Monday, 13 July 2015

Obey

He said this was me. It wasn't.
Here's another post my conscience says I have to write. Drat. Why can't I just write a novel about it instead, eh? However, there it is.

Twenty years ago I was romantically involved with a young man who often told me what to do and how to be. I had not wanted to be romantically involved with the man in the first place--having told him that I wanted to date only Catholics, as the whole point of dating was to get married. Also, he was not "my type", except that he was scholarly and very intelligent. Very, very intelligent.

But the young man was also very young. He had very strong views on subjects about which as yet he knew very little. And although he was not a Catholic, or even a believing Christian at first, he was disgusted by premarital sexual activity, especially by women. He was also disgusted by divorce, and in depressed moments, inspired by Kierkegaard (I think), thought himself impure because he was the child of a second marriage. For some complex non-Christian reason, he did not believe in divorce, so he thought he was a kind of bastard.

Or so he said. It was some time before I realized that he had lied and bluffed a lot in that relationship to get what he wanted which was, not to put to fine a point on it, me. But not in the way you might fear. No, no, no.  He was, don't forget, disgusted by feminine sexual sin. His intentions, if not his methods, were entirely honourable.

Unfortunately, however, the young man hadn't the slightest idea who I was, which after twenty years I can forgive, as I didn't really know who I was either. I was bored by my Catholic friends, and shocked by my "artist friends", and the world was stubbornly refusing to fall in with my ideas of how the world was supposed to be. However, my ideas of how the world was supposed to be were shared to a certain extent by my agnostic male friend, and he decided that I was the Perfect Victorian Lady, or would be if I followed his advice. Somewhere I have his letters extolling me always to strive for virtue, taking "dear Jane" (Austen) as my model and guide.

It felt wonderful to be put on a pedestal and encouraged to be more of what I already apparently was. It felt great to be flattered and entertained and told that I was beautiful and good by a very clever and promising young man who had a high regard for female chastity. And so I was very sorry when I disappointed his high regard for me by mentioning that I had joined the university revolver club. As a Canadian, I am not that excited by guns (pro- or anti-), but I think knowing how to fire a gun is a good life skill, and I picked the revolver club because my brother was a military rifle instructor. Rifles were his thing.

The young man was horrified. He hated guns--or the idea of a woman mixed up with one. "Beauty cannot hold the repugnant," he said, paraphrasing--I think--Aristotle. He had a student petition against or for some gun bill that he was supposed to sign and pass on, but he said he wouldn't sign it until I quit the revolver club. As a matter of fact, I was terribly uncomfortable in the shooting range, which was in a cellar, and the noise was incredible, and I jumped every time I heard a shot, which was rather tragic for my aim. Thus I was tempted to quit the revolver club anyway, but I didn't for a long time because of that stupid petition. Twenty years later, I realize I should have simply told him to stuff  the petition in his ear, instead of gaily laughing it off every time he shoved it under my nose and looked sad because he had still not passed it on, as he was bound in honour to do.

He meant me to feel guilty for his not signing the petition, and I did feel guilty. And that, my dear friends, provided him with a very useful tool. He was good at looking sad, and expressing shocked, high-minded disappointment, and convincing me that if I did not do something, this would be a blow against all honour and decency and a correctly run universe. Thanks, I think, to his studies, he became a believing Christian, and thanks to my adamant belief I could marry only a Catholic, he entered an RCIA course with a priest I recommended. However, the young man told me he would be chucked out of RCIA if he couldn't find a sponsor to come with him, and so I had to do it. This was probably a lie, but I believed him. After all, his immortal soul was on the line.

He was the most manipulative young man I ever met in my whole life, and that is saying something. He did sales one summer and chatted smugly about the psychological tricks salespeople pull to sell their unwanted wares. I admired him for his cleverness, God help me, and his ability to make people do what he wanted. It never occurred to me that he might be using the same tricks on me, "the woman of his dreams."

He didn't tell me not to wear make-up, but he did tell me what to wear. And when we were engaged, I actually obeyed his clothing strictures, which were almost entirely about preserving my lily-white skin. This meant wearing opera length gloves outdoors in summer and carrying a parasol. In the city. In the 1990s. I felt ridiculous. But when I did not wear my gloves and when I did not carry the parasol, I felt incredibly guilty. It is really amazing what men can make women do if they make us feel guilty enough. At one point--among other things, he dropped out of RCIA-- I called off the engagement, and he stopped eating. He showed up weeping at my door. He told me horrible things his parents had allegedly said about me, but he knew they were wrong, wrong! They couldn't understand! And he needed a friend to talk to me about, but as all his other friends now hated me, only I could understand! Please would I talk to him? Please? Please! He cried and shivered.

