It’s been 19 months since I left a relationship of 7 years. At that time, I’d considered leaving on and off for a while – years in fact. I kept holding on to the ‘good times’ and ignoring, or at the very least, justifying the ‘bad times’. I’d tell myself that it wasn’t so bad and that I shouldn’t be so picky. I’d found someone who loved me and that I loved back and all the articles about how relationships aren’t easy had led me to believe that my relationship was as good as it could get. It wasn’t until after I left the relationship that I realised how much of an impact my ex had on every aspect of my life, and how much of that was negative. Why I thought:
- ‘if I can’t get sex at home, I’ll find it somewhere else’ was a valid argument, or
- ‘I think you’re perfect, but you would be happier if you lost some weight’ was supportive, or
- ‘I know you better than you know yourself and you don’t want…’ was romantic, or
- ‘let me finish your dinner because you don’t need to eat all that’ was helpful *while I was still forking food into my mouth*, or even
- walking out on me for days only to come home and pretend nothing happened was preferable to fighting…
I never did understand his rational for most of his comments and we often did end up arguing about these, or others. See, despite a common belief that emotionally abused people are weak, conflicted, damaged, struggling, etc., this is not the case and it certainly wasn’t the case for me. I’m confident, outgoing, stubborn, hardheaded, and for the most part, I am fearless. I’ve traveled to 50+ countries, I’ve lived in six, I have a good job and I’m not afraid to try anything new or to take on some of the worst challenges. And unfortunately, that last point, and my constant need to succeed, is what got me stuck in this relationship for 7 years. I believed that my ex was a good person deep down and I saw it as a personal challenge to bring out that side of him and let the world see what I knew was buried under a damaged, arrogant exterior. Aside from feeling like a failure, one of the worst feelings at the end of my relationship was having to admit that, despite arguing that he was a better person, he did, in fact, turn out to be exactly what many other people saw him as from the very beginning. I know I’m not alone in finding a ‘fixer-upper’ as a partner and believing all the good in them, and I know that I’m not alone in trying to put up with things that I otherwise wouldn’t put up with so that I can be with the ‘man he could be’ when he gets his act together. This is a common theme with women (and others, I’m only speaking from my experience) in their 20’s and early 30’s because we tend to believe we can fix any relationship problems and are resilient (or maybe naive?) enough to believe that we will never fall victim to abuse. Well, that wasn’t my case, and it’s taken a long time for me to be comfortable in admitting that. But let’s fast forward a bit…
I had been making good progress in getting over my lack of confidence and feelings of worthlessness and this morning I woke up to a video call from an old friend of mine who lives halfway across the world. I’ll call him John. I haven’t spoken to John in about a year, which is normal as he’s a flighty character, so I excitedly answered the call. He says to me ‘I have a surprise for you’ and my mind begins reeling, trying to figure out what he’s going to show me: plane tickets to come visit perhaps? A photo of us he set out to reminisce as he had a drink that night? I wasn’t sure… but what I wasn’t prepared for was when he panned the camera over to his lounge and in it, was my ex; sitting in a relaxed position with his legs outstretched in front of him, a grin on his face and a beer in hand. He raised his beer to the camera, said ‘hey’ and I think my heart stopped for a full 5 seconds.
I have been avoiding any contact with this man for 16 months. I have ignored his messages and cut him out of my life. I’ve deleted or hidden all reminders of us – of him – and I’ve turned my life around, bit by bit, taking it one day at a time. I found my way through that messy breakup and straight into depression and anxiety, through loss and a new ‘love’ (a year later and it didn’t last, but that’s for another post), found a new home, regained *some of* my confidence, even adopted a cat and got my life back in order… and after 16 months of struggles, he tore it all down with a <1 minute video chat, one word and his typical, smug, sh*t-eating grin.
