The quote above was from a poem I wrote titled: “I want to be known for kindness.” It was written just after I finished a stint of home school. I moved around a lot as a kid. Junior high was difficult, and my self-esteem had plummeted. When I returned to school my creative writing class was my biggest outlet- hence, the poem.
It was the very end of August 2014 and my husband was still living with his friend Evan McMullin, sleeping on his couch in his Washington D.C. apartment. He told me he was there to look for a job and I wanted to believe him. I thought I’d be moving to Washington shortly, and even shared the news in some emails to a few friends checking in on me. But now months had passed and he was still there. I kept believing in him, even when I wasn’t sure what he was doing day-to-day, and even when photos would pop up on social media of him dining out with friends or attending sporting events.
It was a very difficult time for me. I took time off from work and traveled to Salt Lake City and testified in court at the federal sentencing of my father. I cannot describe the pain I felt from seeing my father in court- a man I love and admire so much—in a situation that felt so wrong. I can’t express the pain of not being able to hug my dad, or even get close enough to him to say hello. My dad is legally blind, and he can’t see me- or anyone- from a distance. But I was grateful to know he could at least hear me as I stood before the court and shared my thoughts about the man I knew, the generosity I had seen him show so many, and the strong children he helped raise.
My husband, however, was absent. The man that was supposed to always have my back, to be there for me no matter what, he had turned his back on me when it mattered most. I created excuses for him to calm the intensity of my pain: “He’s in Washington D.C.” I would say. “He’s talking with top people. He’s there to take care of us. He’s so important,” I fantasized. He told me that he would land an amazing job soon- and that’s what I told my siblings and friends at the courthouse.
I’m so grateful that in my pain I had Ruthanne. I texted my aunt Ruthanne throughout the whole sentencing. It helped. I had spent the last week sitting in court as a reporter in Idaho, sending notes back to producers, and now I was in court as a family member watching a local reporter taking notes about my father. Not being able to sit still, I took notes too. I shared with Ruthanne everything the prosecutors, the judge and my dad were saying. She showed compassion. She wanted to know. Earlier that day I had read to her what I had planned to say to the judge. She reassured me and told me it sounded good. She offered helpful suggestions. Although Ruthanne was hundreds of miles away, she still cared and I could lean on her. She was the only one who was truly there for me on that day.
Perhaps I cannot explain the extent of my pain, because I didn’t know how to feel it fully. It was so deep and confusing. To delve that deep into pain takes courage and I didn’t have much left in me. I was focused on surviving. Without the same health insurance we were receiving from my husband’s graduate school my anti-anxiety medication was no longer affordable, and I could no longer afford a therapist. My friends would invite me out, but I didn’t think I could always go because they were single and I was married. I would go home after work at 11 pm and watch Dateline episodes on my computer to avoid the feelings of abandonment and confusion. I’m sure I watched every Dateline and 20/20 episode from 2014. Sometimes I think I earned a degree in television criminology that year. I became so numb and lifeless. In an attempt to put aside all of my pain and to simply survive I was drinking. It was a secret I was keeping from my husband because I knew he would use it against me. I knew he would be angry and he would berate me for trying to cope with a difficult situation in the best way I knew how at the time. I knew he would use our religion against me. But I was angry. I was angry at how he used religion to control me. Angry at how he always told me what was right and wrong without any discussion. Angry that he never felt I was spiritual enough, or good enough. Angry that he pretended to be so righteous and, yet, he was so cruel and indifferent to me.
I was angry at what I had been taught growing up. I felt I had done everything correctly. I had followed all the rules and walked such a narrow path and this is where it all got me: alone and abandoned. I was not angry at God- in fact, quite the opposite. God was my most reliable friend through it all. I talked to God all of the time and felt continuous love. I told God everything. I grew closer to God each day and my faith in this higher love only increased. I was longing for unconditional love and that seemed to be the place I could find it. But I started to become angry at the cultural lessons I had been fed—that I could have my Mormon family fairytale if I just followed this set path, married within the church, and was obedient to my husband. I believed my upbringing was partially responsible for why I abandoned my career so easily, or why I questioned whether I should have even taken the reporter job in Boise. Of course I should have! How sad that I kept having to remind myself of my own strength and independence.
I’ve now learned how so many of us become the shell of the person we once were when dealing with emotional manipulation, and I believed that sharing this darkness in my blog would only be right It was during these moments of darkness that I also learned to feel deep empathy for those who turn towards substances to calm their pain. I’m grateful for gaining that insight and for understanding that true healing can only come from compassion and love- no matter what our struggles entail. I received no compassion from my husband, who would have seen my drinking as weakness and cowardice rather than a way to cope with so much adversity and pain.
