Forgiveness

My sister told me a few days ago that she was having a hard time forgiving a close family member for betrayal, and she said she was afraid she was sinning by not forgiving immediately. It was a statement but a question too. She wanted to know what I thought.

Funny how the woman who told me I was a sinner but she loved me anyway when I got divorced was now asking my advice about forgiveness.

Forgiveness is an interesting subject. Forgiving is something we’re taught from a young age. Our parents urge us to forgive those who have hurt us even from the time we’re toddlers. We say, “It’s okay,” when someone says she’s sorry, whether it is or not, because it’s good manners.

In church, we’re taught that forgiveness is a much deeper concept. Christ forgave us so we must forgive others in return. Jesus instructed us to forgive each other.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

Matthew 18:21-22

We aren’t even supposed to take Holy Communion until we’ve forgiven all who have sinned against us. No grudges allowed.

Forgiveness isn’t exactly an easy topic for me to tackle, but I wanted to both be honest with my sister and to comfort her.

I told her I don’t think being hurt or hanging on to that hurt, and being unforgiving are the same thing. And I said that I don’t think it’s sinning to hold back forgiveness until we’re able to truly follow through with it. It takes time, and betrayal runs deep, and it’s okay that it’s taking her some time to get there. I told my sister I don’t think she’s sinning.

This concept of “sinning” against God when we can’t forgive and forget the moment someone acts against us is such a backwards perspective. God, who has the greatest capacity of anyone to forgive, isn’t going to hold our pain against us.

My mom told me she hoped I’d fail when I moved away from my hometown with my kids and that I wouldn’t have too much pride to come back when I did.

My best friend quit talking to me when I told her I’d been pregnant when I got married.

My ex-husband raped me before and after we were married.

My church mentors told me I had to let the rape continue because he was my husband.

My sister told me I was a sinner for getting a divorce from the man who raped me.

No matter how many times I forgive these people, no matter how much I love my mom and sister and the children I had by my ex-husband, I still hurt so deeply. I still get angry and sad and depressed, and I cry. Sometimes I even hate.

But I don’t need to dwell on the things they did or said. They are over, and though I have the memories, their actions and words are no longer mine to bear. I can leave the burden behind. I can accept that what was done is now between God and those people.

I’m stronger today than I’ve ever been, and it isn’t something that was given to me by the people who betrayed me. They only helped me to see just how much was inside me. I don’t need a single other person to get me through this life or to determine whether or not I’m strong enough. I am.

I think this is what forgiveness means. It doesn’t erase the injuries or the scars. It doesn’t leave you suddenly at peace. It doesn’t secure the past in the past. It doesn’t take away your knowledge that something was done against you. But it frees you to move on from what happened.

I think Kesha says it truthfully in her song “Praying.” It’s about forgiveness and letting go and moving on and being better for all that’s happened. And it’s become my anthem, in a way, a song  that knows the truth of my heart.

No, Sister, you are not sinning. You’re hurting and it’s alright.

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The Fight Isn’t Over

I’m feeling an enormous amount of shame today, shame and worthlessness and everything that comes with them: hopelessness, sorrow, anger, lethargy, self-judgment. The trigger was a typical “not what I’m looking for” rejection, nothing significant, but I think I must have been ripe for the attack of shame and the sense of unwanted-ness that has now haunted the past three days because it has left me fighting old demons. Old but clearly not defeated.

The thought that I don’t deserve happiness or that I am just plain not allowed to have happiness has become persistent. My reason for this lack of deserving and allowance? God’s will. Why would I think God has willed such a dark life? The reasoning comes from my religious upbringing, the knowledge passed on to me by church elders and youth group leaders.

One, I have never been meant to be happy. God knew this before I existed. The assumption is that some people just aren’t meant to know happiness in love. My churches taught that some people are meant to remain unmarried for their entire lives, and that if you are chosen for this, it should be accepted and adhered to, as it is God’s will. Certainly, if God wants people to remain unmarried, he must also mean for hearts to always be broken. In essence, this has always been his plan for me. 

Two, I’m being punished for something I’ve done, so I will not be allowed happiness until I’ve repented or made up for my offense. Was it the divorce? Is it because I’ve had sex outside of marriage? Until yesterday, I hadn’t seen these things as sins for some time. But now the fear of God preached by my church pervades. What if I’m wrong and what I was taught was 100 percent correct? What if this is God’s judgment? I was taught that if we disobey God, he may choose to cause terrible things in our lives until we turn back to him. Is the worst yet to come? It is quite possible I deserve this brokenness.

