Living with Elephants.

I’ve been wanting to write something about my personal experiences with abuse in adult relationships. I’ve spent the last decade working very hard to become the person I am, and I’ve learned a lot of unexpected lessons along the way, some of which I’ve never written about before.

I’m writing this in part because I ended up in a really good place and I’m proud of the life I’ve built, and in part because I know there are people who believe that the way my partners and I practice direct communication and firm boundary setting is dysfunctional and harmful. I wanted to tell my story so anyone who’s curious can understand how I got here. I want to invite you into my headspace.

This is by no means, a comprehensive list of everything I’ve ever been through or even a complete telling of each of these stories, but hopefully it’s enough to give a decent background.

Trigger warning for emotional abuse and physical and sexual assault.

Lesson 1: Sometimes Love Just Isn’t Enough

So when I was 19 I met my first serious boyfriend. I’ll tell you right off the bat, I was extremely codependent. For as long as I can remember I was obsessed with the idea of being in love, and I thought this guy was amazing. He was smart, he was funny, and he was ridiculously charming. So of course my entire life revolved around our relationship, and I did everything in my power to make it work. I worked very hard to be whoever he needed me to be because I was operating from a place of scarcity. I thought if he left me I’d have an impossible time finding anyone I loved half as much as I loved him. My self-worth and happiness was completely wrapped up in him. It wasn’t a healthy situation.

I quickly learned he was not a good dude. He isolated me from my friends by picking fights with me when I spent time with them, he got into screaming fights with me in public, he gave me the silent treatment and withheld affection when I didn’t do what he wanted, he accused me of cheating on him with every male friend I had, he lied to me all the time, he broke my favorite possessions when he felt rejected, he pushed me into walls, he threw things at my head, he regularly tried to initiate sex with me while I was asleep even though I expressed that it was not okay dozens of times, he pushed me out of bed while I was sleeping, he kept me awake until 4 am arguing with me about sex, he pressured me into sex acts I wasn’t comfortable with, he actually said the phrase, “you’re my girlfriend, you’re not allowed to say no”, he told me I was fat, he scaled a wall and tried to kick down the door after I locked him outside after a particularly nasty fight, he threatened to kill himself when I tried to leave him, and after our breakup I told him to never contact me again and he showed up at both my jobs and had his friend drive him to my parents house at 1am. That’s just what I remember off the top of my head.

The day I finally left him, he shook me awake at 4am and told me that he’d scoured my computer, hacked into my private online journal, and searched through all of my things looking for evidence that I was cheating on him. What he found was that I had a weird website in my browsing history (a website where dudes pay girls to pretend to be their girlfriends that my friend had sent to me as a joke) and an entry I wrote in my private journal where I complained about him calling me fat and said that he was an asshole because he was the one who was 200lbs. (Which was super mean! And I didn’t even mean it. I liked his body a lot…but I was tired of him constantly trying to use my weight – 115lbs, btw – to make me feel bad when I wouldn’t do what he wanted.) So he told me this, and I sat there, and I listened to everything he had to say, and I nodded my head, and I was like…say whatever you have to say to to keep him calm until you can leave for work. (It was only about two weeks before that he’d shoved me into a wall during a fight and punched the refrigerator across the kitchen.) I vaguely recall him crying about the weight thing, and giving me a speech about how he didn’t trust me because I didn’t tell him things, but that he was happy he didn’t find any evidence that I was cheating. When I got to work I begged my coworkers to help me move out.

Breaking up with him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Because I didn’t want to leave. When it was good, it was so good, and I was clinging to that feeling. I wanted to believe that if I just changed in this or that way, that he would be the guy I fell in love with all the time. But that morning something in my brain snapped and I realized there was nothing I could do to make it work. That he was a broken person and I couldn’t fix him and I needed to get away from him before he really hurt me. I remember crying to a friend of mine, “I don’t know how to not be his girlfriend anymore.”

Lesson 2: Learning To Be A Whole Person

At 21, I was a person whose entire identity was wrapped up in being this person’s girlfriend. I didn’t know who I was, I didn’t have healthy boundaries, and I didn’t like myself very much.

All I really knew at that point was that I wanted to do the hard work be the kind of person who wouldn’t last five minutes in that kind of relationship. I wanted to be the kind of person who would stand up for herself at the first sign of trouble, and who wasn’t afraid to walk away. I wanted to look at a guy like that and say, “Holy crap, I cannot get out of here fast enough.”

Within a few days of breaking up with him I started reading about codependency and I was like yeah, this is why I let it get this bad, and I spent the next SIX YEARS being single and doing the hard work of figuring out who I was, what I wanted, and how to communicate effectively. I knew the first thing I needed to do was learn how to be independent and take care of myself.

