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“At least I don’t hit you.”
Whenever someone asks me what the red flags in my relationship were. This statement always stands out to me, a statement my ex-husband would regularly say to me when I would ask him why he was treating me a certain way. After being in a very physically abusive relationship, it became so much harder to identify what my boundaries were and what was OK in a relationship and what was not OK.
“When did you first notice that something was wrong?”
“What were the red flags?”
When I share a little bit about my story, these are two of the most common questions I hear. And, fair enough, I have asked myself these questions frequently. Having anxiety makes this process so difficult, because the urge to question every aspect is almost uncontrollable.
If I remember awkward instances from 15 years ago and lie awake at night wishing I had handled them differently, you can imagine how the process of a divorce would make me feel.
So, of course, I constantly replay memories over and over in my head, trying to analyze them, growing anxious that I invented all of the bad in my head. When I least expect it, a pleasant memory will surface, making me question every decision I’ve made in the last year.
For those who are going through the same thing, this is where I remind you (and myself) that memories are not perfect images of past experiences. Memories change over time and are not often reliable. Our brains filter out the bad and a memory can grow more pleasant as time goes on, forgetting the bad and remembering the good. So knowing that, the next thing that people say a lot to me is even more interesting:
“Wow, but you two seemed so happy!”
Did we, though? In this social media age where the only venue for anyone to analyze the two of us was social media… and where we never spent time with anyone other than his family (red flag!) This means that I was the face of our relationship. This meant that how others perceived us was entirely reliant on me and how I portrayed our relationship. In fact, at the time of our separation, I had only posted two pictures of us as a couple in the entire year previous. Further to this, every picture of us that I had ever posted was taken after an intense argument, where I usually just ended up crying. Let that sink in because that word “every” is not an exaggeration.
Which brings me to the red flags. When did I first start seeing red flags? The answer is very tricky… People LOVE to say “hindsight is 20/20,” and in this case, it’s the most accurate representation of how my experience went, because I might have seen the red flags all along, but I did not identify them until the end.
In the beginning, I excused them away, in the middle, I was used to them, and now looking back, I can clearly tell you I was in a toxic relationship that slowly ate away at my sense of self. But of course, I wouldn’t have said that in the beginning.
So in hindsight, the first red flag that appeared was on our very first date. We spent hours talking about deep subjects like the universe and religion. I felt bonded, I felt connected, I felt like… this is what I have been missing.
And later he said,
“I’m only interested in marriage. I don’t want to waste my time dating, I’m ready to settle down and have a family.”
But what I heard was,
“I have formed an intense and emotional bond with you, even after this short time I feel like I could love you”
That’s not what he said, though, is it? And, in fact, with that perfect vision I have now, looking into the past, he certainly meant, he had decided to settle down. He wanted a baby-maker, a wife, and a caretaker for his parents. This was also my first mistake because I was 21 and hadn’t learned yet that people mean what they say, and we can’t assume that the eye contact they are making or the way they smile means that they actually mean something else.
This is important, because throughout our dating relationship I made a lot of sacrifices and choices I wouldn’t normally make. The next major red flag is an intensely hard one to talk about but is important to address if I am going to stay true to my purpose, which is to share my story in the hope of helping even one person avoid what I have experienced.
There were times where I did not want to be intimate with him. But I was anyway. I remember laying there hoping it would be over soon and wondering why he couldn’t tell that I wasn’t interested or enjoying myself, wondering why he didn’t care. It took me until the very end of our relationship to understand how wrong this was. Because I assumed he didn’t know, because I hadn’t said anything, I didn’t hold him accountable for this. I internally blamed past trauma and was committed to working through these issues. I blamed myself. And, in fact, he withheld affection from me on a regular basis and only once in a while when he could be bothered to acknowledge me as something more than a housemate, I actually felt lucky, because, for a brief moment, I actually had his attention. But when I finally got the courage to say,
“What happened last night made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I am not actually interested in having sex, and last night I actually tried to push you away, but you continued. This isn’t the first time and this can’t happen again,” he said,
“I know that. I always knew that. But you are my wife.”
And by this time I had learned that people say what they mean. So a young version of myself might have twisted this in his favor, but I knew that he meant exactly what he said. I wasn’t always interested in having sex, he had always known this, but he viewed it as his right. This was one big red flag from the beginning that I had missed. He had no respect for personal boundaries.
He would pick the bathroom lock if I didn’t answer fast enough about what I was doing, walk into a guest bedroom at his parents' house while his parents were home, and he knew I was changing. He would leave the door wide open while I was naked with no concern for my request that he respect my privacy. And, when I would try to bring up how much these behaviors bothered me, what was his response?
“You are my wife.”
As though being his wife stripped me of my autonomy and my ability to have a private space when I was at my most vulnerable—which leads me to the final red flag I will address in this post.
Disrespect for my feelings.
From the very beginning, I was unable to have feelings in this relationship. When I would try and explain why my feelings were hurt, it would be met with disregard. If I felt like something he said was hurtful, he would respond to my concerns in one of two ways: He would tell me he was just joking or, suddenly, his feelings were hurt.
In a way, it’s comical: Imagine spending day after day with someone whose feelings get hurt by you telling them they hurt your feelings. It sounds like preschool, doesn’t it??? But that was my life. He would often tell me that it was because of my past relationships, my past abuses, my this and my that, that made me feel and experience the relationship the way I was.
I believed him.
I completely believed that all of the negativity in our relationship, the times I spent crying alone on the bathroom floor because I didn’t feel safe, protected, or respected were my fault, and that I had to work on being better.
From the moment we started dating, it seems like I was caught in a cycle of begging for affection, receiving it when it wasn’t wanted, having my boundaries completely disrespected, and never being validated in my feelings.
Whenever that voice of anxiety surfaces and tries to make me feel like this was my fault, like people are judging me, because I was only married a few years before getting divorced, that maybe he was right and I am crazy, it helps to tell someone my story, because it is incredibly validating to find out how others perceive what I have been through.
I am not defined by the experiences I have been through. Despite what my anxiety tells me, I made the choice that was best for me.
If there is one message I can get across through this—do not ever let another person trample on your boundaries or make you ever feel like you are worthless.
You are worth so much more than that.