Do You Promise? – A tale of emotional abuse and personal growth
Content Warning : Emotional and psychological abuse in relationships, mental health and self-esteem, suicide, sexual assault, date rape.
I had my first real boyfriend at 13 years old. Within a few weeks we were saying the L word and were pretty sure our lives would utterly disintegrate if we didn’t have each other. This boy was the first in a long line of boys with whom I would have ridiculously unhealthy relationships, this boy was the first to introduce me to emotional manipulation, coercion, and a whole host of other abuses. We only dated for a few short months, beginning towards the end of my 8th grade year and ending by late into summer break. He was my first break up, he was the first one to scream at me, he was the first boyfriend who threatened to kill himself if I wouldn’t come back to him (I say first because…well…they literally ALL did that)
Our break up happened at a party. I had part of one wine cooler that night while crying on the shoulder of some other older boy I’d just met who was being oh so comforting about my brand new asshole ex that I didn’t know how to deal with. Even at 13, only a portion of a wine cooler wasn’t enough to get me drunk, and yet at some point in the night, I blacked out. I have small, vague flashes of waking up with a tongue in my mouth, and feeling guilty that I just could not stop falling asleep. I woke in the morning from the freezing air of the A/C unit meant to cool the whole house blasting into the computer room whose door was shut and locked. I woke up with this oh so comforting boy passed out on top of me, crushing me, stinking in the nauseating way teenage boys who sweat too much and don’t bathe enough and try to cover it up with Axe body spray do after a sticky-hot late-summer night of unsupervised partying. It was strange, the way I couldn’t stay conscious the night before, the way I seemed to have voluntarily slept on a hardwood floor with a strange guy sprawled out across me. I put the strangeness behind me, because he was so nice. It wouldn’t even occur to me until my late 20’s that people don’t just black out and not remember things, that maybe he wasn’t very nice, and I have no idea what really happened.
The next boyfriend was also nice. Too nice. Nice to the point where we fought constantly about whether or not I was allowed to just live my life because he was certain I was so precious I would crumble. He was just worried for me, he just loved me so much, it was cruel that I couldn’t see that. How could it be a bad thing that he just wanted me to be safe? What was wrong with me that I wouldnt want someone to care about me? Even though I actually wanted to break up, I was still devastated – we were going to be together forever.
The next would be a jackass to me in order to show off in front of his friends, because he wasn’t some “pussy” who’d actually be nice to the girl he said he loved. He was a friend of my last ex, and I guess he really took it to heart when I said I couldn’t date someone who was so nice. He’d pressure me into sex I didn’t want to have, he’d brag about sex we actually didn’t have, he’d manage to cry and appear sensitive if we had a fight – which was all the time – turning my complaints about his mistreatment of me into ways I hurt his feelings. He was cheating on me the whole time, because I didn’t make him feel loved. We broke up, I was devastated – we were going to be together forever.
The next was my childhood best friend – the perfect romance script. Friends since kindergarten, always crushing back and forth but never telling the other, then never both single at the same time. Finally we find ourselves together. He judges the shit out of me for my relationship and sexual history even though that history is entirely made up of people he considered his friends, shames me when I admit I might be into a little kink, there’s no spark between us, but still, we love each other and are going to be together forever because we’d invested so much into this. He breaks up with me right before Christmas because he wants to fuck some other girl, and I’m devastated, not only for my boyfriend but for my best friend. He still gives me a piece of jewelry as a Christmas present, but we’re not getting back together. He knows how upset I am and pushes one of his other friends on me, trying to set us up so I can move on and he can be with this other girl guilt-free and we can go back to being friends like it never happened. I give this boy a shot, and we actually hit it off really well. The minute we start dating, he wants me back, and I’m awful for not dumping my new boyfriend he set me up with in order to indulge his whims. He has no comprehension of how much he hurt me. He continued to pursue me throughout the relationship he pushed me into, through my next relationship, and even after he marries someone else continues to reminisce about us with no regard for how uncomfortable that makes me feel. We stop being friends at all into our mid-twenties because he just can’t stop hating everything about me and insisting he’s a better person than I am. Because he found god or something.
The one he set me up with was nice, the only real problems began when he moved in with me over the summer (at 15) and I couldn’t get him to go home. Telling him that I needed alone time was the equivalent of telling him that I did not love him anymore. We began to get on each other’s nerves, but he still wouldn’t leave, so every little quarrel escalated into a huge ordeal about how I must not love him anymore and I had to apologize and reassure him…and he still would not just go home for one day. Me wanting alone time, or time with people who weren’t him was suspect. Surely unless I was doing something I didn’t want him to know about, I could do it with him rather than without – so what didn’t I want him to know about? Why didn’t I just love him enough. I finally insisted we go “on a break” because it was the only way to get rid of him. After a week apart I was finally feeling better. The day I decided to tell him that I wanted to get back together, he told me never mind, he was already dating the girl we’d had our first threesome with. They both liked each other before we were dating, neither thought that was something I should know before sleeping together. The boy who was going to kill himself if I made him go home for one day, who was going to kill himself if I broke up with him, figured out how to get over the entire ordeal in under a week and fell in love with someone he’d always had feelings for and never told me about. I blamed myself for all of it, I was devastated – we were going to be together forever. Why hadn’t I just loved him enough.
