He Didn’t Trust Me Because I Wasn’t Trustworthy (and Other Tales of Self-Blame)
Once – and only once – upon a time, a man left me. He left me after I swallowed the second of two pills that effectively ended the possibility of us being united for a lifetime with a child. He left me on my knees, crying and begging for him to give me one more chance, to forgive me for some imagined hurt, to hold onto me. I needed him to stay so badly that I didn’t care how foolish I was acting or even how foolish it was what I was asking of him. I mean it when I say I begged: I was on my knees on cold hard tile floor, with my hands in prayer to him, tears streaming down my face and snot pouring from my nose.
As shameful as it is to share this story for the first time and so publicly, my closest friends (and many friends along the way) would not be the least bit surprised if I had told them. I obsessed over L since the moment I met him in college and after a calamitous affair that ended in him being forced to cut all ties with me, I never really let go. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of prose about him; I fell apart on every floor of every library trying to make sense of my feelings for him; and, after being reunited six years later, I dropped my entire life in D.C. to move back to a place I swore I would never return (my hometown) to be with him. As I wrote long ago, I felt like I would run out in the middle of traffic to save him from harm. I had never experienced that intensity and desperation of feelings for anyone before, and I believed for years and years that I would never be able to feel that way again.
Almost immediately after we reunited and entered into a real relationship with one another, he began to alternate between making me feel like the most beautiful human being to ever exist…and the worst human being to have ever been born. When things were good, I had never been happier with anyone. He showered me with attention and affection like crazy; he reminisced on our years apart and his mutual obsession for me; he memorized my work schedule and would call me just as I was going to work or leaving so he could keep me company on my hour-long bus ride. He would not only tell me I was beautiful; he would recount every detail about me he loved. And, then suddenly, it would seem like a switch was flipped and he would obsessively pick apart real and imagined traits of mine and tell me how those traits made him dislike me.
There was this one time he called my phone and it went to voicemail, and he spent two minutes on my voicemail talking to me as though I picked up the phone. When I called him back, wondering why he left such a strange and silly message, he began to belittle me because he believed I had answered the phone on speaker due to some noises he heard when he had left the voicemail. He asserted that I was just letting my friends hear him talk to embarrass him. This bizarre scenario he had in his head caused him to berate me for the rest of the night and was evidence for him that something about my character was inauthentic and harmful. There was nothing I could do to change his mind or prove otherwise, but in my desperation over him, I let him attack me over and over while I kept trying to explain that there must have been some issue with my phone, that I was nowhere near my phone at the time, and that I didn’t understand why he thought I would want to do something like that. In situations such as this, he would bring up the story of our affair back in college, using that as additional proof that my character was flawed. He had this way about him of placing himself above me and judging me as though he could set a standard for me and that he was far removed from any error in his ways.
It took me a long time to learn that I shouldn’t defend myself to this man. In fact, for the hundreds and hundreds of “I love you”s he gave me came just as many if not more times that he told me I was a whore. And every single time, I fought back. Eventually, sometime after he left me, he cried to me about his skewed views on women, about his mother, and about how much he struggled with this knot in his stomach that told him he could never trust me even though his heart loved me more than anyone he had ever loved before. Though I knew – and he knew – something was wrong with him, I didn’t quite know how to shake the stories he repeated to me so often. I wondered, was I a whore? Was I inauthentic, unbelievable, just not right? Should any man ever trust me with his heart? His words had weight and power to them and I had nothing within me strong enough or positive enough to argue he was wrong about these things.
That day he left me happened seven years ago and so much has happened in my life since, yet I’ve held onto that story – the one of me desperately pleading for him to stay – as though it is the most meaningful part of my story or even one that defines us. I can tell you it doesn’t and I can defend my pride, but I don’t know what for because I still believed that that pathetic few minutes of my life defined me in some way. I can’t utter the horror of looking up gun laws in my state, writing suicide notes to my family and friends, and knowing in the deepest sense, my life was over, so I tell people “I gave up everything for a chance with him” or “he left me begging on my knees” to express to some magnitude the way in which I acted a fool for him. I didn’t resolve anything, and I didn’t really learn from the experience, so I held tightly to the pain and shame as a way of protecting myself from something like this ever happening again.