It was really hard. My relationship with my first boyfriend was terrible, and I didn’t know how terrible it was because I’d never had a good relationship. I thought I was proving my love for him by tolerating my misery. I thought everyone treated everyone badly, and the only way to be close to anyone was to be willing to tolerate treatment you didn’t like.

There’s a quote from Stephen King that fits.

There’s a phrase, “the elephant in the living room”, which purports to describe what it’s like to live with a drug addict, an alcoholic, an abuser. People outside such relationships will sometimes ask, “How could you let such a business go on for so many years? Didn’t you see the elephant in the living room?” And it’s so hard for anyone living in a more normal situation to understand the answer that comes closest to the truth; “I’m sorry, but it was there when I moved in. I didn’t know it was an elephant; I thought it was part of the furniture.” There comes an aha-moment for some folks – the lucky ones – when they suddenly recognize the difference.

I was 23 when I started casually seeing someone who was really cool to me and super respectful of my boundaries, and my mind was blown. Omg, is this a thing I can actually expect from people? We dated about a total of five minutes because it didn’t take me long to start acting kind of weird about it.

Before he dumped me for making it awkward (I mean, he claims it was because he was going through his own recovery and was working on himself and didn’t want to get too wrapped up in anyone, buuut I think it was because I was stupid-into him) I remember spending about three hours waiting for him to call and it was giving me terrible anxiety, and I was like, wow, this exactly the person I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be so into someone that I can’t live my life when they aren’t around. And I decided then that I really shouldn’t date anyone until I could handle being with someone awesome and not not losing my mind over it.

So then I was single a bunch more, and worked really hard on not needing other people to validate my existence. I also worked really hard on managing my feelings and learning how to be a decent communicator. I casually dated five or six people between the ages of 21 and 26, but nothing really happened there because I quickly figured out we weren’t very compatible or there were problems I wasn’t willing to overlook.

Lesson 3: No More Nice Girl

When I was around the age of 24 I was sexually assaulted by a manager from work. He invited me to go out bowling with him and a group of his friends, and I almost didn’t accept his invitation because I found him a bit skeevy, but he assured me it was just as friends and nothing would happen. He was laying on the pressure pretty thick and was acting hurt by my resistance, so I confirmed with him three times that it was not a date and that I wouldn’t go if he thought it was a date, and he assured me it was just as friends. I went because we had a ball-busting kind of relationship and I thought it would be really fun to play a competitive sport and shit talk and also because he made me feel guilty. At what I thought was the end of the night he hugged me and asked if it would be cool if we went back to his friends house for an hour or so. He was my ride, and I didn’t know how to express my discomfort with the idea without hurting this feelings and making it awkward, so I said sure. Once we got there, he made it a point to have ONE shot and then claim he was too drunk to drive. Eventually his friends left, and the couple who owned the house left the room and began having loud sex in the next room. A few minutes passed and without any warning, he grabbed me really hard and shoved his hand down my pants, hurting me in the process. He immediately apologized saying he was drunk. He was 250lbs and he was claiming he was losing self control over a shot he’d taken over a half an hour ago. Shaking, I did everything I could to make sure I didn’t upset him until I was able to get him to take me home, then he locked me in the car and begged me not to tell anyone what had happened. For the next few weeks he texted me frantically, “You’re not going to tell anyone, right?” and I told him very firmly over and over again to leave me alone. Not long after he was fired because as it turned out I wasn’t the only female employee he’d assaulted.

This is when I stopped being afraid to hurt people’s feelings. I learned I don’t value other people’s emotional comfort more than I value my own safety. I felt like I’d fallen into a trap designed specifically to prey on girls who valued being nice over being honest and I vowed that night to stop being a nice girl.

Lesson 4: Learning to Put Myself First

Not long after the incident with my manager, my roommate moved out and I had to interview for new roommates. I ended up picking someone who told me that she was trying to escape an abusive relationship. She was a terrible match for me personality-wise, but I really wanted to help her because I saw something of myself in her story. Not long after she moved in, she started seeing her abusive ex again and I was like oh god, what did I get myself into? But she broke up with him for good when she found another boyfriend and things seemed pretty okay. A few weeks in her new boyfriend started stealing from me and I said something and she was like, “Yeah, I know. He’s kind of an entitled asshole.” Then one day I came home to find the living room completely wrecked. Apparently they’d gotten into an argument the day before and he decided to come to our apartment when no one was home and flip furniture to demonstrate his anger. He also put his fist through her bedroom window around this time. I was like, “Okay look, I can’t live like this. You can’t bring him here anymore.” She agreed, but then two days later started telling me I couldn’t tell her what to do. This was my very first experience having to set firm boundaries with someone. I was like “hey, if you want to keep doing this that is entirely up to you, but if you do, you can’t live here anymore. I don’t want this in my life. This is my apartment. I invited you to move in with me. I’m not going to leave, you are.” She responded by harassing me. Trashing my room, breaking things, threatening me…so I told her she had a week to get out, and when she didn’t leave I packed all her shit for her and was like, no really, goodbye. You don’t live here anymore.

