Today in Female Empowerment: SELF-PRESERVATION

A few months ago, I started dating a guy, J., whom I’d known a long time ago - we’d even gone on one date about 16 years ago. He’s since been married and divorced, and in February of 2021 we reconnected thanks to a Facebook hack that threw him into my Messenger inbox and got us talking. He invited me over to his palatial Brooklyn house to catch up over drinks and snacks and we hit it off in the more-than-friends kind of way.


In a telling post-quarantine moment in time, he laid out the relationship red carpet for me immediately (like, that night) and I willingly stepped onto it. Almost as immediately, he was orchestrating the full merger of our lives. And I went along (mostly) willingly.


In short order, he told every single person in his life how happy he was and how much he loved me and how they needed to meet me. Meanwhile some of my closest friends didn’t yet even know I was dating someone.


Two weeks into dating, he texted me, “Can we do supper this Sunday with some other friends you need to meet?”


Against my better judgment I said, “Of course!” I’d already spent what seemed like an exhaustive number of hours meeting various couples and groups of friends in his life (who were all lovely, by the way) and also, Sundays are my day of first blocking out the week ahead in my brain and then gradually giving into the need to prep for it: the last thing I feel like doing is being “on,” especially for friends that lingered over their post-dinner coffees until 10 p.m. when I’m in the throes of the Sunday scaries.


“I’m really sorry,” I said, getting up the second there was a lull in the never-ending conversation that evening. “But I have a crazy day tomorrow and a busy week, so I have to head home now.”


“But if you go home,” J. whined, definitely drunk at that point. “How am I going to have sex with you?” He said this directly in front of his friends, neither of whom who’d had a sip of alcohol all evening. I was mortified, and jumped into the Lyft almost before it had come to a stop in front of his house, then sunk gratefully into my own bed thirty minutes later, unbelievably relieved to be home.


There were a few other red flags in those early days of this baby relationship.


“I love your dog,” I smiled at J. one day shortly after the Sunday dinner, the spaniel snuggled up in my lap.


“Not my dog,” he replied firmly. “Our dog.”


Though I was instinctively feeling some discomfort at how ultra-fast it was all moving, it felt good to hear that someone was all in with me and wanted to share everything (and given his success, there was a lot to share) with me, openly and generously. And as a single woman who’d lived through the pandemic and quarantine, it was especially nice to be romantically linked up with someone so apparently great.


“This is OUR house,” J. told me. “Not mine.”


“What’s mine is yours,” he said constantly, along with, “Where I go you go, and where you go I go,” right before booking us a fancy vacation to the Dominican Republic.


J. was also the first guy in a long time (maybe ever) that I could really talk to. From minute one, we opened up to each other, sharing our entire life stories, vulnerabilities, secrets, and everything in between. I can really be myself with this guy, I thought. That aspect alone was enough to make me want to figure this thing out with him.


“I love you so much,” J. told me, always adding, “You’re so perfect for me.” And whenever I walked into his house or we were sitting over a glass of wine, he’d gaze at me adoringly and say, “I am just so happy. I’ve never been this happy.”


Again, lovely in a lot of ways to be loved so much. But for me, so early on and so accelerated, it was also a LOT of responsibility, alarmingly delineated by the fact that I started to think, Well, I guess he’s right - we never will (or can) break up, because it would hurt him too much. Yet I was seeing more and more how wildly different we are, how our values are not remotely aligned, and how our worldviews and approaches to life would eventually torture us both (or at least would torture me) not too far down the line.


All of that was illuminated the weekend, less than two months into dating, that he came back to Western New York with me to meet my family.


Even prior to meeting him at LaGuardia to fly out, I felt unsettled and a sense of impending doom. That feeling was only exacerbated by my annoyance with his, ahem, personality quirks (awkward bordering rude to Lyft drivers and other people, loudly disparaging cocktails and dishes we’d ordered at various restaurants because they weren’t up to his exacting standards, and numerous other cringe-worthy moments that won’t see the light of day here on the page). He was wonderful to my family and won points there but my normally awesome, warm, funny and fun Mom was utterly transparent in her dislike of him (“I’m so sorry, Leanne,” she said later. “I just didn’t feel good about him for you.”) - bringing to life in a real way for me the Justin Beiber lyrics: “My momma don’t like you, and she likes everyone.”


