Lived Through This

Why ‘Passionate’ Relationships Are Often Just Toxic Relationships

It took healthy love to appreciate the abuse I had excused

Photo: David Wall / Getty Images

“Just a heads up, I might write about our relationship,” I recently said to my boyfriend. “But I promise I won’t do it without your permission.”

“Consent,” he said.

“What?”

“Without my consent,” he repeated. “You don’t need my permission to do anything.”

“Oh. Right,” I said, laughing a little, and we exchanged the knowing look — a tender, amused wince — that has become commonplace in our relationship. The look is a mutual acknowledgment that I am really fucked up. Or, to be kinder to myself (which is on my self-care list!), that I am still learning how to have a healthy romantic relationship.

My previous significant relationship lasted nearly a decade. It was on and off, but mostly on. Urgently, helplessly, dramatically on. It was a classic addict-codependent love story, and it was so confusing and combustible that I had to write a whole book about it in order to move into a new phase of life. In writing it, I sought to understand where I’d learned certain ideas about romance in the first place. I went back through my entire love arsenal: songs, movies, books, powerful family lore — like my parents’ and grandparents’ stories of falling for each other and marrying within weeks.

I’d always been a love junkie. But because of that, I now see, I hadn’t enjoyed healthy relationships. I hadn’t wanted a healthy love relationship. I didn’t find anything romantic about love with boundaries or firm expectations. I wanted to feel singular, to be swept away, consumed, obsessed. Calm, stable unions seemed boring. But my ideas about high-octane passion led me into ill-advised affairs with inappropriate people. Sometimes worse: badly damaged, volatile, monstrous people.

I dwelled in an environment of looming menace, even though I eventually stopped noticing it.

In my most recent long relationship, passion came at the cost of sanity. There was the drug abuse, lying, and stealing. But there was also frequent verbal and psychological abuse — incessant blaming, interrogating, manipulating, gaslighting, and put-downs — and, occasionally, physical violence. He just called this “a temper.” I dwelled in an environment of looming menace, even though I eventually stopped noticing it. The ever-present possibility of degradation became my normal. That’s how toxic, abusive people maintain control. Even when he was being loving, there was always the possibility that it could turn. I could never fully relax into that love, never feel safe there.

I still don’t know exactly why or how I stayed so long.

The other day, I saw a post on a codependency-focused Instagram account that I follow. It showed a set of real Google search results for “partner called me,” with the various suggested insults that appeared below it: stupid, fat, lazy, crazy, ugly, annoying, pathetic. I sat with the post for a few minutes, my heart racing. Though I’d never admitted it to anyone, I remember Googling those things. I remember Googling “If my boyfriend says he’ll kill me, will he.” When I recall being mistreated, I expect to feel anger, but instead my shame comes flooding back. How did I end up there? How did I let that happen?

I’ve been both saddened and comforted by stories of women like FKA twigs and Courtney Vucekovich, whose description of her relationship with Armie Hammer was so familiar it was unsettling. (“He kind of captivates you and while being charming, he’s grooming you for these things that are darker and heavier and consuming,” she said. “When I say consuming, I mean mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, just everything.”) It’s also heartening to see legislation introduced by Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush that broadens our understanding of domestic abuse, though it’s hard to say whether it will be effective. I still feel shame and sadness, but seeing more stories like mine reminds me that this can, and does, happen to more people than we think.

When I finally left, it was on the heels of a threat of physical violence. I was worried that I didn’t have many more chances. “You’re being dramatic,” the sick part of me said, but I overrode it. I called a domestic violence hotline. I made a safety plan with the woman on the phone and with my therapist. I started to put my life back together again.

In reading about what happens to codependents after we leave a toxic relationship, I learned that some can become counterdependent: reluctant to be vulnerable or commit to anyone for fear of finding themselves in a toxic dynamic again. This was me in the immediate aftermath of that relationship. For a while, I needed a clear view of all the exits. I was more comfortable in a casual arrangement than in anything approximating a committed relationship. I didn’t want to do sleepovers or meet anyone’s friends or (god forbid) family. I know I was just protecting myself, but I ended up acting the way I did when I was younger, drunker, and meaner. I was careless with others’ affections. It felt bad.

I knew very early into my relationship with my now-boyfriend that it would be different. He was all the things I wanted that I hadn’t dared to dream could come in one package: tall, dark, and handsome; brilliant, captivating, and funny, but also warm, kind, respectful. Sensitive. Even-keeled. Reliable. It was deeply unnerving. Safety felt foreign and uncomfortable. At every turn, I anticipated judgment, derision, yelling. When it didn’t come, I didn’t know what to do. At first, I just cried a lot. The sight of him doing the dishes made me cry, and then apologize for crying, and then apologize for apologizing. It was embarrassing.

We live with my emotional baggage, with the damage of that past relationship, and I feel bad about that sometimes. Some days, it’s almost like I’m existing in the negative space where the bad relationship was. It’s still here; I’m just differently oriented toward it. I can be jumpy, anxious. I have nightmares. I’m seized by reactions I don’t understand: I sob when I’m startled, and it’s like my body has been hijacked. I guess I didn’t fully register how bad things were—and what it had done to my nervous system—until things were good. There are so many things I wasn’t aware of while in survival mode. Only in the quiet and serenity of the present has the full weight of it all landed. But my boyfriend is understanding about all of this, too. It’s a part of loving me, and fortunately, he’s up for it.

In so many ways, our relationship has forced me to further examine my belief system about love. Before, I thought you could have passion and excitement, but the guy had to be a dick. Or you could have nice and stable, but you’d be bored and restless, plotting your escape. That false binary, based in my own low self-esteem, in a belief that I couldn’t have love and respect at the same time, allowed me to legitimize my own mistreatment for so long.

I’m afraid I’ll always be haunted by the choices I made and by one particular ghost. But each day that I commit to taking care of myself first is one day further out from that trauma. The more I do this, the more I continue to heal and the better I am able to appreciate what is now right in front of me: The respect I once thought I didn’t deserve. A love with all of the electricity and none of the evil.

Editor’s note: If you or a loved one are struggling with domestic abuse, please reach out to the Domestic Violence Support Helpline: Text CONNECT to 741741.

Author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love. Work in NYT, New Republic, the Guardian, Jezebel, and more.

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