Or three, perhaps the brokenness is God’s way of loving me. He’s calling me back, and he’s doing it through the breaking of my spirit. Let me feel unlovable and unwanted and alone because then I’ll realize I need God and that I’m not living life according to his will. FYI, I know I need God. 

Four, God intended for me to be happy, but I messed up his plan seventeen years ago when I fell in love with and married my now ex-husband. Had I followed God’s plan, I would know peace and joy now, but instead, I’m cursed to remain lonely and sad for the rest of my life. I missed my chance and I must pay the price for my misjudgment.

I suppose all of these come down to the ever-present conflict of “God is love” versus “God is a jealous god,” a complicated dichotomy that has plagued me since my confirmation days. Is the character of God truly summed up in “I love you but disobey me and I’ll destroy you”? And is there nothing I can do to change it? Because I was taught that though I’ve been given free will, God will do whatever he pleases. So I’ve wondered for much of my life if prayer is even worth it. If God will do whatever he wants, can my prayers ever sway him?

Christian readers, do not fear for my soul. It is not my faith that is shaken; I know Jesus died for my sins and I love him dearly for it. Rather, it’s a question of how to live this life here on earth. Do I spend the rest of my life accepting loneliness, heartache, and the feeling of unworthiness as the payment for my crimes, or part of God’s plan, or God’s way of loving me, or the price I must pay for the choices I’ve made? Do I decide this is God’s will and accept that I cannot change it? Do I accept a life of utter joylessness and pray that I won’t live too long? Or do I tell myself this is shame speaking and that these things aren’t true and that God wouldn’t allow me to experience such a dark life? (A persistent voice says the last isn’t true; just look at the biblical figure Job.)

I don’t have an answer today. Shame is sucking the life out of me, and I don’t know how to stop it. I’m writing because speaking the hurt and shame aloud is supposed to be the key to healing. Shame researcher Brené Brown (http://brenebrown.com) says that we need to acknowledge shame and share our stories because shame thrives on silence. It’s difficult but necessary:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

So here I am writing to you, being vulnerable. I don’t see any more light than I did an hour ago, and I don’t feel any more wanted or hopeful, but maybe it’ll come with time. At least I’ve said something. At least I’ve confessed these things I’ve feared my entire life. At least I’ve broken the silence. Wiser people say this will help me heal, help me have hope, help me to see the value of me. I hope so because I don’t think anyone deserves to go through life feeling unlovable and worthless.

The Myth of The One

Booth: You know, when I say heartbreaking you say the heart is a muscle, so it can’t break. It can only get crushed.

Brennan: Isn’t it heartcrushing?
Bones

Hearts are broken—crushed—every day. It’s been sung about, written about, spoken about. Every one of you reading this knows the feeling. It’s not a new sensation, curtesy of Facebook or Snapchat. Shakespeare writes of Enobarus (Antony and Cleopatra) and Lady Montague (Romeo and Juliet) both dying of broken hearts. Even King David writes of his broken heart in Psalm 69. It’s an ancient feeling and experienced almost universally: nearly every culture acknowledges the concept.

I don’t just mean heartbreak by a lover, mind you. Mothers, fathers, children, family members, friends can cause just as much heartbreak as a boyfriend or wife, sometimes more, because it is those we love who have the ability to cause us the greatest anguish and sorrow. We can break our own hearts if we love ourselves enough. But it doesn’t matter who or what the cause is; the experience is real and tangible. An ache in the chest where the heart beats. Stress of the mind. Inconsolable grief. Depression. Sometimes it’s more than the loss of love: it’s the loss of hope, the loss of joy, the loss of dreams. It is loss.

My heart has been broken again. I should be getting used to this by now, right? But I’m not writing today to express the heartbreak I feel or to talk about how to heal. I’m writing with a caution. It is a realization that came to me with a sharp shock this afternoon, one that caused me to scribble out the words I was writing at the moment to the point of shredding the paper. Let me tell you what happened.

My sweetheart broke my heart on Monday morning (via text, while I was at work; he’s seeing someone else … some might say good riddance). I’ve felt the twinges in my heart muscle, the loss of hopes and dreams, and the loneliness that usually follows. Friends and coworkers have offered condolences, advice, admonishment for my former lover, and well wishes. It is the well wishes you need to beware.

