Conscious Dating

love bombing and lies: the narcissist and the bachelorette

I watch “The Bachelorette.” I admit it. I do.

I mostly watch to make fun of it, but that hardly excuses my participation. I’m a huge fan of the HuffPost podcast “Here to Make Friends” covering “The Bachelor” franchise, and love the recaps so much, I started watching the shows so I could get even more enjoyment from each podcast episode.

My shame aside, it’s been both fascinating and horrifying this past season to watch bachelorette Hannah Brown be manipulated by a narcissist, namely Luke P. This week’s episode was the gratifying end to their relationship, when Luke told Hannah if she had slept with any of her other three finalists, he’d leave the show because of sin and things, and she kicked him off. ABC had been teasing it for weeks, ever since it became clear to viewers that Luke was beyond a mere “villain” of the show, a bully or poser or whatever, but was actually the toxic sociopath the other men claimed him to be. It was telling to us, if not to Hannah, that without exception the men he was living with despised him and considered him to be a dangerous and manipulative liar.

Having dated one of those myself, I totally agree.

I was telling a friend recently about the experience of watching this unfold, after having been through a similar relationship. Of course I was only dating one man, not dozens, but while it did help give Hannah some other people to focus on, what she went through in her dealings with Luke was pretty excruciating in its relateability.

That’s one of the craziest things about being involved with narcissists, though—how utterly, bizarrely similar their patterns are, even though they’re completely different people coming from totally different backgrounds. In all the self-help reading I did after that relationship, blessedly, ended, the patterns were obvious and validating. And though Hannah was on a dating show, protected by security and producers and involved with other guys, she went through all the same feelings, cycles, upsets and frustrations as I did, and so many others have.

Part 1: Love Bombing

It begins with love bombing, which is the perfect term for what they do. They blitz you, besiege you, blast you with explosions of love, devotion, never-felt-this-way-befores. It’s utterly overwhelming, making you incredibly uneasy even while you’re busy buying it. Luke told Hannah he was falling in love with her within days of meeting her. The first night of the show, while other guys were posturing or trying to get to know her, Luke stared intently into her eyes and said he saw her on “The Bachelor” and knew she was the one woman for him. Flattered and, yes, overwhelmed by this declaration of his feelings, she gave him the coveted first impression rose. The other men, watching this unfold, were quickly aware that something wasn’t right. Hannah even knew that something was off. But the love bombing had begun, seduction in its basest form, and it’s incredibly hard to resist.

Most of us struggle with feeling worthy of being loved, feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection. Especially when we’re somewhat emotionally vulnerable—like I was as my marriage broke up, like Hannah was as the bachelorette, like many of us are at different times in our life—and even if we’re not, it’s indescribably compelling to have someone tell us that we’re so amazing and special and unique that they’ve already lost their hearts to us, even though they just met us. They want to see us every day—they’re in touch constantly (this was a struggle for Luke, given the limitations of the show, but he did his best)—they don’t let us forget that they’re seriously into us.

Healthy relationships don’t work like that. You might immediately feel a strong connection to someone, and you might act on it without needing a lot of time. But there’s typically a mutual, and equitable, movement of attachment and intimacy. Love bombing is an all-out deliberate campaign to attach someone to you, an entirely different thing. It worked on me with my ex, and it worked on Hannah. Until you’ve been through it and can identify it for what it is, it’s a dangerously effective strategy.

Part 2: Manipulation and Gaslighting

Another brilliant application of a term is gaslighting, originally from Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play “Gas Light” and made famous by the 1944 film adaptation starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. A supposedly devoted, adoring (read: love bombing) new husband uses subtle lies and tricks, including the flickering gaslights in their home, to convince his wife she’s going insane. Ultimately his motive is greed, he hopes to gain something valuable through this process, though he does seem to relish fucking with her head.

I would call Luke a master of this, except he isn’t quite smart enough. At one point in the season, he attempted to gaslight an entire roomful of men, who all stared at him in disbelief. He used it more effectively on Hannah, talking around the truth, lying about the other men and twisting words and situations to his advantage. When she began to push back at some of his behavior and language, he stated that he didn’t say what he said, a classic gambit, and that she misunderstood him. Gaslighting is about rewriting the story to fit your own narrative, getting creative with the truth, and convincing the people around you that they’re the ones in the wrong. That they are, in fact, crazy to think otherwise.

Watching Hannah go through this, especially with the omniscience of a viewer after the fact, was both frustrating and sad. The other men didn’t seem to know what to do with the situation, even as they challenged him. One of them said, “I can’t believe you outsmarted me,” when he realized that Hannah believed Luke’s version over the truth. It was shortly after this that ABC started heavily promoting Luke’s sendoff, as it became increasingly clear that if there was any chance that Hannah was going to pick this guy, it would look bad for her, and for the show. Exposing her to a personality like this wasn’t necessarily ABC’s fault, but they did cast him.

Other forms of manipulation are cold rages, which are really effective when it’s your partner and you don’t understand why they’re suddenly furious with you (on the show, Luke tried this on the other men, who weren’t impressed); defensiveness and over-explaining; guilt trips; throwing blame; abject apologies; sweeping promises; self-loathing and pity-mongering… the list goes on and on. The key is how quickly narcissists pivot if their technique isn’t working. Within minutes, they’ll go from love bombing to cold rage to abject apologies, depending on how their target is reacting.

