High school sweethearts… that’s what everyone called us my whole life. We were perfect for each other, weren’t we? Destined to live happily ever after, because of course we would.
Back then, I felt like your high school sweetheart—except for when I felt like anything but. All these years, until now, I was living in a naive fantasy world of denial that you were who you claimed to be, the guy everyone loved. But year after year, you were proving to me alone—behind closed doors of course—that wasn’t ever really who you were.
Oh but when things were good, we were great. The highest of highs. Fun, laughter, trips around our little corner of the world. You gave the sweetest gifts, patting yourself on the back every time. You climbed the corporate ladder and kept me safely tucked away at home raising the kids, where I could never see just how much better life could be outside our four walls. There were private schools, even homeschool, dancing in the living room, attending and serving in church together, and cutting down fresh Christmas trees each year. The facade was firmly in place for those on the outside looking in. Heck, even I believed it half the time.
But when things were bad, I felt like I was on a roller coaster, barely staying on the tracks. Late-night arguments were a regular thing and always came out of nowhere. I had to keep earplugs close by and use my pillow to drown out the pain as you repeatedly stood over my bed, yelling at me for every new misperception. I knew our kids were upstairs covering their ears too, and my heart ached for them. I never wanted my children to have the fear and pain I’d endured as a child but I felt powerless to do anything more than just tell you what you wanted to hear to keep the peace.
I walked on eggshells my entire life trying not to piss off a man who refused to see how his anger and control affected his family—first my own father, then the man who’d sworn to love, cherish and protect me all the days of my life. I’ll never forget the bedtime tuck-in when my then 9-year-old daughter asked me why Daddy never gets in trouble for the same things she does. I might have asked my mom the same question a few decades ago. Sadly, I don’t even recall what nonsense I must have spewed to placate her searching heart. I know I hugged her and told her how sorry I was that Daddy was just so sad and needed our prayers. I was always apologizing for your behavior to our kids, but you don’t remember that, do you? You probably never knew, and if you did, you would have made it my fault somehow anyway. You were always so absorbed in yourself that how I felt, or how our kids felt, was like a foreign language you never cared to learn. It was up to me to make sure our kids knew that adults mess up too. I couldn’t bear the thought of them growing up without apologies from adults like I’d had.
Then there were times when things were really bad. Like the time I startled awake to the pounding on our front door at 2 a.m. to find you so drunk and disheveled that you couldn’t get the key to work in the door. We awoke the next morning to find you had totaled your car on a drunken drive home from a local bar after we had argued. I guess that would have been my fault somehow too. It was pretty damn sobering to have to watch the local news to see if there had been a hit-and-run. We never did find out what you had hit.
Then, there was the time you insisted we leave a church we were perfectly happy at, to attend what was basically a cult led by a sociopath. You silenced my every objection before, during and after our time there. Do you remember the day you backed me into the corner of our bathroom, threatening me for daring to confide in your new trusted confidant at our new church about the emotional turmoil in our home? That was definitely labeled wrong of me to ‘ruin your friendships’ by speaking up about my pain, wasn’t it? One of the final straws was the time when I sat like a spectator of my own life in our final attempt at couples counseling. I watched in shock as you spewed angry, paranoid delusions that shocked our therapist. It was nothing new to me. I’d seen you overreact this way a thousand times before but thank you for finally letting someone else besides me see it, someone who could help me understand it and finally do something about it.
Our therapist would later confess that this was the day he lost hope for us. It’s hard for me to choose just one but this was definitely one of the days that made things much clearer for me. This was the day someone outside our four walls knew what I wished I could have seen long ago—that you would never really look at your behavior and take responsibility for how you affected me and our family. You could or would not see the reality of who you were in our relationship. Worse still, you did not see the reality of who I had become. How God has freed me over the last decade from the dysfunction that led me into this relationship to begin with. I was offering you a love few men will ever know, a love you took for granted. You refused to see me for who I had become, always choosing instead to be the madman at the controls of our roller coaster life. At least now I finally have a name for that madman.
Reading Margalis Fjelstad’s book, Stop Caretaking the Borderline or Narcissist, at the recommendation of our therapist, finally helped me understand it all. I didn’t waste my breath trying to get you to read it, although oh how I still ached to heal us! But I finally understood that you would never give yourself over to what would be required for that. You don’t really want to change. Being a narcissist works for you. You are only interested in ‘faking good’ not being good to me. Your only desire for anyone who sees beyond your mask is to villainize them or deceive them back into believing and you could no longer do either one with me. Our relationship would never have changed for any length of time. You proved that repeatedly through the many second, third, fourth, fifth and twentieth chances I gave you. And I deserve a reasonable amount of love and peace, but still, I could not give up on you without one last fight.
I had moved out of our bedroom well over a year before, knowing it was over, but then you did that thing you always do, where you would tearfully relate some epiphany you’d had about what you were doing wrong, and you made all kinds of hopeful promises of change to lure me back in. So, like every time before, I gave us this one truly-last chance, clinging to the hope that you really were that good man deep down that I had always believed you were. I always was optimistic to a fault where you were concerned. That hopefulness always reminds me of my one takeaway from our second-to-last counselor. She told me how gracious it was of me to extend a compassionate explanation to your hurtful behaviors and be willing to walk that path with you despite your continued denial. She said most women would not care why they were being treated that way; they would just leave. I was not most women. And apparently, also not yet ready to accept reality. I needed to know if all your anger, irritability and emotionality, coupled with your refusal to see good in me, were from all the repeated blows to your head from car accidents, falls, and sports injuries. If so, I reasoned that maybe there were treatment options that could give me back the man I fell in love with, the man I missed. The man that, as it turns out, was always a figment of my imagination, just your projection of your false self, the guy the rest of the world got to enjoy, who only made infrequent and unpredictable appearances in my life. Oh but if I could have had that guy all the time!