I knew I had sacrificed myself in that relationship, and I knew it was because of how deeply anxious I felt at the idea of losing him. There were too many times I was quiet, still, and small around him, as I made desperate attempts to prevent him from suddenly going off on me and breaking up with me. Moment to moment, I couldn’t quite be me, and even as we spent more and more time together, I couldn’t open up to him. It was a fair assessment, as any and every word I spoke or face I made or step I took could suddenly be interpreted and judged to be awful. As much as I knew I wasn’t awful and as many times as he got upset over something completely nonsensical and imaginary, I never knew how to unravel this idea he had about me that I wasn’t safe. With deep wells of trauma from my childhood that I had never learned to fill with self-love, I questioned myself. Even after this situation was far behind me and I didn’t even want him back anymore, I questioned if at the very core of me, something would never be right and whole enough for any man.
I promised myself I would never allow myself to feel that way about someone ever again, and because I linked it so thoroughly and so often with that day, I effectively paralyzed myself from the chance to feel anything strong toward anyone. Wanting someone the way I wanted him meant at the least, I would need that person, and at the most, that I would need them more than I needed to go on living. I can’t do that again, I thought. I can’t do it and I won’t, and I will be okay as long as I protect myself from that. So, the story of my looking up at him like he was god and balancing my life on his words, that’s the story I needed to promote.
Fast forward to a week ago and I know I’m still struggling with these judgments he made about me. For more than half of the last year, I’ve been in a relationship with a man who reminds me of L in so many uncanny ways, I feel like I’m about to choke on my happiness watching his mannerisms and quirks and passion as though I am re-watching a favorite film I thought was lost for good. I savored the experience, but I listened closely to him tell me not to get comfortable because he feared that he could change his mind about me at any moment. I didn’t let myself forget this – even as he showered me with so much love that in moments beside him, I felt sure of his feelings for me. He became increasingly vulnerable with me, yet he held back from telling me in words how he felt about me because he feared that he wouldn’t feel them consistently. He didn’t abuse me like L did, he didn’t put me down, and despite how much he claimed to be emotionally unavailable, I could see with his every action that his feelings for me were growing strong.
I didn’t recognize my panic at first, and I didn’t know how to track it to its source. I knew from the beginning that he struggled with communicating his feelings and that he struggled with feeling sure about someone, and I knew he would build up this pressure inside himself if a woman asked him to give more. So I didn’t ask for much. I felt like I could be strong, patient, and supportive to his needs and give him the space and time to see what developed with me. It didn’t seem to be a big deal; I felt like I understood him. I had been carrying around that story with L to keep me from getting too close to anyone anyway, and I too felt shaky about what I wanted and needed in the relationship. I didn’t even notice at the time that I was making any sacrifices of myself.
I blamed my own mental health on my constant anxiety over him. I connected how much he reminded me of L and believed this alone was triggering me to feel scared. I tried, I tried with all my might to tell him who I was, to share more and more of myself, and to just be me around him – but as the months passed, I only felt the urgency to hide myself and run away. I must just be too broken to be in a relationship, I thought, I can’t seem to do it. But he held me close and tried to soothe my concerns, let a little bit of his feelings for me become language, and I would hang on and keep on fighting this incessant insecurity inside me.
It’s part of that fucked-up-ness that comes from not having stability and safety as a child that I only know how to internalize and blame myself. I would never have thought to believe that I had a right to feel unsafe with him even though the reality he delivered to me clearly and consistently was that I shouldn’t settle in. I started becoming paranoid about what he thought of me, what he wasn’t telling me, what judgments he was making – but I had no reason to believe he felt anything but affection toward me. And then, suddenly, something changed. I’m on the phone with him, and he’s telling me something isn’t “sitting right with him” and I’m listening to him make judgments about me that don’t line up with reality and I mine as well be on the phone with L right now, as I go into shock and anxiously try to defend my character, my intentions, and my perspective with a desperation that existed in a me that died long ago when L left me pleading on my knees.
