without loving yourself — and it also helps you get the love you need

One of my favourite comedians, the late Norm Macdonald, famously said that love is “one of the hardest drugs”. Yet love doesn’t come with any cautionary labels or government health warnings.

Its high can make you wonder whether the other person feels the same: “he loves me, he loves me not”, as the saying goes. But I recently realised that no matter how the man of my dreams feels, it doesn’t change the way I feel about him: hopelessly addicted. This has led me to ask whether it’s relationships that are toxic, or just people?

I love men more than I love myself. I am super curious about what makes them tick and about how to get one to be mine. However, I have hereditary self-esteem issues and am great at being there for others, but not there for myself. That doesn’t set me up for the best experiences when it comes to love.

Besides, as an Asian woman, I’ve always felt like I don’t belong on the dating scene — a feeling that tends to be confirmed by the shock I elicit from everyone around me, aghast that I haven’t figured it all out. It is a blow to the ego when con artists like Tinder Swindler have to chase away attention from the opposite sex, but I barely get any. 

Now that love marriages appear to be more popular than arranged ones, largely thanks to the rise of dating apps, there are more single Asian women, just like me, than ever before. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of arranged marriages or apps, though. Both seem far too impersonal and devoid of chemistry for me. 

Instead, I ended up finding myself at the mercy of the baddest of bad boys: a man who couldn’t feel anything, or at least never acted as if he could. We met at the gym and he was single but always seemed uninterested — something he never had any qualms about reminding me of every time I tried to make an advance. He was intriguing and his complicated nature made him stand out from everyone else.

He was very handsome, so his lack of emotional capacity wasn’t a big concern for me. As far as I was concerned, those big, dark brown eyes and his six-pack made up for it all and the challenge of trying to make him more human was appealing. He was clearly trouble, but I’m from a broken home, so trouble is all I understand. Things working as they should — that’s what I really find perplexing.

In my memoir, Sex Bomb: the Life and Loves of an Asian Babe, I detail my relationship with this man and how he refused to give me much of his time but expected me to drop everything whenever he called. He made a point of keeping my place in his life as tiny and insignificant as possible. I never got to meet his friends or family, or even to spend time out with him. At restaurants, he never offered to pick up the bill. 

“‘I like to keep things simple,” he would say, ignoring the fact that he was denying me so many of the pleasures of a real relationship, all the while making sure he got the most out of it. 

‘When you don’t love yourself it’s easy to be treated badly by the people who should love you’

One of the rules he imposed was never to argue or even communicate about any of the things that mattered, especially my desire for reciprocity and commitment. In hindsight, I realise that was a way for him to maintain control. He wanted my silence in exchange for his time. That silence meant he could never be questioned and that we could never grow or work on any of our issues. 

I was alone in my struggle for him to love me and had very little to show for it, but when my girlfriends warned me against him, that only served to make him more enticing. Throughout it all, I romanticised my situation by repeating to myself the enduring cliche that nothing worth having is easy.

For years, modern society had also told me that, as a woman, I have to fend for myself and can’t rely on anyone, let alone a man, so my expectations weren’t exactly high to begin with. In fact, the only thing I really expected from him was the occasional orgasm. 

Even that turned out to be too much trouble. He was mostly concerned with his own sexual needs and anything I suggested would be overlooked. Nonetheless, I did a good job of fooling myself into thinking that sex was enough, even though it always felt like something was missing.

Dates, holidays, physical acts of affection that I suggested were all off the table. He wouldn’t even let me pick which side of the bed to sleep on. Everything I asked for was quickly shut down. He was so open about how little he was willing to commit that I blamed myself for my own unhappiness. I let him have things his way all of the time, but it got to a point where the captives at Guantanamo Bay would have been shown more care and attention. 

My goal of trying to make him feel anything backfired on me, and I was the one left unable to feel anything after running around in circles for him.

He was unashamedly toxic but, thinking back on it, so was I. All the work I was putting into pleasing him and the idea of building a future together took the place of work I needed to put into myself. Maybe I avoided it because, deep down, I knew part of that work would involve breaking up with him. That’s exactly what happened, as soon as my self-esteem grew.

The idea of self-love gives me the ick. It’s also hard to master, but it got to the point where doing so was the only option. I had to start putting myself first and refocusing my energy on me and the things I care about. I gave my time and attention to my friends and writing comedy, accepting that it was better to have loved and lost than to hang around hoping he would one day feel the same about me. 

I think it took me so long to come to terms with leaving him because love is so all encompassing that it seems crazy to walk away from it. But it’s crazy to love someone in the first place, given the amount of risk and vulnerability you have to be open to. In relationships, it’s natural not to be happy all the time, but it’s a clear red flag if sadness becomes the norm. In a twisted way, though, we can become dependent on that feeling, convincing ourselves that we aren’t worthy of anything better. 

When you don’t love yourself it’s easy to be treated badly by the people who should love you. It’s also harder to appreciate when people do love you if you feel so undeserving of it. I’ve learnt that loving myself is necessary for the greater good. It isn’t always easy, there are usually a lot of obstacles in the way and it involves facing up to difficult truths. Striking a balance between self-love and self-improvement is a formula I go by. 

As a single person, I can still be messy, but now I’m no longer doing it for someone else to notice me, and am trying my best to make good decisions rather than holding on to my mistakes. 

The paperback edition of Sex Bomb is available to preorder at all book stores and will be published by Headline on 25 May 2023.


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