From that moment on, I couldn’t stop seeing things between us as irrevocably broken. A few days after that trip, I went over to his place and steeled myself for a painful conversation, one that I really didn’t want to have. Trust me, after a million years of being single, I wanted J. to be The One. But he wasn’t, and I did my best to be open and honest and as loving as I felt - which was a lot. I cared about J. so much and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt him.


Over the coming couple of weeks, he put the full court press on me - a long email listing out why we belong together, then a letter in the mail. A Spotify “mix tape.” Texts exhorting me, “Stop this right now and come back to me.” So for a while, we went back and forth, tried to dial things back to a more “normal” speed, and go on a few dates, start over, whatever. But I always cite my friend Julie’s analogy: you can walk into a dark room and turn on the light; if you don’t like what you see, you can turn off the light. But you still know it’s there.


***


I’ve been grappling for a while with growing, evolving, and becoming a better person and worrying about being selfish, which I believe is a major character flaw I share with my father and have to fight against.


With J., I was similarly scared that I selfishly fell into this relationship and then, like a sociopath (or, like my father) just coldly changed my mind and broke his heart.


Thus the reason I let the relationship continue to sputter along after that first conversation when I expressed my doubts about us and started to lay the groundwork for a breakup, and why I agonized over the final break.


“No one will ever love you as much as I love you for all you are, Leanne,” J. had said to me that day. At the time, I took that at face value and worried that I was giving up my opportunity to be with the person who would love and take care of me forever.


I saw the truth of my delusion (self or otherwise) when I finally officially ended things for good, on a Saturday in May, less than three months after we’d started dating. He asked me to come over to his house to pick up the belongings I’d left there, which he’d piled up in the middle of the room, along with various things I’d bought him, my favorite crackers, the green tea he’d had for me, magazines, and anything else at all that had once had my fingerprints on them.


Some deep instinct had told me to alert Tracey to the time I was going as well as his address and phone number (“Text me the second you leave,” she’s said) and while I didn’t think I would come to bodily harm, I was still nervous as I packed the stuff up into the Fresh Direct bags he’d tossed on the pile for me to use, particularly because he wouldn’t come near me or say anything to me, choosing instead to glower at me from the far end of the room while throwing back whiskey.


“FUUUUUUCK YOU!!” he screamed as I walked out the door. In that moment, I knew something I had written before was correct: selfishness is not always bad, and in fact is often a form of self-preservation.


A couple of days later I received an email from him:



Leanne


I have decided to hate you. You are either, in my mind, a liar or a coward. Because nobody would express the emotions you related to me and pull back so severely. You have broken my heart. But it doesn’t matter anymore.


I believe you still owe me money for the tickets I invested in our holiday. I also believe you should pay for the hotel in Rochester as I did not agree to pay for the hotel. Just the incidentals.


Please send me a check for the full amount of the transactions.


J.


***


“Be the bigger person,” Mom always told Molly and me.


But it’s really hard when someone who purported to love me more than anything in the world exploited the vulnerabilities I shared, all because things didn’t turn out the way he’d wanted them to. He only loved me when I was falling into line with his vision of life, he didn't actually love me for me. It can really fuck with a girl’s head.


But I did write a check for the part of the vacation money I owed him (from a plane ticket that had accidentally been credited back to my account rather than his credit card when we’d cancelled the planned vacation due to the breakup). And I didn’t write “petty and vindictive” on the memo like I wanted to. I think that counts as being the bigger person, especially with someone so dark and damaged.


I mentioned earlier that I was deluded in/to this relationship. But come to think of it, maybe I really wasn’t. I knew even 16 years ago after that random date J. and I went on that he wasn’t the guy for me and deep in my core, I knew that this time too...I just didn’t want to believe it, because I’m ready for lasting partnership.




Women are sometimes conditioned to ignore our instincts but I’m here to say that our intuition is the most powerful tool we have. And I will never disregard mine again.



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