Coming to terms with the fact that the first half of my life was largely a fantasy was devastating. I had no idea at first how to reason it all out in my mind. Despite this realization and the subsequent demise of our relationship, I know without a doubt my life has not been a complete waste. There has been good. There were many great memories mixed in with the emotional torment. My love was real even if yours wasn’t, even if that’s the best kind of love you have to give. I would never want to imagine my life without the wonderful children you gave me. The reality of my life up until this point has served as the catalyst for the strength and healing I now enjoy, despite the difficult decisions this awareness has demanded of me—decisions like filing for divorce and no doubt being pegged as the homewrecker by those who only know your false self and believe your lies and distorted perceptions. We were awfully good at faking being the perfect little family though, so I expect a few people were shocked. Anyone who really knew us was not. But here I am, facing the reality that you won’t take care of me, despite explicitly and repeatedly assuring me that even in divorce, you would keep your promises to take care of me. More manipulation that finally didn’t work. You swore you would never do to me what some of my friends’ narcissist exes had done to them in divorce… like hiring slimy lawyers, being deceitful, making claims of abuse when I, the abused, chose the high road, and trying to avoid paying a dime more than the law requires. In case you didn’t know, I know this is who you have been all along.
But I never even wanted it to end. I wanted to believe your lies, yet here I am in the middle of a contentious legal battle just to get my reasonable needs met after devoting over twenty years of my life to taking care of you and our kids, sacrificing my own career and well-being. I left you as a shell of my former self. I didn’t know who I was anymore, if I ever did. My life was all about you, and always had been. We had the fairy tale middle-class life, 2.5 children and the house in the suburbs—the very definition of the American dream, but I had never felt more alone in all my life. I lived from counseling appointment to counseling appointment for years, begging to be told what I could do, how I could change to ease the anxiety and outbursts coursing through the veins of my home—and while yes, there were definite codependency and caretaking behaviors that I would have to stop to break the pattern—I was repeatedly told, year after year for over a decade, by more than one counselor, that I could not change the madman at the control of my roller coaster life. I could only change me. So. Finally. I did.
For the final years of our lives together, I set healthy boundaries. I changed every belief, assumption and reaction possible. I forgave. I listened. I endured. I asserted my own thoughts, beliefs and needs as I learned is healthy and important to do. I messed up and reverted to old patterns sometimes but I learned. I got stronger. I showed grace to you and to myself. I tried to hear anything real and tangible that I could grasp onto behind all your anger and anxiety. I made every possible effort to connect emotionally, spiritually and physically with you, the man who had told me all my life that I was the love of his life. I would cling to you during and after lovemaking, to try to physically turn your head to look into my eyes, and you would crane your neck away, an excuse always at the ready, always some grandiose reason that you could not look into my eyes and connect with me. I was told daily that I was loved, so why did I not feel loved? It was crazy-making. I would ask this over and over, and eventually every counselor and mentor in my life would tell me in a million different ways that what was happening with you was not love. I was not crazy. I was codependent. I was a caretaker to someone who would never care for me, and the only thing I would ever be able to change would be myself. My head knew but my heart had stubbornly refused to acknowledge the reality since I had pegged you as my soulmate at just fourteen years old. Thirty years later, if this wasn’t love, what was? And could I ever know it?
I had to come to accept that it was over. No blame. No shame. It is what it is. Life doesn’t always fit in pretty little boxes wrapped neatly with perfect bows. I had tried everything I had known for longer than anyone I’ve ever known, to fight… for you. I could honestly say we had tried. Though it will always be hard for me to fully grasp, I accept that you too did everything that was possible for you to do. I could easily make a list of things I wish you had done, but I choose to give credit where it’s due—you did some counseling and you even allowed for an evaluation that clarified what we needed to know about the possibility of our future together. You were pleased with the results—no head injury issues. For me, that just summed up what I had been saying all along; either there is a solid explanation for the hurtful behaviors or there’s not. Now we had it in writing, there was not. We had given it our all, and it just was apparently not meant to be. You could or would not be the man I needed, and I could never go back to the old ways.
There is a paradigm shift that is irreversible: when we see a truth, we can never ‘un-see’ it. I could never unlearn all that God has illuminated and healed within me over the past decade, nor would I want to. Now, there were days when I first left you that I would face such uncertainty as I looked down the path before me and I would sometimes wonder if I could just go back, pretend everything was fine, just be the high school sweethearts everyone wanted to believe we were. But I couldn’t. I can’t. And I never will be able to. I won’t ever reduce myself to a former lesser version of myself. I have finally begun to define who I really am, and I like her. And everyone around me loves her. I am so deeply saddened that I cannot be the real me with you… the only man I have ever truly loved. And deep down I know that you will never find a love like mine, even if you find someone to mimic it for a time. You will know it’s not the same. And even as much pain as you have caused in my life in our many years together, I still hate that for you.
But I am not sad that I am finally awake and alive again. I laugh. I love. I relax. I dream. I smile. I do still cry on occasion and I ache for what I wish could have been with you but I quickly pick myself up and reach out to help others and allow others to help me, as many women I know are walking this unchosen journey into a new life. I have hope. One day, I will find a love like the one I have to give. Someone will enjoy the love that you never would accept. A love that blooms with my time, my love, my energy, and my whole being. I tap my foot to the beat of a new life that is only just beginning to be discovered.
(But, let me guess, this is all exactly what YOU were going to say…)