I set firm boundaries in a potentially violent situation, and I still can’t decide if that was incredibly badass or extremely reckless, but my take away was if I could set boundaries with her, I can set boundaries with anybody. It’s kind of hard to find dumb reasons to be scared of people after something like that. It was also a lesson in why I shouldn’t make important life decisions based on other people’s problems. I didn’t feel good about choosing her for my roommate, but I thought I was doing the right thing. I let myself feel obligated to save her when my obligation should have been to myself to pick the best roommate.

Lesson 5: Learning to Tackle Problems As Fast As Possible

Unfortunately, that wasn’t my last bad roommate situation. When I was about 26 I had a best friend/roommate who I had to break up with because she never talked to me about any issues she had with me and she had so many issues. I was constantly having to guess at what I did to upset her. She was bipolar so the things that would set her off were usually pretty tiny and her reactions were really disproportionate. She was frequently running around slamming doors and being passive-aggressive. Of course, I think she recognized that her reactions were really intense, which is a large part of the reason she didn’t say anything, but at some point I suddenly figured out that I wanted to learn how to talk to people about any and all problems ASAP and never ever let things get like this with anyone ever again. It was the worst friend break up ever because she was my favorite person in the world but I couldn’t take it anymore. I was like look, I have to go become a whole other person who doesn’t get involved in this kind of shit because this is a nightmare.

Lesson 6: Learning to Be the Partner I Want

When I was 27 I started dating a guy I met through some good friends of mine. He was a direct communicator, and I REALLY liked that about him. I never had to guess what was going on with him. He always told me what he thought regardless of the consequences and I loved this about him. He often hurt my feelings by being a little too honest, but I strongly preferred this relationship style to anything where I had to guess at what someone wanted or what they were thinking or I had to worry that what they were telling me wasn’t the whole truth. I quickly realized his honesty empowered me to make informed decisions about my own choices.

A year into our relationship we decided to explore polyamory, but we had a difference of opinion about how polyamory should work (he was more on the mostly-for-the-sex end of things and I was a full on relationship anarchist right out the gate) so we spent the next two years debating how we thought it should work. I dated two other people during the course of our relationship, but neither relationship worked out for reasons independent of our relationship. He “dated” (I feel like that’s maybe a strong word for what he had going on) a few other people, but it didn’t work out because the people he chose were very monogamous. One day he came home and announced, “I really like this woman I met at my kids’ soccer practice and I want to go on a date with her!” and I was like, “Cool. You should! Tell me about her.” and he was like, “Well…she’s monogamous and I think she has a problem with the fact that I have a girlfriend.” And I was like, “Well, let me solve that problem for you.” And that was that.

I was really tired of trying to navigate non-monogamy with him, and by then I was so committed to the idea of polyamory that I found our relationship controlling (he very much didn’t want me to date other men or have serious feels for other people) and it was making me miserable. I mean, there were a lot of other things factoring into our break up (sexual incompatibilities, my lack of interest in being a parent to his kids, etc.) but his desire to go on that date was a clear indicator that it was time to walk away.

But I learned a lot about myself in those three years. He was the most independent person I’d dated up to that point, and he respected my autonomy more than any other person I’d been with before. (Except for with my dating choices, he was rarely trying to manipulate me into capitulating to his feelings.) It actually hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to have that much autonomy and still maintain a serious relationship.

And it’s important to know that the first year of our relationship was hard for me because I wasn’t used to so much honesty and I often wished he was a little more wrapped up in me. It took me some time to realize that most of the time, I couldn’t actually argue with what he was doing. I realized I thought he was entitled to share things if they were true (because I wanted direct and honest communication), and he was entitled to his choices/boundaries even if I didn’t like them (because I wanted us to be autonomous and in control of our own choices.) And it wasn’t up to me to try to change what he was doing, it was up to me to manage my expectations and communicate my desires so we could both make informed decisions about what we were going to do.

I realized I could be in a relationship with someone who shared their feelings with me and did what they wanted if I stopped expecting them to be responsible for me. I was like…this is it. This is the key to being the person I want to be and having happy relationships.