Reader, I married him. And I kept wearing the stupid gloves--somehow I lost the stupid parasol--and, because he didn't "want a fat wife", I lost twenty pounds and with them  his hold over me. Somehow all that healthy eating and athletic activity gave me a backbone, and I started pushing back. (Testosterone?) He didn't want me to visit my family, but I visited them anyway. He didn't want me to visit my friends, but I visited them anyway. He most definitely did not want me to continue being a Roman Catholic--"Roman Catholicism is the religion of immigrants and peasants" he memorably said--but I continued going to my parish church anyway. We began to fight--quite viciously, really--and it was terrible. Beyond terrible. Naturally I will not tell you the whole story: telling the annulment tribunal was bad enough.

That incarnation of the young man is dead. I do not mean my ex is dead (although maybe he is--I haven't seen him in 15 years). If he is alive, he is over 40 and the man the past almost-twenty years have made him. By dead, I mean the incarnation of that young man, a twenty-something.  That young woman is dead, too, poor thing. I am the spine she forged in the weight room and the boxing ring, and I'm almost all she had left of herself when she walked out of the apartment with the clothes on her back and her passport in her purse. (I am the spine plus the past almost-twenty years, of course.)

However, I have seen that young man in other men. I've heard about him, too. I sat with a friend's mother--my friend was abroad and desperate, his father had just been arrested for domestic asssault--and discovered she too had married that young man. I've met that young man in other countries. Somehow he persists, generation after generation. I'm sure he's a lefty sometimes, but I don't frequent lefty circles much.

The easiest way to recognize him is through his stubborn fantasy about what women are supposed to be, which he protects by ensuring women live, or at least one woman lives, up to it. I am not sure WHY this fantasy woman is so important, except that she is the love of his life, and he will do almost anything to protect her. If he projects her onto you, God help you, for if you threaten her, he is capable of anything. If he just breaks up with you, consider yourself lucky.

And I am writing this today because of E. E, my dear, I have no idea who you are. My computer doesn't trace commentators easily, and I haven't tried. I think you might be French, but I don't know for sure. For all I know, your name isn't E. I know nothing about you except that you are a reader and you have a boyfriend who lets you know that he is disappointed when you--like most women of your age in the western world--wear a little make-up. He makes you feel a little guilty about it--yes?

E, to me this is a red flag. I am not sure how much pushing-around you want to take from the man in your life. Maybe you don't mind a man who tells his woman what-is-what, and maybe your boyfriend is just a bit grumpy. Maybe you belong to a culture in which women let men be the head, knowing that they are "the neck who directs the head," and in which women nod and smile and then just do whatever they like. However, maybe your boyfriend is, how should I put this, a control freak who will never be content with the woman that you are and wants you to be another woman entirely, perhaps a fantasy image he carries in his head and heart and projects upon you, as if you were just a film screen.

As I have never met him, I have no way of knowing. But I hope you will consider discussing him with your mother, or if not your mother, a favourite aunt, and ask if she thinks he is a controlling type. I hope this because I do not want what happened to me to happen to any other young woman ever again. This is, in fact, [what I think is] the ruling passion of my life.

29 comments:

  1. "Roman Catholicism is the religion of immigrants and peasants"... really? And he continued to take himself seriously after saying that? That is the most absurd thing I have seen for some time.

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  2. Young men are often absurd, and Toronto used to be a mini-Belfast. Within his unabashedly anti-Catholic, very elderly, grandmother's lifetime, the Orange Order ruled City Hall, the police force, etc. So it wasn't that bizarre a remark to make in a marital dispute.

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    1. I mean, for a WASP. A Jewish guy my age once told me "Catholics beat their wives" as if domestic abuse were entirely unheard of in the entire Jewish worldwide community.

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  3. Yes, Seraphic you are so correct in pointing this out! I too have fallen foul of this type of man. He slowly eroded every little bit of confidence I had to the point where I was afraid to speak because of my accent, my tone, my voacbulary which he was constantly picking out. Every time I wore something new, or at least new to him I would be so anxious in case he didn't like it, or it didn't fit into his idea of what a woman should wear. He once told me women should wear nice dresses even around the house, although somehow it was OK for him to slouch around in track pants and slippers. In the end he eventually broke up with me, deciding I ws just never going to quite match up to the fantasy woman he had created. I however probably would have married him! It took me a couple of years to regain my confidence.

