Another Valentine’s Day looms on the calendar, and another Valentine’s Day I plan to spend single. Being in my early 30’s I spend a lot of time wondering if I’m doomed to be an old maid or if I even care. I spend time wondering why I’m the only one of my friends not married or engaged.
A single defining time of my life always seems to be the answer. I often think about how few people know my story and wonder how many others have these stories in their past. I don’t think I’ve ever shared every detail with anyone. I won’t, couldn’t begin to, share every detail here, but these are the stand outs of my story.
When I was in my first year of college I met and fell in love with my first truly serious boyfriend. We dated for about 5 years.
He was sweet, respectful and smitten with me. He would bring me little gifts, write me sweet notes and drive two hours to see me during Summer break. I fell for him, hard.
Somewhere in the middle of all the good, there was a hidden undertow of bad. “I don’t like when girls wear nail polish.” Well if my amazing boyfriend doesn’t like nail polish, I should stop wearing nail polish. “I don’t like polka dots.” Even though it’s my favorite pattern, I shouldn’t wear something my sweet boyfriend isn’t attracted to. “Did you know earrings were a sign of slavery?” “I don’t like when you wear makeup, I like you the way you look naturally.”
In my high school days, most of my closest friends were boys. I vividly remember going with them to some movie opening that Summer after the first year of college and my boyfriend saying “I don’t like you hanging out with all these boys I don’t even know.” Of course he never made an effort to know them.
Do you see where this is going? It’s always easier on the outside of situations like this to see what’s going on. But I was young and I loved him. I thought that being in a relationship meant compromising, meant working on your flaws to be a better person. In some ways, yes, a good relationship is that, but what I didn’t recognize was that I was never asking him to make any compromises. I never asked him to correct his flaws. I loved him and all his imperfections.
I was a theatre major in college. I started with that major, ended with that major and still do theatre as my career to this day. I had been a certified “theatre kid” since I was about 10. My boyfriend had taken one theatre class as an arts requirement, loved it, and promptly changed his major to theatre right before we started dating. We met because we were scene partners in an acting class (yes, we had to kiss in the scene).
There isn’t anything wrong with switching your major, of course, or finding a passion later than those around you. But my boyfriend quickly became an expert in theatre. He knew more about it than anyone else, more than me who had been doing theatre constantly for about 10 years at that point. In the beginning I would introduce him to shows I thought he would like. It was so much fun to share my favorite stories and songs with someone. But then he would forget that I was the one that intrduced those things to him.
Soon he began criticizing my acting work. I didn’t use my arms enough. I had a wall up when I was acting that I couldn’t break through. And worse, he criticized my singing constantly. Singing was a part of my identity I had always been confident in. My entire life people had told me they loved my voice.
He was smart about it. He always couched the critiques like he was helping me. “You sound so good when you sing high. Maybe you should just sing high all the time.” Things like that. He always phrased it as wanting to help me be better.
One time we were with a friend after a round of auditions at school and he started giving me one of his “lessons.” He returned to his dorm and I was walking with my friend to her dorm and she said “I don’t like the way he talks to you. You should break up with him.” Break up with him? He loved me and was trying to help me be a better singer and actor.
Over the years he would criticize my singing so often that I convinced myself I was more a “straight show” actor than a singer. I barely sang. Roommates I had in my later days of college would hear me sing in the shower or goofing around in the car and say, “wait, you can sing?”
After an acting performance I was particularly proud of, a bunch of friends were complimenting me and he launched into a masterclass of all the things I could have done differently to make it better. I would later realize he couldn’t stand the idea that I might be better than he was.
I stopped being friends with those boys from earlier. The love of my life thought they were no good. I stopped hanging out with friends from my Freshmen year of college because they partied a lot, and my boyfriend and I didn’t need alcohol to have fun. I never drank while we were dating. I put most of my jewelry back in the jewelry box. I donated my polka dot clothes to charities. I hardly ever painted my nails and wore little makeup. I became very insecure in singing and acting, always hoping he’d tell me I was amazing and perfect, that he was proud of me. He always had notes for me. I can’t recall one moment of anything I ever did just being good. And if the person who supposedly loved me most always had critiques, so must everyone else.
Things got worse before I woke up. He would stay up all night long looking at things on the internet. His religious views changed, and while I don’t have a problem with that, I was constantly lectured in why my views were wrong and stupid.
At some point during these late night research sessions he found a certain sex advice podcast. He stopped believing in monogamy. He started giving me books and having me listen to podcasts about why humans were not meant to be in one single relationship. I loved him, and I wanted to be with him, and he made his case so strongly that I tried to see where he was coming from. I remember opening one of the books and the opening paragraph describing how a penis was shaped the way it is to scoop out the other men’s sperm in a woman to make way for their sperm. I remember slamming the book shut and being sick.
I have no problem with people who feel monogamy isn’t the lifestyle they want. But I was firmly monogamous. I hadn’t even felt attraction to a guy since I started dating my boyfriend. I would have done anything for him, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to survive a change to him having multiple partners, and I had no desire to be with anyone but him.
We faught about it a lot and ultimately, we broke up. I don’t remember much about that time beside watching Tangled on repeat and wondering what I could have done differently.