Part 3: Confusion, Anxiety and Misery

I remember with intense clarity what it felt like to sit at my desk at work and get a text from my ex. My stomach would lurch—my body go into stress mode—my anxiety peak. Usually he would ask for something, usually money, and I didn’t know how to say no. When I did say no, he would push back—or be enraged, or both. He sucked the air out of everything, made everything about him.

I cried so much during the two-plus years we were together, once it was finally over (and the blinding relief began), I didn’t cry. Narcissists make you crazy, and miserable, and stress out your entire life. You lose yourself in the chaos, long for that hit of adoration, for the gooey sensation you got from the love bombing, willing to do just about anything to get it even while you know, deep down, and this is somehow Not Right. Hannah brought up red flags constantly. She spent an entire morning weeping on a dock in confusion about Luke. She talked at length, to Luke and to the producers, about how she knew there was a “good man” in him, how strong their connection is, how unwilling she is to let that go. When she met his family and friends on the hometown date, she was giddy with joy to learn he’s popular and liked in his deeply religious community.

Seeing Hannah talk herself into this guy over and over was all too familiar. The problem is, you’ve fallen for someone who doesn’t actually exist, but once you’re attached, it’s extremely hard to see that and to step away.

Part 4: They Won’t Go

My ex broke up with me in a fit of temper the first time, then came back the next day and begged for a second chance. He promised everything, love bombed me all over again, agreed to everything I said. Exhausted and uncertain, I gave in. Within three weeks, he’d broken every single agreement. I finally challenged him on money he owed me, we talked in circles, and he broke up with me again. Two days later he hadn’t yet moved out, and decided he didn’t want to go, after all. Unfortunately for him, it was my apartment, I was done, and he didn’t have a choice.

A few weeks before hometown dates, Hannah actually sent Luke home, but he decided he wouldn’t accept her decision. He stalked back into the room where they were having their date and told her all the things she wanted to hear… he was wrong… she was right… he just felt so much for her, he was trying too hard to be perfect for her… he’d be better from now on… She gave in, and he stayed.

This is how Luke made it to the second to last round, the fantasy suite dates, when Hannah had a chance to spend a private (not filmed) night with each man in Greece. She had lovely romantic dates on Crete with the first three men, and saved Luke the special Santorini date. They spent the day wandering around Oia, one of the most picturesque places on the planet, and it was the best day ever, full of delicious love bombing. Hannah went into the evening part of the date with the same giddy excitement she felt meeting his family. Finally she was justified in believing this guy was as amazing as she first thought, in spite of dozens of bright red flags and all the other men questioning her judgment for trusting him.

When, after perfunctory toasts, Luke informed her that the marriage bed should be “pure” and threatened to leave if she failed that particular test, the facade finally cracked. The perfect guy was revealed as a narcissistic toad who uses his religion as a seduction technique as well as a weapon and is prepared to judge her for not measuring up to the same “pure” values. Hannah was having none of that. She is also religious and rightfully resented this being used against her. It was beautifully entertaining to watch her take him down, watch him scramble to unsay his words (“I didn’t say that!” “You literally just said that.”) and walk back his do or die statements. It didn’t work. She told him to get up so she could walk him out (the way the leads kick people off the show), and he refused on the grounds that she owed him a chance to say his piece.

That did it. She was furious that he’d claim she owed him anything and firmly escorted him to the car, where he paused to ask if he could pray over her. She refused. His last bolt shot, he slowly, unwillingly got in, and she flipped him off as it drove away. After all the chances she gave him and times she defended him, she realized, he wasn’t worth any of it.

So it’s over, right? But no.

On the previews for next week, he’s back, crashing the rose ceremony and insisting that he’s there to propose to Hannah. He has a ring. He isn’t going to take “no, leave me alone” for an answer. Of course ABC and the show are highly complicit in this, they’re the ones driving him around and giving him the ring. It’s good TV, after all. In the teaser, we see Hannah telling Luke to leave, see him refusing, see the other finalists trying to intervene and Luke facing off with all of them. Great TV. And also all too real. Most of us don’t have three other people we’re dating to stand up for us. We’re on our own if, or when, they come back and insist that we give them another chance.

I’m not sorry I got involved with a narcissist. It left a lot of damaging scars on me, caused me to do a lot of things I regret. It took a long time to heal and restore my life. But it also was a massively transformative experience in terms of understanding what’s acceptable and unacceptable, that not everyone deserves a second chance, that my gut is actually an incredibly wise guide if I only listen to it and actually pay attention to red flags. When I started dating again more than a year after the breakup, I did it with my eyes wide open and my instincts on full alert. I cancelled one date on the day of because the guy started love bombing me before he’d even met me and my gut said “DO NOT GO NEAR THIS PERSON.” So I didn’t.

Whatever happens in Hannah’s future relationships, I hope she can get as much out of the surreal, stressful, upsetting experience of dating a toxic narcissist as I did, and find a more authentic connection because of it.

When it’s all over, if we’re open to the lessons, they give us much more than they realize.

 

“I can breathe again.”