    I am now dating a wonderful man who NEVER ever picks me out about anything. I pointed this out and thanked him and he seemed puzzled - "why wouldn't he accept me as I am?" he said. Well I can't tell you how wonderful it is to be able to be yourself truly and not worry about whether you are matching up to some ideal woman. If it doesn't work out, I will know it is because we are incompatible in some way and will not be left feeling like I had failed as a woman!

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  4. Sunny, I am so sorry that happened to you. How really awful--and thank heavens he let you go! I'm glad you're dating a good man now.

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  5. This is really excellent, Seraphic. Really and truly. Thank you. I don't have this issue, and since I'm highly intolerant of crummy behaviour I hope I will never have this issue, but I am 100% in favour of women being in touch with reality at all times and I really think that this could help the women who read it.

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  6. Yup...Been there too. Not to the degree you were, Seraphic, but bad enough. My parents totally missed it, and thought he was a super-nice guy. So did everyone around me, except a roommate who said he really seemed to pressure me. Finally a counselor told me he was the controlling type, and no, he was not likely to change, so if I decided to marry him I needed to do so knowing that I would either a) have to give into him forevermore or b) have to duke it out with him forevermore. Ugh. I broke up with him. I couldn't believe how free I felt. And my mother could believe how free I was...I think it scared her a little bit that she had misjudged him so badly. (And my dad is so the opposite of the controlling type!)

    I'm still not married, but I wouldn't for all the world go back and marry that guy just for the sake of getting married. Misery as a single person doesn't compare to misery in a bad marriage. And really, I'm actually pretty happy as a single - against all my former expectations!

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  7. Good for you, Domestic Diva. It is so true. Misery in a bad marriage is incomparably worse than misery (loneliness) as a Single person.

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  8. Heather in Toronto13 July 2015 at 17:46

    The awful thing is that such behaviour, in the beginning, can seem to the unwary to be ever so romantic and solicitous. Especially if they have been reading the kind of awful romance novels in which the heroine saves the romantic interest from his darker nature by sheer power of her special awesomeness (and, of course, the Power of Love). I'm looking at you, Tw*light. And even more at your raunchy thinly veiled fanfiction. I have never read any part of the latter directly (and while I do own a copy of the former, I found it in the random book exchange pile in my apartment building's laundry room and grabbed it on a lark specifically for doing comical dramatic readings of the notoriously bad writing). However, I did read an article in which a woman who had experienced domestic abuse went through "50 *hades" and pulled out examples of the systematically manipulative, abusive, deeply creepy behaviour that the "hero" exhibits right from the start. Except of course that instead of being a tale of an abusive relationship, it is played as a Beauty and the Beast story, and as a result, women sigh over "Mr. Grey" or Edward or Edgar or Edmund or whatever his name is, and think that's what they want in a man, and young men think that's what their romantic prospects are looking for. Ick.

    I'm not saying, of course, that you personally or any of your readers get their ideas of what the romantic ideal should be from trash romances. But those trash romances play to a particular flawed idea that many women hold, that if Our Man is Unhappy, especially if he is Unhappy because of something to do with Us, then it is Our Duty to Make It Better no matter what the Cost, and if we Cannot do this, then it is Our Fault and we have Failed and we must Try Harder to Please Him (histrionic over-capitalization deliberate). Except that this doesn't tend to work in real life, when the problem may well be that Our Man is, as you said, actually in love with a fantasy image which no actual woman could possibly match.

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  9. I hope seraphicsingles@yahoo.com still works... /Emelie

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  10. Lefty men can be just as bad, as I have learned from reading feminist blogs. One woman wrote to Salon for advice on her environmentalist boyfriend who forbade her to own a refrigerator (only the craziest of many strictures). And the other day I found the blog of a radical goddess worshipping feminist who, as a college student, became involved with a transgender man who convinced her that he was the incarnation of a god. It took a great struggle to free herself from his two-member cult. So lefty men do the whole controlling patriarch thing just as well, while being less honest about it.

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    1. I guessed that! But I don't run about in lefty circles these days, so I couldn't think of any contemporary examples. Naturally any lefty man who tries harangues women into believing that he himself is a woman needs to be given a wide berth, too.

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  11. I dated a man once, for over a year, who felt that he wouldn't encourage any potential daughters to go to college bc he felt education to be wasted on women...while I was one year away from completing my medical doctorate. That was just one of a hundred examples of how he wasn't seeing ME, he was just seeing me as a generic woman to project his opinions about women on to. (Low self-esteem at that time plus being in my early 20s...)

    Luckily my parents strongly advised me to end that relationship because they felt like I wasn't myself around him. They were right, but I couldn't see it until later...at the time I was annoyed with them for getting involved at all. That was five years ago.