At the time I had a hard time articulating to friends why I stayed with him despite our incompatibilities and my frustrations, and it was because I trusted him in ways I never trusted anyone else. And truth: he cheated on me several times. People are so outraged on my behalf about that and I’m like oh no. I never trusted him in that way. I always trusted he would stick his dick wherever he wanted. But I also trusted he would tell me about it afterward, and that’s what was important to me.

But eventually I was like man, I can’t deal with your nonsense anymore. I need to go be poly and navigate the scary world of building relationships that feel right for me. I broke up with him and two days later I found Wes. I read his okc profile three times and I was like, “omg, this guy is guy sounds perfect for me.”

Lesson 7: Putting These Lessons To Work

Let me just say right now, I approached Wes with a great deal of skepticism. Because I always assume people are lying about who they are and what they want. (A lesson I learned from my first boyfriend, who figured out what I wanted and pretended to be that guy, and then surprised me with a serious personality disorder.) But the reason I showed up for our first date was that I thought these were weird qualities to lie about since most people probably don’t look for those things in a partner.

I kept some emotional distance from Wes for the first few months we dated because I had this rule I’d made with myself about not letting anyone get too close to me until they’d shown they could be consistent and act with integrity. I absolutely refuse to let NRE open me up to abuse and manipulation. But don’t get me wrong, I knew I liked him immediately.

So a few weeks into our relationship I was contacted by one of his exes through a mutual friend, and she told me he’s a manipulative asshole and she suggested I “run not walk” away. I was like holy crap. That is a really bad sign. I tried to warn someone about my first boyfriend and she didn’t listen, so the fact that this person was reaching out to me said A LOT.

I considered dumping Wes on the spot. Being like, “Sorry bro” and never talking to him again. I didn’t talk to Wes for an entire day while I tried to figure out what I was going to do. I didn’t immediately approach him about it because I figured it would open me up to manipulation. I decided that I would keep hanging out with him, but I would be REALLY careful about developing more feels for him, and I would look even harder for red flags. After two weeks of trying to find red flags and coming up empty-handed I confronted him about it.

He was like, “Oh god, is that why you’re acting so weird?” And he explained to me why his ex hates him, and Gina and Jessie confirmed his story. (Mostly that he argued with her opinions and motivations and she HATED it. And he explained what some of those opinions were and I was like eww. Then he showed me public blog comments she made and I was like yeesh.) I was like, okay. Well, we have a lot of the same opinions and values so…I’m going to keep an eye on you buuuut I’m guessing I’m not going to have the issues she had. I mean, she said he was bad in bed and I already didn’t agree with that. Also, he managed to prove she was lying in the three sentences she shared with me. I was like well, if that was a lie, it calls the rest of it into question.

That was a weird experience for me because I was scared to reject such an obviously bad sign because overlooking bad signs isn’t something I do anymore. I was like, I really hope I don’t feel like an idiot about this a few months from now when I find out you’re a total asshole. But I reminded myself I can walk away at any time. After spending two years trying to navigate polyamory with someone who just didn’t agree with my relationship style, I decided not to let myself get suckered by the sunk cost fallacy again, which is where you keep investing in something even after you learn it’s a bad idea because you’ve already invested so much already. I made a deal with myself right then that I wouldn’t hesitate to leave if I found a good reason.

The first year of our relationship went really smoothly. All our arguments were about things he’d said to other people. Because I was like, “*I* know what you’re saying, but I also know what they’re hearing, and I think you should approach it differently.” We didn’t have these fights ourselves because our values are so similar and I can typically figure out his motivations really quickly after just a few questions, but I understand where other people are coming from because I haven’t always thought the way I think. I had to really work to get here. So I often feel I can bridge the gap in understanding.

Of course, more often than not, the more I talked to him about it the more I realize his approach makes more sense than mine even if my immediate reaction is, “Hey, don’t do that ever.” As part of my recovery from codependence, I’ve become someone who’s really big on owning my feelings and being productive, so if something I’m doing doesn’t make sense or is counterproductive to my goals, I want to know. So I want to have these conversations. I figure the end result can only be positive because one of us will come out with a better understanding.

But Wes and I did go through a rough spot a little over a year into our relationship because I started to feel like he was taking me for granted. I was like…what is up with you having a super packed schedule and leaving it up to me to make sure we spend time together? And I straight up told him like yo, I will break up with you if you expect me to do all the leg work to keep this relationship going. That is not something I’m willing to do for anybody. And he was like…wait, what’s happening?

Here’s the transcript of us resolving that fight forever:

Wesley Fenza: I’m really concerned about how you’ve been talking about our relationship recently

More Than Two talks about not seeing people as need-fulfillment machines, and that’s kind of how I feel to you

like, you sound like you’re saying that you need X amount of attention, and it’s my job to give you that, and if I only give you 80%, then our relationship is worthless and you should just leave

and I worry because, even if I do want to give you that level of attention, it feels suffocating to me to feel like I can’t play a video game or go on a date without it upsetting you

 Amber Lea: I feel like what I want from you is really basic and reasonable.

