IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Left The Country to Escape a Bad Relationship (And Never Came Back)

I kept trying to make things work with an emotionally screwed-up man. Until I realized the only way to leave him was to leave the country.
Publish date:
June 18, 2015
travel, Dating, personal growth, breaking up, Live Abroad

Peter* came into my life in late spring, on one of the worst days I’d had all year. Weeks had gone by since the end of my fourth year at university, and I was still learning how to be single after breaking up with my first boyfriend a few months before. I spent most of my time licking peanut butter off spoons and watching Saved by the Bell in four-hour blocks.

I met Peter when we were both waiting at a bus stop. He approached me and we talked. He had just returned from seven years guiding tours in South America. His life dazzled me.

He was 27; I was 22. I was shy, unadventurous. The only time I had ever left Canada was to shop at the outlet malls in Buffalo, New York. When Peter asked for my phone number, I, awed by his confidence and his apparent worldliness, gave it to him.

We started spending time together. I was amazed that someone older and more experienced wanted to be around me. I felt like Peter would open up new worlds to me, and he did. The first thing I learned from him was how to get fall-down drunk.

It was at a backyard barbecue with all of his late-20s friends. I felt utterly outclassed. They told stories about threesomes and nights spent in jail. For the last four years, I had been holed up in library carrels with Norton literature anthologies. There was nothing to do but gulp down the drinks Peter dutifully kept refilling and try to act natural.

When we got back to Peter’s house, I collapsed on his porch and puked into his mother’s flowerbeds. I spent the night in his room, too incapacitated to make the 5-minute walk home and too ashamed to call my parents to pick me up.

I laid awake all night next to Peter, certain I had blown things with him. So when he rolled over the next morning and told me he was falling in love with me, I was not only shocked, I was desperately grateful.

Our first three months together were our golden age. We went to bars, took weekend trips, and talked about the future. He drew maps of the places he’d visited on cocktail napkins and promised we’d go there together some day.

With Peter, I felt myself blossoming. I wanted to be everything I thought he was: self-assured, experienced, and energetic. I thought to myself often that I could never let go of him. If I lost him, I would lose my new, improved self.

So when Peter started showing signs of jealousy, I interpreted them in the best possible light. It was flattering, I told myself. He wanted me all to himself. Better—much better—than him not wanting me at all.

He told me about his ex-girlfriends, all of whom had cheated on him, he claimed. Insisting that it was his right to protect himself from potential pain and betrayal, he asked me to stop spending time with my male friends. He even showed up at my house unannounced to make sure I was alone when I wasn’t with him. This all felt unnecessary to me. But I wanted him to feel secure, so I did what he asked.

In the winter, we went to Mexico with several of his male friends. The closeness I thought we’d developed was suddenly and inexplicably gone. He played beach volleyball and drank with his buddies. He barely spoke to me.

I tried not to cry over the breakfasts we ate in silence and I counted the days until the flight home, until I could be back in familiar surroundings to figure things out.

One afternoon on the beach, I blew up at Peter over how little time he was spending with me.

“You’re too dependent,” he sneered. “You need to meet other people to hang out with so that I don’t always have to be looking after you.”

After the argument, I laid out my beach towel by the water and let my sadness wash over me. He went back to his volleyball game.

A few minutes later, I saw Peter stride to the water and plunge in. He stomped back out and straight over to me. Dripping cold saltwater all over my body, he planted a leg on each side of the towel, bent down, and aggressively kissed me. I was confused, since he never made the first move to reconcile after a fight.

When he finally pulled back, he said “I don’t want any guys approaching you—I’m showing everyone you’re taken.”

He went back to the game and didn’t speak to me again all afternoon. His anger never abated and he was distant the remainder of the trip.

Things got worse and I got more confused over the next few months. I kept reliving our first three months together, convinced that if I just tiptoed carefully enough around Peter, our relationship could right itself.

But everything aroused his suspicions. If I took too long in the bathroom at a restaurant or club, he would come knock on the door to make sure I was actually in there and not clandestinely meeting another guy.

