A few months ago, when I was struggling to get over the Whippersnapper, I downloaded a self-help app called Mend. It’s designed to help people get over breakups. As a therapist, I half-expected I’d pour scorn over it and focus on how I could have designed it better, but actually, it was bloody good.
One of the things I found really helpful was the idea that two things, that seem opposite, can both be true at once.
After a breakup, we can spend forever going back over and over what happened, thinking about two things which seem to be contradictory, trying to decide which one is true.
For me, it was
- he loved me
- he didn’t want to be with me.
I really believed the Whippersnapper loved me. I still do think that. Everything he said and did made it seem like he really loved me.
But he didn’t want to be with me. He was too young, he wasn’t ready, it was too difficult. He didn’t know how to get past his fear and mental health problems, to be with someone and also, he was a bit too selfish.
I spent hours and hours dwelling on which of those statements wasn’t true.
Did he not really love me? Was he pretending? Which bits in our relationship weren’t real? Was I not good enough for him?
Or does he actually want to be with me? Will he change his mind and come back?
When I realised both things were true, it was a massive relief to drop the struggle. They weren’t quite opposites. They could both be true. I could let go.
He really did love me. It was all real.
But he wasn’t coming back.
We all use mental shortcuts all the time to help us process information more quickly. We’ve evolved to do this, because there’s an evolutionary benefit to being able to process information more quickly. Most of the time we get it right, with our mental shortcuts, but sometimes we don’t.
One shortcut is ‘black and white thinking’. We can think in the grey areas, but it’s quicker to think in extremes than nuances. It was the caveman who thought “this sabre-toothed tiger will be deadly!” and ran away, that lived to pass on his genes, not the caveman who thought “well, every sabre-toothed tiger I’ve seen so far has been eating a human, but this one might be different, I haven’t had a chance to get to know him properly…”
And the more under pressure we are, or the more upset or distressed, the more we think in all-or-nothing terms. It takes a lot of energy to power our brains, and when we’re upset and our fight/flight response has kicked in, more of our energy goes into things like breathing and circulation and muscle tension, so we’ve got less energy left for complex thinking.
So, if you take two grey-area facts that can happily coexist side by side, and make them black and white, or oversimplify them, suddenly they can seem contradictory.
For me, if I loved someone, I’d want to be with them. I’m lucky enough that a lot of my past experiences have taught me to be optimistic and hopeful about love, rather than afraid. So I thought ‘he loved me’ and ‘he doesn’t want to be with me’ were conflicting facts.
But I don’t have body dysmorphic disorder, I haven’t had the same experiences as him, and I’m not a 22-year-old boy.
There’s a lot more grey area in ‘he loves me’ and ‘he doesn’t want to be with me’ than I first thought.
The reason this has come back into my mind, is that I had another situation recently, where I remembered how helpful it is to drop the struggle with contradiction.
My ex-boyfriend, Matthew, came around to my new flat. All my possessions got reshuffled in the move, and I found lots of his things, so we arranged he would come round to get them but also to have a catch-up, as the plan had been to stay friends.
We were together from 2013 to 2016.
The struggle I had with him, for a long time, was between these two ideas
- he’s a good person
- he was abusive in our relationship.
When I was with him, the first time I talked to a friend about what was happening, and she said “it sounds like emotional abuse”, I couldn’t take it in.
I thought but he’s a good person.
I thought the fact he was a good person meant that it couldn’t be true that he was abusive.
I feel like this is quite a controversial point to make.TV shows and films are getting better at how they depict domestic abuse, which is helping people affected in real life, to recognise it and get help.
The long-running BBC Radio 4 series The Archers had a storyline about domestic abuse in recent years, and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline saw a 20% increase in calls around this time.
However, one thing I haven’t seen any TV, radio show or film get right, is depicting the abuser as a whole person.
I thought he can’t be abusive because I can think of all these ways in which he’s a good person.
I hadn’t seen an abuser on TV that was also a good person, so I concluded Matthew couldn’t be abusive.
In stories, when an abuser does something good or kind, they are doing to deliberately manipulate. The motivation for any positive behaviour is always underhand. I think in reality, people who are abusive in relationships can also do genuinely good things, because the abusive side is only one part of who they are. They can make choices at work, and in their friendships, and with their families, that are completely separate from the abusive part of them.
The Archers did a brilliant job of unfolding that storyline subtly and gradually, over a few years. When the case went to trial, and we were introduced to Rob’s parents, we could see why Rob grew up to be an abuser himself. But everything Rob did, good or bad, was calculated, and part of his abusive nature.
