Nine

Originally published at Wait A Minute Now
27 October 2017

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The Stories I Told Myself:
Why I Stayed in a Toxic Relationship

I.

After the night that he walked away with the keys and I spent a couple of hours wandering empty streets in suburban Leipzig, after the wind and the rain really got going, after I scrolled through all the possibilities - he was lost and he couldn't speak German, what if he met trouble?; no, he went home but he was mad at me and maybe he had packed his bags and was that him sitting in the tram shelter before the sun had even risen?; no, he was home but he was mad at me and he didn't care and I was out here, how was I out here; oh, but could I be sure that he was at home, he wasn't answering anyway, what if he was in trouble somewhere? - after he finally let me in and I yelled at him, really yelled, enough to make his eyes widen in panic, and it felt good, really good to let that out because I knew what he'd done was unacceptable no matter whether we'd argued or not, but then he asked "Are you breaking up with me?" and I cried, "No!" and fell to the floor because I was tired and hopeless and I just couldn't process that he had really done this: after that night, I had established a precedent, namely that he could push things this fucking far and I would still want him.

We made up, and went to bed, but I woke up hours before he did, and sat in an armchair trying to grasp that the previous night had been real. How could my partner, the person I loved and who claimed to love me, behave like that? But I pretended to be okay when he got up, because for him, the incident had apparently been resolved.

I remember trailing around in a shopping centre that day, although we didn't have any spare money. I had the distinct feeling of tears having dried on my face, although I had washed them away. But it was better not to rock the boat, wasn't it, better not to risk bringing that night up again.

I didn't want to tell friends what had happened, because I knew they would judge him. I had already made my mind up to stay together, and so his behaviour would reflect on me, I felt, and so I had to shield us both from the inevitable disapproval. But the memory of Leipzig would claw at me every so often: the time he left me looking for him in the silent, wet streets in the middle of the night.

Sometimes the thought would cross my mind that actually he hated me; other times, that I was just inconsequential: fun to have around if I could play the part, but not worth making much effort for, and easy to replace.

II.

There's a whole catalogue of stuff that happened. So many fun times! Once, he reduced me to tears in the kitchen because I chopped garlic instead of grating it. I know - it's absurd to cry about garlic, right? But of course it wasn't really the garlic: it was the inflexibility, the expectation that I should go back and start over; that, and the fact that I was on edge all the time.

Things he did for me were used as currency, subsequently revealed to be debts I was expected to repay, but the exchange rate felt skewed. I should join him on an errand to get his computer fixed, because it was equivalent to going to a church with me on my mother's death anniversary. I should be interested in sci-fi because he was interested when I talked about sex workers' rights. I should buy him breakfast because he had volunteered to come with me to a hospital appointment.

I walked on eggshells, folded myself up, muted my personality to give his more space. I accommodated far more than was healthy, conceded ground that I sorely needed to hold on to. I'd go along with everything he felt like doing, from the time we got up till the time we went to bed, and still I'd be chided for not layaning his whims enough, for always choosing the wrong moment to discuss problems, for the parts of my personality that didn't mirror his.

I shared my insecurities in the hope he would become more considerate, but the casual ways in which he wounded me showed he either hadn't been listening or didn't care. And then, sometimes, I was a crying wreck, or an angry drunk, frustrated because nothing seemed to work; and then I was the one whose behaviour needed to change.

He split up with me half a dozen times, each of them on the spur of the moment, and each time but the last, he took me back after a few hours. Whenever I asked him not to act so recklessly in future, because it hurt to be treated so disposably, he'd scold me, saying his feelings had been valid in that moment and I had to respect them. He spoke the language of autonomy, of self-care, of social justice, leaving no words for me to express how I was disempowered.

III.

A story I had been telling myself for many years was that loving, committed relationships - the sort where you actually plan to stay together for the long term - happened to other people, but did not and would not happen to me. I had tried many times, and gone through a lot of heartbreaks - although, to be fair, I'd also had many positive experiences, and not every break-up signalled failure.

Another story I had been telling myself, especially as people around me increasingly settled down, was that a future in which I had no partner would be a miserable, sad and lonely one.

I was generally cynical about any kind of fortune-telling, and considered the concept of fate to be annoying as shit, but I was glued to these scripts. I knew they were deeply insecure and I was embarrassed to admit them; I tried to pretend I was chill.

I met him at a point in my life when I felt particularly lost. I was living on the road, which was all very cool and interesting, but secretly I was searching for a reason to stop moving. And the most irrational story I told myself was that this was my last chance: if this relationship didn't work out, then nobody would ever want me again. The prospect of us breaking up filled me with a dread that made me desperate. I had to drop everything else, put him first, and not rest until things worked out.