I was unsure about my husband’s motives for refusing to live with me. Was it to punish me? To blame me for taking the job in Boise? I told some friends I thought he wanted a divorce, but he just wanted me to be the one who did it. I started aching for his love and acceptance even more as he continually pulled away. Sadly, when someone abandons you the right course of action should be to walk away, but instead I just wanted him to love me even more. I craved his attention. I wanted his acceptance. I wanted the love I thought he’d once shown me. But it only became worse. Whenever I called and shared that something mattered to me, he would stop doing it- and then blame me. When I told him it would feel good if he called to make sure I made it home safely each night after work, he stopped checking in. I knew his behaviors were manipulative- a constant power struggle- but I still craved his approval.
I understood intellectually that I couldn’t change him, and that I couldn’t get him to love me, but emotionally I was still willing to jump into the same black hole over and over again despite beginning to understand there was no way out. Some call this co-dependency and I have to agree. I sometimes felt compelled to seek the most approval from the person who cared the least, which only created more approval-seeking. A dysfunctional dance that always seemed to give him the upper hand and to keep me hooked on his manipulative hook. Why did I devalue myself so much that I even wanted to engage in this crazy dance?
When I would try to discuss my loneliness and pain he would always provide a non-answer: “I’m doing all I can Lauren, what do you want me to do?” “Come to Idaho,” I would say. “Search for a job from our apartment. There are always options. We can make it work.” “But you left me, Lauren, you left me.” Always the same old story, always my fault.
Here’s what I learned from this dysfunctional dance:
When you’re weak and vulnerable you’ll likely be exploited.
When you’re too giving, you’ll be exploited.
When you have plenty of love and compassion for others, you’re susceptible to being exploited. When you lack assertiveness or self-esteem or offer empathy to those fools who don’t deserve it, you will be exploited.
I know because that’s exactly what happened to me: I was exploted by a master manipulator. Of course if you bring all of those qualities to the table with a trustworthy partner who’s capable of love- real love, not pretend love- then you won’t get exploited.
I know now that my weakness and vulnerability were the very reasons I was even in this dysfunctional relationship. I met my husband at the lowest point in my life- almost 5 years earlier. When he came into my life my father’s legal struggles had begun, and he had gone to prison. We lost our family home, our financial security, our emotional stability, and I was living in Pocatello, Idaho as a 29-year-old single woman on a measly newbie-journalist salary. I was living with my grandma, and my parents just shared they were getting a divorce. I had a lot of pain and I felt abandoned. My dad, and my family, had made me feel safe, and now I had a huge wound that could not be mended. I was susceptible to exploitation.
I’m embarrassed to admit what I wrote in my private journal while living in Pocatello, just a month before I started dating my future husband: “I just wish someone could rescue me. I wish someone could rescue me and take me away from here.” Is it even possible to be more vulnerable? I was the lamb about to enter the slaughter.
Intellectually, I fully understood no one could rescue me but myself. That’s why I was pursuing my journalism career, being strong and resilient, and doing what I needed to do to take care of myself. Emotionally, on the other hand, I was craving so much for someone to heal my wounds, to take away my pain. I was so susceptible to someone presenting me with a compelling fantasy and providing the hope that tomorrow would be better than today. That’s exactly when he came along.
When he attempted to start dating me, coming up to see me in Pocatello (a 3.5 hours drive for him), something didn’t feel right. He would shower me with gifts, love letters, and words of praise, even though he barely knew me. He would help me with my news reports, but my gut kept telling me that something wasn’t right. I felt guilt for all of the kindness I thought he was showing me, but one day when he called me and asked to come visit me again in Pocatello I told him no. My gut was telling me no. He told me he had gifts for me from his trip to Paris. I told him he couldn’t visit and that I needed time alone. He responded: “Well I’m going to make an executive decision and come anyway.” And I was angry he would dismiss my request for him to leave me alone. I knew it was wrong. I knew he was crossing so many boundaries by ignoring my request. So I followed his executive decision up with an email. In that email I told him not to visit. I said I was sorry, but “I know I will never have feelings for you.” He called me immediately on the phone after I sent that email. He acted sad and asked if he could come up “for closure.” I felt sorry for him, and told him he could. …When you lack assertiveness or self esteem, or offer empathy to those fools who don’t deserve it, you will be exploited.
That decision to let him come up for closure, was a major mistake. I learned that with manipulators there is never any such thing as closure, there is always one more thing to discuss, one more time to say good-bye. It never ends because they only care about getting their way- it’s never about you.