The thing no one really talks about after a relationship breakdown is the after math. We all hear about how hard it will be in the beginning, that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is long after. What happens years later when you run into your ex? What about 16 months later when you turn on your phone to find his face looking back at you? This may not be the case if a relationship ends well or mutually, but for me, this was a surprise that I was not prepared for. Worse than seeing his face and hearing his voice after so long, was the feelings it stirred in me. Part of me wanted to yell and scream and tell him all the things I hadn’t in the past that I know he deserves to hear, like how much he hurt me, and all the things that he did that weren’t acceptable; because that part of me wants him to know how horrible he was, to feel bad and to suffer for how everything he did to me created a mountain of suffering for me to overcome alone. Another part of me wanted to just hang up the phone as soon as I saw him come onto the screen and just pretend it never happened, because, as much as I hate to admit it, I’m still scared of the effect that his words can have on me and I still have an internal run-and-hide instinct when I even think of him. Just seeing him brought back so much pain already that it was terrifying to make a decision either way. John brought me out of my shock-induced staring contest with the screen, and I found option three, deep within the darkest recesses of myself. I didn’t yell, I didn’t hang up, but I politely said ‘hi’ wished them both to enjoy their night and stated that I had to get ready for work. I finished by saying it was good to see my friend (specifically because, although I’d like to be, I’m not a big enough person to say that to my ex) and I hung up the phone. It would’ve been clear to the boys that I was eager to get off the phone, but I don’t care about that. What I care about, is that I regained composure after only a few seconds of shock, was polite and did not let my ex get a rise out of me. I was in control as far as he was concerned, and he never needs to find out about my shaking hands, my nearly vomiting, my close tears or how I called my best friend after I composed myself a little bit and screamed to the world (through her) how angry I was at the three people involved:
- My ex: where does he get off trying to contact me through such a snakelike way of using a friend to get in contact with me? It’s not fair to anyone involved and he, acting like a little puppet master, had our friend convinced somehow that this was a good idea, and had me, unsuspectingly, answer the phone and open my heart to be instantly dragged back through a world of hurt.
- John: what happened in my relationship is none of his business and he has no right stepping in between like that and trying to corner me into speaking to my ex, whatever he may have said to convince him this was a good idea.
- and finally, me: I am angry that he can still get a rise out of me, whether I admit that to him or not. I’m angry that in <1 minute, all the doubts he cast in those seven years were back and I was that small, worthless girl who couldn’t make a decision because of all his gaslighting. I am angry that although it was only <1 minute, it has currently overcome my entire morning and now, nearly seven hours later, the only comfort I can find is in writing about this.
Given the fact that my ex is as manipulative as he is, I’m angry that John set me up, but knowing that he tries to fix everything and believes the best in everyone, I am honestly not surprised that he believed whatever yarn my ex was spinning and that my ex managed to weasle his way into contacting me again through John. It’s not the first time he’s used other people to try to get to me, although it is the most unexpected. He’s supposed to be in the USA, I’m in Australia and John is in Norway – of course it caught me off guard, so no, I will not beat myself up for falling into that trap.
All I have been able to do all morning so far is seeth and remind myself that he is not in my life, he no longer controls me or my thoughts, he does NOT determine my worth, or what I want out of life. This is MY life and I refuse to give him control of it… and yet, here I am, back to dwelling on a man who hasn’t been in my life for 16 months. But as I write this, I find solace in knowing that I am stronger now than I was when he’d torn me down year after year, subtly manipulating each aspect of my life. That although I can be as stubborn as anything, even a mountain will be eroded by water over time, but that at the end of the day, the mountain will still stand: altered, but still strong.
The thing I’m starting to recognise, is that maybe emotional abuse triggers never leave us. The trigger will always be there and maybe it’ll be seeing him again or hearing someone’s accent that reminds me of him… none of these things are in my control. My reaction is though. And I’m proud of my reaction to him this morning. I could’ve yelled and screamed or ran away from the call by hanging up, but I took the high road. And the fact that it affected me as much as it did? Well I think that’s a normal reaction to being thrown under a bus by a friend and into a cactus (prick). I don’t have to like him, I don’t have to talk to him, but I do have to recognise that he cannot hurt me anymore. I felt very foolish this morning that he was able to have such an effect on me, but now, and for the last few hours, I’m working my way to conviction that this is a perfectly normal response to such a surprise. I have spent 16 months building barriers and, caught off guard, he managed to circumvent them in a drunken conversation with an old mate. I’ve done what I can to avoid him and will continue to do so because he’s not worth my tears, pain or struggles. So here I am, altered, but still strong.