 Wesley Fenza: I still don’t know what it is

from what I can tell, it’s time and exclusive attention

what is it that you want from me?

 Amber Lea: I mean, I basically want you to reach out to me for attention because that’s how I know my attention is wanted.

 Wesley Fenza: but how much and how often?

or are you saying that I never do that?

 Amber Lea: I feel like a bare minimum of like 15 minutes a day would do a lot, and then a couple hours here and there. I mean, basically what you’ve been doing lately.

 Wesley Fenza: ok

I definitely want to do that

I’m just confused because your blog post led me to believe that what I’ve been doing since our last talk isn’t enough

 Amber Lea: Well when I said I felt like you were trying more before and you responded with something along the lines of, “Am I? I don’t know what I’m doing differently” I got the message that you weren’t actually going to do anything, and that the additional attention I was getting was just a temporary increase, and had nothing to do with what I was saying.

Like I want to know that you’re willing to put in a little effort to meet my needs and you’re not going to just ignore me and hope I stop complaining. And it sounds like you are willing to do that, and that makes me feel better.

 Wesley Fenza: well

I get nervous using words like “effort”

 Amber Lea: yeah yeah

 Wesley Fenza: I think if spending time together takes effort, then there’s a problem

 Amber Lea: You know what I mean

I want to know that my needs matter to you

 Wesley Fenza: ok

they do

but not to the point where I’m going to spend time with you when really, I’d rather be doing something else

like, that’s more a hard line I draw

it’s not about how important your needs are. It’s that I think that’s a thing people shouldn’t do under almost any circumstances

but the effort I’m making is to remind myself that spending time with you is an option whenever you’re not in the room, and ask myself if I want to do that

 Amber Lea: And it’s like…I’m not mad at you because you play video games for three hours. Like I am perfectly capable of getting sucked into something (a game, tumblr, GoT) and ignoring the world for hours and I don’t think that’s a terrible thing to do. It’s just when you haven’t hung out with me in a long time and I’m like hey heyheyhey, and I get nothing…and I know you’re going to go on a date later or do whatever and there’s not a lot of space for me in your schedule, I start to feel like I’m less important than pretty much anything else you could be doing. Like man, you can make time for hours of video games and you can’t make 15 minutes for me?

 Wesley Fenza: ok

I think, in those situations, I never understand that you’re feeling that way

like, it’s hard to tell the difference between when you’re just poking me because you think it’s funny and when you’re poking me because you feel neglected

so it would help if you were like “hey, let’s spend some time together” or something

 Amber Lea: If I’m poking you when you’re already engaged with me it’s because I think it’s funny.

Would it help if I just walked up and said, “Fuck you, give me ALL THE HUGS!” and then tackled you?

Because that’s more my style.

 Wesley Fenza: yes

especially if you only want attention for like 15 minutes, you can do that whenever

I’m rarely doing anything I’m unwilling to stop for 15 minutes

 [I deleted talk about lunch.]

 Amber Lea: But yeah, I feel better. I’ll PROBABLY stop writing journal entries about how I hate you.


No promises.

 Wesley Fenza: you can write journals about how you hate me

just write them for better reasons

 Amber Lea: whatever!

 Wesley Fenza: there are like a million reasons to hate me

really good reasons

I was trying to explain this to xxxxx last night

 Amber Lea: Yeah, but none of those reasons bother me.

 Wesley Fenza: she was all “…you don’t SEEM like a jerk”

 Amber Lea: omg, you’re such a jerk

 Wesley Fenza: I KNOW!

I told her you pretty much can’t be an Ask person and not be a jerk

and this was after I’d just spent 20 minutes talking about how social etiquette is stupid!

For the record, Wes is a jerk because he’s a direct communicator and he has really strong boundaries and he doesn’t let people bully him into doing things he doesn’t want to do. Like, if you decide you want to get Wes to put your feelings before his, good luck to you. But this isn’t something I fault him for. This is something I admire about him, because really, we should all be better at asserting ourselves and not letting people push us around just because they had a feeling.

And I’ve personally never felt pushed around by Wes, but that’s because I understand that Wes isn’t trying to cross my boundaries. He’s asserting his own. Like when he said, “I’m [not] going to spend time with you when really, I’d rather be doing something else.”…a lot of people might feel really hurt, or find it abusive, or think he’s a complete jerk. But he’s asserting a totally legit boundary. One most people would be too afraid to articulate. And I don’t want him to spend time with me if he’d rather do something else. That’s not fun for anybody. And it’s obvious to me that if that’s what he’s doing…maybe it’s not because he’s an asshole, maybe it’s because it’s time to break up.

