Relationships

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

 

 

the heavy weight of shame

I carry some extra weight with me right now. Some of it’s on my body, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Recently one of my coaches talked about feeling stuck with weight loss—you might be doing everything right, eating well, exercising, sleeping, doing all the things that being health conscious asks of us, yet not making progress. I think that describes me pretty well. I can’t seem to lose the extra weight that has slowly crept onto certain parts of my anatomy over the past three or four years, so I related to what she was talking about.

At times I’ve been able to lose up to 10 pounds by what can only be called crash diets. They do work, but they aren’t sustainable, and my weight creeps back up. I can cut way back on alcohol and sugar, eat only low-fat protein and vegetables, work out every single day, and only see a small effect or no effect.

Of course, it could very well indicate some kind of imbalance in my body, thyroid or hormonal. But it could also be something more covert than that, in addition to, instead of or even a cause of the imbalance itself.

When it’s not affected by lifestyle, the coach brought up the idea of our extra weight serving us, in some way. To protect us, to cover a wound, to hide us, to make us invisible or bigger, to manifest an emotional burden. She suggested we first thank our body, thank the weight for serving us, and then spend some time asking it what purpose it serves and feeling grateful to that purpose. I do believe that our feelings, beliefs, emotions, repressions, fears and traumas manifest themselves in our bodies, especially if we aren’t conscious about releasing, feeling, addressing or accepting them. With that in mind, I started reflecting on what purpose my weight could be serving.

I’ve thought a lot about this. I now know that the weight, whatever its cause, is there to make me whole. In what way, I’m not sure, but that’s what it told me very clearly. Knowing that, the question I’ve opened myself to is why? Why have I felt it’s been necessary to create this extra padding in order to be whole?

Over a number of days of coming back to this, asking for guidance, and meditating about it, I realized this morning that I do have a heavy emotional burden, manifesting in the past few years, which I haven’t fully processed. This burden is a deep mortification, shame and anger toward myself.

While I’ve processed a lot of trauma in the last decade, I recognize that I’m still deeply ashamed that I let myself down, compromised, disrespected and betrayed myself by choosing to be involved for more than two years with an abusive, manipulative and dishonest partner. I take no responsibility for his choices or actions, but I do for mine. I allowed him into my life. I participated in the process of conditioning and manipulation. I knew it was wrong from day one, and I overrode all my instincts for the sake of a fantasy, instant gratification, the drug that he became to me.

Do I hold this man accountable? Absolutely. But I’ve spent a lot of years effectively dealing with my fury, resentment and contempt for him. I’ve purged him through fire and water, written angry letters and poetry, poured out my feelings in my journal and released his toxic presence from my body, home and mind. I came face to face with him earlier this year and felt nothing but a sort of glad gratitude that I felt nothing else—not fear, not anger, not even scorn. He’s nothing to me now, no longer the bogeyman that he was during and right after our relationship nor the dark shadow once I’d started to heal. That’s been the easy part.

The hard part is forgiving myself.

My closest friends know the truth about the relationship. They know—not during it, but now—that he stole from me repeatedly over two years. That I supported him and his children by other women and received no repayment of any kind, in spite of endless empty promises. That he emotionally abused me, using intense manipulation techniques from rages to coldness to accusations and word garbage to love bombing when he wanted something. They know that sex could be nonexistent or aggressive bordering on violent, depending on his mood, and that I believe that he was cheating on me throughout the entire relationship, going on late night “music drives” in my car in order to engage sexually with other women.

This was just some of it.

I’ve never told my family more than the barest shreds of these truths. I’ve been far too ashamed to admit that I allowed this. Not once, but for 26 months. I allowed it, allowed him to use and disrespect me, to violate my boundaries, my home, my body, my emotions. Not only that, I protected him, lied to my loved ones and made excuses for it.

I imagine most victims of manipulation and abuse, any kind of abuse, will understand this self-recrimination. It isn’t unique to me, and it’s very real. The trauma isn’t just that I was violated, but that I, in some measure, chose the violation. Invited it into my home. Offered it money, and more money. Said yes.