After things calmed down and we ended the call on good terms, I felt shocked. What had just happened? How did this man who adored me and knew me and cared about me suddenly think I was someone else? Why was he judging me, rather than trying to understand me and share with me, in a healthy and mature way, what he felt about my behavior? And, why oh why did I apologize and defend myself to him? This isn’t partnership. This isn’t respect. And this certainly isn’t the way a woman would respond if she had any sense of self-worth. Something wasn’t right…and as I laid awake all night in tears, I knew in my heart something hadn’t been right all along.
We talked again the next day in person, and I as I tried to find common ground, I could see there was something motivating him to perceive me in a negative light. It wasn’t something I just did, it wasn’t new, and it wasn’t sudden – in fact, all along, he had this feeling inside him that he shouldn’t trust me. He felt paranoid and built stories about me and validated his fears further by hiding these truths from me, pretending, and … How did I get here all over again?
That’s when it clicked that I hadn’t told the truth to him because I hadn’t told the truth to myself. I felt unsafe, and I internalized fault about feeling this way, and I never would have thought to say: “I’m feeling anxious about this relationship because you’re telling me in so many words that I should always worry.”
I certainly never realized how much I was struggling just so I could hold onto him, how much I was compromising my mental health for him, and that if I had any sense, I would have said enough’s enough. If I had set that boundary, I would have learned much sooner what I learned when we were face to face: this man doesn’t trust me enough for him to be able to provide a safe and loving experience with him and there is no amount of patience, perseverance, and self-harm on my part that can change that. It’s him, it’s his belief about me, and it’s unfounded – and if I have any chance of healing over my past, over my childhood, and over the abuses I endured in past relationships like the one with L, I can’t spend one more second begging a man to believe in me or stay with me or love me. I just can’t.
As we said our goodbye’s, I felt grief at losing out on all the happiness I felt with him. I heard a story that had been repeating in my head our entire relationship, I’ve never been so happy with anyone before, and I decided then and there I wasn’t going to torture myself with these tall tales. Because the truth is that I was addicted to feeling happy with him at the expense of myself, and that can’t possibly be the same as being happier with him than anyone else. The truth is that he kept me at a distance and that I bit at my tongue and tugged at my sleeves and struggled to feel safe with him and that meant I didn’t get to relax and be me. The truth is that that happiness was fleeting and fickle, and it would only survive if neither of us had to challenge ourselves to be vulnerable with one another about our personal fears and traumas. I never let this man know how deeply I was reliving the abuses I endured with L, how when he laughed deeply he looked just like L and it scared me, nor how I found myself becoming smaller and smaller in his presence. And likewise, he never once told me he felt “off” about me, that he wondered sometimes about my intentions and my character.
This isn’t happiness; it’s fantasy and yes, fantasy feels fucking great and easy and wondrous at best – but that’s all it can ever be. And the story I need to tell myself from now on is that I deserve to be with someone who can see me and who provides a safe environment for me to let myself be seen, and I deserve to be with someone who feels that safety with me as well. And that’s not going to happen if I don’t validate my feelings, if I don’t speak up when something is bothering me, and if I don’t set boundaries that may cause someone to leave me. I don’t need to repeat a bunch of stories anymore to keep myself from needing someone too much; I’m not that girl on her knees desperate for a painful and abusive love; I’m not going to beg someone to stay with me who isn’t ever going to trust me; I’m not. And though I don’t know if I’ll ever find a man who believes in his heart, in his gut, in his whole being that I’m safe, I know now that no matter how strongly I feel about someone, I can trust myself to walk away when it’s no longer good or right.