“Sounds like your picker is broken,” my friend said after I told her the story.
This is a terrible thing to say to someone who’s just left an abusive partner. It implies survivors are doomed to an abusive fate, something I refuse to believe.
When I met my ex in 2014, I knew he’d be a terrible person to date. A fun hookup, perhaps, but nothing more. He was too young, too unsettled. He smoked too much pot and was super-insecure.
A walking red flag.
But what difference did it make? I was a master at compartmentalizing and this was purely physical. He was a dangerous combo of cute, amused by my jokes and great in bed. At 36, I was a starving artist serving pizza to entitled tourists for rent money. Sneaking kisses behind the dumpster gave me something to look forward to at a job I hated.
Every fiber of my being said to be careful. Something just wasn’t right with this fella. But it sure was exciting. My intuition whispered “run,” while my ego screamed “FUUUUUUN!”
By the time I realized my mistake, I was caught in a web of codependency, love, fear and self-delusion. The first time I tried to break up with him, he threatened to throw himself off a bridge. The fourth time, he violently raped me. And yet I still worried about him more than myself.
Before I finally got out, he had tried to drive us both off a cliff, “Thelma and Louis” style, minus the hand-holding and inspirational music.
I never doubted that I needed to leave, but I kept putting it off — partly because I was addicted to him but mostly because leaving is when women in abusive relationships are most likely to get killed. Thank God for my friends who packed up my truck themselves.
Once I left him, I was terrified of men, especially anyone who looked like him — who wore plaid shirts or had hand tattoos or overgrown beards.
My first priority was to regain my confidence. I threw myself into comedy, writing — and my community of powerhouse women, who nurtured me back to health. Kickboxing classes helped me not only feel strong again but gave me a healthy outlet for my rage. But I soon realized this fury wasn’t actually at him. Forgiving my ex was the easy part; forgiving myself was another story. How could I, an ardent feminist who had worked so hard to love herself, end up with a violent, misogynistic sociopath who made me hate myself?
Because I was sick, I realized. Dangerously co-dependent. The worst part of getting out of an abusive relationship was not being able to trust myself and my choices anymore.
My friend was wrong. My picker wasn’t broken. It had warned me; I’d just willfully ignored it.
I’m not victim-blaming, nor am I saying I deserved this. Or that this is everyone’s experience. But I believe I can protect myself, so long as I trust my intuition.
After a year alone, I was back to my old self again, stronger and more confident than I had ever been before dating my ex. I was ready for the big challenge — letting men back into my life. The only way I could learn to trust and protect myself again was to practice doing so. Not just on dates, but in the bedroom, too. I would not let this one man ruin the collective whole. Or make sex forever about trauma.
I spent the next two years on Tinder. For the first time, I let my intuition be my firewall, not logic or ego. I ruthlessly screened men before meeting up. After a while, I could tell from their first message if they were worth my time. I learned to unmatch a “hi” because men who can’t bother to make an effort, not even capitalize the h, seemed to feel entitled to my time without trying.
Generic messages that were clearly copy and pasted were a red flag, too. That’s even lazier than “hi!” Stupid questions like asking me what my super power would be were almost as bad. My profile included pictures of myself as a raft guide, climber, world traveler. There was so much they could easily inquire about as an icebreaker. Men who wouldn’t read my profile did not impress me.
I went on dates regularly. Great ones! For the first time in my life, I let men I was genuinely interested in take me to dinner without feeling obligated to give them anything in return. But I told them the deal instead of putting us both in that awkward position. Relationships are built on trust, and it was going to take me longer than the usual woman to build, I told them. If they truly liked me, they would have to be okay with waiting. Shockingly, they appreciated my candor.
This body belonged to me and me alone. My job was to protect it at all costs. During those two years of dating, I slept with a lot of good men. They made me laugh and feel safe. They showed me that my ex was the exception, not the rule. And they slowly erased the image of my ex’s face and the details of my rape that I used to associate with sex.
I got my feelings hurt along the way, but that only taught me how to recognize pink flags: a phrase I use for men who are good people but totally unavailable. You like me but only call every three weeks? You don’t actually like me. You never initiate texts? Sorry, I don’t chase men anymore.
My intuition looks at the whole picture now. I finally learned to choose truth over fantasies.
Friends were shocked at how quickly I bounced back. “You’re doing great. Almost too great,” my sister said one day. “Just don’t be surprised if you have a whole new level of trauma to work through when you get into a relationship.”
Didn’t she realize I was practically unbreakable at this point? My ex was behind me now.
Until this sweet French guy came along a year later. I met him while traveling around France. In my mind, the stakes were low. No need to have my guard up since I’d never see this French dude again. But during our four days together, he treated me as if I were a precious pearl; paid attention to how I liked my coffee; carried an extra layer around in case I got cold. When I cried in his arm for no particular reason while cuddling one night, he stroked my hair and didn’t try to make me stop. When I lashed out at him for no particular reason, he said maybe I needed some fresh air and time alone. He asked if he could see me again before I boarded that train and has called me every single day since. I can’t shake this guy!
Now that I’m working and living in Spain, we see each other regularly.
I insisted we keep things “open” even though neither of us wanted to date other people. I even encouraged him to talk to other girls because that put less pressure on me to commit. But when I found out another girl was, indeed, pursuing him, I cried foul. How dare he play by the rules I created!
“I won’t be fooled again!” I said that night. “Or abandon myself for anyone.”
“My love, I’m not fooling you. I just want to be your boyfriend and am waiting for you to let me.”
Amazingly, he has been patient and kind and willing to work through the ghosts of my ex’s past inserting themselves into our relationship. I am constantly looking for red and pink flags, and even creating them when they’re not there.
The truth is, there aren’t any red flags (not yet!). These are just old wounds, not made by him, but exposed now for him to clean and bandage anyway. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to mind.