The thing is, you can try all you want, but it won't achieve anything if the other person is resistant to making changes. As the true nature of our dynamic revealed itself, I found myself perpetually tense and increasingly afraid to voice my anxieties. Talking about it always backfired and blew up; not talking about it meant things were just bottled up until they eventually spilled out, only to be met with reprimands. I was around him all the time, but I felt weirdly alone. And when he made offhand remarks about the future he envisioned for himself, it didn't sound like I was anywhere in it. At the time, I couldn't imagine this might actually be a good thing.

IV.

I was deteriorating and he urged me to seek outside help - my state of mind was cast as a product of my own baggage, and nothing to do with him. I started seeing a therapist, which, in another strange currency conversion, was equated to his seeing a secondary partner.

It was at last dawning on me that I was in an unhealthy, stressful environment. And I would soon have to leave the country; the plan had been to do a quick visa run and hope I'd be allowed back in, but it seemed increasingly foolish to rush back to this mess. I had finally admitted to myself that if our roles were reversed, he wouldn't be making as much effort, and after trying so hard for so long, I was considering taking a step back. I told him I was thinking about going away by myself for a while so that I could clear my head, figure stuff out. The words had barely left my mouth when he ended our relationship.

The purpose of therapy switched to crisis management. I was dealing with a devastating break-up, immigration issues, a blank future, a search for some kind of home, and a general, kind of bewildered despair. It was everything I had been terrified of, and a lot of the time, I couldn't think beyond the horrible present that I was living. But when I felt able to think more clearly, I tried to unpack why I had wanted a committed partner so badly in the first place.

V.

Sometimes you need distance from a situation before you can understand how bad it really was. In my case, I was thousands of miles away before a crucial piece of knowledge finally slotted into place. The problem hadn't just been the level of importance I'd given him: it was also the standards I'd held him to. Somewhere in my formative years, there was a bullshit heteronormative script that said I couldn't hold men accountable for their actions.

If a friend had treated me the way he did, it wouldn't have been a tough decision to just end the friendship. First I might have calmly explained what was wrong and what I needed them to do about it. But if that went nowhere, I wouldn't have stuck around, and I wouldn't have missed them.

This whole romantic love thing had completely fucked up my ability to recognise unacceptable behaviour. The evidence was overwhelming: our relationship had been toxic. And in some twisted arithmetic, I'd awarded it more importance than friendships with people who genuinely cared about me.

I finally understood that being single was far preferable to being partnered and miserable. He'd done a lot of damage, and I could tie myself up in knots trying to figure out why he behaved so callously. Or I could stop trying to figure him out, banish him from my life, work on healing, and dismantle my own narrative of doom so that I wouldn't wind up living in anyone else's shadow again.

Friends stepped in when I was at my lowest point: new and old friends. People I'd been close to for a decade or two. People I'd only known peripherally, because they'd been his friends first. People I met when I hit the road again. One day, exiled to a village in New Zealand in the middle of winter, I had an ill-advised online chat with him while I was in a café. I started crying, and the woman at the next table came over and offered me a whiskey. People are fucking nice, I realised. It really isn't that hard for them to be nice.

I was surrounded by love, but I'd been too distracted to fully appreciate it, searching for it in a different form. With so many wonderful people in my life, my future looked far from bleak. But I'd been chasing an imaginary turning point, when everything would finally be okay and I could live happily ever after with someone who'd shown little regard for my feelings. The prospect of being apart had somehow seemed worse than the turmoil I'd been steeped in. I had to face up to the fact that none of it had made any goddamn sense.

The only worthwhile relationship would be one modelled on friendship. Maybe this was basic information that everybody else knew, but I was only just seeing it for the first time.

VI.

It's taken a lot, sharing this. The shadow of that relationship still haunts me sometimes, makes me tense up at the slightest conflict. If I had baggage when it started, well, great - now I have way more.

But I'm also sort of okay with that; it's part of my experience, it's part of who I am and how I finally figured out where I want to be. After things have been shaken up that much, after you've cried an ocean, after you've wished you could just go to sleep for a year and wake up when these feelings have faded away: after you've finally moved on and started your new life, your best life, you look back and think, "See? Here's something else I got through" and you'd never have reached this point without going there first.

I could end by telling you about the relationship I'm in now, which is more loving than I could have hoped for, and arrived at a time when I was - genuinely! - no longer looking. But the thing is, even before this relationship began, I already had my happy ending. I had my crew of queers and feminists and badass activists. I had my creative pursuits. I had the joyless employment I'd taken to get Immigration off my back, and I had days when I'd get drenched by heavy rain walking home from the bus, and have cereal for dinner and go straight to bed, and life was still better without him by my side to disapprove of my choices, or complain about getting caught in the rain. Because personally, I could handle it. Actually, I could handle anything.