I feel like it’s controversial to say that good people can be abusers, because it feels dangerously close to condoning abuse or justifying it.
But that’s not what I’m saying at all. I don’t think abuse is ever OK, and I’m not sure how I feel about whether abusers can change. If I ever found myself in an abusive relationship again, I would get the hell out of it straight away.
However, I found it so much easier to accept that Matthew was abusive when I realised I didn’t have to stop thinking he’s a good person, outside of the way he behaves in relationships. Everything made so much more sense when I realised both things could be true at once – that he was abusive, but that he was a good person apart from that.
- I was terrified of him during arguments. I don’t like arguing at the best of times, but from our very first argument, it felt different from every other one I’d had. I knew I had to drop the subject because I was scared what would happen if I didn’t.
- he never hurt me physically, but he got close to it. He punched the sofa and kicked the bed right next to me, and I knew it was possible one day he’d punch or kick me instead.
- he called me horrible names. I know everyone says things they regret during arguments, but the things he said were so vicious. As well as calling me various swearwords, (and saying it over and over until I agreed with him), he said “your ex-boyfriend’s death has turned you into a sociopath.” He said “the only reason your ex-boyfriends put up with you is they were too limp-wristed to do anything about it.”
- even when he was calm, he would put me down or say cruel things to make himself feel better. He didn’t mind me being good at things that he had never tried, but if I was good at something he did too, he would put me down. The worst thing was writing – his job involved writing for a living, and whenever I talked about my novel, he would remind me it probably won’t get published or criticise my ideas, until I stopped writing it. If I told him something nice that someone else had said to me, especially if it was said by a man, he would find a way to take the shine of the compliment
- he was controlling. He was laid back about lots of the classic things, so I didn’t pick it up at first. He didn’t mind me having male friends or being friends with exes, but he wanted to make the decisions about certain things. One year on my birthday, I chose a restaurant I had wanted to go to for a while. I suggested we went there, and he said that was OK. It turned out, he didn’t want to go there, but rather than tell me that directly, he said lots of things like “OK, if that’s what you want.” When I didn’t pick up that he didn’t want to go there, he made sure I had a terrible night by barely talking to me, even though it was my birthday. By the end of the night, I cried in the toilets as I was so confused and upset. When we left the restaurant, he went into a shop to buy a pizza to make some sort of statement about how the portions in the restaurant weren’t big enough. When we moved house together, we had boxes and boxes we hadn’t unpacked. He refused to do any unpacking, but he didn’t like it when I unpacked, as he didn’t like the way I did it, so I had to wait until he was out to unpack, and hope he didn’t notice.
However, outside of his behaviour in relationships, he was a good person. He was loving and generous to me in a way that was completely separate from bad stuff. He had a lot of the same values as me, and was passionate about a lot of the same causes as I am. He’s a vegetarian and cares more about the environment that I do. He really cares deeply about his family and friends.
I can kind of understand how he ended up with fucked up ideas about relationships, based on things I know about his childhood. However, he wouldn’t take responsibility for it. He would ‘not remember’ incidents where he had been aggressive to me. We broke up once, and then when we got back together, I said I would only get back with him if he had therapy for his anger management. He did have counselling, but they didn’t really talk about anger as he didn’t see it as a problem.
So, while I can think that he’s a good person in a lot of ways, I also think his capacity to be abusive is completely unacceptable. I also knew it would never get better, because he didn’t see it as a problem. (I also knew, statistically, it was likely to get worse. In lots of relationships, physical abuse starts when the woman is pregnant with their first baby, possibly because the man takes more risks because he knows it would be harder for the woman to leave him. I noticed with Matthew, after we got back together, he was a lot less aggressive to me as he was on his best behaviour. As soon as we moved house, and signed a contract to live together for a year, the aggression increased again.)
So anyway, the other day, he came around on a Friday night, and I showed off my new place and gave him his things back. It was really nice to see him again, and it reminded me that I enjoyed his company. I could never think of him in a romantic way again, that ship sailed a long time ago, but it reminded me why I had wanted to stay friends.
He seemed reasonably happy, and I was glad.
But two nights later, I had a really vivid nightmare about being back together with him. It was one of those dreams that makes you feel unsettled for the whole of the next day. I can’t remember much of it, but I remember he was making me write something on my hand in biro, until my hand bled.
I feel like it was my brain’s way of making sure I remembered both sides of the story.