I had no idea what a healthy relationship was supposed to look like
When I finally left a long-term, toxic relationship, I felt like an off-leash dog at the beach; rather than spoil the high by going to therapy or making any attempt to process my emotions, I started dating immediately.
One of my first dates was with a divorced man who wanted to take me to Giorgio Baldi in Santa Monica. As I drove onto Pacific Coast Highway, the sun was beginning to set over the ocean. I called to let him know I was running a few minutes late. “Take your time,” he said, “I’m having a couple of drinks before dinner.”
We started with ravioli, as he ranted about his ex-wife. He was halfway through a bottle of Champagne when he casually disclosed that he had grown up in a cult in Northern California led by his father, who forced my date to engage in sexual acts with a “priestess” as a means of achieving nirvana.
I rejected his last-ditch effort to get me to go home with him, and the night ended with my date clutching my left wrist and holding my arm up dramatically, proclaiming, “You have old hands!”
This man set off alarm bells, even in a brain like mine that had been conditioned by years of exposure to narcissism. Unfortunately, I had no idea what a healthy relationship looked like, and other men were slower to reveal themselves.
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There was the one I called “Texas,” a fellow lawyer whose need to categorize and label was so great that he spent the majority of our first date analyzing which celebrity I reminded him of, then attempted to compliment me by saying I had the body of a 30-year-old. (I was 36, so his statement, while oddly precise, was not particularly generous.)
We weren’t a match, but it was easy to forget that as we lay entangled on our hotel bed after an afternoon of exploring Los Olivos. We were connected by nothing more than our mutual desire for escape. Our time together ended shortly after I told him that he “lacked an inner spark” and he told me, “It’s like you don’t believe you’re worthy.” Neither of us was wrong.
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There was the film composer. He was semi-famous, or at least he thought so. After hours of intellectual conversation in the candlelit darkness of the Tasting Kitchen, he seemed enchanted by me, but on our second date, he was even more enchanted by a semi-famous actress sitting at a table nearby.
And there were many others.
The truth is, I felt lost. I had been in my 20s when I met my ex. He charmed me with grandiose gestures. We hadn’t even officially started dating when he invited me on vacation to a seaside Mexican resort, where he paid for us to live like hedonists for a week even though we were grad students who couldn’t afford it. The romance of that trip set the tone for months to follow. So by the time he began exhibiting controlling behavior, I was already hooked. I told myself the outbursts were a fluke and that things would get better.
Instead, the behavior escalated. He tried to prohibit me from going anywhere without him. He punished me with a stream of accusatory text messages and days of silent treatment every time I so much as visited my family in my small hometown (he was convinced I was cheating on him with various unidentified “old flames”).
As a young woman, I believed him when he said it was because he loved me. His words echoed antiquated messages I had absorbed since childhood: that boys are mean to you because they like you; that love is supposed to hurt.
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Slowly, all kinds of cruel, manipulative behavior began to seem normal. When I did listen to my gut and push back, he denied his behavior completely, called me crazy or insisted that I “made him” mistreat me. I learned to blame myself for his misconduct. I didn’t think I deserved better.
My ex’s gaslighting had convinced me that my own intuition was not to be trusted. This was a predicament when it came to identifying good men in the vast L.A. dating pool.
But then I met the Austrian guy from the Valley. He wooed me in his backyard hammock as we rocked under twinkling white lights, inhaling the scent of jasmine. We flirted at the Original Farmers Market. We grabbed burgers in the shadow of the giant neon clown from “Clueless,” and lounged poolside at the Chateau Marmont. Every Wednesday after work, we met at a different location to go on a hike; once we almost tripped over two massive rattlesnakes lying sun-drunk across a trail in the hills.
We had so much fun that I barely registered that when my grandma died, he made no attempt to comfort me. When his Chihuahua bit me on the nose, he snapped at me, “What did you do to her?” as blood dripped down my face.
But as long as I buried my difficult emotions, everything went smoothly. We never fought. We said “I love you” constantly. Compared with the drama of my last relationship, this one felt like a perfect bubble.
Of course, in time we did fight, and shortly afterward he informed me that he wanted our relationship to be “more casual.” Stunned into inaction, I got in bed next to him. My hurt and anger grew as he slept peacefully beside me. None of my dating experiences had worked out, and now this one was a failure too.
What was wrong with me?
As I lay there in the dark, I saw that as much as I doubted myself and my choices in men, my intuition about each of my recent dates had actually been right on. And I had listened to my intuition every time, leaving as soon as it became clear. I hadn’t succumbed to the siren call of artificial happiness — the kind that comes from a relationship based solely on escapism or “positive vibes” or being who someone else wanted me to be. Unlike in the past, I had trusted myself.
I sneaked out of bed, got in my car and merged onto a freeway so empty and glowing under the streetlights that it looked like the backdrop to a dream.
I had thought I could go from an unhealthy relationship with my ex directly into a healthy one, but it turned out I had some healing to do along the way. It would start with never ignoring my inner compass again. And so I took the 101 to the 405 to the 10, knowing that eventually I’d find my way home.
The author is a writer and lawyer living in Echo Park. She is on Instagram @becoming.yourself
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