    My husband (of three months) loves me fully, exactly the way I am, while encouraging me to live up to my full potential. He demonstrates with his words and actions that he values my thoughts and opinions, and that he respects me as a unique individual.

    When I occasionally think about how close I came to ending up with the first guy, I shudder...I would have spent that marriage trying to fit in to his narrow ideals of how a woman should be...what a waste of me! :-P

    I definitely credit your blog - which i have been reading since the Seraphic Singles days - with helping me to gain the confidence with men that I needed to hold out for true love. :-)

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    1. Thank you, Jen D. I am so, so glad.

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  12. Emelie, that address should still work. Don't be almost in tears if I completely read your situation wrong. I am just a stranger on the internet, after all, and nobody knows who you are, let alone your boyfriend.

    If he really is the man of your dreams, he loves you for your you are, and perhaps something got lost in translation about the make-up. Whenever I read or hear about a boyfriend frowning at some innocuous hair, make-up or dress choice of his girlfriend, I get a little worried.

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  13. I'm sure, Auntie Seraphic, that you don't mean that any criticism is a sign of a controlling nature! I have a number of genuinely bad habits that my fiance is helping me break (i.e. "You should actually eat, honey," "you should actually sleep, instead of spending hours on the internet before bed and then getting 5 hours of sleep," "you should avoid getting into shouting matches with family members, honey, but you're improving.")
    Sometimes I'm just wrong :P

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    1. Advice to eat, sleep and not get worked up over family stuff sounds reasonable to me. I'm think of stuff like staring at a woman like she's just killed a puppy because she's forgotten she's never allowed to open doors for herself and has absentmindedly opened a door. What I'm talking about is weird stuff.

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  14. I don't think controlling men are of any particular worldview, although it may be easier for them to find prey among women who are conservative. But I'm sure they choose victims from all ends of the political spectrum and cater their manipulation accordingly.

    Having experienced this from another angle, control doesn't only have to be about not being the perfect woman, but just in general not being the 'perfect person' that the abuser imagined. Like Jen D, I've experienced both obsessive control and true love (which accepts the loved one's shortcomings and gently, unobtrusively gives the loved one the motivation to do better), and there is no comparison. Unfortunately, the way women are often brought up, it can be hard to distinguish between the two if you are young and full of hope in mankind. I know I didn't see the situation for what it was for a long time, and was this close to marriage, concerns of loved ones notwithstanding.

    Your blog helped me recover from that trauma, Seraphic... And as painful as it must be to write about this candidly and lovingly, you're one of the few that do, so thank you!

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    1. You're welcome. I would never do it otherwise. Before I started blogging, few people around me knew I had been married.

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  15. Seraphic, thank you for writing this.

    A question for you: When you were dating/engaged to this young man, what would it have been useful for your friends to have said to you? (Knowing of course that their saying would not necessarily mean your listening.) Would it have been helpful for them to point out red flags they had seen? Or just to assure you that if you ever needed a place to stay or help for any reason, they would provide that? I think especially of those of us who are now out of the dating pool but have friends and relations still in it -- how can we best watch out for our friends, sisters, nieces, etc?

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    1. Yes, it would have been helpful for them to point to flags they had seen. However, I didn't have any older female relations who would have recognized the signs; my mother and grandmother lived blessed lives.

      I think is is very important for older women to pipe up when young women mention bizarre-sounding behaviour or demands from their men friends. (Incidentally, I am also the kind of woman who says, "That's some shiner you've got there" when I see a woman with a black eye.) Often a girl/guy doesn't know that she's/he's the victim of psychological abuse until someone points it out or she sees the controlling behaviour on an "Examples of Psychological Abuse" pamphlet. Up until then, she might think that she's really lucky to be with a guy who cares enough not to let her dress like ordinary women, or let have her own bank account, or whatever, when she is such a useless clod, etc.

      One important thing to do is not stare at the girl for giving in to the guy's demands or accepting a present from him (like turning it down would have been SOOO easy) after a fight like you're disgusted with her. One of my friends did do that--a real, "WHAT do you think you're doing?" look which I have never forgotten. It made me feel really guilty and rotten about myself, but feeling guilty and rotten about herself is something we have got to counter in girls in that situation. You have to build them up. "But, honey, of course you're good at handling money. You've had a bank account since you were six. You've worked hard at many jobs and made a lot of money."