“You’ll meet someone who treats you right.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

“I want you to meet a nice boy.”

They seem harmless and they are well-meant. But they’re dangerous. A single someone, a nice boy, and, worst of all, something that is meant to be. We all want to meet that someone, that special person who we’re meant to be with. I was taken away with the thought, and in a manner of trying to heal my heart, I started to write him a note today.

You don’t know me and I don’t know you. I’m … looking for someone special to connect with. What about you? … I imagine you out there, and whatever you’re looking—

And that’s when I cut myself off and crossed out my words and cut the paper through to the page beneath it, thinking, “That’s how I got myself into all of this in the first place.” I was looking for The One … the one God had meant for me from the beginning of time.

I grew up in a world where divorce was against God’s will because we are to search and wait for The One meant for us and work through everything with that person to stay married forever. I left home and my church youth group for college with a delusional belief that there really was one special person out there whom God meant for me and me alone, and that I’d meet him and know he was The One and that he would too. I prayed for God to prepare him for me and me for him. We were encouraged to so because that would help us ensure a God-blessed, happy relationship in our futures.

Out of this upbringing I came and promptly fell into the arms of the man I thought was meant for me, despite our lack of shared interests and his judgment and his hurtful silent-treatment pouting whenever he didn’t get his way … oh, and the fact that he raped me. It’s okay; he’s The One. I married him in spite of horrible fights, traumatic shame, mistreatment of my body, and continued shaming. I felt lucky to have found The One so quickly and easily. He loved me so much, and he’d even dreamed of us getting married. God was truly guiding us.

No one once suggested we shouldn’t get married. I don’t know if it was complacency in the belief we’d each found The One or a matter of everyone minding their own business, but friends and family saw problems from the beginning and yet not a word was said. I don’t blame them. We’ve been fed this line of fiction all our lives. Even my parents have a messy, unhappy marriage, but have been together 40+ years. I believed in The One with all my heart … I believed in The One to a fault.

I know better now. “The One” is a myth, and I won’t be that blind again. God didn’t create me for my ex-husband or me for the man who broke my heart on Monday. He didn’t create me for anyone I’m about to meet either. The idea that there is someone out there looking for me, who God made for me is beautiful, but only fantasy. The concept of a soulmate is heartwarming and hopeful, but as wise as Plato was, I’m not sure I believe anymore.

It’s heartbreak versus fear in me right now. Heartbreak seeking hope that I won’t spend the rest of my life alone.

I want to love you. … Please find me. Look for me and don’t give up.

(I wrote that too; not twenty years ago, but yesterday. Old habits die hard, I guess.)

And fear that my beliefs could trap me in another life-draining relationship. I won’t go there again. I won’t be part of that. I won’t be the pawn of my religious upbringing, and I won’t believe the myth again. I won’t search for someone special. I will accept that he doesn’t exist, and I caution you to follow my example, whatever you believe. It’s harsh and it hurts, but trust me, please. 

But think of it this way: there is no One. Not “one” doesn’t automatically mean zero; it could mean many. What if instead waiting for the one, you search for love. Go slow: take the time to know yourself and know what love is to you, and then look for it. You might love many, and your heart might get broken a lot. But you’ll always have new hope because you won’t meet the love of your life just once.

Sweets: Mm-hmm, perhaps you’re saying this because you’ve never met the love of your life.

Angela: I have, actually. Many times.

—Bones

The Curse of Perfectionism

How do we know what we know? We’re taught and told things. We observe people and events and objects around us. Some things are instinctual. But we also learn a great deal from personal experience. Sometimes what we learn is positive: I love sushi after all! And sometimes it isn’t: I am never going to drink that much again! The positive and negative are equal components: it’s all feedback to your brain so you know what behaviors you want, or don’t want, to repeat. It also gives you the impetus to change your behavior as necessary.

Unless you’re a perfectionist. Perfectionism takes “that decision didn’t work out so well; I’ll adjust my behavior and/or approach accordingly in the future” and transforms it into “I fucked up so bad, like I always do; I should have known; I’m so stupid.” It leaves you feeling like you never do anything right, like you’re worthless and proving it with every decision, every mistake, every action. You don’t accept what’s happened as just an experience; you don’t forgive yourself; you internalize what’s happened and blame yourself and take every opportunity to use it against yourself.