Said yes.

I wasn’t robbed at gunpoint by a stranger. I was robbed by my trusted partner—and robbed again, and again, and still trusted. I was so desperately attached I couldn’t see any other choice. I didn’t even end it. I was starting to become stronger and less tolerant, less emotionally flexible, and that set him off so that in a fit of pique, he broke up with me. Then demanded, and got, I’m sorry to say, a second chance, which he naturally blew by violating all our new agreements. When I worked up the courage—and it took great courage—to ask for an explanation, he suggested we break up. I agreed.

From that moment on, I’m not ashamed. I stood my ground. I said no when he asked me to get back together, two days later. I said no when he asked me for money. I was unmoved when he tried to manipulate me. When he wrote pleading emails, I saw through his lies and exaggerations.

From that moment on, I’m proud of myself. Proud that I took the chance offered to gain freedom and make the most of it. That I chose not to date for a year so I could focus on healing myself and figuring out what the hell I was doing with men who let me down. Proud that I worked extremely hard to make reparations to myself, to repair my home and finances, become a much better friend and partner to me. To understand why I’d been so vulnerable at the time we met that I was a perfect target for him, and heal those older wounds as well.

The choices I made from that moment on brought me here today, in a place of authentic contentment and alignment. I’m in a secure, loving second marriage, financially stable, firmly centered in self-respect and the practice of listening to my instincts.

I know that my growth required those 26 months of anxiety, pain and struggle. I wouldn’t be the person I am without them, and I’ve learned to be grateful for that. I see that it had a real and positive purpose. It’s helped me forgive (not to accept his behavior, but forgive) the man for his failures and transgressions and learn about the psychology of narcissistic personality disorders, sociopaths and aggressive personalities, leading to my growth in setting boundaries and recognizing manipulation. Without that relationship, I might very well not have chosen to date my husband, or been able to create our partnership. I wouldn’t have become so committed to following my instincts even when they don’t make rational sense, and to fiercely honoring my own needs and feelings.

I’m always going to be lugging some kind of baggage around. Life creates baggage, we never get rid of it all. And aging changes our bodies, there’s no denying that. Maybe my extra weight is purely physical and I just need to eat fewer and burn more calories, or cut out all cheese and chocolate entirely. (As if I could.)

Maybe. Very possibly.

But it’s also possible that this deep shame is a burden that’s manifesting in some extra pounds, or compounding an existing physical imbalance. It said its purpose is “making me whole”—perhaps it’s helping me understand that this trauma and mortification is still a part of me, a literal weight that I carry. And while I’ve done a lot of impressive work in processing and forgiving and healing, there’s more to be done.

I deserve it. I deserve to forgive myself as I’ve forgiven the man who abused me.

It’s hard to talk about this, to be honest. Even as I write this post, I feel the choking hand of shame at my throat, the tingles creep up my neck, as if something menacing is standing just behind me. But hiding it only gives it more power, which is why I choose to share my experience today and commit to bringing it into the open and the light.

I may never tell my family the full truth of what I went through. I may never share every sordid detail with my husband. And I don’t have to. I will find the support I need to let go of my anger, disappointment and humiliation, and to be whole in a healthier way. I will invest in the resources, the time and the honest reflection to come to a place of self-acceptance.

I’m ready to release this weight.

 

 

If you have any resources to recommend, books or support groups that have helped you through releasing shame and self-forgiveness, please share them in the comments.

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

i don’t wish you ill, exactly…

I recently read an article in which the writer, very thoughtfully and beautifully, wished 10 good things for her exes. Love, laughter, happiness, success… It was lovely. I can completely relate to these feelings, because I want only the best for my ex-husband, who I still sometimes miss and always wish well.

My ex-boyfriend, however… that’s another story. While I certainly don’t wish anything bad to happen to him, and while I do in a neutral way wish him well, I honestly don’t feel the same uplifting desire for blessings to fall upon his head. My divorce was longer ago, but not all that much longer ago. The difference isn’t in that I’ve had more time to heal, it’s in the relationships themselves, and the men themselves.

