It started the way most relationships start these days; with sex. He’d just broken up with a long term girlfriend and I had a reputation as a good rebound. We started seeing each other pretty regularly – nights out with his friends, camping trips, the occasional dinner and movie date. Then one night in his car I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore, he asked me to be his girlfriend and that’s when we made it official.
The next few months were a whirlwind of HSC, nights out and fights with my parents. They’d never liked any of the guys I bought home but this was something else. (I suppose bringing your not-yet eighteen year old daughter home drunk at 3am isn’t the best impression a guy can make). The first few weeks as a couple were incredible. We saw each other almost every day; we went on adventures, sang in the car at the top of our lungs and confessed our undying love for one another.
By two months in, things were pretty intense. I noticed that we had a lot more contact than I’d had with previous boyfriends. It started off fairly harmlessly, he wanted to know where I was and what I was doing. But then the contact became incessant. If I didn’t reply to a text straight away, he would call. If I didn’t answer, he’d keep calling until I picked up. If I wanted to spend time with my family, he questioned my commitment to the relationship. You get to see them all the time, why don’t you want to see me? The months after I graduated high school were an emotional tug of war between my family and him for my time and attention, both of them subtly undermining the others intentions.
He started comparing me to girls he’d dated in the past – she didn’t do that, you wear less make up than her, other girls don’t dress like that – and undermined my confidence by focusing on my flaws; most of the time by reminding me about my past. I can’t believe you were with that many people, I am so glad you’re not like that any more, you’re lucky that I’m even with you – not many guys would be willing to date you after all that. It was as if all the worst things I’d ever thought about myself were being re-affirmed by the person who claimed to love me more than anything else in the world.
I was always upfront about the fact that I wanted to move to Sydney after school, but he wanted to move to Brisbane for work. He tried for months to convince me to stay. What’s in Sydney? Why would you throw all this away when you don’t even know what you want to do with your life? He was right. I had no idea what I wanted in Sydney, just that I’d felt an undeniable pull to the Northern Beaches ever since I was a little girl. I didn’t know the first thing about living on my own, let alone in a new city. There was something inside me that knew there was more to life, but I had no idea what it looked like, and the stability and security of a wedding, house, kids and a puppy seemed so much safer than the risk of the unknown.
I applied for Uni in Brisbane. The night I told him, he left a ring on my bed, “You’ll get a bigger one in a few years,” he promised.
We moved in to someone’s granny flat in a suburb close to Uni. Despite it being an absolute dump, it was fully furnished and we didn’t have to sign a lease – a part of me must have known it would be an easy out if I ever decided to leave.
As soon as we moved in together, things went downhill fast. Without the buffer of our families, we were at each others throats constantly. All regard for privacy went out the window, he had all the passwords to my phone, computer and Facebook and made a habit of going through my messages each night to see who I’d been talking to. His last girlfriend had cheated on him and – given how we’d met – it was as if he didn’t trust me not to do the same. If you loved me, you’d tell me. If you didn’t have anything to hide, you wouldn’t have anything to worry about. Some nights I’d try and end our fights by pretending to go to sleep, but he didn’t like going to bed with things unresolved so he’d shine the torch from his phone in my eyes until I gave in and fell asleep with my head on his chest.
One week end we decided to head back to the coast to see friends. We were out drinking when he pulled me aside to tell me that I wasn’t being ‘fun enough’ and I should loosen up (the week end before he got mad at me for being ‘out of control’ drunk at a party). I got angry that he was keeping me from my friends so he pulled me into the bathroom to talk in private, but security saw and we got kicked out.
The fight escalated quickly, like they always did, and I just wanted to leave. I cried and begged him to take me home, but he refused and took my phone so I couldn’t call my parents. I cried harder. I was nearly hysterical on the side of the road when a police van drove passed. He pulled me into his chest. ‘Is everything okay?’ one of officers called out. ‘She’s fine,’ he called back, ‘she’s just drunk.’ I continued to cry as he picked me up and carried me across the road onto the beach, telling me that if I didn’t shut up he was going to ‘strangle me and drown me in the fucking ocean’.
He put me down on the sand and started telling me off for being such an embarrassment and ruining both our nights. I looked up at the stars that were blurring together through my tears. The last few months of pain, anger and suppressed emotion seemed to come up all at once and I started having a panic attack. ‘I just want to go home,’ I begged the night sky through my sobs. Eventually he gave in and called my parents. My dad came to pick us up. He tried to apologise and explain himself but my dad just told him it was between the two of us and he didn’t want hear about it. He let him in the car and drove him home without a word, while I sat silently sobbing in the front seat. I don’t think I’ll ever forgive my dad for that.
