Ten years ago today I left a toxic, emotionally abusive relationship.
I could share details of the good times, the times when I felt more seen and cherished than I ever had, the ways we laughed, and how the sex was so great, and how we shared the quiet peace of canoeing the cove. I could share the details of the bliss of where and how we lived so close to the trees, and sea, in a small community that knew me and held my heart steady. And I could share the details of the rougher patches, the disrespectful behaviors and the mindfucks and twisted ways he acted on things he believed I thought. His lies, his cheating, and how he justified them, and made me wrong for being upset about it. How he projected onto me the things he himself did or was: Laziness, manipulative, rewriting of history to suit the outcome…but the details would have to be a book. So you get excerpts. The scaled down version, because the real story isn’t about him. It’s about me.
In those four years of living together, after three years of long distance relationship, he never hit me (I did hit him, once or twice when I felt cornered, a slap on the chest to make a point that I wasn’t able to make verbally because he wouldn’t let me talk, once when he grabbed my wrist on it’s way to hit him and I tried to bite him so he’d let go, evidence that I was not myself, but rather a cornered cat) but in the last year he did damage property. He pushed a sofa off the covered deck in anger, and, also in anger, yanked a bed frame out of my grasp when we were moving it, causing it to break. And he’d throw things dramatically to the floor in frustration.
In four years I watched his behavior move from emotionally angry and resentful, to physically aggressive with objects…I felt the danger of what might come next in that progression. I don’t know if it ever would have progressed to physical abuse. I like to think it wouldn’t have, that he’d never have done that to me. But I was feeling scared, so there was that.
I ended it over and over again, and I stayed or went back.
He criticized my daughter, wanted her to be different than she was, verbalized more than once his fear that “he would end up having to support her because she’d never be able to herself” because of his belief she was lazy. Because, for example, at eight years old she’d say she “looked and looked” for something and needed help to find it that ultimately was in the middle of her bedroom floor. Sorry, that’s not lazy, that’s Age Eight.
Once, as I was lounging on the couch reading, he leaned over the back of the couch with an angry intense expression, and shaking a finger in my face telling me she was going to get fat if she didn’t move more. His red-faced anger was well out of proportion to the topic, and freaked me out.
Yes, he was beginning to scare me.
But he also had successfully drilled into me that giving up, or quitting on our relationship was not an option. That I would be “walking out on our soulmate connection” and “I would never find a love like this again.” I believed him. The good parts were exquisite. How could I walk out on that?
Yet, he didn’t try to get to know my daughter. He tried to change her. She didn’t trust him, and resentfully interacted respectfully to him, and often wasn’t respectful at all. I felt a hypocrite insisting she be respectful when he wasn’t towards her at all. He was a child in that way, wanting my young daughter to be the one to prove her worthiness of having a relationship with her stepfather, when it was his job as the adult to prove his worthiness to her. That’s what stung the most, really.
When he, within my daughter’s hearing, said, “She’s a spoiled little bitch and you don’t even SEE IT!” I knew all the work to build trust between them so we could have a family was erased.
That’s when it ended. When a switch flipped inside of me and I was done. There was nothing left there I wanted to work on. I went to what would be our final couples therapy that day with nothing to say, no intention. It was everything I had not to walk out of the session.
So that’s a brief background. The real question is why I stayed, and what in me allowed myself to be okay with that level of disrespect for so long, or at all? Because if I were to look at it honestly, his behaviors in the first months of our long distance relationship were reason to let it go before it really started.
I suspect he has his own version of our relationship, one that includes me using him, and manipulating him to spend money, that describes me as lazy and a parent who coddled my daughter too much. While I don’t agree with those things, I know I participated. We triggered each other. But his fears were bigger, thicker, and his – what I think now was narcissism – overshadowed all of it. I’d been able to have healthy relationships before and since, so my work was for myself to find out what was my take away from this one. How did I get there, why did I stay, what did it take for me to leave, and what did I gain from the healing of it?
When we met in 2000, my beloved father had suddenly died the previous month, and my husband had just moved out after I ended our relationship four months prior. I was lost and needing something – someone – to anchor me. I was passionate about personal growth and healing, and
was excited to find a man who was, in many ways, the opposite of my recent ex. He was interested in personal growth, had language to discuss his emotions, he put me on a pedestal of Goddess-ness that filled an empty place in me, one of longing to be seen and heard, and important and valuable.
He was reluctant to be involved in a committed relationship that first month or two. I was tenacious. I hung on to our new bond with grasping fingers. Even as he expressed a deep connection with me like he’d never had before, he tried to push me away – I wouldn’t let him. Maybe I should have.
But that part in me that needed that kind of passionate, all-consuming love (what I thought was true love) was sure that we were meant for each other. Despite his reluctance, he also seemed to be unable to stay away, like there was some force pulling us together. So he made the trip from Vancouver a few times a month, or I traveled up to see him on my “not-the-mama” weekends when my daughter was with her dad.