-Me, the day after my ex moved out

 

 

dating 101: fantasy and flattery

I recently came across the podcast “Anna Faris is Unqualified,” in which Anna interviews celebrity guests and then together they give callers dating advice. It’s always entertaining and often insightful. On one episode, she and Chelsea Handler were reminding a young woman that when a guy is in, he’s in, and if he’s not, then (say it together!) “he’s just not that into you.”

This truism has been well-covered in a book and movie, but hearing it in this particular context made me start thinking about why we need it in the first place. Why do we so often require this reminder in our romantic lives?

Why does a person who’s clearly not interested in us inspire us to be so completely interested in him or her? What’s the deal with crushing on people who couldn’t care less, who may be totally wrong for us? Or, conversely, stringing along someone who we really aren’t that into ourselves?

The reasons may be different for everyone, but I know that in my love life, these situations were caused by me getting caught up in either fantasy or flattery. And in my most vulnerable, least confident times, I was extremely susceptible to both.

In my love life, these situations were caused by me getting caught up in either fantasy or flattery. And in my most vulnerable, least confident times, I was extremely susceptible to both.

The fantasy part created inauthentic, irrational crushes. I didn’t honor the reality of the other person and what they could truly offer me, but focused on the perfect fantasy of them. This created a sort of painfully sublime ideal of romance made up of genuine attraction + timing/proximity + vulnerability + pure imagination. I’ve had crushes on men I’ve never met or barely knew, men who were clearly a bad idea, men I knew were absolutely not interested in dating me, because they told me so—and yet I wasted weeks if not months feeling all sorts of gushy emotions toward these dudes, dreaming of how incredible it would be to have them like me back, believing that would bring me true happiness.

Is there any benefit to a crush? I guess it can be a nice, light distraction from more serious life problems, but in general they don’t do a lot for us, especially if we’re actively dating as adults. And at their worst, fantasy-based attachments can take us to some pretty damaging places. The truth is, it’s entirely possible not to develop romantic feelings for people we barely know or people who aren’t interested in us, no matter how “perfect” they seem on the surface.

The flattery comes in to play when the opposite happens: someone makes it clear that he or she really likes us—paying us compliments, flirting, asking us out, fanatically liking every single one of our posts. We can’t deny that compliments and attention feel good, giving us a nice ego boost, even if we don’t share the attraction. It’s alluring in its way—it’s flattering. We feel pleasure, validation, gratification from their positive attention. Which isn’t a super healthy or grounded state of mind. In my experience, feeling flattered made me far more grateful than was warranted—I believed I owed the guy for liking me, and that clouded my judgment. I’d conclude that I was single, they were the only guy interested in me at that moment, it felt good to be admired… what did I have to lose?

Well, a lot—namely my time and energy. Just like with a fantasy-based crush, we’re still in the position of wasting time and energy on a potentially limited relationship, distracting ourselves from other possibilities. Sure, there are stories of X who wasn’t that into Y, but gave Y that third chance and they fell madly in love and adopted triplets and a Beagle. It’s definitely a good practice to keep an open mind and give someone different a chance. However, when you reach that tipping point and know in your gut that it’s not going to happen, whether before the first date or after the fifth, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to continue. We can honor their attraction to us, appreciate it, and still remain steadfast in our goal of finding a true, authentic partnership.

So these are a few of the reasons why we might do this to ourselves. We sometimes look for distractions, we’re romantic and imaginative, we have a lot of love to give and want to give it, we feel flattered and like we have nothing to lose.

But how do we not do it? How do we not fall into these traps, when it’s so easy to slip off-balance either way?

When I started dating after my last relationship, I thought really seriously about this. I knew how likely it was for me to develop crushes, and how easy to succumb to flattery. Months before I even considered going on a date, I made some resolutions to help navigate the dating rapids.

I resolved that I wouldn’t talk myself into being interested in someone just because they were interested in me. Not out of niceness or misplaced gratitude, not because I was flattered, definitely not because I had no other prospects. I would acknowledge my appreciation and give myself permission to kindly and firmly detach.

I also resolved that I wouldn’t waste time or attention on any man who didn’t show me he was truly interested—who wasn’t “that into” me from the start. I would reserve judgment, and pay close attention to what his actions told me about him. It might take a date or two to figure out, but when someone’s in, they’re in, and when they’re not, they’re not.

If I didn’t believe he was genuinely interested, or found I wasn’t that interested myself, I’d call it early on.

In all situations, I committed to listening to my inner wisdom and following its guidance. These resolutions served me well time and time again, saving me from attaching myself to incompatible men and allowing me to enjoy the process as it unfolded.

Of course it’s disappointing when a somebody you like doesn’t like you back. Disappointing, but not devastating. When, after our third date, I ended things with one sweet, delightful man who really liked me a lot, I knew I was letting him down. It wasn’t easy to cause him pain, but I wasn’t right for him. The truth is, nobody who doesn’t want us can be right for us. They just can’t. That’s how you know. Whether or not they’ve raised expectations by what they’ve said or done, and no matter how wonderful, charming, sexy and perfect they seem, you can accept this truth, close that door yourself, feel the hurt and disappointment, and hopefully even learn from the experience.

