It has taken me many years to muster up the courage to write this post, but enough time has passed now that I have decided to open up and share a story of my past that is difficult and emotional for me to talk about. Something that I even still feel shame around.
I lived in Italy for seven years (from the time I was 20 until I was 27) and had the most incredible experiences, met the most amazing people, had many true, great friends and learned a lot. I would not trade that time in for anything. That having been said, while there, I found myself enduring one of the most painful and difficult experiences of my life.
He was older and charming and smart. We were friends for a bit before becoming more than friends. He was romantic and knew all the perfect spots to introduce me to in and around the city. He knew all the flea markets inside and out (and loved visiting them just as much as I did). He would pick me up and put me on the back of his Vespa and take me up windy roads, wind in face, to the most incredible, out-of-the-way trattorias in Chianti where the pasta noodles were made on-site. He paid attention to me and took care of me in ways I felt like no man ever had. He cooked amazing meals for me, made my bed in the the mornings, took me on surprise trips to the South of France and London, and introduced me to so many new things, people…and I fell in love.
We had been dating for about three months and it was Christmas time and I felt it was too early to go to his family’s Christmas dinner (nor had I been invited). When I told him I would be going to a friend’s house for Christmas dinner he got upset and started yelling. After the fight he didn’t call or text (or respond to my calls or texts) for three days. I was mortified at the thought that I had offended him and chalked it up to some kinda cultural misunderstanding?? I wasn’t sure what I had done exactly but I apologized to him profusely when he finally returned my call and eventually the whole thing blew over and a week or so later all was back to blissful normal.
After that hiccup, we grew closer and continued to see each other almost daily. Things were good and new and fun. We travelled and wined and dined. Then a couple months later another fight. This time he didn’t just get loud, he got mean and even started calling me names. And again this time, I wasn’t sure what I had done to set him off, but imagined that we were having another cultural misunderstanding somehow. Italians are full of passion–especially when it comes to love…my Italian friends would tell me. This is how he was expressing his passion and love for me apparently.
I knew better than to think that love was expressed through yelling and name calling–But couples fight, right? I’d tell myself. And besides a little temper he was such a great guy. So the relationship continued and we went on like this–fighting every couple of weeks–over tiny nothings.
Soon I’d notice subtle gestures that made me feel uncomfortable. He’d hold his hand on the back of my neck instead of holding my hand as we walked down the street. It felt almost like a collar. I would shrug it off though, as though I was being irrational or again, justifying it in my head by imagining that this behavior was a cultural norm.
Then he started to get upset if he thought he saw me looking at another man. I was flirting–he’d say. We’d fight again. The fights would escalate. I’d find myself yelling back. He’d call me a whore, then he’d disappear for days, sometimes weeks. He wouldn’t return phone calls or text. His friends wouldn’t know (or at least they wouldn’t tell me) where he was. Looking back it’s very difficult to explain why I kept on coming back to him time and time again. Why I even wanted to find him. I told myself that I needed closure.
By this time we had been together 6 or 8 months and I began to realize he had “issues” that he had to work through. He was moody, had a bad temper, or maybe he was slightly bipolar–I even did some internet research and decided that he had Paranoid Personality Disorder. I resolved that I was the only person in the world that could help him through these issues. He loved me more than anything, or anyone. I should stand by his side in good times and bad. “When we’re great, we’re amazing” I’d tell myself. THIS is love. THIS is passion. We’re in love and love conquers all.
We went on like this for another year. We were off and on and off and on, and every other week I was in a fit of tears, an emotional mess because he had had another ‘outburst’, and he had disappeared again and wouldn’t take my calls.
It got to be so bad that I stopped talking about him or the relationship with friends or family. “This was fun when it was a movie,” one girlfriend said “But now it’s a soap opera…” And frankly, I was tired of talking about it too. I was tired of making excuses for him, and for myself, and I pushed my friends away.
At the time, I didn’t think of him (or the relationship) as abusive. I was a strong, educated woman. I was independent–a feminist even–a hippie! I didn’t have low self-esteem. I had travelled the world on my own, started my own business, I would never stay in an abusive relationship, so obviously I wasn’t in an abusive relationship. We were just more passionate than other couples.
It happened dozens of times. We’d be blissful, then he would find some reason to blow up at me. I was always treading carefully on thin ice. We’d fight. He’d disappear for days or weeks. Then he’d call, apologize, tell me he loved me and that he wanted to be with me forever, that I was an angel, that I was his angel. That I was the only person who really understood him. And then we would get back together and it would be magical for about three weeks until things, once again, would fall apart. Yelling in restaurants “How many men did you f-ck when you were in college..” He’d holler. “You’re a whore! All American girls are whores and you are no exception!” “I thought you were are Ferrarri but you’re a deflated bicycle tire…”
By the end of the two year stretch, getting back together with him was like getting a fix. I was a drug addict and he was my drug. I felt elated the minute he was back in my arms after a fight, but I was also hurt, tired and scared.
But I love him. I’d tell myself.
This went on for two years. Then one day we were at my apartment with a few friends and we were all having some snacks and getting ready to go out. He was in one of his moods. By this time I could smell the ‘mood’ from a mile away. He came over to where I was chatting and snacking with friends and asked my why I was dipping my artichoke in mayonnaise. When I replied that I had grown up eating it this way–he looked at me and said “Yes, I can tell.” Embarrassed by his dig, I told him to f*ck off and he grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me into the bedroom. He told me never to talk back to him in front of my friends again and hit me in the face, hard, with a closed fist. Blood streamed out of my nose and dripped slowly to the tiles floor and I let out a scream.
As my friends came in from the other room to see what was wrong, he said that he had barely touched me and told me to stop being dramatic. Honestly, the rest is kind of a blur. I had spent two years living on eggshells, not knowing what buttons I was about to push, not knowing whether that day I was his angel or his whore, his everything or his nothing.
Some of my Italian friends tried to justify his actions. “We are a passionate people.” One of my close friends told me.
I ended up leaving Italy that year for good. Upon reflection, I think a big part of my decision to leave was about making sure I was I was getting myself out of that relationship because there was a part of me that was afraid that I’d go back to him again as I had done so many times before–even after he hit me.
I learned a lot in that relationship–that it’s easier than I could have ever imagined to find oneself justifying abuse–even for someone as ‘strong and educated’ as myself. I learned that ‘love’ and ‘passion’ are NEVER reasons to stay in a relationship that doesn’t make you feel good. I learned that you can’t be in a relationship to ‘save’ someone–it just doesn’t work that way.
Since this chapter in my life I have talked to so many women–including close girlfriends–who have also experienced abuse (physical, verbal or both) from men they were in relationships with. Because this is clearly not as rare as I wish it was, I thought it would be important to share this experience with you. It can happen to anybody. It’s easy to make excuses for people. He didn’t mean it. It’s a cultural misunderstanding. He has a problem that he is working on…
Most importantly, one must love oneself enough to know when it’s time to let go of someone that doesn’t know how to love you back. Now, thank goodness, I have found a man that loves and respects me, without the crazy ups and downs, without the yelling, the berating, the name calling or the punching. He is gentle and kind, passionate and full of love without the the violence, disappearing acts or the escalations. He holds my hand as we walk down the street, not my neck–he is neither controlling, nor jealous. There is mutual respect and mutual love.
The good news is, each day represents a new opportunity for a fresh start, for growth and for love–the kind that doesn’t sting and ache and burn.