This has been my life for as long as I can remember. From my youngest memories, I see a little girl who’s made what she perceives is a mistake—said something that hurt a friend, inadvertently (or not) disobeyed her parents, answered a question on an exam incorrectly, spoke out in class only to be rebuffed—beating herself up, sometimes literally. I used to rap my knuckles on my head, saying, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” I gave myself very little grace because I didn’t deserve it.

In many ways, I am still this little girl and have been all along. When sex entered my life before I was married—a terrible sin according to my church and upbringing—I couldn’t forgive myself. It took me a decade to stop hating myself, and even then the disgust plagued me. Even now. A month ago when I asked my boyfriend about alcoholism and he denied it absolutely and was offended and hurt that I even asked, I punished myself by writing so deeply on my arm that I left scratches of the words in the flesh. Last night it was a bad date—turns out the dom/sub scene isn’t for me, and I have an aching cheek from a hard slap in the face to prove it. At least curiosity didn’t kill the cat.

I know I didn’t know last night would bother me so much, that I wouldn’t like it, but logic doesn’t matter when you’re a perfectionist: I’m an idiot. And now I have this memory in my head and I want it to go away and I want to stop feeling stupid, but I can’t. No matter how many times I try to accept what happened, learn from it, tell myself I didn’t do anything wrong by trying something new, and say “at least now I now,” I return to self-disgust. “Stupid, stupid girl.”

“At least I know now” is meaningless jibber-jabber when you’re a perfectionist because it is nearly impossible to see the merits of a “bad” situation. You can’t see that something was learned—you’re too busy hating yourself, bemoaning your idiocy, damning yourself—which means you don’t see how to modify your behavior for better in the future. Which means you repeat the cycle: similar situation, same approach, same result, do it again. When I was nineteen and “committing the sin” of unmarried sex—and being raped—I kept putting myself in the same situation. I was so preoccupied with damning myself I couldn’t modify.

I’m not going to let happen to last night’s experience. Trust me, I’m not going to put myself in that situation again. “At least I know now” doesn’t calm my self-hatred or regret. It doesn’t silence the self-berating. But I do know now, and with careful practice I am starting to be able to see beyond my perceived damnable mistakes and take something of value away. I didn’t like last night; therefore, I won’t do it again.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t forgiven myself. I’m questioning my morals. I’m questioning my intelligence. I’m certain there is more to be taken away from last night, but I can’t sooth the hatred or the feeling of failure or the disgust with myself long enough to break down the mental and physical components of the experience to learn anything.

My perfectionism tells me I should have known last night would go poorly, that I should have avoided my college boyfriend, that I should have obeyed my parents, that I should have known the correct answers on the test. Mistakes aren’t allowed. Which means I’m worthless. At least as a perfect being. And since perfectionism is still my bane, that means I’m nothing. If I can’t be perfect, there is nothing in me that is redeemable. So I’m left living a life of nothingness, always striving for perfectionism, always failing. Talk about living in a bad cycle.

Perfectionism is one of the most challenging internal struggles in my life. It ebbs and flows with life’s situations, only a glowing ember when life is dull and the path ahead is clear, then flaring at the first hint of trouble or instability.  How do I learn to control something so fluctuating and yet so encompassing and powerful that it controls me instead? I can’t give you a straight, bona fide answer or solution. I haven’t beat it yet. But I can tell you what I do know and what I’ve been told by wise people.

Give yourself grace. You are allowed to make mistakes. You aren’t stupid for making them. Forgive yourself when necessary, but then accept what has happened as just that: something that happened. You’re allowed to live.

The affirmation “I radically accept myself” comes to mind. Accept all of who you are: the good, the bad, the confused, the sad, the happy, every decision, every action.

Know you are not worthless. You exist, which makes you priceless. Nothing you can or will do changes that. Period.

Tell yourself you don’t have to be perfect, and believe it. It’s far easier said than done, I know. But do it. Say it over and over again. Change your perspective. Change your expectations for yourself.

Love yourself. No matter what happens, no matter what you think about you, don’t stop.

Not Broken After All

It is not my intention to use my blog as a platform for airing my stories of heartbreak, but it’s been a difficult few weeks. The trials have been piling up. I am tired and feeling tried to my limits, and I think only able to persevere through my days by taking them one at a time. This morning, the emotions hover in my throat and chest, threatening (more) tears and urging me to retreat from the world. But I won’t give in.