As Chelsea Handler told the podcast caller: life’s short. Move on. If someone doesn’t want you there’s just no point wondering if they might someday, or why they don’t. It doesn’t matter. Stop wasting time and see what life offers next.

On the flip side, it’s fine to go out with someone we’re undecided about who likes us, but if we’re not paying attention, it’s a relatively short step from feeling flattered, relieved and grateful to convincing ourselves to get entangled.

Conscious dating invites us to walk a steady line, balanced between all extremes. We have to ask ourselves a lot of questions from the moment we meet someone new, stay open to facing every truth that arises—including that someone we’re attracted to doesn’t feel the same or isn’t available—and use our energy, time and attention wisely. You might have the most amazing first date ever, which is thrilling. Enjoy the thrill—and then sit down with it afterward, honor what your instincts are telling you, give it some room to breathe. By the second or third date, this person might have lost a lot of their appeal as you begin to understand your real compatibility.

Being with someone we know in our innermost wisdom isn’t right, for whatever reason, closes us off to the possibility of meeting someone who is right. You never know who might show up next, or what you could be learning and experiencing in the interim.

Not allowing ourselves to be swept up in either fantasies or flattery allows us to step back and see what’s really going on. It gives us space to listen to our instincts, and make the best, healthiest, most empowered choices possible.

 

relationships and the space around us

“Sorry, babe, but I need some space.”

“Needing space” has become a clichéd reason for stepping back from a relationship, a generic phrase that basically equates to: “I want to give you less time and/or intimacy,” and possibly even “you have too many demands/expectations.” It lives right alongside the classic lines “it’s not you, it’s me” (=”I don’t want to be with you”) and “I’m just not ready” (=”I’m not interested in continuing this or moving forward”). Another glib excuse to break up that really means nothing at all.

But the more time I spend thinking about conscious dating, it’s become clear that space has actually mattered a lot in my relationships. Not just a safe and comfortable physical space, but a safe, comfortable and expansive mental and emotional space. Like having healthy boundaries, having healthy space just wasn’t anything I valued or even really noticed before.

A depressingly apt is example is that during the two-plus years I was involved with a toxic and manipulative partner, I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking for space. I was heavily attached to him, while most of the time he was distant and withdrawn from me, even if he was sitting in bed beside me. It was a very lonely feeling. As far as I was concerned, I needed more from him, not less—more quality time, more affection, more everything.

I was wrong, though. Because the truth is, I had absolutely no emotional space with him. He crowded that from the moment he began love-bombing me, overwhelming my better instincts, zoning in on my vulnerability and kindness to achieve his own ends. And I allowed it. My gut told me that things were moving too fast, but I couldn’t seem to say no, even though nothing felt right. When I was able to take some kind of stock, I was already unbelievably entangled and had few boundaries left standing.

Added to that, my home wasn’t a safe space when we were dating. He moved in “temporarily” two months after we met, and temporarily turned into two years. Even when he wasn’t present, my apartment wasn’t mine. When he was there, I never knew what sort of mood he’d be in, if I’d find him in an icy rage or self-pitying funk, or if I’d accidentally set off the cycles of emotional abuse, crisis and seduction he excelled at. Home just wasn’t a comfortable place to be.

I was always uneasy, always watchful, always struggling against tides that I didn’t understand. I didn’t recognize that I was being crowded, suffocated and besieged, even though that’s exactly how I felt. Finally the tides shifted, circumstances began to change, I started to pay some attention to that strangled feeling and push back in small ways, and he cut his losses and agreed that it wasn’t going to work.

The day he moved out, I felt utterly, wildly free. I felt like myself. Suddenly there was space around me, all the space I could ever want. Emotional space to feel everything I needed without the exhausting burden of attachment or anxiety over his moods and drama. Mental space to clearly understand what had been going on, identify, process, evaluate. My home was a place of comfort and safety again, where I had full control over the emotional climate. I couldn’t imagine how I’d been surviving for all those unhappy months, or why I’d believed that he was worth everything I gave.

I relished my space. I dove into it and found peace. I was giddy with the freedom it offered. Space to grieve, to think through, to repair. To forgive myself. To imagine new possibilities.

Only when mine was restored did I start to understand how important space is, and begin to really notice and value it. It’s central to personal freedom and self-empowerment. It allows for true intimacy, creativity, growth, mental clarity and emotional well-being. It doesn’t stop us from being close to others, but does stop us from getting entangled with them in unhealthy ways.

Any relationship can push into our space if we allow it. When we feel like we just don’t quite have enough psychological “room” for ourselves, enough time to consider each choice, enough detachment from emotional burdens or expectations, or a safe enough environment, it’s much harder, if not impossible, to live an authentic life and be aligned to what matters most to us. We can feel trapped and smothered, anxious and exhausted, painfully aware that something just isn’t right.

Whether the crowding is innocent or intentional, whether we allowed it or inherited it, it’s not an easy thing to change. Recognizing the issue is probably the hardest part, since we almost never seem to value our space until it’s opened back up around us. Like all challenges in relationships and life, nothing changes until we do, until we’re ready to make the hard choices and take the hard steps.