We also worked the same “acting survival” job. It was a weird job that I won’t detail here, but I had to call him at least once a day for this job. Another friend we had graduated with and who worked with us told me one day “I went to dinner with him and he started crying. He wants you back.”
Not long after that he called me asking if we could talk. I think we got back together that night. We had been apart for only two months. He didn’t want to be without me, and he would be monogamous if it meant having me back.
We lasted just about another year. He moved into my tiny studio within weeks of us getting back together. I hid it from friends and family for at least another month. Spoiler alert, if you are hiding a relationship from your friends and family, it probably isn’t a healthy relationship.
During that year I discovered he had been cheating on me during the first go around. He also began staying out all night with friends and he wouldn’t tell me when he was coming home or where he was. I’d wake up at 3AM picturing him dead in a ditch somewhere. And if I texted him or called him, I was jealous, I was insecure, I was crazy. He wasn’t cheating, he’d say. I was crazy. I was jealous. It was okay for him to have friends that weren’t me, but I just wanted to know when he’d be home, that he was alive. If I’d ask for us to get together with these friends, the answer was always no.
He also began traveling a lot for work. And if I wasn’t ready to jump into bed with him before he left or when he got back the fights were unreal. Or sometimes he’d come home at 3/4/5 in the morning after being out all night with friends and want me to have sex. And the sex was never good enough for him. I was told to watch porn to get better and learn new positions, and order sex toys so I wouldn’t be be so tight, as some positions caused me pain. If I was so bad at sex, why would I want to do it? It would just end in him criticizing me.
One day, around Valentine’s Day he wanted to have sex and I didn’t. This turned into the fight that ended it all. I had apparently never loved him, never appreciated who he was, and made everything about me.
I had done everything and anything he ever asked of me. But I didn’t love him? I couldn’t accept him? Because I couldn’t accept him not wanting to be monogamous did that mean I didn’t accept him or love him? Why couldn’t I just do the things he wanted me to do? I was devastated and lost.
But, had he ever accepted me? Had he ever tried to give me what I needed? That wasn’t a thought I had back then. Back then I shrivelled up and died inside at believing I had treated someone I loved so much so badly.
For months I blamed myself. When he came to move his things out of the apartment I had written him a note about how sorry I was, that I had never meant to hurt him, that I didn’t know what was wrong with me that I could love someone so much and hurt them, that I was selfish and needed to get help. And that I would always love and care about him.
And then he was gone. I spent most of my time when not working on the couch binge watching TV. One of my binge shows during this time was “American Horror Story.” Why? I have no idea. At the end of the Asylum season, Jessica Lange’s character says a line that is something to the effect of “Don’t ever let a man tell you who you are or make you feel like you are less than he is.”
I sat bolt upright on the couch and paused the show.
Not long before we had broken up we had faught about something, I no longer remember what, and I had said to him “sometimes you just make me feel like I am so small and so stupid compared to you.”
In that moment (seriously, thanks Jessica) it was like a veil had been removed and I saw everything for what it was.
Emotional abuse. Control. Narcissism. I didn’t even know who I was anymore.
I began rebuilding my life. I bought polka dots. I began wearing makeup and jewelry. I was cast in a show where I had to sing, and every time a cast mate or audience member complimented my singing, I cried.
I’m not the same as I was before I met him. I swore to myself I would never let what happened happen again, and I haven’t. I know the signs and I’m wiser and stronger.
In most ways I am strong and confident in who I am. I am not willing to change who I am, and I am okay with people not liking that person. I’m fiercely feminist and an advocate for what I want. I still listen to constructive criticism and feedback, but I’m able to determine what I agree with and what I don’t.
But it has meant it being very hard for me to trust people and very hard for me to be vulnerable with men. I know it’s why I’m still single. I know it’s why I have had feelings for a guy for almost 6 years and am still afraid to tell him. I don’t want to trust my heart to the wrong person again.
Like I said before, this isn’t a story I tell often. Mostly because it’s embarrassing. I always prided myself on being fiesty and feminist. And I let a man totally control, change and rule me. It took more time than it should have for me to understand the depths of his master manipulation, narcissism, gaslighting and power. To forgive myself and stop blaming myself for not seeing it. To not care if people that were still friends with him knew my side of the story. And to know that I deserved more than what he gave me.
During all the time I dated this guy, it never crossed my mind that I was in an abusive relationship. A lot of people told me they didn’t like him or didn’t like the way he talked to me sometimes. Some of my friends even had experience with him trying to control them. But they never told me, except that one girl, that I shouldn’t be with him, that I deserved more. We often ask “he hasn’t hit you, has he?” But we never ask about emotional/mental damage. It’s easy to miss damage that isn’t visible. I still don’t like to say I am an abuse survivor because I was never physically abused.
While I can’t even imagine the horror of physical or sexual abuse, I can tell you firmly that emotional abuse is real. Watch out for your friends who you suspect are being controlled. Call it out for what it is. Help them get out. No one deserves it. And if you are with someone who makes you feel small or less or wrong all the time, get out. You deserve to be loved for who you are, polka dots, earrings, nail polish and all.