PTSD and the fall into shame and depression and anxiety thrive like parasites on negative emotion and on isolation. They depend on you turning in on yourself and forgetting that you don’t have to do this on your own. And so I’m reaching out, “getting out of my head,” as a good friend described it.

Go to a coffee shop or a place where there are other people. Call a friend. Get out of your head.

And I’m trying to remember to be kind to myself, to give myself grace. And the only way I can think to do that right now is to share what happened, to confess how much I hurt right now.

I fell in love a few months back. It was unexpected and not necessarily wanted—I wasn’t ready for anything serious. But I felt a connection I couldn’t deny. The spark between us was Tony-and-Maria-like, and I felt it from the first cup of coffee—and slice of espresso cake—we shared. I felt it when he offered to hold my hand after the first hour and when he stole his first kiss at the end of our first date. I knew I’d found someone amazing when he said he wanted to go slow because this felt like something special and he didn’t want to mess it up. I knew exactly what he meant.

He was like me in a lot of the ways I worry people will avoid me for. We both have PTSD and dark histories and deep sorrow in our pasts. We both have chronic health concerns and medicate to make our bodies work as they should. From the first moment, he accepted all that I was, including that I’m a mom. He cared about my children and went the extra mile to show that to me and to them.

The first month was perfect, the second filled with the need to overcome challenges—and we triumphed. And then, in the past few weeks, as so often happens with romance, it all unraveled. Rumors of alcoholism and a few scary moments that proved the rumors might be true. But I trusted him when he said it wasn’t and we moved past it. A week later another frightening night changed everything. In the end, I’d had to kick him out of my apartment twice—for his sake and then to feel safe in my safe place—and the second time he threatened that we were done if I made him leave. I drove him to the train station that night and watched him walk away. It was difficult to do.

We met two days later to exchange items left behind and find closure. We ended up talking about how much we’d loved each other and what went wrong and how there might still be chance to make things work, if we moved slowly and remembered those first weeks and took care of ourselves and each other. And so we made a final bid to make amends and share our hearts and our love.

Without meaning to, I again gave my heart fully, but he held back and told me he was doing so, and when I asked him to trust me, he stood me up and “ghosted” me, as the teens say—he completely ignored my calls and texts, as if he’d forgotten I existed. It took me more than an hour of waiting on the front steps of his new apartment (I went to help him move in) to convince myself he really wasn’t going to show and that it wasn’t an accident this time.

I know we have ground to regain, and I know we’re going slow. But I promise you I will fight for us, like you asked me to. I will fight with all my heart, because that’s how I love you. Please don’t give up on me. Please don’t stop fighting either. My heart, like yours, is vulnerable, and will hurt unbearably if you break it. But I trust you with it, my love. I trust you.

I wrote these words in a love letter he wouldn’t read because he was “afraid to feel too much” for me. Maybe he should have read the letter. Maybe I shouldn’t have trusted him so completely. Maybe it was all destined to end badly.

But as the shock of being deserted wears off, and I remember the hopes we had and the love we shared and how deeply I cared about him, as I let the tears fall with abandon and without shame, one thought persists: at least I was honest. And I loved him unconditionally. I couldn’t have given more. It occurs to me, too, that after over a year of fearing I’d never know love again (irrational but true), I loved. And this love, however tumultuous and briefly reciprocated, was sincere and whole-hearted. As it turns out, I haven’t been damaged irrevocably.

So, yes, it hurts, and that pain runs deep. But I realize now, after these words to you, that I’ve earned that pain and the right to own it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I loved and I lost that love. The pain just means I did it right. Welcome back to the world, Kate.

The Value of My Body

My body doesn’t belong to me.

Or so I’ve been told and believed most of my life.

Who, then, does it belong to? It is God’s temple; it is my husband’s property; it is the government’s, the church’s, a politician’s to make decisions about. I am merely the innkeeper. I keep it clean—in every sense of the word—and free of disease. I feed it and primp it and use it to grow life. But if I am to believe what I’ve been taught, I do none of these for me. And the value that exists has everything to do with the world and nothing to do with me.

And so when a man touches me or presses me for intimacy, it is not for the value of me that I say no (or don’t); rather, it is for fear of shame and damnation, and sometimes, fear of flashbacks. I do not say yes or no because I’m thinking about the value of my body, because I don’t actually value my body. I’ve never had need to. I’ve never learned to—or I’ve unlearned how to. My body has never been mine to claim more than guardianship over. It is a lot more challenging to take care of something you have little personal interest in, no matter how precious it is.