The following week my parents drove to Brisbane to move my stuff out of the apartment. I wasn’t allowed to have any contact with him and for once, I didn’t want to. They booked a room for me in a back packers so I didn’t have to miss any classes but the second I was alone, I was calling and begging him to come back. We continued an on again/off again affair for the next eighteen months. I moved into college, he was there every other night. I started seeing someone else, and still he pulled me back.
By this stage, I had no support network. My relationship with my parents was in tatters, my little sister was overseas, friends from school had all moved away and after almost a year of being subtly undermined, my self esteem was at an all time low. I didn’t know how to be by myself, even for a night and I was wracked with fear and self doubt. I questioned everything – the smallest decisions became the biggest ordeals. What to eat, what to wear, how to act. Because I had become so reliant on him for everything, there was a part of me that genuinely didn’t believe I could survive on my own. The outside world felt like a dark and dangerous place that I was seriously ill-equipped to handle.
It wasn’t until my psychologist at the time drew the cycle of domestic violence on a piece of paper in front of me and I saw the last year of my life flash before my eyes, that I knew I had to get out.
‘It starts with the honeymoon phase,’ she explained, ‘everything is perfect and you both feel on top of the world. Then the subtle put-downs begin, the attempts to control become more evident, there’s a build-up of tension in the relationship until the inevitable explosion happens (like that night on the beach). Then comes the apology (I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I did that. I don’t even know what came over me, I promise I will never do it again), the justification (well if you weren’t such a slut, I wouldn’t have to be so protective. If you didn’t drink so much, I wouldn’t have to get so angry at you) and you start to think that maybe it was your fault, and now you’re overreacting. The dust settles and you’re back in the honeymoon phase, ready for the whole thing to start again.’
She explained that when two people begin that cycle, the only way that anything is ever going to change is if one person leaves.
Life is full of hard decisions and what we experience is a result of the choices we make. The reason I am where I am now – thriving, happy, successful – is because I took the path of most resistance and left. I knew it would be fucking hard work to rebuild my life without him. From where I stood – a terrified nineteen year old with no self esteem and no one to turn to – the easier option would have been to stay, to ‘make it work’, to kid myself into thinking that one of us could change, and leaving was, to this day, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But I truly believe the Universe rewards bravery and radical alignment and the greater the risk, the greater the reward.
Four years on and not a day goes by where I am not insanely grateful for my decision and exceedingly proud of myself for making it. I often marvel at where my life is now and how much of what I experience is because I refused to settle for less than I deserve.
My family often wonder why I don’t hold more resentment toward him, how I can look at him with nothing but love and compassion. And it’s because as long as he’s the perpetrator, then I’m the victim. And playing the victim doesn’t sit well with me. The second I took responsibility for the part I played creating a toxic partnership that bought out the worst in both of us, the second I was free to choose again. I could step back and see the message in the mess, and I knew it wasn’t something that happened ‘to’ me, it was something that happened for me. It showed me all the parts of myself I had yet to love and for that I will be forever grateful.
If you haven’t been reason enough for someone to change their ways by now, you never will be. Nor will they ever change as long as you’re around. Respect their right to be happy, and your own, and let them go.
I wanted to share this part of my story in order to shatter the misconception that it’s ‘weak’ women who get caught in these cycles and ‘monsters’ who keep them there. I have always been – and always will be – a strong, fiery and passionate soul, and there was still a time when I couldn’t conceive of my life without a man in it.
I know there are women (and men) in toxic relationships who think either think it’s ‘normal’ or want to leave but don’t know how. The thought that saved me in the end was that, the sooner I left, the sooner I could meet someone who magnified my strengths and built me up. I knew there was more out there, and this is the only way I was going to experience it.
Relationships shouldn’t be about just ‘getting by’ or staying together for the sake of it, they are a Divine union of two souls – a vehicle for experiencing the highest expression of Truth. But because there are so few examples of what a healthy relationship looks like, most of us tend to settle for mundane companionships or toxic strongholds.
We can’t be what we can’t see, so these days I make an effort to spend time with couples I admire and seek out the kind of relationships I want to emulate. I watch how they interact, the way they speak to one another, the way they handle conflict. It’s opened up my ideas about what’s possible when two people join forces and made me even more excited to be part of a conscious relationship.
As I watched my ex’s wedding on snapchat last week (our mutual friend was a groomsman), I was nothing but happy for him, and grateful that we both had the strength to walk away from something that clearly wasn’t serving us. The relationship served its purpose and there were far better things in store for us both. Regardless of what happened between us, we deserve real, healthy, unconditional love.
And so do you.
All my love,
Domestic Violence National Hotline (02) 8294 1924
National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732