We’d have long chats on MSN late into the night after I did my studying for grad school. We’d have deep and meaningful conversations about consciousness, soul’s journeys, past lives, metaphysical and the occult. Relationships, growth and healing. Sometimes our conversations became heated: with intimacy or with anger. It was a passionate love. My heart was ripped open in a way I’d never experienced before.
We did fight often. I was certain, however, that the points we disagreed on and the misunderstandings we frequently had to untangle over the phone would be resolved if we closed the distance.
So we made plans for me and my child to move across the border to Canada and live with him on Pender Island, where he’d recently bought property, after I graduated the summer of 2003. We planned to get married, and possibly have a child together. We were eager to build a family.
Two months before my daughter and I left Seattle, before I quit my job, before I moved my daughter from her beloved community where she’d spent her first seven years, he told me he’d had an affair.
No. Correction: He said it wasn’t an affair, it was a relationship. As if that would make a difference to me. She lived on the island, and he’d fallen in love, but he still loved me too, and he realized he needed to end it with her, break her heart, and put his energy toward our goals together.
Another point where I could have ended it all, with justifiable reason. But I didn’t. I’m a forgiving person, and trusting, and I loved him. I felt the conflicts we faced were for our own growth as a couple, as well as individually. And I had pride. I didn’t want to admit I had chosen wrong. I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was not enough, and not important enough, not good enough. He was choosing me, so I wanted to honor that.
The relationship was tense from the first week we were on the island. He accused me of things I didn’t do. He protected the feelings of this “heartbroken” woman at the expense of me. He wouldn’t let me answer the phone in his office for him in case it was her. And he also resented my daughter’s need to be close to me in an unfamiliar place, new home, new stepfather, new country, new school. He accused her of being “too needy” and me of giving in to that, rather than forcing her independence.
Still, I truly wanted to work through the hard stuff. It’s what I thought we were supposed to do. Marriage is hard. It is work. Don’t give up. I’d already “failed” at one marriage, and the shame I would feel at failing this relationship was too much for me to contemplate. I had to stay and make it work. I had to prove to everyone that I did the right thing by coming here.
The island was blissful. I met friends, loved the trees and the sea. I never wanted to leave. It was good for my daughter too, to have safe places to play independently from supervision and in nature. It was hard, in fact, to find places to play that were NOT in natural areas. She made good friends, and we flourished in that way.
But my parenting was under fire. All I knew about how to be a good mother was questioned and criticized. I felt at times that I was in a burning building and could only save one of them, but the rope tied from my waist to his kept me from running to my child. I had to make things good with him, so he would be nicer to her, and see that I was parenting her well.
Eventually I didn’t parent her well. I did it his way, to relieve the pressure on me. It hurt her, it traumatized her. I didn’t go to her when she cried at night, and I treated her like a dog by giving her rewards for good behavior and putting marbles in a jar every time she transgressed – if she got three marbles in a day she got a consequence. It worked, but at the expense of her crushed spirit. She resented him, and her trust in me wavered.
I left with her before we’d been there a year and moved back to Seattle. It was a sudden move. Panic button was pushed and we left. That was also traumatic for her. I promised we’d not go back.
But we did. He was sorry, he convinced me it would be better. So after a summer of housesitting in our former community while my child lived with her dad there, we moved back again. She was heartbroken. I promised it would be better.
It wasn’t. After only three months this time, another panic button got pushed and we left again.
This time for six months. We had a small apartment in Seattle, she was happy in school, I got a job.
And he got therapy. And gained some insights. And met with psychics and astrologers. And convinced me we were meant to be together. He gave her a stuffed unicorn as a peace offering. He wanted to be her stepfather. He would be better.
So we moved back again. It was again traumatizing for her. But I believed that living on the island was a good place to raise a child, and I believed it was in her best interest. I believed he and I could make it work, and overcome our challenges together and be happy. I knew we could. This time I was stronger. I didn’t accept his mindfucks like I had before. I didn’t compromise my parenting like I had before.
We fought more, not less. I wasn’t giving in, and I was insisting he improve his behavior.
He tried. But didn’t. That’s when it escalated to throwing objects. To calling names. I had friends comfort me when I was devastated, friends who distanced themselves because they couldn’t continue to support the relationship, and friends that helped me dissect the relationship so I could think clearly. For my 38th birthday party, none of my friends came, but two of his friends did.
Then it was over.
He seemed incapable of accepting my child and wanting to build any kind of relationship with her. He resented that I wasn’t making much money. He resented, it seemed, everything about me and my daughter. I had asked him several times over the year, “Why do you even want to be with me if it’s this bad for you?”
