In the months that I spent on my own, after cheating on my husband and leaving our home, I could actually feel my personality begin to change by slow degrees.
I was very lonely: that was part of it. I’d thoroughly destroyed all the good stuff in my life, and I barely knew who I was in the wake of that destruction. I did believe, though, that I loved the man with whom I had cheated on my husband. I also believed, like a cliche of a fool, that he loved me. And more to the point, I believe that for him to declare this love — which he regularly did— was all that mattered as evidence of it. I fixated on his words, when his actions were anything but loving.
I knew that I was changing as a person. On a Saturday morning, when I went out for my usual long run, I would eagerly hook up notifications so that if my lover texted or called me, I would get an immediate alert on my sports watch. I have a grim, shameful memory of standing, sweating, in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to get enough phone reception to return a call that I believed might mean he was on his way to visit me (and of then racing home to meet him for half an hour before he took his daughters shopping).
I feel cold, now, with the humiliation of it. I was always such an afterthought. It took so little to keep me onside.
And it really was so very little. A “good morning!” text would light up my whole day, even if a later text informed me that he was too busy to visit me at any point that week. One hallowed day I drove home from work at lunchtime to find him unexpectedly in my kitchen, making a complicated Korean fish stew “because you’ve been hard at work and you’ll be hungry”. I was thrilled. It might as well have been a date at a Michelin-starred restaurant.
I remained thrilled even though he bolted his bowl of soup with one eye on the clock and dashed away the moment it was finished; thrilled even though he was vague, as he left, about when he might be able to see me again; thrilled even though, by this point, I was well aware that he lied to me daily about small things and bigger ones. I still thought that a pot of spicy fish stew was about as romantic a thing as had ever been prepared for anyone, ever.
I was not that far gone, though. Although he couldn’t have known just how poorly he measured up to what I knew, I’d had too many years of experience of real, respect-based love. I knew what that sort of good relationship looked like, and I’m grateful to say that it wasn’t many weeks before I’d had enough of the crumbs my lover was throwing me. I got rid of him entirely, realizing not a moment too soon that even being completely alone was better than the life he was forcing me to have. But I still resent the months he stole from my life.
I resent them, but I accept that it was all my own doing. Something, at that time, made me certain that I was worth only what he was prepared to pay. Something, then, kept me grateful for that price he placed on me, no matter how cheap it was.
But it was ever thus
Last weekend, I read the story of Monica Jones. An English Literature academic and well-respected lecturer at Leicester University, she was flamboyantly fashionable and fiercely clever in her youth and graduated from Oxford in 1943 with a first. She was also the long-term lover of the poet Philip Larkin, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he — or at least, their affair — ruined her life.
Jones was, quite simply, addicted to the love of Larkin. A new biography of her life paints a sad tale of a woman living alone but consumed by her correspondence with the poet and driven to near madness by his love affairs, his casual cruelty, and his hot-and-cold vacillations.
For decades, she saw him only in rationed slices: perhaps one weekend every month, an occasional holiday to Sark, or a Lord’s test match. She eked out these rations as best she could, but they were never going to be enough. The scraps of attention were breadcrumbs, never a meal. She became a drunken mess, a woman who Larkin allowed his friend Kingsley Amis to cruelly lampoon as a character in his novel Lucky Jim and who found herself described by her lover’s friends — with no defense from him — as “a grim old bag”, “a beast”, “frigid, drab and hysterical”.
Monica Jones did, in the end, win the prize of cohabitation with her poet lover, but only when their lives were both on a downward spiral of mutual alcohol-fuelled destruction. They lived together for only a couple of years before he died. She outlived him by 15 years, but the damage had been done: she was near madness by that point and seemed only to be waiting to follow him to the grave after a lifetime of following him everywhere else and hoping for more of his attention.
Logic plays no part
Logic doesn’t factor into this absurd faith we, as women, are so often able to cultivate in the men we love. Neither does intelligence. In my adult life I have found that my most savvy, worldly-wise, and clever friends are the ones who — like me — have been the most readily prepared to accept the most insulting excuses and deflections from the men who purport to love them and care for them.
My heart breaks for all of us: for the earnest belief we somehow find ourselves able to sustain, despite so much logical evidence to the contrary, that an uncaring and cowardly man is somehow our soulmate; for the inflated value we place on tiny things, like brief visits or phone calls or emails, as proof of that love.
The future’s bright
Philip Larkin’s lover lived in a male world at a time when women in academia were rare, and her biographies report that she had no female friends at all. She lived for her students and for the intermittent contact she had with Larkin, who would never fully commit to her.
And although in some ways nothing has changed — although emotions can tether us, still, to highly unsuitable men and their vacant promises — I hope that as women, now, we have more escape routes open to us. We have more information at our disposal and more reminders of our own value and worth in the form of books, articles, and even memes. We have more ways to contact our friends if we need to reach out and ask for perspective if, perhaps, we fear we might be going slightly mad.
So, yes. My heart breaks for all women caught in the sort of toxic relationship cycle that’s existed since the dawn of time, but I also think we have the power to break it.
I hope so.
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