Jenni Viken’s new book Choosing Healthy Relationships explores an area many women struggle with. Most people are not given much guidance on how to find their significant other in life, and that choice is even more difficult if you come from an abusive home or have a legacy of generational abuse in your family. Children learn what their parents model for them, and if no one models how to find a healthy partner or how to deal with issues in a relationship, then a dysfunctional relationship will usually occur, and often, it can be marked by abuse-physical, emotional, and verbal.
Jenni Viken understands that. She’s been there. She spent eighteen years, sixteen of them married, in an abusive relationship. In this book, she tells her story of how she met the husband who would become her abuser. She honestly speaks about her own unwitting role in the abuse, and she shares how she found the courage to protect her children and get them out of that situation. But the book is more than just Jenni’s story. She uses her experiences as a means to explore hard truths about relationships and open a path to the reader to make better choices for their own relationships.
Part of the problem, as Jenni points out right from the start, is that we are taught as children that the goal is one day to fall in love and get married, and we are fed fairy-tale versions of marriage, but we are not taught what to do when the person we choose turns out not to be Prince Charming. Worse, we are not taught enough about how to cultivate our own self-esteem and self-worth to not attract the wrong partner.
While abuse is not acceptable in any form, Jenni is honest about her own role in the abuse. She did not go out and look for it, but she had the personal qualities that told her abuser the abuse was acceptable. Her longing for self-worth and validation led her into relationships with toxic people. She became a “people pleaser” and continually tried to fix others when she first needed to learn to fix herself. She honestly states, “I chose one broken boy after another. I was after the ‘bad boys.’ If a boy was nice, respectful, and healthy, I thought something was wrong with him, so I would do something to sabotage the relationship and break it off. It’s obvious to me now that I didn’t think I was worthy of healthy attention or love.”
I won’t go into all of Jenni’s story, but the abuse she experienced ranged from being given the silent treatment and having to walk on eggshells to physical abuse, manipulation, and threats until she finally found the courage to leave.
Jenni does not want other women to experience this situation. She tells her story to share the warning signs that you might be in a relationship with an abuser. Most eye-opening is that her abuser was a narcissist-most are. She discusses how narcissists try to control others to retain their power and their own feelings of self-worth. Unfortunately, Jenni thought a lot of her husband’s crazy behavior and mistreatment of her was normal in a relationship. Only when she came to understand about narcissism could she really realize how dysfunctional her life was and that she could not change her husband-he was incapable of changing. Then she decided to leave.
In the book, Jenni discusses how to create a safety plan for leaving an abusive relationship. She also examines all the reasons (aka excuses) women have for not leaving. The most eye-opening is that women will stay for the kids. She unabashedly, yet with empathy, explains that this is an excuse borne out of fear, and she discusses the deep emotional wounds inflicted on children who stay in abusive homes, so the sooner you get you and your kids out, the better.
After leaving, healing must begin, so Jenni walks the reader through how she healed. She shares how she set boundaries with her ex-husband, and ultimately, how she came to forgive him. Perhaps more importantly, she learned to forgive herself for letting her kids down by allowing them to live in an abusive environment for so long. In the end, she came to accept that she and her husband both did the best they could with what had been modeled for them, but while he was unable to change, she has now transformed her life, even finding a new and healthy marriage.
Finally, Jenni reveals the secret ingredients to healthy relationships. She states, “I believe we are all on this earth to love and to be loved. Love is about open communication, mutual respect, forgiveness, grace, kindness, and patience.” She discusses how to communicate with love and the different ways people express love. She reveals how a healthy relationship requires setting healthy boundaries, having good communication, and sharing and not compromising on your core values. Through exercises, she helps the reader explore these areas to get a good understanding of their importance and how to develop them in a relationship.
I admire Jenni Viken for her courage in sharing this story. We all are dysfunctional in some way, and we can all do better. This book gives us hope, and more importantly, practical steps to take so we can have the peace and happiness in our relationships that we have always wanted.