With me so far? What a rollercoaster, and we’re not even into my senior year yet! All of these disasters in love led me up to my true high school sweetheart. The one they really write the sappy movies about. The two small-town kids that were going to get out, that were going to make it, you know?. I’d come to know subtle emotional abuses as “normal relationships” reinforced by the “chick flicks” of the 90s and early 2000’s telling me that women just didn’t understand how men love them. I’d also never managed to develop a healthy level of self-esteem before dating, so when it came to my teenage relationships I was used to always being wrong, always being the bad guy, always being the fuck up, always sort of feeling like I wanted to die when I was with them but I’d also die without them.
I was perfect for him. He’d just had his heart broken by the one he was supposed to be with forever. She had cheated on him, and he was devastated and needed comforting. Somehow that turned into our relationship. He was smooth, charming, funny, witty, popular. He was so incredibly smart and what he didn’t know he made up for with quickness and persuasiveness. He was the center of attention, had a rebuttal or argument for everything, could pull an entire room of people off-topic, could twist anyones words around to suit his agenda. He was intriguing, he was dangerous, he was a lot of fun right up until he wasn’t.
His ego was fragile, his temper was short, his empathy and ability to look past himself was...just not there. Like the others before him – but much more skillfully – a complaint that he’d hurt me was turned into an insult against him, and I came out the bad guy in the end, apologizing for accusing him of being cruel as if it were his intention to do me harm, did I really think him such a monster, did I even love him?
His manipulations were vast, creative, deeply tangled, and worlds worse than anything visited upon me by the boyfriends before him. For four years I slowly suffered through an “emotional, hormone-riddled, confused teenage boy from a fucked up home just being a boy” and other some-such excuses used to explain his behaviour turned into a deliberately cruel adult in complete control – of himself and me. It still surprises me that I ever actually left, and admitting that is terrifying. I was only nineteen when it ended. I’ve spent years picking apart every single moment of our time together attempting to sort out the good and dump the bad. It’s been like trying to untangle a knot of necklaces – slow, frustrating, without clear indication that you’ve made any progress or if you’ve actually made it worse – but one of the easiest things to identify that he really fucked up in me, is promises. I’d been honing my skills at lying since boyfriend number one, not because I liked doing it but because it was always easier than the truth – the truth always always always turned into a fight thanks to each of them being their own unique blend of fragile as fuck – but he really helped me perfect the art. Worse, he taught me how to weaponize a promise.
It began small, like most things do.
“Tell me you love me?”
“I love you”
“Do you promise?”
Harmless, right? There’s nothing wrong with someone needing the occasional assurances, in fact many relationship therapists will encourage people to directly ask for the things they need to feel secure. Open and honest communication! The promise? Added assurance, and unless you’re lying about loving someone – which would be an awful thing to do so you wouldn’t, right? – then it’s no big deal at all to promise it.
Promising actually became a cute little “thing” we both did to each other when we were being affectionate, complete with those weird voices people take on when they’re doing that “thing” they have with their partner that signifies affection. You think I’m cute, you like me so much, you never want to leave me, you had such a good time with me today, I’m your favourite? Really? Really really? Do you promise? Adorable.
But promises began to spread into not-so-cute areas of our relationship, because we kept finding out that the other one was lying about something. To ensure the next thing we said to each other was not another lie, we started to invoke the power of the promise. The lies could run the whole spectrum of mundane to relationship-threatening, anything from “promise me you’ll actually empty the dishwasher” to “promise me you’re not texting that person I don’t trust you with anymore” – everything had to turn into a promise because it was so much easier to lie to each other than it was to have an honest conversation when one of us wanted the other to do something they didn’t want to.
I’m not entirely certain why he ever did what he did except that he probably just got off on the power trip of getting his way, but for my part I know exactly why I resorted to lying. He terrified me. I couldn’t identify it at the time, but I was always afraid of him. His idea of a healthy relationship (thanks to completely fucked up parents) was one where, when a couple disagrees about something, they stay up all night yelling and screaming and having it out with one another, but I couldn’t do that for him. The moment I sensed he was angry about something my ‘flight or fight’ instinct kicked in and I would freeze. My throat would swell shut, to the point where I literally could not speak a word – any word at all – and I would begin to cry. My crying and inability to even tell him what I was crying about let alone fight with him over it angered him even more, so my resolution to all of this was to try to avoid a fight altogether. That meant lying in order to be agreeable. I didn’t really want to see that movie, I didn’t really want to hang out with those friends, I didn’t really have any intention of calling later, I didn’t really want to have sex, I didn’t really mean it when I said I’d clean the cat box, I didn’t want to stop seeing my friends that he felt threatened by, I wasn’t really going to put the groceries away – but saying “yes” when I meant “no” even though I knew I’d have to deal with it later was still easier to accept than the immediate fight that would ensue if I just honestly spoke my mind.