I can look at that statement and say that now, because I’m really good at not being codependent and trying to save the relationship at all costs, or making people responsible for my feelings.

That was our first and last fight about our relationship.

Lesson 8: Revisiting Bad Relationship Dynamics.

But Wes isn’t my only partner. I’ve also been in a relationship with his wife and partner of 11 years, Gina. Not long into my relationship with Wes I realized, uhh yeah, I have super gay feels for her because she is amazing, and several weeks later I learned that Gina was in an abusive relationship with her other partner, Shaun. I hadn’t quite anticipated what it would be being in an abusive metamour situation.

I was there for the second condom-gate, where everyone found out that Shaun was fucking one of his partners without a condom and didn’t tell anyone. Then it came out that he had a pattern of pressuring his partners into foregoing condoms and then pressuring them not to tell. Gina also revealed a pattern of trust violations and poor treatment, and she was struggling with the idea that she should break up with him, but couldn’t bring herself to do it.

Shortly after that I spent New Years with Wes, Gina and the rest of the polycule. New Years is also Wes and Gina’s anniversary, and I spent the night crushing on Gina super hard and the three of us spent the night together.

She woke up in the morning to find that Shaun had sent her a bunch of cruel text messages because he was jealous he wasn’t invited. Shaun had had a long history of carelessly fucking anyone he wanted with total disregard for Gina and had in fact just locked us out of the greenroom at a show to have sex with someone the previous night, so it was heartbreaking to watch him guilt her to tears. At the time Gina was struggling to feel safe being sexual with people, and that fight shut the whole thing down. Eventually she stopped having sex with anyone at all because she’d begun to associate sex with drama.

Living In A Supportive Bubble

I’m not really sure of the timeline here, but Gina also started dating Hilary around this time. Hilary was extremely loving and supportive, and I decided not to actively pursue anything with Gina because I didn’t want to pressure her, and I felt that Hilary was an amazing partner and I found it kind of intimidating.

At some point Shaun snapped over how much shit he was in for the condom situation and he started throwing chairs around the house and he threatened to punch Wes in the face.

I was about two months in at this point and I was pretty freaked out. I was thinking, Jesus Christ, I’ve tried so hard to stay away from this shit…what did I get myself into? I wasn’t sure how to handle it, so I waited and watched how it unfolded. I didn’t want to hold everyone responsible for the fact that Shaun had a violent outburst, so I decided to see how they reacted.

I ended up feeling really good about the way they handled it. They were like, “Okay, that was totally unacceptable. What are we going to do about it?” and they had a house meeting and discussed options. I believe it was decided that Shaun either had to work on getting better in a very real way (therapy) or he had to leave. I was so glad it was not okay. It make me feel really safe to know that this kind of behavior wouldn’t be swept under the rug.

It became pretty apparent that Shaun wasn’t really interesting in trying, and Gina was concerned about the safety of everyone in the house, so she asked Shaun and Ginny to move out.

Throughout all of this Hilary was there, supporting us and showering us with compliments about how well we were handling it and how much she admired us, and I grew really fond of her. She used to come over and start conversations about how terrible Shaun was and how amazing we all were and I found it cathartic because Shaun reminded me so much of my first boyfriend.

Over the next few months I grew really happy and comfortable with my new family, and I felt surrounded by love and affection. The only thing that was hard for me was watching Gina hurt over Shaun, but Hilary was on it, saying all the right things and I felt that between the four of us (Wes, Jessie, Hilary and me) we were taking care of Gina to the best of our ability.

Once Shaun was finally out of the house, Hilary was our cheerleader and our advocate through all his attacks, public and private. And I grew to trust Hilary in a way I haven’t trusted anyone, possibly ever. She was super validating. She made us believe we could do no wrong, and it felt really fucking good.

But she was a super busy lady, and she started coming around less and less. She also started drinking more, and she always drank a lot, and I actually remarked at one point, “Is Hilary okay?” Hilary and I didn’t have a texting relationship or anything so she was fading from my life. At one point I emailed her, sad that she’d deleted her facebook, asking how to keep in contact. I’d generally felt that all my communications with her were getting weirder and weirder, so I didn’t press the issue. She kept us pretty separate from the rest of her life, so I assumed there was a lot going on that she didn’t feel comfortable talking to me about.

Reality Sets In

Then I get this text telling me Hilary blew up at rehearsal. I made them tell me the story about 15 times because I didn’t understand what they were saying. I kept saying something along the lines of, “…first of all, this story doesn’t make sense, second of all, that doesn’t sound like Hilary.” And they kept shouting at me, “I KNOW!”