Space matters more than I ever imagined it could, especially space between us and those we hold most dear. If we feel as though we’re emotionally stifled and entangled and have no room to breathe, desperate for some time alone or away to recharge and reset, that’s a pretty glaring red flag that our space has been compromised and we probably need to step back from the person or relationship, even just internally. It doesn’t have to mean the relationship is doomed or the person isn’t good for us, but only that we don’t have the space we need to thrive.

One of the most positive, empowering things about my current relationship is all the space I continue to feel around me. From the start I had unlimited room to react, analyze, process and make decisions that were right for me. It was beyond reassuring to feel that we could take our time and explore the possibilities freely and joyfully. Not once have I felt rushed or invalidated or anxious. I’m deeply attached to my partner, but that attachment has never put pressure on my emotional space.

I believe successful relationships have their foundations in profound respect: respecting the other person as a whole, unique being separate from us. Respecting their time, privacy, belongings and money, as well as their thoughts, beliefs, perspective, experience and opinions. I respect my partner’s emotions and feel empathy without taking on his feelings or worries as my own. When we disagree or muddy the waters, there’s always space to communicate, listen, forgive and compromise.

Space to ourselves is also one of the biggest benefits of singlehood, something I took for granted in the past. As I’ve written about previously, consciously being single is incredibly empowering and revealing, giving us one of the best chances we’ll ever have to recognize and prioritize the things that matter most to us, the places we need to grow and wounds we need to heal. Having no romantic entanglements, or only casual ones, allows us to fully appreciate the space we need and ensure that we keep it in every new relationship.

Right up there with healthy boundaries and knowing what you want, noticing and valuing our need for space makes it possible for us to develop stronger, deeper connections with others and a more empowered, authentic self. And that’s definitely worth paying attention to.

 

dating advice: the balance of power

Dear Stumbling Toward Truth,

I don’t know what shifts, or what happens, and suddenly my boyfriend is in a horrible mood. Whether he’s angry with me, or simply in a dark place, it’s difficult for me to tell. I feel defensive and strained, as if all the joy has been taken from our relationship, and that makes me afraid. I don’t know what to do.

We’ve been together almost two years. I met him just when I was starting the process of divorcing my husband of 9 years, but I’d been separated for about 10 months before that. I’d dated a couple of people, nobody seriously, and then I met this man. He was incredibly charming and sexy and so into me. He completely swept me off my feet. I was attached to him right away, and felt so thrilled about the relationship it seemed to make me more anxious. Like I was almost desperately afraid to lose him from the start. I don’t even remember how things got to this place. He asked if he could live with me part-time a few months after we started dating, and now it seems like we’re settled in this pattern. He says he hates living off of me, it causes a lot of tension between us, but he’s always borrowing money from me and never pays me back when he says he will, which I find upsetting but don’t know what to do about it. His two daughters, from different marriages, come and stay with us every weekend. I like them, but I don’t feel very close to them and something is stopping me from moving forward.

His moods are causing me to be constantly on edge, like I have to second-guess everything I say and do. Texts from him during the day make my stomach knot up because they mostly are asking for something and I know I’m going to have to carefully craft my response. I love him so much and he says he loves me. He tells me all the time how he couldn’t do without me, how much I mean to him. He usually says he’s sorry after we fight, if it’s gone to the extreme that I’m not responding to him. Most of our communication is through text and sometimes email. I’m afraid to talk to him in person because he’s blown up so many times. When I say something that upsets him, and even when I don’t and he senses how I feel, and sometimes for no reason at all. I also find I’m often paranoid about what he’s doing when he’s not with me, especially on late-night drives, but the few times I’ve questioned him he’s gotten very angry. It’s hard not to feel hijacked in my own home, but I’m not sure where he would go or what he would do if he wasn’t with me.

I’m so tired of feeling afraid all of the time. I feel like every move I make could be WRONG move and could lead to WRONG interpretations, but sometimes I’m just too tired to keep up a super-sensitive, super-positive front and make sure I don’t do anything wrong or say the wrong thing or give him the wrong impression. Because if I do, there’s fallout for days. I’m tired of it. I’m trying to be my authentic self and I keep getting tripped up in my own conditioning and also in his sensitivity. Between the two of us it can be a minefield, but I always end up being the one blown up emotionally while he gets to get righteous and angry and punish me.

I’m feeling so lost and strange, I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like I fell into a black hole. As if I’m not heard at all. I say things and make requests and they get swallowed up and ignored and eaten and turned to dust. It confuses and hurts me, and it makes me doubt my own strength and ability to assert my needs and feelings.

I don’t know how not to care about him. I don’t know how to let go. And I don’t know how to do this anymore.

-Lost in a Black Hole*

 

* This is a composite letter from myself. I wrote most of these things while I was in my last relationship with a toxic and abusive man. I put the broken fragments together and thought about the advice I really needed at that time. I might not have taken it, but it’s the best advice I can give to anyone in a similar situation with hindsight and perspective.


Dearest Lost,

Reading your letter, I feel such sadness and empathy for you. I’m so very sorry, Lost. I can relate to everything you’re going through, and my heart aches for the pain and anxiety you’re experiencing. It’s so real—all of it, the love you feel, the conflict, the fear, the frustration.