I broached this in counseling this week, and my counselor reminded me that a few months back she had asked me:

How long has sex been a currency in your life?

We’d been talking about how, long after I knew I wanted to end my marriage, I kept having sex with my husband. I did it because I thought I had to while I was married to him, but why didn’t I leave sooner and just stop the sex? I was sick back then. Chronic pain crippled me as often as once or twice a week. I’d been to the ER for it, and the neurologists still didn’t know the cause or how to alleviate it. I couldn’t take care of myself; I needed my rapist in order to survive. I paid for my husband’s care by having sex with him. Sex as currency.

I concluded initially that only in those final few years of my marriage, 2012 to 2015, had sex been a currency for me, and I planned to tell my counselor this. Then time got away from us, and we didn’t discuss it again until this week, when I wondered at how little I seem to value my body right now. And when my counselor asked about sex as a currency again, I realized it’s lot longer than those three years. It had been since I was a teenager, since before I was even sexually active, because, based on my beliefs, I thought my sexuality determined, at least in part, my value in God’s eyes. Having pre-marital sex would destroy my worth, and eventually I felt it did.

I told my counselor this and she didn’t deny it likely went back that far. And then she raised the question of my primary love language being touch and asked if that’s why I gave my ex-husband sex, so that he’d reciprocate, touch me, make me feel loved. For the first time in over a year, I remembered that my ex-husband did not usually reciprocate after sex. We touched during sex, but not after. He usually went to his side of the bed and didn’t touch me.

And what’s more, if I couldn’t have sex because I was sick or had an infection or was menstruating, I didn’t get held or touched. Unless I physically pleased him another way. So I gained my touch, my love, through performing sex acts. It caused plenty of arguments. I wanted to be touched, feel loved, even if I couldn’t give sex.

In a way, it’s the same thing I do now. I trade intimacy to feel loved, and it’s easier for me because I give my body such low worth. I have few boundaries that aren’t related to religion, and now that I doubt the rules laid out by religion, I have few boundaries. But I still feel the pain. It is, after all, my body.

I know now it’s time I take ownership of it, restore to myself, my body the value and worth I deserve—deserve because life comes with value, period. I didn’t earn it; I didn’t have to. And I don’t have to do anything to retain it.

Yet it isn’t this simple. Before I can own the value, I need learn how to see and understand it—and I don’t right now—and I need to unlearn what I have always believed. I’m not even sure if those are mutually exclusive. I have a long, long journey ahead. Change, lots and lots of change, but above all, growth. And I can make a difference.

Please don’t be like me and assign the value of your body according to your god or spouse or church or government. Don’t let anyone tell you what your value is or how to determine it. Your body is yours, period. Your body is valuable, period. Tell your sons and daughters and your friends and loved ones. Tell yourself. Say it until you believe it. Make it your daily affirmation.

My body is mine. My body is valuable.

And when you make decisions about your body, make them for you … because it’s yours.

Knowing What I Know Now

I had a date last night, a first date with a guy I’d met on an online dating site. We’d hit it off right from the beginning, and there was definite chemistry when we met in person. We ate a late lunch and talked for hours. He asked me to be his girlfriend before the night was over, and I politely declined; it was too soon (really too soon!). I told him a little about my past, and he told me I was safe with him and that I could trust him, and when I left, I felt safe and did trust him.

Don’t get me wrong; I had my concerns. In an earlier conversation, he’d told me how religiously conservative he was, and referred to my (religiously and politically) liberal leanings as “liberal proclivities.” (I wondered if he realized “proclivity” had a negative connotation; though, I think he did.) Religious conservatives make me nervous already, for obvious reasons, but he did more than disagree with my beliefs and opinions; he criticized them.

And he spoke excessively about the future, our future. I thought maybe he was just a little too smitten. When I told him my plans for after my kids leave home, they became his plans too. And he talked about wanting to buy a house with me. And when we talked about Disney world, and I said I would like to take my kids but couldn’t afford it, he said that such things were possible now with “two incomes.” To all of this I replied, “Let’s get through the first date first,” move slowly. He wanted exclusive, long-term, and while exclusive might be okay, I’m not ready for long-term; my marriage only ended a year and a half ago.

And he’d mentioned he used to be more controlling and particular about the way he liked things. I won’t be controlled again, not for anything or anyone. But he said he’d changed, and I wanted to believe it was so.

