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They say you have to be broken before you can be rebuilt. After six years with my girlfriend I was in worse shape than Steve Austin ever was. Everyone I cared about had told me the relationship was toxic, but I’d clung on to the point where, on the threshold of my thirties, my life was a mess.
My body had fallen apart. Mentally, I was a wreck. I’d cut my family and most of my friends adrift. I had no real idea who I was. Tellingly, I had no idea who my girlfriend was, either. The only thing I was certain of – and in truth, I’d known it for ages – was that I didn’t love her and the feeling was mutual. So, why the hell were we still together?Luck of the draw
Seems stupid now. I was in my early twenties and had endured my share of those heartaches – both real and imagined – that send sensitive blokes scurrying to find comfort in their Smiths LPs. I was over meaningless flings and desperate for someone who’d “get” me. So when a cute girl fluttered her lashes at me and whispered that she’d had her eye on me for months, how could I resist? Instead of promising to call and sneaking off with a notch on the belt, fast-forward three weeks and we’d moved in together.
At the time I saw shacking up as an act of rebellion. Rather than establishing a career or heading overseas like my peers, I told myself this was the wild ride into uncharted territory – and a sure-fire way to appear “grown-up” without having to dip my toe in adult waters. I’m sure she felt the same. After all, living together meant we didn’t have to move back in with our parents.
In the blissed-out state of blossoming romance everything seemed raw and exciting. We stayed on our best behaviour: breath was kept minty fresh, farts withheld in bed. But after initially biting their tongues, mates began questioning why I was with her. Defensive, I painted them as jealous. When my folks voiced concern, I threw it back in their faces. The criticism flung our way only drew us closer, giving the romance even more of an outlaw edge.Calling her bluff
Inevitably, though, her more maddening habits began to grate. Like driving as if she was always escaping gunfire, the constant need for reassurance, her volatility. I won’t pretend I was the most well-adjusted fella back then; can’t pretend I am now, either. But the last thing I needed in my life was someone even more screwed-up than I was. Foolishly, I’d made a commitment before getting to know this girl. Even so, I could’ve packed my bags the minute I realised what I was letting myself in for, but weakness and pride stopped me. I didn’t think I was worthy of anyone else, and I wasn’t going to admit to others, let alone myself, that I’d made a huge mistake. And that’s how I got mired in a long, dark maze.
At what point do the constant phone calls turn from acts of love to a form of surveillance? How does the switch get flicked so every word or action is open to scrutiny, where you’re made to feel you’re hiding a terrible lie if you’ve bought a pack of chewing gum and neglected to tell her. Next thing you know all decision rights have been stripped and no facet of your life belongs to you. Not wanting to admit weakness, you kid yourself this is what a real relationship is about – compromise. But in reality, you’ve allowed yourself to be psychologically over-run without even putting up a fight.
As it was, any spark we’d had fizzled before the first year was up, replaced by stultifying co-dependency. And yet I stayed. Our lives seemed too intertwined to risk breaking; the longer we stayed together, the more I dreaded tearing everything apart. The fallout from any break-up is bad enough, let alone from one you’ve allowed to moulder. It’s the reason people stay in relationships that have long passed their use-by date. When the truth finally hits, you either suck it up or do everything you can to blow the relationship apart: start rows, get on the booze, have an affair . . .
So what did I do? Despite the doubts, I gave myself all sorts of reasons why I couldn’t leave. She doesn’t have any money. She doesn’t have any friends. She won’t have anywhere to go. She needs me. But the biggest hurdles were my fears: of failure, of the unknown, of being alone with no-one to fall back on, of the thought that this was as good as it’s ever going to get. Besides, who’d I blame for not getting on with life and going after what I wanted if she wasn’t around?Inevitably, things got worse. There was little affection between us. She hen-pecked and I took it – up until the point I’d storm out. But I always came cowering back. The stress and unhappiness began to manifest itself physically. My skin itched so much I visited several doctors for something to make it stop. Then came the panic attacks, only the first time you experience one you think it’s a full-blown heart attack. Every nerve, cell and synapse may have been telling me to man up and get the hell out, but did I listen?
On our six-year anniversary, I was given the “let’s have a break” speech. I thought she’d had enough of my ambivalence to her, so instead of being relieved I felt guilty. That’s why I kept allowing her to yank me around even after we’d split and I’d found out she’d been having an affair. Hurt ego aside, I continued spluttering in her wake, my life a kind of nightmare-coma blur.
What finally woke me up was the realisation I could have another life. Thing is, I’d developed a crush on a colleague, but getting the girl of my dreams would mean giving up the girl of my nightmares. Easier said than done. My supposed ex would turn up at my new home when I wasn’t there and quiz my flatmate about me. Ditto with my work. She gained a sudden interest in bands and sports I liked (the ones she’d always loathed) and used my friends to inveigle her way into nights out. Her presence didn’t go down well, yet I continued the spin that the ex and I remained “best friends”. Part of me still felt I needed her in my life, that I wasn’t “me” without her. Increasingly, there was a real danger of my new relationship ending because I couldn’t put the old one out of its misery.Take a redraw
This I now know. If she’s calling your friends or parents, offering to meet for lunch or coming over Saturdays for quiet nights in, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. There’s no space for anyone new in your world with that shadow lurking. Moving on means making a real step through that exit door; it’s not enough to shut it behind you – you’ve got to lock it, throw away the key, and promise yourself not to go scrabbling through the bushes looking for it later on.
When the realisation came that I had to stop being my ex’s doormat and take back control – and the only way to do it was to sever all ties – it didn’t go down well. Picture one of those horror movies where you think the creature’s been vanquished, only for it to rise from the dead over and over again. Every time I thought things were over, the ex would reappear, claws not just out for me but my new girlfriend as well.
Despite the wounds, instigating a proper break-up paid off. For starters, I finally went after the career I’d always wanted, moved to an area I’d always wanted to live in, bought sheets that weren’t covered in pink flowers, and even learnt how to dress myself again. Funny what you can achieve when the only person you can blame is yourself.There’s another cliché; we can’t go through the fire without being consumed. Afterwards, I spent a lot of time beating myself up, wondering why I’d willingly put myself through such an ordeal. But in order to commit to a truly loving relationship, the parts of me that were too callow and weak needed incinerating. In time, that’s what being with my ex girlfriend did. I discovered what I didn’t want to be, what I wouldn’t settle for. Eventually, I emerged stronger, fitter, better – with head held up high on a strong backbone, and a belief I could love and be loved. All the things that girl of my dreams deserves.