I found myself in the position I never expected to be in, echoing the words of countless women undone by the violence of the men in their lives: ‘But I still love him.’
My relationship with Anthony was like most relationships. It was good until it wasn’t. In this case, it was exactly what I’d always wanted until it turned inside out, became something so distorted it didn’t seem possible it was the same relationship.
I fell in love with Anthony. Because I’d never been in love before, I figured that he must be good. I couldn’t have loved him otherwise, right? I’d been through too much, was too smart, too vigilant, too feminist, to be with anyone but a kind, sensitive man.
I’d done my time with ungenerous men. I’d racked up a handful (or two) of questionable nights where I was too drunk or he was too pushy or my “no’s” dissolved as if they were never said. I’d done my time healing those wounds. Anthony seemed like the reward.
For a while, he was. But then, the relationship collapsed, irretrievably. He revealed a capacity for violence I never thought I’d see in my own life.
I found myself in the position I never expected to be in, echoing the words of countless women undone by the violence of the men in their lives: “But I still love him.”
We started dating at the beginning of last summer. It felt like a balm.
Anthony didn’t care about being successful, popular, or traditionally masculine. He didn’t particularly care if I was pretty, smart, or nice.
His childhood was marked by violence and poverty, and when his peers went to college, he went into the desert to camp, heal, and figure out what mattered. What mattered, it turned out, was nothing except his cat, guitar, and climbing.
He didn’t even care about sex, which was a relief. I asked if we could wait, and we did. Lying in his arms, I’d dissect my fear of men and intimacy. He would listen and then say everything I’d always wanted to hear: “We don’t ever have to have sex. If we do, it will only make us closer. There’s nothing you could do to make me like you less.”
When we finally had sex, I knew, for the first time, that I really wanted it.
He offered infinite room that seemed able to hold anything. I filled up plenty of that space with insecurity and fear, until I realized that for the first time, I had drained myself of my self-loathing, and he had stayed, essentially unfazed. I was stunned by the feeling of stability and sure-footing. I liked who I was when I wasn’t trying to be the best, and was surprised to find that he did too.
One night, I got sick and threw up outside the car window and all over his bathroom. I was embarrassed and on the brink of tears, but he rubbed my back and told me not to worry: “I’ve chosen you and once I choose someone there’s really nothing that can bother me.” I wanted to build a home inside that sentence.
After a heady summer together, I went to Mexico for a month in the fall. The night before I left, we said we loved each other and held hands until morning.I was stunned by the feeling of stability and sure-footing. I liked who I was when I wasn’t trying to be the best, and was surprised to find that he did too. Click To Tweet
I left sure that I was in a loving relationship, something I’d feared I’d never have. I spent a month in Mexico pining for him.
The day I got back to the States, the collapse began.
I called Anthony, and an automated voice told me the number had been disconnected. I texted our mutual friend, Elle, and she told me he got a new number. I still felt unsteady, but he texted me from the new phone a few minutes later. “Deep breaths,” I thought, “don’t be paranoid,” but it felt like my stomach had slid from my body.
I saw him in person a few days later. It was then that he told me what had happened while I was gone. He’d cheated on me with Elle (first he told me it happened once, then maybe twice, then “a handful” of times).
Before I could absorb this news, he told me that after I’d been gone a couple weeks, he’d packed up his room, changed his number, ghosted his job, and drove to Oregon. He would still have been in Oregon when I got back, he said, except once he got there he “had a bad feeling.” He turned the car around and came home.
The following month was a blur of unrelenting pain and confusion. We mostly didn’t talk, but I couldn’t adjust to this new reality, couldn’t understand it. Hadn’t he said he loved me? That he was proud to be with me?
At the end of the month, a fatal combination of events contributed to my dwindling emotional strength, and I texted him to hang out. I didn’t leave his room for four days. On the fourth, he kissed me goodbye and went to work. Three hours later, he texted me to say he’d walked out of work, again. He was leaving, again. If I wanted to see him for the last time, it would have to be soon.
I crawled through the day, feeling betrayed and abandoned all over again. Then, a few hours later, an acquaintance told me something that froze the edges of my organs.
He’d been threatening Elle over text and at their shared workplace. “He’s been manipulating everybody, especially you and Elle,” the acquaintance told me.
Hours before he left for good, we went to a coffee shop and I asked him about the threats, waited for him to tell me I’d misunderstood.
Instead, he told me he wished Elle would die of AIDS. He called her a filthy whore and said he’d punch her if she were a man. He wanted to push her off of a cliff. “I really mean it,” he clarified.
I forced myself to say his words were unforgivable, terrifying.
His face folded with anger. “Good luck with everything,” he said, before standing up and walking out of the cafe. I ran after him and convinced him to get in my car to drive him home.
Once in the car, he said he might jump out.
I tried to keep my breath calm, my eyes even, but I was scared, like I was next to an unpredictable stranger. “Just get him home,” I thought. I’ll drop him off, drive away alone, and find a way to survive the knowledge that I was in love with a lie.
But when he calmed down, he cried. He apologized over and over. He didn’t mean to get angry. He wasn’t in control. I believed him.
He told me he didn’t know how to deal with Elle, but that he shouldn’t have done what he did. He loved me, I was the best woman he’d ever been with. He didn’t mean to hurt me. Maybe we’d be together one day, he said, if he could take accountability and if I could heal from him. I wanted to believe that, too.
He got in his car and drove to New Mexico.He apologized over and over. He didn’t mean to get angry. He wasn’t in control. I believed him. Click To Tweet
I’d entered the relationship eager and anxious, so happy to be in love for the first time. The way it ended — and ended, and ended — broke me.
