A few weeks before my wedding, I was in the dinnerware section of Macy’s with my friend Sam. I was talking about all the things that were wrong with my relationship, and she asked me, “Are you sure you want to do this?” My response: “At this point, I’ve put so much effort into this relationship that I have to make it work.”
Let’s reinterpret that: “I’m unhappy, and I know I should leave, but I’m so desperate to make all the sacrifices I’ve made worthwhile that I’m not going to.”
This was five years in. I also knew two months in that something was wrong when I told him that I’d been assaulted by a friend in high school and he started getting moody and saying that I’d given my virginity to a rapist instead of him, which he considered, in some completely wacko logic, to be pre-emptive cheating. When I got angry and defensive about it, he’d argue with me, then when I said I was done with him he’d come swooping in with apologies and poetics. The idea that I was perverse and broken became the assumption on which our relationship was built, and the model of berating-poetics-berating-poetics became the paradigm for our relationship for the following seven years.
I was 18 when I met him. I’d just graduated from high school, my family was having problems, and I’d been raped and I didn’t know what to think about it. I took him at his word that he was right and figured that this was just what relationships looked like in the real world because he was six years older than me, so he ought to know. He saw an opportunity to obtain a vulnerable person and shame and berate her into submission, and he took it, because that’s what predatory people do. He removed outside influences like my family and my friends by either treating them like dirt personally or making it clear to me through threats and intimidation that I shouldn’t hang out with them, so when they said “You should leave” or “He’s not good enough,” I didn’t hear them.
But I could have listened to myself, and especially to my actions. Early on, I was self-harming and suicidal because I wanted so badly to get out of this existence in which I was an awful, useless waste of space — an existence that, in retrospect, was only manifest in my relationship with my now-ex. Later, the imperative to leave became more explicit. I threatened divorce over and over again. I’d Google “How do you know when your relationship is over?” and search for divorce lawyers, then I’d clear the browser history and keep on trucking.
At first, I chalked these doubts up to the personal inadequacies my ex had convinced me were ruining our relationship, and that’s why I stayed despite wanting to leave — because no one else would ever “love” me, as he was so quick to remind me. But as time went on and I got more perspective on the situation, when I started realizing how much I had contributed to and sacrificed for the relationship relative to his own contributions and sacrifices (which, probably needless to say, were low-to-nonexistent), I stayed for the reason I’d given to Sam. I knew how much abuse I’d put up with, I knew how badly he’d hurt me; I knew that I’d been chained to his side and given up opportunities I’d desperately wanted to pursue with my education and career; I knew that I’d let go of some of my best friends, and it broke my heart; I knew I missed my sisters; I knew I’d forked all of my hard-earned money over to him. I was operating under the assumption that there was something I could get out of him in return for all the things he’d taken from me if I just stayed and made it work.
Eventually I realized there wasn’t. He wasn’t willing to give anything, that was the whole point.
In all of those “Is your relationship over?” and “Should you leave?” articles I read, none of the authors ever had the chutzpah to shake the reader by the shoulders and say, “You already know you need to leave your relationship! Don’t ask me, ask yourself!” Consider this me shaking you by the shoulders, or me saying, your relationship will fail if you are desperately unhappy and being treated unfairly. You’re wasting your time if you stay, and there is absolutely no good reason to do so, not money, not children, not a mortgage, not dependence. Make your own, independent life work however you need to. Leave at the first inclination you get that you’re not being treated with the respect due to a whole human being, because there are other people out there — yourself most of all — who will give you that respect. You know what’s best for you, and you should act in your own self-interest, no matter what excuses you can conjure up. Life is short. Don’t waste years or months or even minutes of yours giving yourself away.