the relationship i never would have left

words and art by emma johnston-wheeler

Until last August, I had been dating a boy who I thought I was going to marry. I was hopelessly in love with a version of this person that was strategically presented to me. I was, as it turns out, completely unaware of his true nature. So much so, that on his suggestion, I legitimately considered hitching myself to him at City Hall that very summer. 21 and almost married. God, my mom would’ve killed me.

But you have to understand how I set myself up to be in this position. A year prior, I was so eager to be in my first serious relationship, that I fell in love with the first boy who showed me affection. I happen to have a blog in which all my professions about love are publicized, something which had never occurred to me as risky until this boy quoted me back to myself. After one date, he was not only quoting my romantic notions, but materializing matching ones. I was so excited to hear a potential partner echo my values about love and romance that it didn’t occur to me to wonder if he actually felt the same way. The morning after our first date, he texted me to tell me that he’d never been so attracted to someone and he couldn’t stop thinking about me. I felt idolized in a way that I’d never experienced and it was exhilarating. I felt like a beautiful thing

From the get go, he talked aggressively about his ‘crazy ex-girlfriend.’

Two weeks after our first date, the boy asked me to be his girlfriend. A week after that, he told me he was in love with me. Only three weeks had passed since we’d met, but I was swept off my feet and rapidly losing logical thought. He told me stories about him and his friends, but wasn’t as eager to ask questions about me. I didn’t notice this at the time, though. From the get go, he talked aggressively about his ‘crazy ex-girlfriend.’ The subject came up often and without me asking. But naive and thirsty for love, I took every word he spoke as the complete and utter truth. I had allowed myself to believe that the poor girl was crazy. As if it’s ever that simple. 

For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed of my sexual history. I wished that my boyfriend had been the first, or somewhere lower on the totem. That would have made him happy.

In the delusional manner of a girl who thinks she’s in love, I felt that I could tell him anything without judgement. So when he asked how many people I had slept with before him, I was happy to share. But he didn’t like the answer. He became silent in the middle of what I thought had been an intimate conversation, and he refused to speak for a few minutes. He told me that it made him uncomfortable because it was higher than his own and he didn’t know anybody else who had slept with “so many people.” Even so, he continued to bring up the subject throughout our entire relationship, pointing out each time the difference in our numbers. For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed of my sexual history. I wished that my boyfriend had been the first, or somewhere lower on the totem. That would have made him happy.

On my birthday, that same month we met, I invited him to dinner with a few of my close friends. When he sat down to join us, he promptly pulled out a deodorant stick and proceeded to use it in the middle of the intimate dining space. “What a quirky boy,” I thought, covering a wince, perturbed only for a moment by an action that in any other context should’ve been a deal breaker. A date putting deodorant on in front of me, in the middle of a packed restaurant was a personal nightmare. But instead, I told myself that the action was sweet because he was embarrassed to smell at dinner. I was starting to experience these delusions more frequently. 

About a month after his first “I love you,” I introduced the boy to my parents. During that meeting, he was decently polite. But as he continued to accompany me on visits home, he became increasingly cruder in their presence, excessively swearing and belching out loud. On one such visit to my parent’s house, we got into an argument that ended with me crying. He became angry and embarrassed that I would react that way in my family home, because it looked bad on him.

It became a pattern that if I cried during an argument, which happened more and more, he no longer attempted to comfort me as he had before. Instead, he became cold and standoffish until I stopped. Afterwards, he refused to discuss the argument and would continue to act as if nothing had happened. He never took on any emotional labour. I convinced myself that his ability to ignore me when I was upset meant that my feelings were superficial. I apologized after every argument for being too emotional, and suppressed concerns about our relationship for fear that he would leave me.

He never took on any emotional labour. I convinced myself that his ability to ignore me when I was upset meant that my feelings were superficial.

About three months into our relationship, I noticed a shift in his manner towards me. Being new to a serious relationship, I thought that maybe the ‘honeymoon phase’ was ending, but I was sure something about this felt different. He started grabbing at me less gently, as if I was one of his guy friends and he was rough housing with me. I rationalized that it meant we were getting more comfortable, but the grabbing didn’t stop when I said I didn’t like it. In a matter of weeks, this behaviour had become so persistent that I was feeling constantly objectified.

