I met my ex-boyfriend at sixth form college. We sat opposite each other in History class, and we shared cans of Vimto during lectures on the Russian Revolution. One time, he got hauled out of class for surreptitiously eating a tupperware case of olives - yes, the most middle class of all acts of rebellion. Our teacher was livid. I was hooked.
Just before we started going out, he went on a solo trip around South East Asia. I assumed, from his previous stories, that he would spend his days in the various embraces of women far more exotic and adventurous than I, on a beach at a Full Moon party in Thailand, in between soaking up the sun and admiring the seven wonders of the world. Instead, he sent me long emails every day about how much he missed our conversations. When he came back, we made it Facebook Official, and the following year we would travel round Asia together.
Sounds idyllic, right? Or at the very least, exactly what you want in your teenage years. Throughout university, him and I were inseparable. He cooked me fancy dinners in shitty university halls and we ate them in his tiny single bed, listening to Bob Dylan. We smoked joints out of my window and planned further trips abroad. We met each other’s families, and our parents went out for coffees together.
Fast forward four years, to our break-up. It’s a crowded London street. It’s 11pm. It’s my birthday. A group of my horrified friends are looking on, as a passerby holds my boyfriend back from taking another swing at me. Unable to reach me with his hands, he spits repeatedly in my face. The words coming out of his mouth include ‘slut’, ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. The reason for this is that I wouldn’t leave my own birthday party early to have sex with him. All the more shamefully, this scene had been played out before, but in private - and what motivated me to break up with him in response to this was that it had now become a public matter, one that my friends wouldn’t forgive or forget the way that I had so many times.
This dramatic final scene makes my ex sound like a monster, but for four years I was very much in love with him. Most of my friends liked him, and hung out with him. The first glitch in our relationship was when he wanted us to move in together, straight out of university halls; when I told him it was too soon, he went on a tirade about how I was out to ruin his life. It was such a confused and emotional rant that I felt sorry for him; protective, even. His father had beaten his mother before leaving when he was a young child. He told me that he was still dealing with the fall-out from that; that he was ‘just trying to be a good man’, and sometimes getting it wrong. During his childhood, he told me, his mother had more than once seriously threatened to kill him.
So when, a few arguments later, he held me against the wall so that I couldn’t move or leave the flat - but did it while he whined, ‘I love you’ - I forgave it. And when he didn’t want me to go out partying with my friends, I thought it was because he wanted to spend all his time with me. And when he suggested that we have each other’s passwords for social networks, I thought he was just clumsily expressing a desire for solidified mutual trust. Finally, when he first spat at me (because I was wearing too much eyeliner), I told myself it was a one-off.
Our travels in Asia were a lot of fun when we were admiring the sunset at the temples of Angkor Wat and he was holding my hand. But they weren’t so fun when we were at a bar and a guy we’d met leaned over to repeat something in my ear. My ex took that to be evidence of flirting, and, as punishment for my crime, promptly picked up my passport, my credit cards, my keys, my money and my hotel card, and threw them into the shallows of the sea. Later, after I’d gone to the hotel room to escape from him, he would empty a bucket of water over my head to wake me up, all the while sobbing, ‘Why would you make me do this?’
It was the unhinged way in which he conducted abuse that made me forgive him. The everyday man was sweet, thoughtful, intelligent. He bought me presents ‘just because’, and he texted me throughout the day to tell me that he loved me. In classic abuser style, he constantly apologised for his actions, and because the violence was infrequent and low-level - hair-pulling, for instance, even when it was so hard it brought tears to my eyes - I always felt like I would be overreacting to cast it as genuine abuse. Meanwhile, he told me that I was a disgrace if I drank alcohol when I was out with friends, but when we were alone, he encouraged me to get absolutely obliterated. One apocalyptic argument happened because he accused me of ‘not getting drunk enough when we’re alone together’. To placate him, I drank six pints on an empty stomach the next time he was there.
What made him grow into the person who flew into violent rages? He had become increasingly alcohol- and drug-dependent over the years - and would use inebriation as an excuse often enough - but I was never too convinced by the connection. He was cripplingly insecure, prone to cheating and therefore plagued with paranoia that I would do the same, oddly vulnerable, chronically lacking in positive childhood role models, weak. And, predictably, the excuses that he came up with for his actions centred around how unreasonable or manipulative I was. I ‘played mind games’ that made him do things. I ‘wasn’t supportive’. I ‘acted weird’. I ‘didn’t understand’ him. Meanwhile, in my mind, his actions were badly expressed declarations of passionate love, rather than straightforward abuse. He ‘couldn’t help himself’. He ‘didn’t know what he was doing’. He was ‘vulnerable’.
The truth is that many bullies are vulnerable. But they are on a mission to transfer that vulnerability to their victims, and abuse always escalates. My ex’s main technique of control would be to quietly whisper in my ear during a social situation that he wanted to leave now, and that if I wouldn’t leave with him, he would embarrass me in front of all of my friends. He threatened to tell people secrets that I had previously confided in him. He told me that he would tell my very best friends that I bitched about them, didn’t like them, wanted to steal their boyfriends. He spoke evangelically about a time in the future when us two could ‘disappear’, emigrate to another country, live off the grid, never mix with anyone again. Although he cast these daydreams as romantic and idealistic, I now see them for what they really were: a future he saw as necessary to tighten his control over me; a situation where I was isolated and he was in charge.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. I’m left now with the confusing ruins of my relationship with him; a lot of my friends, having witnessed the final parting shot, now prefer to act as if I was never with my ex at all. This has left me in love-life-limbo; on the one hand, I want to talk about the good times as if I had a real long-term relationship - on the other, his actions almost entirely invalidated four years of my life. If I had known what I do now about the nature and the warning signs of abuse, I might have been able to avoid this strange fate by finishing my association with that man a lot sooner.
And after he spat in my face, that birthday night two years ago? He ran off into the night, then expected to see me again a few days later. He saw it as ‘just another argument’. Needless to say, I never saw him again; a year later, having heard about the success of The Vagenda, he left a drunken voicemail on my phone saying that he was going to ‘fucking fuck [my] career up’ if I ever mentioned him in the media. I changed my number, but I still believe that he reads every one of The Vagenda’s articles.
So, if you’re reading - yes, I did decide to write about you after all.
Because it’s been a long while now, and I’m not scared of you any more.
You can read more about the warning signs of abuse here and access help here