In the current atmosphere of sharing and sisterhood I will tell you a story that is both personal and uncomfortable.
Before I met Jason I was in a brief relationship with someone I referred to as my boyfriend. Our interaction lasted for about eight months. Leading up to our first date he had made several awkward and endearing attempts to flirt with me over the course of about two years, but I was too obtuse to notice.
A friend, that knew us both, had clued me in on the secret and encouraged me to go out on one date. She, at the time, thought very highly of him. And since I thought very highly of her, I agreed to go on one date.
Very quickly, too quickly, one date led to two dates, led to three, and so on. You know how these things go. He was charming, shy, and smart. I am a romantic, open, and very empathetic. He acquired his adjectives through practice and I earned mine because of a deep desire to connect with people. His gave him an advantage; mine got me in trouble.
Like many relationships, the beginning consisted of lots of dinners where there was a lot of wine. After a glass; often two, I was light-headed and giddy and listened with much intent as he poured out his pain in a broody, rugged, very masculine way. He told me about his previous, and only, two relationships. He’d been in love with women that didn’t appreciate him. They didn’t appreciate the amount of time he invested in his future, or his passions. They didn’t appreciate the home he worked so hard on, or his career, or his body. They took for granted the life he was willing to share with them. They had both left him without a word. Vanished, leaving nothing but a Dear John on his mantle. Two Dear John letters, from two different women, to one man.
These were clues and I admit I was guilty of ignoring them. It was easy to ignore the bad things he said because he said them while floating between French and English. And with the most mesmerizing French-Swiss-American accent. I mean, it’s tough to hear words when someone is speaking so beautifully. All I heard was music.
When he drank he would cycle through mood changes quicker than a post partum, first time mom. He was always boisterous at first, then sad, sad turned into anger, and eventually he was tired and cuddly. I thought he was working out some demons that the alcohol was surfacing, but don’t we all have demons? Don’t we all get a little sad or angry when we imbibe? I brushed it off. I didn’t want to see the bigger picture. I just wanted it to be easy. He was, after all, highly respected in his career, held an MBA from a prestigious university, and was almost ten years my senior. I promised myself he was just working through some “stuff” and it was only when he was drinking… and of course at this point there was always drinking involved. So I made a silent pledge: no alcohol on our next date.
I should have recorded myself and played the tape back. I should have listened to me. I should have left then. Right then. But I didn’t, because we had an impromptu trip planned overseas, and a huge hiking weekend coming up, and we had just bought theatre tickets and well, there were so many commitments already made.
I was not desperate to be in a relationship. I loved dating, meeting new people, the adventures. I did not suffer from any relationship co-dependency. I was not in love with him, not yet anyway, not ever that I can remember, though I do think I had love for him. The thing is, I didn’t listen to the warnings because I wasn’t taught to. I was taught to think of the women that dated him before me as crazy. That the behavior his previous girlfriends exhibited was erratic, wrong, bitchy. I was taught not to trust them, but to sympathize with the broken hearted man in front of me. He was too good for them.
Then something happened. Something that forced me to pay attention. We were cycling through the hills. He became competitive, angry, wanted to race up hills, and down long winding paths. I giggled and took my time, thinking it was a game and silly. And when I smiled and laughed at his taunting, he took it as a personal affront. He started screaming at me. Bellowing from somewhere deep, yelling things like, “YOU’LL NEVER LEARN!” And when I didn’t respond after nearly ten minutes of his berating, but instead turned around to leave, he rode his bike straight into mine knocking me down to the ground.
My shins were badly scraped and my knee deeply bruised, but I stood up, picked up my bike, shakily climbed atop, and headed in the direction of my car. I couldn’t hear him yelling; the wind was strangely quiet, and my heart was pumping very hard and fast. I felt his presence behind me, following me, and I thought I could hear him calling out my name; softer now, and caring. I pedaled faster. As I approached my car, which was parked in his driveway, he quickly approached me and swiftly herded me inside the house. I wanted to run, but I didn’t. I also wanted him to be sorry. And for a moment he was.
It was a “mistake,” he said. He’d had a “hard day,” and a bad call with his “troubled mother,” and it came out “wrongly on you,” he said. And then came the remorse, almost rehearsed, articulate, astute: “Please” would I stay and let him “prove” to me that “this isn’t who” he is. “Haven’t I ever been angry and made a mistake?”
Yes, I had, but I’d regretted those mistakes. And my mistakes happened while I was a child, not a fully cooked adult.
We’d been dating for four months now, and he insisted I knew him better than this one action. And I thought maybe I did, maybe this was an isolated occurrence.
What I told myself in that moment was I knew I would never be a woman in an abusive relationship, and no, that’s not what this is, no, no, no. That’s preposterous. No. No. NO. Maybe he didn’t knock me off my bike maybe I stumbled against the curb because he rode too close. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he was coming over to hug me and I misinterpreted the whole thing. Maybe it was an honest mistake.
And so I stayed. I STAYED. Not because my knee hurt and my shins stung. Not because I was being held captive. I stayed because I felt bad for thinking he was abusive. And if I left after such an ordeal – him unscathed and me bleeding – he would think I didn’t believe him. It was only one mistake, and he wasn’t a bad guy. Would a bad guy be drawing me a bath and putting ointment on my injuries? Everybody thought the world of him, and so I wanted to as well.
Things were normal-ish for a while. We both worked a lot, so our limited time to hang out became fodder for his testy remarks: “You don’t want to be seen with me, you must be ashamed of me.” And, “I’m a much more important person than you, just because you are busy doesn’t make you better than me.” Or my favorite, “If you don’t pay more attention to me I may have to start dating one of the many other girls that like me.”