Someone who only a month prior was so romantic towards me was now grabbing me like I was a toy of his, completely for his own entertainment. When I tried to explain this to him, he got offended. He couldn’t believe that I would say something so harsh. The discussion escalated into an argument in which I was made to feel guilty about something that had made me feel uncomfortable, and I apologized for bringing it up. He continued to aggressively grab at me, without complaints on my end, because I was afraid to offend him. Whenever I had the nerve to address my discomfort, he convinced me once again that I was in the wrong. 

Because I was able to convince myself that I was the problem in these interactions, I became afraid of crying in front of him. In order to hide it, I took up the strategy of going for a walk when I’d become upset. That frustrated him too. On one occasion, when it was really bad, I walked from his house to sit in a nearby park and called my friend crying. I finally admitted to her that part of me wanted out of the relationship, but that more than that, I was afraid to be alone. When I was gone for longer than 20 minutes, he panicked, calling and texting me repeatedly. When I answered, he angrily told me to come back. I said I needed some more time to talk to my friend, but then he threatened to leave which would have stranded me without my wallet or keys. So I walked back to his place and watched him play video games for the rest of the afternoon.

When he did apologize, which only happened a couple of times, I was so touched that he had finally acknowledged my feelings. I allowed myself to believe the way he treated me was okay. He was a person who struggled to be empathetic, but was working on it because he loved me.
When we weren’t having these one-sided disputes, he was constantly feeding me other lines. He told me that I was beautiful frequently, and that he was thinking about me often. He told me that he loved me more than anything in the world, that I was the love of his life, his soul mate and his future wife. Words that I consumed hungrily.

In August, I went on a school trip to Germany for two weeks, and left him to house sit. We had decided to live together in September, and he began to move his things in while I was gone. It’s true what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder, because when I came back I felt more in love with him then ever. I convinced my mom to let him pick me up instead of her so that I could live out my airport rom-com fantasy. 

I ran down the ramp and zig-zagged through a crowd of suitcases right into his arms at Pearson Airport. He hugged me with tears in his eyes and told me how much he’d missed me. Then taking my hand, he turned to me and asked me to promise him that we’d be together forever. He sounded scared.

He’d been cheating on me the whole time we were together, with one of his best friends who I was well acquainted with.

Less than 12 hours later, he woke me up in the middle of the night and blurted out that he had cheated on me. In fact, he’d been cheating on me the whole time we were together, with one of his best friends who I was well acquainted with. He had slept with her in my home multiple times while I was in Germany, and told me that he did so because she was comforting him about his cat who had just passed away. I suppose I was meant to believe that was okay because I was in Germany, and therefore unable to console him about his dead cat. 

We stayed in my room together over the next three days, while a year of lying, gaslighting and manipulation came to light. He used every excuse to justify his behavior, to keep me from leaving him. It became obvious that he wouldn’t tell me the whole truth, so on the second night, I resorted to contacting the girl he’d cheated with. I sent her a message asking if we could speak on the phone, and she agreed.

He had told me that after each instance of infidelity, he broke down crying because of the guilt. She assured me that was not true. He told me that he never made eye contact with her during sex, that she was just a body to him, as if such a degrading attitude towards women should comfort me. She told me that he instructed her to make eye contact. The worst thing she told me was that on one occasion, he tried to initiate sex with her while my roommate left quickly for the drug store. When she said no, because my roommate would be back soon, he persisted and asked if he could ‘just cum on her face’ instead. When confronted about this sexist behavior, he said “it wasn’t like that, you know when girls say no in that flirty way.” After an hour, I felt that I knew everything I needed to. I thanked her for being transparent with me.

She had helped me reach my limit, and on that third day I did what I thought I’d never be able to do. I broke up with him. I let myself out. 

Looking back, I regret to imagine that if I hadn’t discovered his first lie, I would’ve continued to blindly love him for the rest of my life. In hindsight, there were some early indications of his behaviour that should have warranted an exit from the relationship. But of course, I was only able to start identifying those red flags when betrayal finally dissolved my skewed perception of him.

I hope that in sharing my experience in such detail, those that can relate to it will be able to identify similar warnings in their own emotionally abusive or toxic relationships. I never would have gotten out of mine if my partner hadn’t forced me out, because I was insecure of myself and he took advantage of that. It was when he broke me that I found the strength to leave, and it was only then that I realized I’d been harbouring that strength in me all along.