      Frankly I think the big problem is that we think we have to accept whatever great-seeming guy comes along before we are 25 or 30. It is terribly painful to realize that (once again, perhaps) a guy we really love is not the knight in shining armour we thought and we have to plunge right back into the discomfort and unpredictability of totally-single life. Naturally a lot of us flee from this realization. Bernard Lonergan calls such a avoidance "the flight from understanding."

      We also need to teach the signs of controlling and mentally abusive behaviour. Just training girls to walk out when a man hits them is not enough. Abuse often starts a looooooong time before the fists come out.

      At the same time, as commentators have pointed out, boyfriends make reasonable demands and suggestions. "Don't be late!" is reasonable. "I like your blue dress better" is just a statement about himself although perhaps not tactful, depending on the circumstances. "You should really try this great multi-vitamin" from a vitamin-aficionado would be perfectly normal. "You should lose twenty pounds" from a none-so-slim chap most definitely might not, and if it is from any chap when you are within a proven healthy weight, it would most definitely not. (There are thousands of people who need to lose 20 pounds; a 120 pound 24 year old girl who is over 4'11" is not one of them.)

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    2. By the way, priests have to learn this stuff, too. Sometimes a girl will finally break down and instead of talking to an older woman, will talk to her priest. I talked to three priests in the course of this relationship. The first priest--the crucial priest--really dropped the ball. However, you know, one interview was probably not enough to get at the problem. The second priest--a real lefty, too--told me I had to suffer. But the third priest--a super-lefty, incidentally--helped me a LOT.

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    3. HE TOLD YOU THAT YOU HAD TO SUFFER...?

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    4. "You have to suffer the pain, the agony and the humiliation, for then at least you'll know you tried."

      Interestingly, the few direct quotes that sank like stones into my memory are almost all from this period.

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    5. I hope when he said that, you were already married. It might be worth all that to salvage a marriage. If you were just dating or engaged, then why in the world does the Church force us North Americans all to wait 6 months and take a lot of dreary classes to prepare us for marriage? If you notice problems in a relationship that distress you and make you miserable and you haven't taken vows, then just end it already. If a director of a seminary was told by a novice that he cries daily, hates being in seminary, feels nauseated and full of dread at the thought of the priesthood... the director would be wise to tell the lad to at least go home for a while.

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    6. Just a reminder: women can and do give bad dating advice at times. My generation of women (born early 1960s) was perhaps the first to reach maturity when the sexual revolution was already well advanced, and who had been exposed to some form of feminism since late childhood, often a confusing, self-contradictory feminism. Our mothers had not known a dating world anything like ours (though like them and unlike our juniors, we still did go on dates, sort of), so they could only look on and worry, not advise. All they told us was to guard our independence, that we needed to be able to earn a living. Women slightly older kept repeating that we should to get great jobs, that we should date "for experience" rather than to find a mate, and in general pushed the independence message, too. Even men swore that they preferred "independent" women. A magazine I remember from the early 80s observed cynically that when men said this, it meant that they wanted to be able to hurt you with a clear conscience.

      This kind of talk greatly increased young women's suspicion of our male peers and we found it difficult to distinguish between legitimate concerns and neurotic paranoia. So we told each other "Go for it!" and "So many men, so little time," and if a man misbehaved mildly "Tell him to hit the road, Jack!" while at the same time tolerating outrageous betrayals and insisting that yes, we were very very independent and we didn't expect to *marry* him, thank you very much so why did we expect him to be faithful?... Sigh. I will add that the Church itself had not at this time started to reign in the excesses of the VIIs; JPII's pontificate was still in its first decade, and I was told - by a priest! - that the idea of abstinence before marriage was old-fashioned. I'm surprised any of us survived it.

      I don't know if it's worse today or not. On the one hand, women still seem to think that they have to boast that their sexuality is *exactly* like men's. On the other, there isn't a whole chorus of older women and young men urging girls to "independence". Old ladies like me tell the young that Experience is over-rated, and that finding a good man is a challenge. You should take the quest for a good match seriously and not treat men like returnable purchases. Don't allow yourself to be flattered (my own great weakness) by someone's profession of singular interest in you, and if someone reproaches you for not being "independent", blow him or her a raspberry and walk on.

      Alias Clio

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  16. For several reasons, including this post, let me just say that I'm feeling incredibly relieved to have never been in a romantic relationship. Stuff is happening in my friends' relationships that makes me wonder why on earth anyone bothers. Being a non-dater makes life gloriously simple.

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    1. It is great to have good guy friends. You get to be around men, you can have fun conversations with them, you can ask them to lift heavy things; it's all very good. The older you and they get, the more grown-up they get, too. B.A. thinks I wouldn't have liked him when he was in his twenties.

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