I was nonplussed by his remarks. They were juvenile and stemming from his insecurity, and I just let him throw his tantrums and then I would coddle him back to happy by showering him with compliments. I would tell him how handsome he was, how dashing. And I would tell him the thing he needed to hear the most, “It gives me such a great sense of pride to be seen with you; such a handsome and accomplished man.”
This was the glue that held the relationship together and admittedly I got a rush fixing us. Once we were back to happy I felt myself walking on eggshells trying not to enrage him while he basked in the warm sun of his own ego.
Why didn’t I break up with him? I should have, so many times. I wanted to and he knew it. But I felt trapped…because we worked together. In the same building, for the same company, crossing paths all day long. Which is worse than breaking up with someone you live with. Once you leave someone you live with, that’s it. It’s final, done, unless you want to see each other. Breaking up with a co-worker is difficult, messy, and you spend more time in each other’s space than you do at home.
To my credit, this is why I had purposely remained obtuse to his flirtations for two years. I did not want to be aware of him. I did not want to have a relationship where I worked. Not at all, not ever. It is also the precise reason I made him promise that we wouldn’t announce we were dating to coworkers, or to anyone at work, not until the relationship was serious; not until we’d been together for at least a year. I wanted to keep my personal life segregated from my work life.
Obviously he felt differently. Unbeknownst to me, he had told people all over the building: the receptionist, my clients, V.P.s, the cafeteria staff, his carpool, anyone whose attention he could hold for thirty seconds.
I was not flattered. I was upset. I was embarrassed. I was betrayed. My trust had been violated. However, I carried on at work in the same manner I did before he and I dated and before anyone knew.
His volatile behavior escalated with each passing week. If I did not allow him to steal kisses in elevators, or meet him for coffee breaks when he demanded, or respond to his inter-office messages immediately, he would pull me outside the building and question my loyalty while demanding an apology for not being available at his beck and call. I reminded him I had a job, and a demanding one at that, and the building was filled with my clients. He reminded me that he ranked higher than I did. That if I didn’t stop being a “Bitch” he would make it impossible for me to work on my accounts that he oversaw.
His complete arrogance and the sense of entitlement he felt over me made me feel like a hostage. I felt I had to keep the peace and I prayed he would break-up with me so I wouldn’t lose my job or have to quit.
We went on a trip; a six hour drive up to the mountains. When we arrived at our destination he drank and quickly became upset. There was no one thing I could say correctly to avoid the anger that came as a postrequisite to his drinking. When morning rolled around he was still feeling disappointed, hurt, wronged.
“You’re just like everyone else. You don’t get it. I could be somebody,” he muttered to me, to himself, to the empty room.
I wanted to leave, but instead he left to go ski and I stayed behind, under the guise of writing. I called hotels, no vacancies. I tried busses and trains and car rentals. There was nothing. NOTHING. No escape.
When he got back we went to dinner. He drank some more. He became agitated and loud. I sat silently, waiting out his storm. But the storm didn’t pass. We got back to the condo and he helped himself to another drink, and got angrier. I left the room to separate myself and made a phone call. I would wait out the storm away from him. He came up the stairs. I set the phone down. His face was red from the blood rushing to it, his anger seething. I approached him, gently asking if he was okay, I was legitimately concerned and with one exhale he came toward me, picked me up and threw me clear across the room where I crashed against a wall and then plummeted to the ground.
I was whole, not bleeding, and nothing was broken, so I remained calm. I asked him to leave and he tried to throw my suitcase off the second story balcony into ten feet of snow.
He left the room and I locked the door behind him.
His articulate, astute voice replaced the rage as he tried to get back into the locked bedroom. When it didn’t work, the anger resurfaced. He was on the phone, speaking in French with someone. I understood very little, but recognized the tone of the voice. He was talking to his mother. He came back to the door demanding I open it or as his folle mère advised him to, he’d have to “slap me into submission.”
The door remained locked until morning.
I made it home. I broke up with him. I told him to get mental help.
He didn’t acknowledge our break up. He relentlessly made excuses to talk to me. Not because he was sorry; I don’t believe he is capable of empathy. He needed to win. And I’m not sure what winning “looked” like to him, and I didn’t want to find out.
After weeks of his relentless pleas to speak with him, I gave in. It was just easier. He wanted to tell me the following:
- He’d seen a therapist at my behest to “win” me back. The therapist diagnosed him as being “of superior mental health.” That he was not a candidate for therapy. And that he should break up with me immediately for suggesting he needed counseling.
- Didn’t I see that we were supposed to be together? Couldn’t I see the future, a wedding, a baby?
- Everything was my fault. I provoked him to feel a great deal of animosity.
- Why did all the “girls” he dated treat him like this?
- His mother was right, he should only date very young women that were not pressured by their biological clocks. And that he should have slapped me and thrown me off the balcony.
I could go on, but it would just get really repetitive.
So I gave him what he wanted. I told him what he wanted to hear. I told him he was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I’d learned so much from him. That I wasn’t enough for him and his mother was right: my need to procreate had indeed made me and all other women of menstrual age unbearable. He indeed did deserve better. I told him I thought his “therapist” was correct to suggest he break up with me, and that it was an inevitable conclusion.
And that was it.
One week later I found out he was dating a young woman, almost twenty years younger than him, at the office. She had just graduated… undergrad.
I wanted to warn her. I wanted to tell her. I wanted to give her my number in case she needed help.
When she would see me she’d unashamedly run in the other direction. She refused eye contact. And she glowed with pride when she held his hand around the office building. He frequently strutted her past me with purpose.
It wasn’t her fault she didn’t trust me; she wasn’t taught to listen to the women that came before her, either. Maybe she was riding the same cycle I had. Maybe she still is.
Thankfully I rode in a different direction.