He quickly picked up on the fact that I was frequently lying and began applying the “you promise?” trick, and I applied it right back as revenge. We had an unspoken understanding with the promise trick. He knew he never made me feel comfortable enough to be honest, he knew why I lied, and he wanted to force me to stop lying not because my lying actually hurt in any way, but because he wanted full control. I knew he knew, I knew he was intentionally trying to be manipulative by making me feel guilty with the promise trick (because it’s infinitely worse to break a promise than to just tell a lie) and I knew he was a liar too, so I tried to beat him at his own game. The problem was that he felt no guilt in breaking promises and was far more clever than I was, so he could always twist the situation and get out of trouble… I was never so lucky and paid dearly for each and every broken promise and lie.
Still, I always tried to give as good as I got, and we played the promise trick on each other until even after we were broken up and a continent apart. Even after severing all obligations to each other we’d spent too much time trying to force a situation to go the way we wanted by using heavy words with big sentimental meaning to give it up – and that’s exactly what the weaponization of the promise is. You know that someone is agreeing with you just to appease you (either because they don’t feel safe to disagree, because they want you to stop nagging, because they think it’s what you want to hear, because they don’t consider the thing you’re asking for to be all that important and assume it’ll blow over, etc) and that, if left at a simple “yes, okay, sure” the outcome will not actually be in your favour. So what do you do? You add this big heavy word to it. Do you promise? If someone couldn’t just say “no” in the first place, they’re definitely won’t be able to decline a request for a promise. You have them trapped.
“What do you mean you can’t promise to take the dog for a walk? What’s so hard about that? You said you will, but you can’t promise you will? Does that mean you just lied to me and you’re really not going to take the dog for a walk?”
“Don’t cheat on me”
“Of course not”
“Well no I won’t do that…”
“So you’re leaving the option to cheat on me open then, because if you really weren’t going to, you would be able to promise me”
Not conversations anyone ever wants to have, and everybody knows it. Everybody also knows how important promises are, how severe it is to break one, and that’s the exact problem of it. A little “do you promise?” seems so innocent, doesn’t it?
All told this boyfriend and I were probably broken up for the same amount of time we were together. He usually managed to be the one who got the last word and he usually managed to break up with me right before (or exactly on) the sort of things that are important to some people – christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, valentines day, etc. To make sure I hurt the worst. He never got even with me, he always made sure I hurt just a little bit worse than he did. We were freshly broken up for who knows how many times (but still far from the last time) right before my 18th birthday. My sister took me to get my first tattoo on my birthday, and I (regrettably) decided to put the words “You Promised” around my right ankle. People frequently ask me about the significance of this tattoo and I usually brush them off with some non-reply because this is a hell of a story to tell strangers while waiting in line at the grocery check-out…but here it is now.
You Promised is a lot of things – a(nother) heartbroken accusation, a(nother) bitter sigh, a(nother) cry of disbelief, a(nother) reminder to you, but also a(nother) reminder to me. It was mostly just a really dumb thing to permanently affix to my body, but it hasn’t always been completely without purpose. I’ve had to do a lot of work to unlearn so many things from that relationship, had to dispose of so many busted ways of thinking and doing. Some of them I’m still working on almost a decade later, because that’s how deep abuse can run in you. Some I probably haven’t even identified still, but the misuse of promises stuck out and I’ve spent considerable time on it. I had to learn how to say no – for the first time in my life since beginning to date – instead of give in and just hope it gets forgotten about so I don’t have to deal with it later. I had to learn that if every time I said “no” turned into a fight about how I must not love them because I didn’t agree…we shouldn’t be together..they’re manipulative assholes. I had to learn especially not to promise things I had no intention of fulfilling but was just scared to decline, because promises are meant to actually carry weight, and it will always come back to bite me in the ass. Even harder, I had to learn to ask for what I do want, and if I feel unsure about someone’s answer to my requests – talk it out instead of corner them with an impossible promise to ensure that I get my way. I had to learn to walk away if I truly needed something but the answer remained “no,” I had to learn that I could not force it. I had to learn to trust people when they told me “yes” and stop asking for a promise out of insecurity for every little thing to seal the deal, and I had to learn how to trust people when they did offer up a promise of their own accord, that it wasn’t just another lie or some sneaky plot to hurt me later.
These days I’ve all but eliminated the word “promise” from my vocabulary. Nobody is asking me for promises in order to assuage their insecurity, because they trust that I’m telling the truth. I’m able to tell the truth, because they’ve made me feel safe enough to give them honesty, even when the truth is a “no.” I don’t find myself requiring a promise of everything either. It turns out that with the right people promises become unnecessary, or maybe it’s that they become more true, and can therefore go unspoken.