My mother always told me I’d have to kiss a few frogs before I found my prince. What she didn’t tell me was that one of said frogs would humiliate, manipulate and otherwise crush me through a years-long cycle of lying and cheating. At the time (my junior year of college, when I was still a half-formed shell of a person), it seemed inconceivable that any good would come out of that experience. But looking back on the toxicity of the relationship now, I realize I learned some valuable lessons that have given me a unique perspective on which red flags to look out for. I’m sharing them here in the hopes that you leave sooner than I did.
Listen to Your Gut—It’s Probably Right
When we first started dating, it was slow and measured rather than hot and heavy—it took months of him wooing me and wearing me down before I was receptive to his advances. Why the hesitation? For starters, a faint whiff of misogyny hung over him like a cloud. (His bedroom wall was collaged with Sports Illustrated models, ugh.) I knew from the way he talked about his upbringing that we had different values long before we got into it. From the very beginning, there was a tiny voice in my head saying this isn’t right; this isn’t the person for you. But I was 20 years old: I was flattered, I wanted to be wanted and I wanted to throw caution to the wind. Eventually, I caved. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was a darkness going into the situation. I think we all do—in our gut—when placed in those scenarios, and it’s not something to brush off, like I did.
Fool Me Once, Shame On You. Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me
I took him back twice. Or was it three times? He was a master manipulator, always knowing what to say to make me feel like I was the one in the wrong. For example, we had been seeing each other for six months (and had swapped “I love yous,” mind you) when I found out that he had slept with someone else on the same night I had been with him and left early to study. His excuse? We had never had a clear exclusivity discussion. (As if that excuses that kind of grade-A jerk behavior.) This set a precedent that still makes me wince: When he lied or said cruel things, I rationalized them as being my fault, too. The fact that he treated me so badly became this embarrassing hurdle to overcome; I wanted to make him happy to prove to myself that I could do it. (I’m not proud of this.) By the second time we blew up (cheating, again), I knew better than to take him back. Second chances are a part of life—but you should never have to offer a third.
The Only Way Out Is Cold Turkey
The official end came on the heels of my semester abroad. He’d called me every night I was away, guilting me about my absence…but when I got home, I found out that he’d simultaneously been having a relationship with a second girlfriend. At this point, none of his behavior surprised me—and it became painfully clear that the only way out was out. After fleeing campus and returning home, I called him, with my best friend holding my hand, and let him have it. Despite his pleading, and many, many moments of weakness where I almost reached out to see how he was doing after the breakup, I held my ground. As a result, I got over him in just a few months' time. For anyone leaving a toxic relationship, I cannot stress this enough: There has to be a clean, full break. There’s too much room for error otherwise.
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