Conventional wisdom holds that there are two types of relationships: ones that start the “right” way and last for years, and those that start the “wrong” way and end in heartbreak or STDs or both.
Among the assumptions about “right”-starting relationships is that you meet the person through (healthy) social activities or mutual friends, go on several dates, and then discover you’re hopelessly in love.
That’s what I did. I met Jason* through the local theatre scene. He expressed admiration for my work, and that was the end of it until we were working on a show together. He needed rides to rehearsals and as we carpooled, we fell in love. He was 25 years older than I was, but I felt like we were soulmates. We first kissed like in the movies, where he planted one on me rather randomly, and my foot literally lifted off the ground. I felt so adored. He called me “goddess” and called me every day to say he couldn’t stop thinking about me.
Then the abuse started.
He started demanding to know where I was at all hours, and mocked or bullied me for the tiniest things. When I cut things off, he threatened suicide. He alternated between displays of passion and threats to kill me. Before I knew it, I was inextricably tied to him. In recovery circles, we call it trauma-bonding. It’s a large reason why victims of abuse don’t leave even as their abusers harass, stalk, and rape them. We feel like we can’t escape, as we cling to the chance that this is all some horrible misunderstanding.
When I escaped finally, I was afraid to go out in public. If I did, I risked running into Jason. He’d memorized my schedule. And I didn’t feel free. I felt like I’d been permanently damaged. I felt like no one would ever love me again. In time, I realized that Jason had never loved me, and I felt even more worthless.
And so when my acquaintance Dan hit on me one night at my favorite pub on one of my rare nights out, I politely declined. I wasn’t ready, I said. I expected a snarky remark or a forced kiss. And yet Dan was respectful. I never forgot that. Four months later, we ran into each other because I was out and about. I hadn’t expected to go out that night. We ended up talking more than we ever had, and decided to switch to a different club. Usually, I went to bed early. I decided to take a chance. I hadn’t had fun in a long time. And he was cute.
A pretty girl in her early 20s began tagging along with us. It was clear that she was digging Dan. She was adorable. I, with my battle scars and my big nose, was ready to give up. I’d never gone for the cute guy. I’d waited for men to come to me. And that, I realized, was how Jason had gotten me.
Surely, Dan would choose her, I thought.
I sat between Dan and the pretty girl as she flipped her hair and talked about how lonely she was. She gave him cigarettes and pursed her lips. “So where should we go next?” As she attempted to lean across me to get to Dan, her barely-covered boobs nearly touching my face, I made a decision. I leaned forward, blocking her view, and said, “I’d like to stay here” and placed my hand on Dan’s knee.
He looked at me with a budding smile, and placed his hand on mine. And I knew I’d won a heart.
I took him home that night, and from then on, we spent every night together, finding it painful to spend time apart. We fell more in love with every conversation.
Now, nearly six years later, our lives are tied to each other. We text all day and we spend every evening together. We have a bunch of pets that compose our family, and we know each other well enough that we can communicate nonverbally. Most importantly, I feel safe with him.
Had I not taken a chance with my own heart—even though it took four months, or perhaps be cause it did—I wouldn’t have the love of my life. It took an enormous step of faith in myself and my own recovery. At the time I made the decision, it felt like I was just being a typical twenty-something, taking a guy home from the bar. In hindsight, I was making a much bigger decision. I was deciding to forgive myself for being Jason’s victim. I was deciding that I deserved love, not abuse. I was deciding that I had a future.
And I chose well.
*Name changed for my protection.
Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.