Overall, the date ended well, and we agreed to see each other again soon. To be honest, I was taken with the cuddling and kissing and the warmth of someone wanting to spend time with me.

By morning, though, the red flags (of him being a potential abuser) that I’d stored away in my subconscious were crimson and the size of Rhode Island and waving like the Star-Spangled Banner over Fort McHenry.

  • One, he’d told me he’d once broken a woman’s spirit through constant criticism and being mean, but that he’d decided to make up for it by making people feel good about themselves. I thought his change of heart was noble, but “broke a woman’s spirit”? Can people really change that drastically?
  • Two, the criticism of my liberal tendencies and his disdain for some of the decisions I’ve made since my marriage ended: being in a polyamorous relationship, for one. He was judgmental and even declared that he thought I was “rebelling” in response my long, difficult marriage, and suggested the rebellion would end and that I would eventually go back to being conservative. In hindsight, I see that this is manipulative and shaming, telling me I don’t really know what I want or what I’m doing or what’s good for me, and that I’ll eventually see the light.
  • Three, he mentioned that his first wife (first wife?!) had a lot of guy friends that she’d hang out with, and that it really bothered him. This was an issue in my marriage, and I am not going to let it be an issue again. I have guy friends, and that’s the way it is, period. So I told him up front my best friend was a guy. He replied, “It would help if he was gay.” I said he was not but that he lived in another state, and he said, “That’s the best kind of friend.” When I caught myself thinking today about listing off for him all my guy friends and which are gay and which are far away, I knew I’d been shamed.
  • Four, his first wife? He’s had more than one?
  • Five, his references to the long-term future and his taking ownership of my future plans.
  • Six, he said he’d been abused in his youth, and having discussed red flags at my domestic abuse and sexual assault support group, I knew this was a concern.
  • Seven, I discussed briefly my reasons for not being simpatico with the church (not Jesus or my faith, but the church itself) right now, how it was through mentors at my church that I was told to allow my husband to use my body as he pleased. My date, though he said what the mentors said and what my husband did were wrong, quoted St. Paul’s discussion of women submitting to their husbands. Yes, my date was pointing out that husbands were also to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially. But he didn’t deny at any point that wives should submit, and I noticed.
  • Eight, he kept saying to me, “I’m afraid you’re going to do what women do, and go home after this, and think about this too much and change your mind about dating me.” And I kept saying I didn’t think I would, though I didn’t promise anything.

Perhaps it’s strange to you that I listed all these things that worried me out. But knowledge is power, and we need to know when there is potential danger. I’m sharing because you need to know.

I didn’t feel confident enough to make a decision on my own this time around, so I reached out to trusted friends and thought about my concerns and listened to what I was saying to those friends, understanding through my words what I was actually feeling. And I messaged my support group leader. Members of a support group take care of each other, and I knew without a doubt I could trust and depend on her.

I was assured by all that these things were, indeed, red flags. And because they’re good friends, the decision of what to do next was left to me.

I won’t say my decision-making process was great; I obsessed over it a good part of the day, wasting mine and my friends’ time and energy, but in the end, I trusted my instincts. I told my date I didn’t want to see him again because the things we’re looking for were too different, and I wished him good luck. The reasons for my decision are my business, not his.

And then, true to my concern about him being controlling and manipulative, he replied:

I kind of figured you’d do that girl thing girls do. .. ok well … what else is new? …

I guess his response wasn’t completely unexpected. With his expression of fear last night about me changing my mind, he’d set me up as the bad guy before the first date was even over. And not a bad guy with valuable opinions and feelings, but merely a “girl” who only did what “girls do.” Essentially, he removed my worth from the equation. He shamed me.

I’m sad. I could have really liked him. And if he’d been genuine, I might have loved him eventually. I’m sad to have had another potential relationship turn to naught. I’m sad and angry that he shamed me, and that I felt shame, even knowing what it was. I’m frustrated that I feel a hint of guilt for having hurt him by choosing not to see him again.

But I’m confident now too. I saw what was happening this time, understood it, and though it took me all day, I made the best decision and protected myself. And I did the right things to reach that decision. I made a list and I reached out, and before that, I recognized the flags. I’ve grown, in wisdom and emotional maturity and stability. I’ve come a long way, and what I did today will help me grow even more. Today, albeit its stress and sorrow and the low hum of shame in the back of my head right now, was a good day.