I’ve been having a lot of nightmares lately about my manipulative ex-boyfriend.
We didn’t date long, but he was pretty fresh out of a long relationship when we met, so he carried a lot of baggage. He set outrageous boundaries with me, and if I ever disregarded any of his commands, he was quick to come up with a sob story and compare me to his awful ex.
I realized quickly after we started dating that I was never going to be able to change his habits. To my credit, that’s a big, healthy realization to make. I could have wasted years trying to forcefully take command of the parts of his personality I didn’t like. I could have cried endless tears of frustration hopelessly trying to make him change.
But instead of doing all that, I told myself that I am the only person whose actions I can control. I was very proud of how cognizant I became of that fact every time he pulled some kind of manipulative trick on me. You can’t change him, I chanted in my mind. And by realizing that, you’ve won this war, Zoe.
But I hadn’t won anything. Not by miles. Because relationships aren’t supposed to be wars to begin with.
Acknowledging that you are the only person you can change only gets you halfway to a healthy place. The other half of the journey is deciding whether you need the toxic person’s bullshit in your life at all.
I pulled off the first part of that process with flying colors by successfully accepting that no amount of arguing would transform him into a better person. But without coming to the full realization that I don’t need any part of him in my life, I made a victimized choice: I chose to change myself without trying to alter him.
So I started conforming to his ridiculous demands. I tiptoed around his mental health and broke myself in the process. I traded in my dignity for his outrageous convenience. And the more I gave, the more he took. When I made one concession to him, he manipulated me into making two more. Eventually I had nothing left to give him, so I started borrowing against my own mental health, and continued to make sacrifices until I was deep in the red.
I agonized for months over whether I should end the relationship. He had a way of making me believe I would be worse off without him, despite everything he was doing to drain me emotionally. In the end, it wasn’t any particular thing he did that made me say goodbye. It was the way his cumulative personality made me feel. At the end of the relationship, my emotional resources had run dry, and all I had to show for it was a deep depression, a mangled ego, and nothing but scorched earth where my self-respect used to be.
I was fortunate enough to realize – finally – that if I couldn’t change this excuse for a man, I had no other recourse than to cut his abuse out of my life.