IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Emotionally Abusive Relationship Ended with a "Dream" Proposal

When he pulled out the ring, I caught the eye of the gondolier, who must have seen the anti-climax in my eyes.
Publish date:
December 15, 2014
boyfriends, Italy, proposals, emotional abuse

Many women dream of the kind of proposal I had with my ex, “Martin”: seated on a gondola in Venice, Italy, the sky dipping to a pale-pink sunset, the handsome, chiseled boyfriend pressed close to me holding out a diamond solitaire and asking me to marry him.

But for me? It was one of the worst days of my life.

My photographs of this time show a pale version of me with dark circles standing beside stately Italian monuments. I’m not smiling in any of them, and the ones of me and Martin together show him with his arms hooked around my waist, in what I’ve since come to call “the hostage photos,” as though he was afraid I might make my escape if he let me go.

He didn’t have to worry about me escaping; I had settled into a morose level of depression, like an animal caught in a trap, which manifested in constant colds and yeast infections, my body itself trying to keep him away.

With each expression of his displeasure in my wardrobe or personal habits, I’d changed something for him. Out went my hip baby-doll dresses purchased at Buffalo Exchange in the Haight. When the last of the fuchsia dye washed out of my hair, he sternly insisted I let my natural blonde grow in. He liked me sterile, tailored, in “girly” clothes I never bought myself.

I was still known by my childhood nickname, Jordie, when we started dating. About six months into our relationship, on our way up to visit his parents four hours away, he turned to me and said, “I’m going to call you Jordan now. It sounds more mature.” No discussion. Rather than seeing this as an alarming sign of possession as I would today, I felt claimed by him, transformed into mature, wanted Jordan with a handsome boyfriend, not awkward, flat-chested little Jordie.

It turned out that his two serious ex-girlfriends both lived in the town where we were headed. The first time he took me there, the one we’ll call "Brenda," a tall, dark-haired girl with moody eyes and full lips, called him within an hour of our visit.

“It’s a small town,” he explained when I asked how she knew he was coming. “Her boyfriend is abusive.” He shook his head, his savior-complex shining from his eyes. “I’ve always been the one she can talk to. I’ve got to convince her to leave him before he hurts her.”

He drove off to talk her down, leaving me alone in his childhood bedroom for hours envisioning him wrapped in her arms.

On another visit not long after that, another ex-girlfriend -- we’ll call her "Sherry" -- the one to whom he’d given his virginity in high school, peeled into his parents’ driveway not a half-hour after we arrived. I recognized her heart-shaped face, blue eyes and blonde hair from photos he still kept in a special box in his room. Somehow, I still gave him the benefit of the doubt that news traveled fast in a small town.

“Don’t go out there,” he said, putting a hand on my shoulder as I moved to go face off with this ex and her audacity. “She never got over our break up -- she might be nasty.”

As I tried hard not to peer out the gauzy curtain to watch them talk, his older brother, hefty and already balding in his mid-twenties, who leered at me when Martin wasn’t looking, said, low under his breath, “He probably hasn’t told her about you yet.”

Indeed, her body language was friendly and flirty: a touch on his shoulder, an easy lean against his car. If you didn’t know better, you might think they were still together.

I asked him later, when we were alone. “Does she not know you have a new girlfriend?”

His eyes narrowed. “You sound like you don’t trust me. It’s just complicated.”

“I’m just saying it seems like she didn’t know.”

He barked an angry laugh and shook his head. “I can’t believe you.” Then he rolled hard away from me, taking the blankets with him, leaving me uncovered and half-nude and bewildered in his bed. What had I done wrong?

I would ask that question often. By the time we moved in together at our one-year mark, he’d taken the art of turning cold and silent to new heights. He ran on an invisible master script to which only he had access. I was simply supposed to know my lines without rehearsal, and when I screwed up, his punishments came in the form of emotional winter. My infractions ranged from asking my parents to supply us with a lamp, to making a moderately sexual joke with a girlfriend in front of him. I would only catch the signs too late: the way he’d draw up his shoulders and snap his spine straight, the way his eyes would go glazed and hard. I’d then become a ghost in my own home as he passed by without acknowledging me for days at a time. He’d shower and dress with the door closed, sleep as far from me in bed as possible, facing away, and leave the apartment without saying goodbye.

I’d quickly grow desperate, overcome by shame and terror of abandonment. Sex was the only thing that thawed him, and it didn’t take long for me to resent this. More than a few times, I bit back the urge to shove him off of me with a rage I didn’t dare express.

Meanwhile, there was a hang-dog, depressed girl he worked with at the sandwich shop who took to calling after hours. As always, he reassured me that he was “just being a friend.” I told myself I’d been lucky to find a guy who could be not only a great boyfriend, but a good friend. There would be others. Many others.

While I gave him every benefit of the doubt, he increasingly pushed me away from things I loved. He thought my habit of writing in my journal was “obsessive” and any suggestions we go try to work out our communication issues in therapy were met with threats that he’d leave me. If I so much as hinted at us having problems to my parents, he’d sleep in the other room for a week.

His outlet from the stress of college life was to goad me to have sex in semi-public places, where we could be caught: in our car in our college parking lot; in the same room as a visiting friend, under covers, with a movie on; on the couch in his parents’ living room where anyone could walk in.

The Europe trip that led to our engagement came on the heels of the best summer of our relationship. He went back home to teach at the soccer camp he’d attended as a kid. Afraid that I would be lonely, instead I quickly came to feel as though I’d released a two-and-a-half-year-long held breath. He called once during that time to tell me about a party he’d attended. His ex-girlfriend, "Sherry," was there. She’d cornered him in a room with a plastic vibrator.

“I was very proud of myself,” he said confidently over the phone, “for not going for it.”

I was proud of myself for not caring.

He returned home to find a happy, carefree version of the girlfriend he’d left behind, living it up rollerblading and hot-tubbing with our mutual best friends. His answer was to book us a trip to Europe. By the time we got on the plane to France, I barely recognized myself. The girl who’d filled a journal per month had stopped writing while we were together. I didn’t have a single piece of clothing I’d bought myself. I wanted to dye my hair red and crack dirty jokes.

He kept up his attempts to control most of our time in Europe, but my individuality was rising up to assert itself at last. We couldn’t agree on restaurants or museums and argued our way all across Rome, Florence, Pisa and eventually, Venice, the crowning glory of his trip. All I remember of that mythical place are stinking canals and expensive tourist menus, an overwhelming fatigue and stomach pains from weeks of heavy Italian food.

By the time we were seated on that gondola, I could barely look at him. When he pulled out the diamond solitaire I’d expressly told him I didn’t want-- I'm more of an earthy tourmaline kind of girl -- I caught the eye of the gondolier, who must have seen the anti-climax in my eyes; he shook his head just slightly.

I said yes because we had two more weeks left in Europe and I didn’t know how I’d get home alone. What should have been the beginning of a life together, was really the beginning of the end of the cuckolded woman, the sweater-set mannequin he could bend and pose to his will.

The next time I went to Italy, I went alone, wearing my favorite funky parachute pants and a big smile, filling up journals all across the country.