It sounds as though after many months of strain and very hard work on your part, you’re reaching a crisis point both internally and in your external relationship. The paradigms that were set when you started dating—and it’s extremely telling that you don’t remember exactly how these paradigms or boundaries were set, don’t really feel you agreed to all of these patterns, yet here you are, living with them—were not necessarily in your best interest.

From the viewpoint of someone on the outside looking in, they were entirely in your boyfriend’s best interest, and not in yours at all.

There are a lot of things you don’t talk about in your letter, like how the two of you interact, how intimate you are. But from everything you said about how he makes you feel, the answer is: unsafe. Something in you is telling you not to trust him, and you’re trying to convince that thing that it’s wrong.

But that thing is your intuition, and it’s never going to be wrong.

I wish I could tell you that if you just find a way to honestly communicate with him, everything would be fine. That’s what I’m sure you want to hear, what you keep telling yourself. If you can somehow push past these ongoing issues, solve your internal struggle, stop being so afraid, he’ll be the man you believe him capable of being. The man you wanted him to be when you met, when he swept you so completely off your feet. I’m guessing that you were feeling very vulnerable when you began dating. Ending a marriage is no small loss; the grief is real and intense, no matter the situation. It’s a process that can take many years to heal from.

Just as you were starting this process, you met a man who made you feel extraordinary. He was charming and attractive and—most appealing of all—very interested in you. In his intense courtship, you said you became quickly attached, to the point where you were “almost desperately afraid” of losing him, this person you barely knew. And now, two years later, you’re living in a black hole of confusion and hurt, feeling like you’re not heard or respected, deeply attached to someone who makes you feel unsafe. Between his rages and your distrust of him, you don’t feel like you can be yourself around him—no matter how hard you’ve tried, or how much you want to.

This feeling you describe is powerlessness. The dizzying swings between fear and frustration, gratification and longing. Always waiting for the other person to dictate how things will go, even though you don’t remember agreeing to that. Finding through painful experience that you can’t direct the conversation, change the dynamic, even ask for change at all—or if you do ask, you won’t be heard and honored. These are signs of a massive power imbalance, impossible to fix unless both people are wholly invested in balancing it. Most of the time that’s just not going to happen.

This man has all the power in your relationship. All of it. The only power you hold is financial, in that you’re supporting him. And yet even in that, he’s taken the power from you—he makes demands for money, you have to say “yes” or he becomes angry, and no matter what he doesn’t pay you back when he says he will. That’s a horrible position to be in with anyone. Giving a loan to someone with the understanding that they’ll pay you back, and then finding that they have no intention of doing so, leaves us all feeling powerless and angry and confused.

Your situation is not a happy or simple one, Lost. The way this man treats you is not OK, and you know it isn’t OK. I’m sure your friends and family tell you the same and you find it very hard to hear. His behavior certainly sounds emotionally abusive, not to mention exploitative and manipulative. You excuse it, you slip away from what you know is true, you don’t want to face it.

The problem is, even if you can rationalize away what others think, it’s very hard to do the same for our own inner voice, requiring exhaustive effort. Even then, it only works for a while before the internal conflict starts to take its toll on us. There’s a reason you haven’t connected with his daughters—your instincts are holding you back.

After two years of this, dear Lost, you’re at a breaking point. Nothing will be easy going forward, but I promise you: it will be worth it. The pain of stepping back from this relationship, though searing and seeming impossible, is nothing to the pain you are experiencing while in it.

I know it’s hard to hear, but I believe the only way you’ll be free of this pain, the only way you won’t feel lost anymore, is if you leave the relationship, temporarily or forever. At the very least, allow yourself a chance to take a breath and get some perspective. Maybe it could work with him in the future, if he’s able to own his abusive behavior, perhaps get help for it, and you’re able to redraw all boundaries and establish new agreements.

But those are big ifs, Lost. You know they are.

My advice to you is this: stage an intervention for yourself. Just as you would for anyone you care deeply about who’s stuck in an unhappy place, reach out and get help.

Tell your most trusted friends everything you’ve told me and more. Right now, as soon as possible. Whether it’s one person or three, parent, sibling or friend, choose the people who are the least judgmental and most supportive in your life and call them. Ask them to hear you out without judgment, then ask them to support you through the scene of telling this man you need him to leave your home immediately. Figure out with your friends exactly what you need to say to explain why you’re choosing this, and have them come over when you know he’s going to be there to support you as you say it.

There will be no right time for this. It will always feel like the most horrible and unimaginable thing to do, now or in the future. I say do it now.

Have your friends wait with you while your boyfriend packs a bag of essentials and you agree on a time when he’ll come to pick up the rest of his belongings—also with your friends present. It’s not up to you where he goes. He’s a grownup. He’ll have to figure that out without your help. Believe me when I say: you have done enough.

Ask him for his key, then and there, and ask him not to contact you. You can tell him your phone will be off—and then turn it off or block his number. If he wants to talk, and if you’re open to it, tell him you’ll consider scheduling a neutral lunch in the next few weeks, but that this is your decision for now and he needs to respect it.

Give yourself time to figure out what you really want and need without his presence clouding the issues. Give yourself a chance to see things from outside of the black hole.

