I am not very confident in my cooking skills. So when I invited a new friend from work round to my house for dinner, I spent hours preparing a meal that was perfect.
To make sure that nothing went wrong while she was there, I cooked a Thai green curry the evening before, tasted it (it tasted great) and put it in the fridge ready to be warmed the following evening. That way I could sleep soundly knowing that it was going to be a success. I really wanted to make a good impression.
As it happens, I need not have bothered. Because as soon as she arrived, my boyfriend told her that she wouldn’t want to eat anything I had cooked, and suggested we all go out for dinner.
“Sure. I don’t really mind,” she said, glancing in my direction.
I was too speechless to defend the dinner that lay waiting in the fridge, and we went and ate in the Indian Restaurant next door. I felt too humiliated to make small talk so my boyfriend carried the conversation. I was left wondering how my carefully planned intentions to impress my new friend had gone so wrong.
Over the course of our two-year relationship, he consistently undermined me, made me doubt my own opinions, and made me believe that every problem we had was my fault.
I changed the way I dressed, stopped talking to my friends he didn’t like, and (against my principles) started eating meat. He was a compulsive spender who never held a job for more than a few months, and I burned through my savings trying to support him.
Every time I tried to hold on to some of my money, he accused me of not loving him enough. We were a partnership, right? Why didn’t I love him as much as he loved me?
And yet every time I complained to friends or family I was met with the same response: “Relationships are about compromise.” I was told that I couldn’t expect to get my way all the time, and was made to feel selfish for feeling trapped and disempowered.
“You have to make sacrifices sometimes,” my mother repeatedly told me. “I followed your Dad to the U.S. even though it meant I couldn’t work. It was very lonely but you do what you have to.”
The consensus seemed to be: if you find a man who loves you, be grateful and hold onto him. That proverbial ticking biological clock was mentioned more than once. I soon learned to be quiet.
He had gotten used to having access to my car while I was at work, so when I took a job with a much longer commute, I agreed to take the train. The condition was that he drove me to and picked me up from the train station.
One day he didn’t show because he had decided to go and see friends in London, and had taken my car to get there. There were no buses from the train station to our house in the countryside so I was effectively stranded.
Even if I had been able to get there, I would not have been able to get into the house because my house keys were on the same key chain as my car keys, which he had taken with him.
When I phoned him, he told me he had no plans to return until the following afternoon, and suggested I take the train down to London to go out clubbing with them. I declined, since it was a Thursday and I had work the next day.
When I look back at this now, I can’t believe that I wasn’t angry with him. Instead, I shrugged it off and called a friend of mine. She picked me up from the station, fed me and let me stay over. We rolled our eyes at how ridiculous men could sometimes be.
Again, this incident was typical of our entire relationship. I was able to be happy by focusing on how “fun” and “spontaneous” he was, and by carefully compartmentalising my negative emotions. After all, he loved me, and relationships are about compromise.
Fast-forward a few years and I have the clarity that comes with hindsight. I can see now that the relationship was emotionally abusive, whereas at the time I was merely confused about why I felt so on edge all the time and would frequently burst into tears over what seemed like nothing at all.
When I share anecdotes from this time in my life, people are amazed that I lived with him for so long. But at the time, this is what I thought relationships were supposed to be like. I didn’t know any better.
This is why I think we need to share more of our experiences of emotional abuse, and stop telling people that relationships are about compromise. Nobody should have to compromise on their values, their identity or their self-esteem to try and make a relationship work.
I now know what being in a healthy relationship actually feels like. And I can tell you, any compromises that we do make never feel like compromises. I’m still constantly amazed by how easy it actually is: there is no feeling too scared to be honest, no emotional manipulation, no wearing down of anybody’s self-esteem. I don’t have to always be striving for his approval.
I can be myself, and he loves me because I am exactly that. I love him, and he makes me so happy that when he’s not feeling as happy as I am, I ask what I can do to make him happier.
I want to make him as happy as he makes me, and he wants to make me as happy as I make him. Every single day we continue to make each other happier and happier and it’s downright sickening. But that’s what love is, right?
It’s amazing that I think my happiness, my loving, supportive relationship, is so miraculous. I feel so goddam lucky because this is more that we’re ever taught to expect.
Women are encouraged to settle down with anyone who says they love them, and is prepared to put up with them -- especially if they are in their late twenties, because apparently we need to find someone who can impregnate us before we reach 35. Never mind whether or not we actually want children, or only want children with someone who makes us happy.
I call enough of this bullshit. We need to stop listening to people telling us to compromise, telling us that we must “find a man” and put up with his flaws if we ever want to get married, or have children, or be acceptable members of society.
We need to start respecting ourselves and stop settling for less than happier and happier every day. And we need to stop encouraging our girlfriends, sisters and daughters to settle for anything less than what makes them come alive.
Because there are good relationships to be had, but they won’t be found if we’re so willing to compromise.