Guest Blogger – Old Proverbs: You’re Doing it Wrong

I am humbled to share this deeply personal and powerful reflection by my friend, guest blogger Lady Viola. 

When I was nearly 16, I got into an online relationship with an abusive man.  Let’s call him Claudio, for his willingness to believe the worst of women.  He was 21, but told me he was 18.  I knew he was lying because when he told me his birthday, he didn’t give me the year;  only the month and date.  But I didn’t really care, at that point.  I was just recovering and rediscovering myself after the end of my first major relationship, and I figured he was nervous or something that I’d reject him.  Like I said, I didn’t care.  At the time I was already being abused by my parents and he lived interstate, and I figured that if I found a relationship I was happy in that got me the fuck away from them, that was so much the better, really.

The abusive behaviour from him started the way it usually does:  with jealousy.  He didn’t like me talking to other men online, didn’t like hearing about my male best friend.  Luckily for me, I was already well-practiced at dealing with disapproval from people who are significant in my life, and I dealt with that issue by just not telling him about it.  I wasn’t deluding myself into thinking that he’d be better when we were together and he could “see” that I was committed to him;  I honestly wasn’t thinking that far ahead, and if I had been, my response wouldn’t have been any different.  I’d just not talk to him about things that bothered him and do them anyway, like with my parents.  This was all standard procedure, as far as I was concerned, and so far nothing was any worse than it had ever been.

I consider myself extremely fortunate that the relationship was entirely online and, even though he knew a lot of my personal details, he wasn’t the kind of abusive that would hunt me down.  Again, I think the lack of proximity was a big part of that, and made it easier for both of us to let it go once I ended it.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that fights didn’t happen, or rather, that he didn’t start them.  I rarely remember what they were about, but it was usually his jealousy or insecurity or some nonsense like that.  I had very little patience for it, even then.  The first few times, I played the part I knew he wanted me to play, begging him to stay, etc, but I knew it was all part of a script;  one that I’d rehearsed many times with my mother, who loved to withdraw from me emotionally, but more on that in another post.  Eventually though, after the first few fights, I’d quite simply had enough;  I was tired of the same shit, over and over again, so I just said “That’s fine.  It’s your choice;  you can end it if you want.”  Well, it didn’t stop him being an arsehole, but it did give him pause.  He quoted the old proverb at me, “If you love something, set it free;  if it comes back, it’s yours.  If it doesn’t, it never was”, and this is where I reach the point of this reflection.

You see, in my experience, abusive people love to use that proverb as a way to “test” their partner’s love (and yes, he did actually tell me once that he’d been testing me), which is a shitty thing to do, and abusive because it means the abused person never really knows where they stand;  are they really angry?  Are they testing me?  Which script do I need to perform?  Et cetera et cetera, ad infinitum.  They threaten to leave you, to break your heart, to take everything you value away from you, if you don’t play the part they want you to play;  it’s all one dangerous, deadly game, as far as they’re concern, and there can only ever be one winner.

Flash forward to 2008, long after ending that relationship, but still at university, studying and living with my abusive mother and largely-absent father.  I’d been dating my now-husband (let’s call him Horatio) for several months, much to my mother’s dismay (though I think she was delighted to have something else to yell at me about), and she made no secret of how she felt about it, at least, when no one was around to witness it.  It was a cold, foggy April morning, a mere four days before Horatio’s birthday.  I was planning on going to class that morning, but she had spent more or less the entire time while I was getting ready (a good 45 minutes to an hour) abusing me for my choice of boyfriend.  It was one of the worst tirades she’d been on regarding Horatio, and I felt thoroughly beaten as I drove off in my tiny, old car.  I called Horatio, and asked him to meet me right away, which he did.

He got in my car when I arrived at his place, and I burst into tears in front of him.  I told him that it would never get better, as far as Mother Dearest was concerned;  she would never approve, her mind was made up, and she would continue to make me miserable, and I needed him to know that.  Horatio’s response was to invoke the true meaning of that proverb:  he told me that he loved me, but he didn’t want to stand in the way of my relationship with my family;  that he would not leave me because of this, but also would not hold it against me if I ended it, because he understood that family is important.  He had set me free, by giving me a choice.  This is so much more than I could ever have hoped for, either from Claudio or from my mother, and it was a truly big moment in our relationship.  I was free to choose, with no guilt, no threats, no repercussions.  So I chose Horatio, because with him, I was free to go, but chose to stay.

The true meaning of that now-cliche proverb is lost on many people, and the phrase lends itself perfectly to abusive relationships.  People use it to give themselves licence to reject, demean and belittle others in the name of wanting “proof” of being loved, claiming that casting off their partner or child or friend, to make themselves feel wanted, needed, and superior, while making their victim say words of self-deprecation and voice a need and love and desire for the abuser.  It’s a power play, and a powerful tactic;  after all, if hearing something repeatedly can make you believe it to be true, how powerful can saying it be?  It’s like a spell that the abuser makes you cast upon yourself, and it is the most vicious and cruel type of magic.

– Lady Viola

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