It will hurt like hell, Lost. He may be very angry and sad, he may say he’s blindsided, he may be ready to promise you anything to stay. This is why your friend or friends being there will be crucial. You need them to stand beside you—not in another room, pretending not to listen, not inside while he pulls you outside to talk. But right there, having your back, listening and silently supporting you. The words and actions are yours, but they’ll be there to help, while you talk to him and after he leaves. They won’t let you be bullied or punished or sweet-talked into anything. They’re witnesses and deterrents to his behavior who will keep you strong and centered.

Once your friends go home, that night or any other, please don’t even consider opening the door if he knocks. You’ve asked him to leave your home. He needs to respect that. Period.

This may seem extreme to readers. It probably does to you as well, Lost, and I know you can talk yourself out of it if you try. But this man is not bringing you anything good. He has taken everything possible from you and left you feeling empty, lonely, hurt and totally powerless in the relationship. He doesn’t honor anything you ask for, or even allow you to feel like you can ask. You say his frequent rages take all the joy out of your relationship—and I assume that means that occasionally he puts joy into it, maybe just enough to keep you wanting more. Enough to keep reminding you of how exciting and wonderful and good it was at the beginning. But it isn’t that way now, and it isn’t making you happy or fulfilled. It’s making you desperately unhappy, exhausted and anxious.

He isn’t the man you want him to be or believe him to be. Whether or not he’s capable of respecting you, honoring your needs, living up to his promises and sharing the power is up to him—but in two years of accepting your loving and seemingly unconditional support, he doesn’t seem too interested in changing.

Lost, you know you deserve better than this.

If letting go feels impossible, if even talking openly to him is terrifying, don’t do it alone. It isn’t cowardly, it’s the bravest thing you can do to ask for support in this. You chose to say “yes” to him at the beginning, and “yes” to his continued presence in your life—and now you have the power to say “no.”

You deserve to feel at home in your own home, Lost, not hijacked. You deserve to feel safe and authentic in your own life. You deserve to feel empowered to make decisions and to feel that you’re respected, listened to and honored by those who you trust and love. You deserve to always have a choice.

Talk to your friends now. Make a plan with them for moving forward. And through it all, keep writing about it.

Write everything down—all the sadness and fear and upset you feel. All the unfairness and anger and resentment. Write letters to him, to yourself, to your ex-husband, letters that you won’t send. Write a letter or a paragraph or a poem a day, exploring how you feel in going through this hard and complicated thing.

There are wonderful books on breakups that will help ease you through this painful time, not to mention on emotional abuse and manipulation. Buy yourself one, ask your friends to recommend one, and start reading today.

I believe in you, and I believe you’re strong enough to let go. It’s time to come out of the black hole of loneliness and fear, to feel the warm sun and breathe free air again. It’s time to take your life back.

Love,
Stumbling Toward Truth

why dating myself changed everything

It was a Friday at the end of July, 2013. The evening before, my two-year relationship had finally ended. I still think of that Thursday as my own personal day of liberation.

He was still living with me, would continue to live at my apartment for the next four days before he moved out to live with his parents in a nearby town. But I woke up that Friday morning with a weight off my shoulders, a feeling of such blinding lightness and release that I don’t believe I’ll ever forget. I don’t want to forget it.

Before I got ready for work, I wrote a group text to my closest friends letting them know what had happened. None of them were surprised, all were relieved and hopeful. We’d broken up briefly a few weeks before, at his pleading and promises I’d agreed to give him a second chance. He blew it, of course, and I was done.

The song lyrics to Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” pretty much describe the relationship and everything I feel about it, and him, now that it’s over. I’m not sorry it happened. It changed me and set me on a revolutionary course in my love life.

Once we’re out, the best thing that can result from a toxic relationship—or really any relationship, toxic or not—is a reevaluation of everything we believe about love and partnership. Clearly I didn’t know what I was doing, between my disintegrated marriage and my stint as punching bag and “sugar mama” (ugh) to a charming and manipulative thief. At first I was so giddy with relief and confused by the pain of detachment, I couldn’t think further ahead than a few weeks.

I read a lot of rich, validating books during those first months—books about breakups, about choosing yourself, about narcissists and emotional abuse and boundaries. And I realized that I’d never actually taken the time to think about what I wanted in a relationship. I mean, what did I actually want?? I knew what I didn’t want—a lying scumbag or a man-child like my ex-husband. But where did that leave me?

I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could possibly do for myself was not to date for a while. A long while. To remove myself from the dating arena entirely until I’d figured a few things out. But I didn’t want to be single by default again—killing time until the next guy showed up, using my energy to look or long for him. I wanted to be consciously single, to feel empowered by my choice not to date or enter a new relationship.

More than that, I wanted to date myself.

From my senior year in college on, I never had a chance to really be single—not involved with or distracted by a man or men. Between my boyfriend who became my husband who became my ex, to the men I dated while we were separated, to the man I ended up allowing to live off me for two years, I hadn’t ever truly taken a break from romantic encounters, and certainly not on purpose. I was a late bloomer in dating, didn’t have a boyfriend until college, but of course I didn’t spend those early years consciously creating a healthy sense of self-worth, I mostly had a series of crushes that went nowhere. When my husband and I split up, it would have been a great opportunity to take a long, honest look at myself.