I’ve probably grilled them on what went down about 87 times by now because I was like, “But no really, what happened? You must be leaving something out.” Because as most people know by now, it turned into this whole big thing about how my partners abused Hilary and I can’t understand how. And I’ve been dying to ask Hilary about it ever since it happened but I never felt like I could because she immediately started stating all these boundaries about us not contacting her and I felt like any attempt on my part to reach out to her would be met with hostility.

Gina broke up with Hilary a few days after her blow-up and I was heart broken. I was like…what happened? I don’t understand. None of this makes sense.

Then Hilary started sending Gina these really shitty emails I was like okay, I can’t even begin to imagine you guys doing anything to deserve that. I watched Gina fall apart. Then I watched Hilary become super good buddies with Shaun, Gina’s abusive ex.

At this point I slowly began to realize she had been treating us all like we were in a crisis negotiation. She was using her training as a crisis counselor on us 24/7, and she never told us what she really thought or felt. And I trusted her completely, thinking she was a good friend.

And now this person who’d only ever showed us with love and support was tearing us apart, and networking with everyone who’d ever felt wronged by us because she wanted us to suffer.

Realizing You’re Not Okay

The situation with Hilary wrecked my ability to trust. I walked around in a daze repeating, “I don’t understand.”

I was resisting the use of the word abuse for myself in this situation until I realized how deeply traumatized I was starting to feel. I watched Gina fall apart, and I was helpless. I was completely unable to shield Gina or give her the tools to deal because I’ve never experienced anything like this. Now not only was she trying to recover from an abusive relationship with Shaun, she was getting vitriol from the person who’d been supporting her throughout it all.

I’ve been trying to build a healthy relationship with Gina for the past year, and it’s been really difficult to establish any kind of stability because her exes don’t stop. We spent six months trying very hard to not engage with them in anyway, and they never stopped. (In all seriousness, Gina is Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim and she has a League of Evil Exes who you have to deal with if you want to be with her.)

Lesson 9: Learning to Put It All Out There

I went through a period of time where I became really worried that Gina was keeping things from me because she never came to me with any issues. I grew super distrustful and pulled away from her without telling her why, and she simultaneously felt triggered by things I was doing because she was worried my motivations were the same as Shaun’s…and we broke up over it.

I was a complete mess. I realized I love this person so fucking much, and now it’s all falling apart because these people will not let us heal.

After curling up in a ball and crying for a week, I went to Gina and told her that I’d been keeping this fear from her that she wasn’t telling me things and that’s why I was acting so distant, and that I hadn’t been talking to her about my feelings because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t pressuring her…and blah, blah, blah I felt like absolute garbage about my choices, and this wasn’t the kind of relationship I wanted to have at all.

We recovered because we finally talked about our feelings around what was happening.

Revisiting A Dark Time

At some point I became aware that Shaun’s history with abuse was a lot darker than I realized and he once hurt a woman so badly she missed three days of work. (I had originally heard he’d put her in the hospital, but some fact checking on Wes’s part revealed this fact was misremembered by the person who originally shared it with us.) The account of what happened reminded me so much of my first boyfriend that I spent three days crying.

At one point I confronted Shaun about it because he and Ginny were trying to tell me they were afraid to be in a room with Wes and I snapped and was like, afraid of Wes?! Shaun physically assaulted someone. He has a history of violence. I’m afraid if I make him angry he might hit me. But nobody’s cowering in his presence… so… excuse me if I don’t feel super sympathetic.

But I, personally, was fully prepared to deal with Shaun’s bullshit. I have spent the last decade learning how to not let myself be manipulated by people exactly like him. The second he started his whole, “I’m the real victim here!” campaign I was like, oh no you’re not.

My first boyfriend also insisted he was the real victim. He hooked me into a relationship with him by playing the victim. I later found out that nothing he told me was actually true, and he’d twisted the facts to make himself look like he barely had a choice but to act how he acted. “Like yeah, technically I did those things…but she DROVE ME to do it! Here is a list of things that didn’t happen at all how I’m saying they happened that totally justify why I did that.” Then you know, I drove him to do all the things he did to me. And the girlfriend after me drove him to do even worse things.

Gina’s accounts of Shaun’s behavior are totally inline with my experience with my ex. And nearly all the tools in my abuse prevention belt are for dealing with the Shaun’s of the world.

This is why I didn’t think twice when Hilary jumped on board the Shaun Hate Bus and took the wheel. She presented herself as an expert in dealing with abusers and manipulators.

