When your life takes a major turn, around a corner that you never saw coming, you tend to re-evaluate your choices and your actions that led you to that point. Should you have seen it coming? Was there a red flag that you missed, or dismissed, somewhere along the way?
How many red flags?
It’s easy to see the big things, the glaring issues and ugly truths when they happen. Those things stand out as if they’ve been circled in red pen, or written in fat tipped markers. They’re big and bold, you can’t miss them. And you are forced to deal with them, for better or worse.
But the other red flags? Those tiny, almost imperceptible blips on your radar? Those are the sneaky ones. They are tucked into bigger moments, slipped in-between other actions, and that’s how you miss them. You make excuses, you blame others, you think it’s because of the situation. You forgive them, “just this once”. But it’s not only once, is it?
You look the other way to keep the dream alive, to not be a difficult bitch, to keep the peace. You want ‘happily ever after’ the way you’ve been promised it happens. It’s a fairytale, for the most part, but we want to believe it’s real.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately going over the last twenty five years of my life, my marriage. Looking back, looking for answers. When did it begin to fall apart? Were there signs that I missed? Was he always this selfish, cruel and narcissistic? Was I just blind, naive?
The short answer? Yes.
I can look back all the way to our first year, when we were just dating, and see red flags that I chose to ignore or just shrug off. I told myself that they were just due to the circumstances surrounding the event, or that the other person involved provoked him, or maybe I just didn’t completely understand him…yet.
The most vivid one for me was on our first New Year’s Eve. We had only been dating for less than six months, I was at his house getting ready because I had just totaled my car the week before Christmas, and it was easier to get ready together for the night’s festivities with his close group of friends. He still lived at home with his mother (okay, that is really the first red flag, let’s be honest) so I was in her house, using her shower, to get ready to go out with her son.
It all started out so simply, I needed a towel to take a shower. That’s all, a towel.
He gallantly offered to fetch one for me and dashed off to get one. On his way to the linen closet, in the other bathroom, his mother instructed him which towels to pull from – “not the good towels”.
If you’ve grown up in the same era as I did, you know what “good towels” means. They are the ones you save for company and holidays. They are the towels that hang, like paintings in the Louvre, only to be seen and not touched even by family. They are for “special occasions”.
Obviously, I didn’t make the cut. But you know what? I didn’t mind, I got it. I completely understood and saw it almost as a compliment – I was not considered a “guest” that needed to be impressed and that was a nice thing, wasn’t it?
I guess I was the only one that wasn’t offended, because suddenly all hell broke loose. The next thing I know there is a screaming match going on across the kitchen between the two of them, the likes that I have never witnessed in my own family.
I stood paralyzed with fear, looking down at the linoleum floor, not sure what to do or where to go. It was loud, it was mean-spirited and ugly. He was screaming about how there was no good reason not to give me a good towel, what was she saving them for anyway? She screamed back that they were for “gifts”, gifts for who was never determined, and then it went out of control from there.
The insults, the screaming, the crying.
He resorted to insulting her on every level possible, even to suggest that her two husbands hadn’t died of natural causes, she had killed them with her craziness and they died to get away from her. I compared it to a scene with Norman Bates when I recounted the events to my mom. I was beyond shocked, and so was she.
Who talks to their mother like that?
But, I didn’t walk away from him. I didn’t break up with him. No, I made an excuse that families are different and have a different dynamic. Everyone communicates in their own style in their own family. Maybe that’s just how they communicate, some families are loud and scream, but they still love each other, right?
He would never do that to me. He would never treat me that way. We were different.
I honestly thought that we had a relationship that he was saving just for me, because I was special. One with communication and respect, a relationship where we could discuss things and work together to find the answers. We would have a secure and level-headed relationship, filled with love and acceptance, because we both had experience in dysfunctional families. And, I wasn’t his mother, so it would be different, right?
But that was only the beginning, only the first of many red flags to come.
The red flags start off small, too small to worry about, that’s the problem with them in the beginning. It’s the way he talks to the waiter or waitress, it’s his intense competitiveness that he demonstrates in a casual game of volleyball with his friends (spiking the ball and screaming at his team mates) It’s the smug attitude he carries that shows he assumes that he’s always right, no matter the circumstances, and all of his friends and family have learned to accept that attitude. They even praise him for his “strong will” and tell me “he’s a good guy”.
The red flags aren’t usually a huge slap in the face, no they’re more subtle than that, and they’re usually not aimed at you. In the beginning.
They buzz around you like gnats or mosquitoes, small and annoying, you can swat them away and move on with your life. The world is still beautiful and full of promise, and you’re enjoying the warm sun of his love on your skin. This is paradise like you’ve never experienced, even if there are a few bugs. But it can only get better. He’s only that way to protect you, to care for you, to love you.
The problem is that the bugs grow over time, they multiply. Eventually, you don’t even notice the bites, you just get used to them like those unblinking children from the Sally Struthers commercials, with flies on their faces. You’ve learned to ignore them and accept them as part of who he is, you shrug it off. Sometimes you may even feel good about it on some level. It proves that he loves you and wants to protect you. I remember telling people more than a few times over the years, “Yes, he’s an asshole. But he’s my asshole, and I’m glad that he’s on my side.” I truly believed that.
The red flags don’t stop after you’re married, they continue to sprinkle themselves throughout the years of your relationship, and grow bigger and more bold. And now they aren’t just for strangers, his family/friends and hired help, they’re aimed at you, your kids and your family. The problem now is you’re more invested in the relationship and have more to lose if you walk away. Not to mention the feeling of being a failure, a sucker.
What will everyone think of you?
Looking back at the long list of red flags now, I can only shake my head and ask myself what made me stay as long as I did. Why didn’t I walk away after the New Year’s Eve incident?
What was I so afraid of? Why does anyone stay in that type of relationship?
Simply put, because you just don’t know any better to expect any better. You’ve been groomed from an early age, most likely, to accept less and to put up with more, because you want people to love you. You’ve learned to ignore the ugly stuff and to only think of “good things”. You want so desperately to live the dream of happily ever after, at any cost, even if it means losing yourself.
And to do that, you can’t look at the red flags.