Instead I was scared of being alone, lost without my married identity. I wanted to find what I thought I was lacking pronto—a new partner who would take me away from myself and all the unprocessed emotions from the last few years of crisis, loss and separation. So I ran headlong into the lion’s den and held myself an anxious, unhappy prisoner there.

In my heady sense of freedom when I finally got out, I vowed never to make those mistakes again. I had a second chance to embrace the kind of growth and self-awareness I could have prioritized after my marriage ended, and I was going to take it—joyfully, purposefully, powerfully.

I gave myself a year, though was open to ending that year early if I felt I was ready. But I intentionally set out to date myself for a year. This meant consciously giving myself all the time, effort, attention and affection that I’d previously given to men. Not being distracted by a lack of men or my interest in men, but focusing on what I needed—and giving it to myself. Recognizing what healthy partnership means to me and what I want it to look like. Loving myself in every way, learning what it means to be the partner I need. Identifying and writing down my core values. Writing letters and journaling to process pain, anger and shame from my past. I made an empowering playlist which I listened to while I walked my neighborhood, cleaned my apartment and sat dreaming in my living room. I learned to trust my instincts, to recognize and honor my own boundaries.

I invested in a relationship with myself in a way I’d never imagined possible.

About midway through this year, on a particularly festive New Year’s Eve out with two friends, I ended up kissing a stranger at midnight, who then asked for my number. I gave it to him—not because I wanted to, I didn’t, but because I hadn’t prepared a response. He texted the next day and asked me out, to which I never replied. I was hung over and full of chagrin, and took stock of where I was. I hadn’t meant for that to happen, but did it mean I was ready? If not this guy, would I want to say “yes” to the next one?

The answer was a very emphatic “no.” I wasn’t ready to give this up yet. I wasn’t ready to stop pouring my energy into me—relishing my alone time—living my life without the drama that dating and relationships bring. Of course there were lonely moments, but I had friends, family and pets to help me through those—not to mention myself. I lived through holiday weekends alone, I learned from the lonesome moments. I thought about a future partner, but I didn’t feel the lack of one.

Eleven months after my breakup, I went to a Match.com rafting event with a girlfriend. I enjoyed it, and found I was interested in what online dating could offer me. I was ready to dip a cautious toe in the pool—but this time I was prepared. I was going to do this differently and I knew exactly what that meant—conscious dating, open to adaptation as needed. I wrote my New Rules in Love and read them over daily. When I started communicating and going on dates with men, I listened to my gut—my best and truest ally—and never doubted or second-guessed what it told me. If it said never see this man again, I would tell him it wasn’t going to work and move on. I journaled before and after almost every date, keeping a clear perspective on every experience, discussing my reactions openly with friends.

And it was fun. I had fun meeting different men—always a little nerve-wracking right before the date began, but once it started I was fine. I allowed myself to say both “yes” and “no” frequently, dating from a place of strength and abundance and confidence, rather than fear and lack. I took breaks from dating for weeks at a time, hiding my profile and giving that energy back to myself. I eventually stopped online dating after six months, it was just too time-intensive for me, but it was a good way to get back in the game. After that I met men in the real world, which took intentionally accepting invitations to social events and creating my own opportunities to go out and talk to strangers.

When I met the man I’m with today, I knew immediately and instinctively that he was a good person. We chatted, exchanged numbers, met up casually at a concert the next week. Eventually I texted him first—but not out of desperation; I had another date that week with another man I’d met. After my first date with my current partner, I knew something was very different—and even then, we both took our time. We didn’t rush, nobody got love-bombed. Every step of the way going into this relationship, I used my conscious dating techniques. I continued to remember what mattered to me, to invest in my own wants and needs first. Even as my life opened to include him, even as we compromised and became closer, I made myself a priority. We’ve been living together for more than six months and I’m still doing that. It’s the healthiest relationship I’ve ever had—because I’m also still in a great relationship with me.

I believe he and I work because we share the same core values—ultimately I think that’s what creates the best chance for compatibility long-term. We have our issues, we talk them out. I see us building a life together, and I feel hopeful and excited about the future.

But at the same time, I know I’ll be OK no matter what happens. I’m not afraid of losing him. This isn’t cynicism or pessimism or denial; it would be devastating and heartbreaking beyond belief if we broke up. But I’d still have me. I’d still have a full life and as many chances for happiness, fulfillment and joy as I do with him. I’d still have a whole identity, something I never understood or valued before.

Dating myself was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I wouldn’t be the partner I am now without that experience, wouldn’t be in the relationship I am, wouldn’t be the person I am. Whether we’re on our own by choice or not, we don’t have to just live through singlehood because that’s what fate handed us, to sit resignedly in the Singles Waiting Room until we can board the next dating train. Societal pressures aside, being single has advantages we often fail to appreciate, not the least of which is a chance to intentionally prioritize ourselves.

If we redirect the energy we’d give to a partner or dating into ourselves, instead—into our ambitions and desires, our growth, our finances, our friendships, our hobbies and travels—for even one month, it might just lead to some pretty amazing results.

Dating ourselves isn’t solely a means to building a better, healthier love life in the future. It’s a radical and empowering re-imagining of our beliefs about love, partnership and fulfillment.

And that changes everything.