One time, I noticed he had some Costa Rican currency in his car—a remnant of his personal travels—and blurted out “Oh, these are colones.” His face instantly darkened. “How do you know what those are? You went to Costa Rica with your secret boyfriend, didn’t you?”

At first, I thought he was joking when he made these accusations. But I soon realized he wasn’t. To his mind, all women were liars and traitors.

No man was safe from his paranoia. Peter even bristled at my having a male physician. He asked me to stop getting pelvic exams because he imagined that these were a source of sexual pleasure for both me and the doctor.

“Do you like it when he does it? He must look forward to your appointments. You’re his treat for the day.” I internalized Peter’s thinking and started feeling guilty for any kind of contact with any man.

I first broke things off in February, eight months into our relationship. I spent days psyching myself up for it. Over and over, I recited all the reasons why things weren’t working. The jealousy. The withdrawing. The disrespect.

When I had the conversation with Peter, he didn’t seem fazed. He agreed that if I couldn’t accept certain things about him, then we shouldn’t be together.

A few hours later, an email arrived from him. He wanted me to know that he was “so sad” and that breaking up felt “so wrong.” After all, we’d been together for so many months, he said, surely I knew who he was and should be willing to “accept the bad along with the good.”

In my pining and insecure state, his arguments sounded logical. This must mean he really does love me, I thought.

So we got back together. But things were different. Dozens of girls I didn’t know began posting on his Facebook page. When I asked him about it, and pointed out his hypocrisy in collecting new female friends while forbidding me from interacting with my pre-existing male ones, he just shrugged and said “I need a backup plan in case you decide to break up with me again.”

Three agonizing months went by. We split and reunited over and over again. I swallowed every searing insult, spoken or unspoken, that Peter heaved at me. He would disappear for days at a time, and when he finally showed back up, he offered nonsense explanations that dared me to question them, so he would have an excuse to erupt in anger, shifting the focus from his absence to my lack of faith in him.

I knew I had to make a real exit plan when I stumbled across his profile on an online dating site. He’d made no effort to conceal it—he left it open on his laptop in plain view. All of the pictures he used in his profile were ones I had taken of him in Mexico. The same smile he’d beamed at me over sunset cocktails was now beaming out to the whole of the Internet, beckoning new women to take my place.

When I confronted him, he explained to me with a benevolent smile that he was simply using the site to “make friends.” That is when I knew, for certain and forever, that not only did this man not love me in the same unconditional and unrelenting way I loved him, but that he didn’t even know me.

He estimated my intelligence to be so low that I would believe anything. That was the realization that snapped me out of my lovelorn stupor. Determined to make it stick this time, I broke up with Peter again.

I told and re-told the story of my relationship to anyone who would listen. I talked about how I missed Peter. How I missed traveling with him.

One night, a friend of mine floated an idea by me: why not go abroad? Most of my fascination with Peter had been with his worldliness, his ability to casually travel to places.

“Do you really need him for that?” my friend said. “If you like travel, do it on your own.” He printed out a newsletter that had postings for jobs all over the world.

When I got home that night, I sent out applications. The very next day, the recruiter for a teaching job in South Korea called me and asked how soon I could fly out. I was hesitant to go, but I was terrified to stay and potentially keep repeating the same mistakes.

So I accepted the job, and less than a month later I was in Seoul. Everything about my life was immediately and refreshingly different: new city, new job, new friends. Peter faded quickly from my mind.

I stopped spending my nights trying to figure out what he was thinking and started spending them wandering neon-soaked streets, eating barbecue, and singing karaoke. I took trips all over Asia, many of them on my own. It’s been eight years since I made the move and I’m still in Seoul today.

Peter still contacts me occasionally. His emails are uniformly light and cheery and are always signed off with a casual request to catch up in person. I wonder if he uses that tone intentionally—if it’s his way of pretending that our relationship wasn’t a nightmare for me.

More likely, he truly has no awareness of how much I suffered and how much it took for me to finally leave him. I’ll never know for sure what he really thinks or feels, since I never write back.

*Name has been changed.