Four years later, now in Boise and married, I found myself still fighting this losing battle that began when I didn’t stand up for myself and tell him to leave me alone. I was fighting the losing battle that began when I was gullible and vulnerable and he offered me some hope. When someone violates a major boundary early in a relationship- when they disregard your request to be left alone- things will never get better. Boundaries will continually become ignored, there will never be any closure or respect.
The first time someone crosses an important boundary in your relationship run like hell. It will never get better. It will never change.
Unfortunately, when we’re not healthy and strong we sometimes try to work through things with someone who isn’t going to give us what we need. I found a man who pretended to give me everything I wanted in a moment, or maybe in a day, something that would temporarily take the pain away, but then he would disappear- leaving me craving what he once gave me and how he once made me feel. But it was all an illusion, a game to keep himself in control of my life.
And this man—he had a huge wound, too. He also felt abandoned. The difference in us was that I was open to healing my wounds. He wasn’t, despite my assuming he would be. I thought we’d heal our wounds together. Instead, his whole personality was geared towards not feeling his wounds, being defended against them, and against any emotions I might feel. I was never going to change that, no matter what I did or how much I tried to love him.
I kept fighting this losing battle of giving to someone who wasn’t fully going to give to me- feeling empathy for someone who didn’t give me the same.
Don’t keep seeking love and approval from somebody who is never going to give it to you. It’s a losing battle and you will always ache for the love you deserve.
In Boise, August was coming to a close, and I knew this was all wrong. I took a bold step- I purchased an online divorce service for $150.00. I didn’t tell anyone, but I felt proud. Emotionally, however, I was still clinging to the absurd hope that this man would love me, or at least momentarily take away this pain- pain he played a major role in perpetuating. How crazy is it to expect the person who is hurting you the most to take away your hurt? What was I thinking? I was desperate. I still clung to the fairytale dream of this perfect, happy family- a dream that he had so often perpetuated.
From this place of desperation we talked one night:
“It’s hard to be alone,” I told him. “I keep telling people you might be coming to Boise soon.”
“Lauren, you know that was never the plan. You left me. I’m still looking for a job in DC.”
“How can I leave a home I don’t have? Do you want me to sleep on Evan’s couch with you?”
“You could come to Washington D.C. if you wanted to,” he replied.
“Really? You think? Where would I stay? You always tell me Evan doesn’t like me. Could I stay there with you?”
“Come on, Lauren, don’t do that to me. Things are going well here. I’ll have a job and apartment soon.”
“I could quit and come out there. I could be there in three weeks,” I told him.
“Don’t jump the gun,” he said. “Don’t be rash.”
“What do you mean? You keep telling me I left you and I’m telling you I’ll come to you, and now you’re saying not to?”
“Don’t put words in my mouth.”
This was so infuriating- always the same impasse, the same refusal to listen.
“Okay, true, you’re saying to not jump the gun. But you keep telling me I left you. So I’m suggesting I’ll come. Do you want me….” He cut me off, as he often did.
“No, listen to me. Our relationship has been really difficult and we’ve always had a lot of problems, but yes, I hope that if we get together again, we can fix all of the problems we’re having,” he told me.
I wanted to scream. And I almost did. I put my hand over my mouth so I wouldn’t. There was always something. Something was always wrong. There was always an “if”. Something always had to be fixed. And it was always me. Always always always me.
“I don’t want to be with someone who always thinks our relationship isn’t good enough,” I told him. “This makes me so sad and I always feel so bad,” I said.
Then I was honest: “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
“Lauren, come on. Don’t do this to me right now. You know how hard I’m working to get a job. You could come out to Washington D.C. if you really wanted to.”
“I want to- if you want me to,” I told him. It often felt like I was always acquiescing to his needs. I was so pathetic.
“Come on, Lauren. What do you think? We’ve been over this so much.”
There was never an “I love you,” never a ”I want to be with you,” never a “I miss you.” Those were what I was aching for more than anything else. I waited for them. I hoped for them. They never came. He was incapable of giving me what I wanted in an intimate relationship, but I was naïve enough to believe it still might work.
I realized I could no longer live with such turmoil. I either had to divorce the man I thought I’d spend forever with, or I had to move to Washington D.C. and trust he was on the path he promised me he was on.
“Okay, I’ll come,” I told him. “Just give me the word, and I’ll quit that day. I’m ready to make this work- whatever it takes.”
Additional readings: How you and your narcissistic partner are actually the same.
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