In the spring of 2007, during the process of looking for a place to rent on the island, and facing the fact that we’d likely have to move to Victoria, two tragedies occurred in my family. My young nephew suddenly died, and two and half weeks later my mom broke her leg, and needed help. With my sister and her family, and all of us, in the throes of grief, it fell to me to take care of our mother. During that few weeks it was like he and I put our separation and break up on hold. He is good in a crisis, and I needed comfort and another adult to lean on. He was there, he stepped up and I was grateful.
I left my daughter on the island to go care for my mom for three weeks with things between us unclear. I left her, and my dog, because I didn’t want her to miss school and I didn’t think I’d be very long, and I assumed I would be back to figure out our relationship further.
But it became clear it was going to be longer than a few weeks when it was determined that my mom had stage 3 Multiple Myeloma – a blood cancer that starts in the bone marrow. She was given a prognosis of 3-5 years depending on how well she responded to treatment.
So I had him bring my daughter to me, arranging with her school to finish out the year through correspondence schoolwork. He dropped her off, didn’t say a thing or come in, and left again. I found out from my daughter that he drove her from Whistler, where they were while he tended to some rental properties he owned there, but that didn’t tell her where he was taking her until they got to the border, than then simply, “to your mother.” She didn’t get to say good bye to any friends, or pack up anything other than the weekend bag she had with her. Later that summer a lawyer friend, my sister ,and I, went back with my sister’s Suburban and a trailer to get the rest of our things and my dog, who by then I hadn’t seen for three months, and get the divorce paperwork filled out.
He was still convinced I was going to try and claim half of his properties. It took some time one afternoon to convince him I didn’t want anything but the dog.
Leaving, I was relieved to be out of the relationship completely, but heartbroken to leave the island. And I went from one toxic situation straight into another one, of a different sort.
Grieving, depressed, broken, resentful, angry, scared and lost, I was now tasked with caring for my mother first with a broken leg, and then as she became weaker as her disease progressed.
There was no time, really, to unpack the relationship I’d just left, or to tend to my daughter who was also angry, depressed, and resentful and sad and grieving. I just had to put my head down and carry on.
My mom’s faith community held us. My first friends in this town were my mom’s friends.
Spring turned to summer, and the sunshine seemed to bake out some of the toxins. I started to remember what it felt like to not be minimized and manipulated daily. I started to remember what it was like to be heard and seen and respected, to be valued.
I started to heal.
It took years to fully step away from that relationship and answer the pressing questions of “how did I allow that?” and “what did I learn?” Therapy, introspection, other relationships that were also not right for me, and a lot of processing.
But what I realized was that, in order to leave that relationship, I’d had to learn to respect myself more than I loved him. Because leaving him felt like leaving myself. I had attached my heart to his, and I couldn’t leave without feeling like I was leaving myself. It was less about loving myself, and more about respecting myself. It was tied in with some of the messages I took from childhood about needing to be perfect, needing to be essential so I could get my needs met, so I would choose relationships that needed me to fix them.
I grew up with the message that it was my job to be the emotional security for my mother. It was a deeper level to the “caretaker” message many of us have. I learned that I could not make a mistake in relationship, because if I did, I would be less valuable, less lovable, wrong, and unnecessary.
It’s hard to respect that. So I didn’t respect myself. And I attracted a partner that mirrored that to me.
He provided me a relational environment that required me to dig deeper within myself than I ever had, to access that self-respect, so I could leave.
And I needed that in order to provide care for my mother, which was a legitimate and real situation where all my old emotional patterns of caretaking and being essential were actually required. I WAS taking care of her. I WAS essential.
It wasn’t until a few years after her death, when I no longer had to do that job of being perfect and being needed,
that I became aware of it. And in that one instant of becoming aware of my “job,” I was able to let it go.
The following month, in 2011, I met the man who is now my husband. I almost left him too, because the quality of the relationship we shared was not familiar to me, so I didn’t think it was “real love”. It was honest, tranquil, and lacked any need of me to “fix” him. He didn’t need me, so I truly wondered if this was the right thing for me. Where was the drama? Did I need the drama?
Friends urged me to stay with him, and since my track record for picking men wasn’t great in the past, I listened to them. And I’m so glad I did.
Eventually, I figured out a good metaphor to describe the difference between these two relationships. If relationships were food, I had always chosen the big, chocolately gooey cake. Amazing, addictive, intense, and toxic if you eat too much, but Oh, So GOOD. It was good, but it made me sick.
And here I was, in a new relationship that was the equivalent of a balanced, healthy meal. Fresh greens, flavorfully spiced, lean protein and just the right amounts of healthy starchy carbs, with chocolate cake for dessert on occasion. Sustainable, filling, always able to come back for more, this was Real Love, not what I was taught I needed love to be. There is Peace here. Love, Laughter, Respect, Joy, Growth. There is nothing I need to fix or change. I choose him every day.
It’s been ten years since I left that toxic relationship, and made Wenatchee my home.
I have forgiven myself and forgiven him.
I am grateful for all of it.