Just over a year ago, after years of planning, I left my partner of 20 years and the father of my child and moved back to my home county. It has been a hard journey in many ways; the practicalities of moving, of sorting out finances, of finding a new home for my son and all while in the throes of a mental collapse and chronic anxiety and depression. Mostly, ensuring my son is happy and settled in his new school, environment and re-shaped family.
And re-shaped is what it is. I have striven to make the split as easy as possible for my child. I have put my own fears, grief and anger to one side in order to maintain a feeling of family for him. This means chatting amicably with his father at drop-off times, being very positive about him to my son and even spending occasional days out together, the three of us. It has largely worked and my son has adapted well to his new life. Me less well but therapy is helping.
There has also been a year of navigating milestones; Christmas, birthdays, other family occasions. This has at times been tremendously stressful and painful but we have worked out a way of being together and I have even managed to let go of a lot of the pain and anger I felt. Or so I thought.
I found out yesterday that my ex partner is now in a new relationship. Of course, I anticipated it would happen and I had even considered how I might react to the inevitable news. I imagined I would be entirely laissez faire about it and, mature and magnanimous to the end, would give him my blessing.
I was wrong.
I have spent the time since I found out carrying around a strange pain in my abdomen. Actually, more of an ache. Or perhaps a knot of sadness. A little death. This is how it feels, like a little death.
I am not suffering because I want him back or in any way regret my decision to leave him. I absolutely don’t. Nor do I begrudge him happiness or resent the new woman in his (and possibly my son’s) life.
What I think is happening is this.
I was in my early 30s when I met him. I was fresh out of university with my MA in art history. (I had worked for ten years and then paid my own way through two degrees as a mature student). I was vibrant, intelligent, articulate and with a love of art, film and architecture. I was an avid reader of fiction and of anything that I found intellectually stimulating. I was waiting to begin my PhD in cultural representations of women and madness (oh the irony). In short, I was, to an intelligent, cultured man like him, a bit of a catch.
The 20 odd years since have been hard. The positive times have not abated the tremendous damage that this relationship has wreaked on my mental health, my confidence, my sense of place in the world. I went into the relationship full of life and envisaging a future in academia, full of writing and art and intellectual challenges. I have come out of it broken. I am not able to work. I pull out my hair. I am afraid to answer the phone. I think about death more than is normal for a woman of my age.
I feel angry. I feel angry that I came to him a treasure trove of possibilities and he took that and destroyed it. He was not violent (although a single punch to the head when I was pregnant demonstrates what was under the surface) but he was incredibly cruel. He punished any perceived wrongdoing on my part by, firstly, emotional withdrawal but later by making me feel I was quite unstable. He told me that mutual friends hated me. He told me that I was stupid. He told me that I was mad.
I have been listening to the radio drama The Archers on BBC Radio 4 and the unfolding horror of Helen’s abusive relationship with Rob. It has unnerved me because I see before me the full extent of the damage. I see it in what Rob is doing to Helen and what my ex partner did to me. I am not who I was. I don’t know if I can ever get that version of me back. I don’t know what is going to happen with Rob. We listeners are all hoping for some sort of vindication for Helen and a suitably punishing retribution for Rob’s gaslighting and abuse. But real life isn’t like that. My ex partner has adapted to my exiting from his life and is now with another woman. There is no melodramatic justice for me and my shattered sense of self.
That knot in my stomach I mentioned earlier… I think it is grief. Grief for the younger me who has long gone now and for the love I gave to someone so unworthy, but most of all, grief for the cynicism that has replaced love.
I don’t know what the future holds for me. I hardly dare think of it at times. I do know that any future happiness does not lie in the gaze of another man and my self-worth will not be found in his opinion of me. I have learned that much.