My ex-husband is a good person. He made some poor choices, but so did I. We failed each other, we fell apart, but were never anything but kind through it all. He never meant to hurt me, nor I him. Our breakup happened as a result of much bigger things, with only goodwill on either side.

That was not the case with the man I dated next. I’ll call him Shnook. He did NOT mean well. He was NOT kind or loving, not even when we were together. And the hurts he perpetrated on me weren’t a result of much bigger things, but were all part of a deliberate and ruthless agenda of manipulation, conditioning and abuse. If this sounds extreme, it is. Those who have had a sociopath as a partner and come out of it by the skin of their teeth will know that this isn’t an exaggeration. He was not good to me. I chose him, and I chose to stay with him, a truth almost harder to face after our relationship ended than his multitude of betrayals. I was ashamed and heartbroken and had to work very hard to forgive myself, while I also worked to forgive him, taking full accountability for my choices. At the same time, I was relieved beyond expression—am still relieved to this day—that I’m free of the toxic nightmare that was Shnook.

Now that I’ve forgiven Shnook and my life has moved on, immeasurably better than it was with him in it, I still can’t pretend to wish him “all good things.” I do, however, have a few wishes for him.

1) I hope that someday, in some way, you understand the sickening pain and heartbreak you put me and other women through. This doesn’t mean I hope he’s mistreated or taken advantage of, because I truly don’t. I just hope he can understand it, comprehending and feeling empathy for the kind of pain he inflicted. According to the sources I’ve read, sociopaths simply don’t feel empathy, that shared human compassion for others. If I could I’d give him this gift, Shnook might understand the boundaries he crossed and hurts he inflicted in a deeply personal and transformational way, and be a better person for it.

2) I hope you develop a conscience, and feel true regret for what you’ve done. People with covert manipulative personalities, narcissism, psychopathy or a variety of personality disorders don’t have consciences. They know right from wrong, they just don’t care. The rules don’t apply. So if Shnook felt true regret, and started experiencing the sting of a conscience the way the rest of us do, it would have undoubtedly painful but ultimately extremely positive consequences for his character—and be a reprieve for the people he might hurt in the future.

3) I hope that your actions have appropriate consequences. This isn’t about karma, though I do believe in it as it relates to universal balance. Less in the abstract, I would like Shnook’s actions to have real, tangible consequences that he can’t wriggle away from. I want him to be accountable. You steal, you get caught and prosecuted, or you make reparations. You betray, you have to own the betrayal and not make a single excuse for it. You abuse, the person you abuse presses charges or immediately drops you. I’d like him to stop getting away with everything—the opposite of the way I let him get away with so much when we were together.

4) I hope you get your act together for your kids’ sake. I’m not sure how he’d do this, because I never saw any indication of progress in this area, but if Shnook could possibly pull it together long enough to take responsibility for his actions and his life, then his daughters—by other women, not me—might have a dad they could be proud of. (Fortunately both of them have really great stepfathers, as this doesn’t seem likely.)

5) I hope that I never, ever, ever have to deal with you ever again. I know he’ll keep falling flat on his face and keep managing to somehow get back on his feet. Shnook is a survivor, an intelligent, perceptive one who can be charming and witty and even sweet. He’s going to manipulate more women after me, just as he manipulated many women before me. Since we have acquaintances and friends in common in a relatively small community, I’ll probably run across him at some point. I won’t panic and hide if that happens, I just have zero desire to connect with him in any way. I’m in no danger of getting caught up for one second in his drama and lies, but I’d rather not even have a conversation. It would actually give me a heady and twisted rush of pleasure to SHUT HIM DOWN if he tried to sell me a sob story, much less use me again, so this could be my most generous wish yet.

There is a middle ground in looking back at our exes, the ones who didn’t treat us as well as they could. We don’t have to hate them and dream of revenge—which is giving them way more power than they deserve, anyway. But even if we’ve forgiven them their trespasses and moved on, even if we’re good people with compassionate hearts, we don’t need to send a single gleam of light and love their way, either. Because I damn sure won’t be doing so anytime soon.