“I’m a feminist!” I wanted to yell, “How could this have happened?” To me! An advocate for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors, a sex-educator, a reporter on gender justice!
I recognized his threat to leap from my car from a pamphlet on domestic violence: “Red flags include threatening self-harm or suicide.” I recognized his apology from the cycle of violence wheel I’d passed out countless times — blowups are followed by apologies so that the cycle may continue. Calling Elle a filthy whore wasn’t a red flag, but a bloody banner proclaiming his disregard for women.
I remember a night I’d been called into the hospital to advocate for a woman whose husband had dragged her across their driveway. Her body was covered in scrapes and bruises. She cried for her husband and the only time she spoke to me was to beg me to find him. My training had told me this was common, but I struggled to understand how she could want someone who had hurt her so badly.
Now, I understand more. I understand how the black and white pamphlets articulating the bounds of a healthy relationship fail to register in the part of the heart that yearns for love, or what feels like love.
I tell people what Anthony did — the cheating, the deserting town, the threatening Elle — and feel like I’ve done something wrong. When I try to talk about about how good the relationship had felt, people stiffen with the shadow of suspicion or pity. As if I’m temporarily insane. As if I don’t realize I’ve been manipulated. I become strange to myself — how can I miss a man who would do any of what he did?
Friends are quick to call him garbage, a psychopath, abusive. I understand why, but the words don’t resonate, don’t seem right. They cut me — what does it say about me if I fell in love with garbage?
The therapist I start to see when Anthony leaves town tells me to read Why Does He Do That?, the seminal text about abusive men.
“I’ve read that!” I want to scream. “I’ve given this book to women! You don’t get it!” But when I skim the pages, some bullet points are chillingly familiar. I slam it shut.What does it say about me if I fell in love with garbage? Click To Tweet
The truth is Anthony had said things that registered as red flags, but I was careful to qualify them, to add them into a larger narrative I had about him being a tortured soul healing childhood trauma and unlearning toxic masculinity.
He told me he struggled with anger. His car was dented from when he’d battered it with a shovel after a bad day. His life work was to contain the anger and not cause harm, he told me. He was always so gentle with me, and I thought that if he was self-aware then I needn’t be worried — you can’t hold people’s pasts against them, right?
I should have listened when he told me he’d escaped his childhood by leaving his family, town, and life completely, and that he’d been escaping like that ever since. Not anymore, not with me, I thought.
He also says I should have listened. The last time we spoke, I told him I was still stunned by what he said to and about Elle. He didn’t take it back. In fact, he was frustrated:
“I told you this is who I am. I tell people this is who I am, but then when it comes out, they can’t deal with it. Those things I said are minor. I don’t understand why it matters to you so much. I wouldn’t actually hurt her.”
No amount of screaming or crying could make him realize how badly he’d hurt me or Elle.
I realized with excruciating clarity that nothing could touch him. The love and vulnerability I’d shared so freely with him hadn’t touched him. I’d thought that in his unshakeability, he’d been holding space for me. Actually, he just was space. The trust and care I’d shown had floated away. When he told me he loved me, it wasn’t a lie, but it didn’t obey the rules of gravity. It slid into black space. Threatening to punch someone, wishing death on a woman — those words slid to the same place.The trust and care I’d shown had floated away. When he told me he loved me, it wasn’t a lie, but it didn’t obey the rules of gravity. Click To Tweet
Losing him was painful, but in the months following my return from Mexico, I felt like I was also losing myself.
I’d found the scrape of energy necessary to tell Anthony that I was on Elle’s side. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I let the words “I wish she’d die of AIDS” slide. Words like that tend to wake a person up.
I found myself willing to forgive almost everything — the cheating, the lying, the abandonment. The only thing I couldn’t forgive was what he did to Elle. I was lucky that his most extreme violence was directed at another woman — I had more clarity about what she deserved than what I did.
The lessons I learned from the breakup are also burdens. I learned that resources, training, and feminist credentials didn’t stop me from falling for someone capable of violence. I learned that his violence was his, and that I neither provoked nor could have prevented it. I learned that I am not immune from the thoughts that I know are typical of people who have had unhealthy relationships — I feel ashamed for choosing the relationship and for struggling to move on. I feel embarrassed that I still sometimes miss him. I fear that I can’t trust my intuition or feelings in the future. Some days, I think maybe it wasn’t that bad.
I struggle to tolerate multiple truths — I loved him, and I think he loved me. He was also violent and unremorseful. I can’t choose just one of those truths without hurting myself.
The worst thing Anthony did was to put me in the position of nearly choosing him over what he knew I valued most — the safety and equality of women. Ultimately, it felt like choosing between myself and the memory of feeling loved. I chose myself, but barely.
Now I’m back in my life after months in a cloud of pain. I have hope for the future again, and feel proud of my resilience. But I’m hurt. Every morning since I got back from Mexico, I wake up and before I open my eyes, tell myself that I’ll be OK, that I’ll survive the day.
I had hoped to learn about intimacy, love, and sex with Anthony. But the greater, more subsuming lessons have been about healing from the emotional pain caused by the violence of men — these are lessons I’m tired of learning.
I become overwhelmed when I try to understand why everything happened, and what it means for my future, so I’ve liberated myself from thinking about either. I only know that I want to care and be around others who care. I want words to mean something. My internal world has rearranged since Anthony left — it’s more sensitive, more complex, more grounded. For now, I spend each day occupying more of my own body, my own life, exploring its contours and boundaries. There is more room now that I’ve been pulled apart.