My inbox is full of emails from Hilary saying shit like, “Shaun is having his own little autoerotic pity party. I am loathe to add to his pathetic ‘I’m such a martyr’ spank bank. He will counter by comparing his behavior to Wes’ when there was drama over the blog. I have some responses to that but it’s still fucking horseshit that I know that’s what he will do. I have zero interest in Ginny charging in to rescue him from the mean bitch who is sucker punching her husbo.” (The “mean bitch” here is Hilary.)

Here is part of an email Hilary sent to Shaun: “As for me, you’ve officially earned my invective – no small feat, so some congratulations would be in order if I gave anything resembling a damn. Respond however you wish, but consider the gloves off. I will not be kind, loving or considerate with you again. You have given me all the evidence I require to be confident in my assessment of your behavior and character. I suffer fools rarely, but the openly and unapologetically manipulative and poisonous never.”

Here is an email she wrote to Gina: “I love this, and you. What you wrote here took tremendous strength, resilience, and bravery. I am so proud to know you, and count you as one of the dearest loves in my life. Having only been close to you for some of this journey, I cannot hide my admiration for the brave, reasonable, and self-advocating woman I see in you. You are a champion.”

Imagine my devastation when she swiftly exited our lives and reappeared in Shaun’s camp, saying all the same types of things but with the names switched around.

The Aftermath

Both Gina and Jessie are working through their feelings around Hilary with their therapists, and I’m seriously considering seeking professional help very specifically to deal with my trust issues surrounding Hilary. She snuggled up close to us and got us to open up and be extremely vulnerable with her, and she never gave us any indication that she had an issue, and then she flipped out, and she didn’t just leave…she came after us.

Jessie recently said, “once you have no further use to her, you are garbage, an old pair of jeans or a red dress that she now despises, it isn’t good enough to donate you for someone else to enjoy, she has to slash you up to destroy all evidence of the memories.”

And that’s how it feels. Like she’s done with us, so she needs to slash us up and destroy us. She couldn’t just walk away. She needed to make sure we were of no use to anyone else.

I’ve been trying to figure out what happened here and how I can protect myself in the future. I’ve picked up a pretty thick stack of books to try to sort through it. To be clear: this is something I’m currently struggling with and I don’t have a nice neat little lesson I learned. Other than maybe to be super suspicious of anyone who tells me I’m amazing and that they understand all my feelings and never seems to take issue with anything I do.

Lesson 10: Learning How To Be In the Right Relationship

The only people who have consistently treated me well in the context of a romantic relationship are Wes and Gina. We’re nearly to the year and a half mark and going strong. And I think it’s because I was prepared to be in a relationship with them. I showed up with the skills and tools I needed.

I couldn’t have been in either of these relationships 10 years ago. I would have felt completely overwhelmed by Wes and his confidence and confrontational style, and I would have worked way too hard to make him happy in ways he never asked for while never letting him know I was doing any of it, and I would have grown really resentful when he didn’t reciprocate by constantly guessing at my needs, and I think I wouldn’t have had any clue how to treat Gina well. I probably I would have let her do everything for me and then failed to notice how easy she was making my life, and I can’t imagine I would have been able to tell her anything about my feelings. I probably would have sat on them forever and willed her to be clairvoyant and held it against her when she wasn’t.

I had to learn how to communicate and set clear boundaries. I had to learn who I am and what I want. I had to learn to be someone I like and validate my own existance. I had to learn to manage my expectations and take responsibility for my feelings. And most importantly, I had to learn some goddamned self-awareness. I had to learn those things before I could have a healthy relationship.

I can’t tell you what a relief it was to meet people who were already where I am in terms of personal development, and not have to meet someone who was part way there and explain to them what I was doing. Wes, Gina and I haven’t had to teach each other much. We started out on the same page.

I feel like everything I’ve gone through has lead me to this place in my life and all the hardships I went through to get here were worth it. I’ve discovered that it’s possible to have exactly what I want even though it’s incredibly unconventional. That because I was brave enough to be the person I want to be and put myself out there, I was able to find people who love and support me as I am.

Reading List

If anyone’s interested here’s a short list of books I recommend:

Facing Codependence by Pia Melody This is the first book I ever read on codependency. There are probably better books on the topic, but this one really helped me.

Looking Out, Looking In. This is an interpersonal communication book. I’ve read it cover to cover three times. If you want to learn how to have productive conversations this book is awesome. (This is a college textbook so I recommend buying an old edition for cheap.)

More Than Two by Franklin Veaux. I cannot recommend this book highly enough if you want to know how to treat your partners ethically.

The Game by Neil Strauss. I recommend this book so you can be aware of common manipulation tactics that pick up artists and general douchebags use on women.

One response to “Living with Elephants.

  1. Pingback: My Poly Nightmare | Living Within Reason

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