An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I’ve loved this man for 20+ years. We used to work together at a medical center, owned by the local hospital. We became good friends and started to date. When the medical center closed, we remained close. Things got serious between us, but there were things about him that bothered me, and I made it clear: he didn’t keep steady employment after the medical center job, he didn’t seem to want to really work, and just did piece-meal jobs here and there, under the table. I told him this was a real concern for me.
Little did I know, ten years in, he was seeing someone else and married her without telling me. He disappeared on me for three weeks and when I happened to run into him at Walmart of all places, he told me he had just gotten married three weeks before and showed me his ring.
It didn’t stop there. I kept on seeing him, even though he had a wife. Finally, after ten more years of this mistress behavior, I told him I couldn’t deal with him any longer and narrowed him down to just being someone who would periodically call me and ask if I was okay, even though I don’t know the point of him still bothering to check on me. He claimed he married this woman to get her out of a “position of desperation”. She was not pregnant when they got married and didn’t have a child with him until five years into their marriage, when he was threatening to leave her, but didn’t. My best friend always said to me “Don’t let your boyfriend block you from your husband.”
I don’t have that husband yet, but I left him alone and things are opening up in my life (new job, new living space, move to a new town). I just want to know what it is about men like this that makes it so hard to leave them alone and how could he just go off and marry someone else, for any reason while we were supposed to be seriously involved and had agreed to this. I feel so ashamed. Thanks for your advice.
Dear Ms. MRC,
Twenty years ago I started a support group for female survivors of domestic violence at the King County Jail in Seattle, WA. These women were called “victim-offenders” because the State of Washington had inadvertently created an interlocking web of laws that trapped these victims instead of helping liberate them.
When officers were called for a “domestic disturbance” they were required to make an arrest and pursue formal charges; all domestic violence offenses were deemed felonies. Both measures seemed to legislators like an effective way to protect victims, by removing abusers from the scene and increasing the severity of their crimes under the law. Except clearly, no one thought about the likelihood that in an abusive altercation the person actually being abused might be more emotionally traumatized and expressive, nor that it is normal for a victim to defend their abuser from police out of a mix of love and fear. Add all of this to Washington’s “Three Strikes” rule, which dictated that three felony convictions immediately meant life in prison, and you had a perfect net to ensnare victims. All abusers had to do was keep themselves together enough when the police came to convince officers that their victim should be the one arrested and the trap was sprung.
Once these women were taken off to jail, no matter what day it was, they had to sit there until Friday. All domestic violence cases were only tried on Fridays. Many of these women had children, who they knew were going to be left unprotected until they got home. If they pled guilty they could get home quicker, but that meant accumulating felonies. Once they had two felony convictions, “Three-Strikes-You’re-Out” handed their abusers a sword to hold at their necks for the rest of their lives.
On top of all that, many of these women were addicts. They might spend a week waiting to get before a judge, but even if the judge opted to let them out at 9 AM on Friday, the jail waited until midnight to release them — into one of the busiest, most drug-infested neighborhoods in the city. Lawmakers bemoaned the recidivism rate, never acknowledging the way they set the door revolving, over and over and over again.
Every week I walked through multiple sets of steel doors, listening to the boom of the locks striking home behind me, to sit in a room with these traumatized, fierce, beautiful women — aching for their children, suffering through withdrawal. All of my training up to that point had been on carefully, slowly educating my clients on the cycle of abuse, and tenderly bolstering their self-esteem so that they could reclaim enough of their personal power to leave and stay gone. I realized quickly that these women didn’t have that kind of time. They had a whole system quickly wrapping its hands around their necks, and no one to save them but themselves.
For every “you are powerful” I had to follow up with “and you have to stop playing their games”. For every “you are beautiful” I had to offer “no one is coming to save you, so you’re going to have to save yourself”. I spent as much time explaining the web of laws they were trapped in as I did the cycle of abuse. I gave them information that they should have gotten from authorities but did not, that if they were let go by the judge on Friday they could ask not to be released until Saturday morning, ensuring they would not be confronted immediately with the Friday night party. Do you know how hard it was for many of those women to contemplate eight more hours behind bars? Eight more hours away from their children?
But over and over again I had to remind them, only you can save your life. The abuse, laws, addiction — none of that is your fault, all of it is unfair, but that does not change the choice before you right now. Are you going to choose yourself? Are you going to dig down deeper than you ever felt was possible to fight to get free? Because no one else is going to do that for you. You are your only hope. Get on it.
Why do I tell you all of this, Ms. MRC? Because when you ask what is with these trifling, lying, manipulative, dishonorable, intoxicating men, I think you are asking the wrong question. Ask better questions. Ask, what was it in me that was willing to accept his disrespect and his lies for years, just to get the scraps from his table? Ask, am I going to save my own life?
I am not trying to shame you, nor do I think you should feel ashamed. We are raised as women to build our entire sense of self-worth on whether or not we are loved and chosen. Despite the fact that unmarried women have been proven, statistically, to be more satisfied with their lives and to live longer, patriarchal culture force-feeds us the myth that women should want nothing more than to find a husband. Also, all women should be straight, except when, or if, their men want to see them with another woman, but I digress.
Just like the women I worked with at the jail, this is not your fault. Patriarchy has had its hands around your neck all of your life. Still, I don’t think you have the time to waste, seeing how long you have before patriarchy chokes you out.
And, look, I get it. When you have been in a shitty relationship for years and that relationship ends, of course, you want to know why the other person treated you so badly. I’m an astrologer, and for years after my marriage ended, I tracked my ex-husband’s chart. I just wanted to know why. Why had he treated me the way he did? Why did he choose her instead of me? Was he suffering? Would there ever be any karmic justice?
It took years for me to look away — to stop giving him any of my precious energy and time, and instead focus solely on myself. Who he is, or was, or ever will be, did not change the task before me. I had to save myself. I had to lay claim to my life, and stop waiting for someone else to claim me to feel like my life had worth and meaning.
It was hard and slow, but this life I have now? Worth every minute of effort.
It sounds to me, Ms. MRC, like you have already begun to save your own life. Despite the lingering emotional burdens you carry you have managed to move on to a new town, new job, and new home. You have completely changed the external landscape of your life. That is truly amazing.
Now the task before you is to change your inner landscape. Stop giving your energy to questions about that trifling dog of a man. None of the answers matter. He does not matter. You and your life matter.
Claim your life for yourself. Ask what gives you joy and satisfaction. Ask what makes you feel strong and solid in your own skin. If a good, honorable, sexy man shows up who wants some of what you’ve got that would be great, but it still won’t change your worth or your responsibility for your own life. A good man is icing. Your life is the cake.
Make the hell out of it, and then feast on it with both hands.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at email@example.com with the subject line “Walk With Me”. Let’s walk each other home.
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