I’ve always had a perverse fondness for non-fiction books about human behavior and relational shit that I have no real reason to read to help myself. I own books on sociopathy, cult mind control, racism, suicide, motherhood, and marriage, despite having no direct experience with any of the above. And the granddaddy of all books I find totally compelling for no obvious personal reason is Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear. I’ve never been stalked, nor have I ever had any extraordinary anxiety about personal safety. (I spent most of my adult life in Canada, for god’s sake.) But someone recommended that book to me years ago–undoubtedly around the time Oprah was flogging it–and since then, I’ve read it like a dozen times.
This is partly because I have several friends who have had good reasons to read it, and I’ve taken to rereading it every time someone else’s boyfriend goes creepy. Which was kind of a lot, in my circle of friends, during our twenties. And in fact, I first read it so long ago that part of me wonders if it’s the primary reason I’ve never been stalked.
Example: I once refused a second date with a guy because he showed up to the first with half a dozen red roses. Try explaining that to most people. You didn’t like him because… he brought flowers? But as soon as I saw him standing there with the roses, I understood that he was attempting to slot me into a pre-existing romantic fantasy that had absolutely nothing to do with who I was. He didn’t know anything about me–like, notably, the fact that I’m allergic to most flowers–and yet, he’d shown up not just with a gift, but with a symbol of love. That’s not sweet; it’s fucking creepy. And the rest of the date–which lasted 45 mins. before I called my friend Karen from the bathroom of the pub and demanded that she get me out of there–bore out my initial impression. He’d come to that date with a one-size-fits-all pedestal in tow, and basically greeted me with, “Hop up!” This guy wasn’t fucking around with anything so boring as dating a human being–that much was clear. But I might have ignored my gut and interpreted all that differently–as something weirdly, awkwardly endearing–if I hadn’t practically memorized The Gift of Fear by that point. So… thanks, Gavin.
I put a lot of stock in my gut impressions of people, and so far, I haven’t made any serious missteps. I’ve gotten into a few brief friendships with emotional vampires, but I’ve never dated one, and more importantly, I’ve never had to break up with one. Yet dear friends of mine–strong, smart women–have endured lengthy campaigns of harassment, manipulation, and in some cases, violence, after dumping assholes who feel entitled to decide for themselves when the relationship will end, which is never. My friends’ only fault was being kind and generous, being susceptible to guilt about treating another person poorly, even if the person in question had no capacity for empathy himself.
I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same thing, if I somehow got past the first date with a guy like that. Their M.O. is to behave in ways that seem so normal, if you ignore or initially fail to apprehend the context of control they establish right off the bat, the seeds of anxiety and guilt they plant at regular intervals, the way absolutely everything is all about their fucked-up needs, yet carefully designed to make you feel heartless, selfish, crazy. If you confront them, they just don’t know what they did wrong! What? What was it?
So you go over their behavior in your mind, and you can’t even point to anything totally outrageous–or if you can, he only did it because he “loves you so much he couldn’t help,” say, calling at 3 a.m. and demanding to know where you were, when the 100 percent predictable answer was, “Asleep in my own bed, asshole”–and you end up letting yourself be convinced that you are crazy, and he’s not doing anything wrong, because the only evidence you have against him is your feelings. And he has made it abundantly clear from day one that your feelings are irrelevant; that’s the whole problem. That’s the very thing you can’t describe in words, or illustrate with a catalogue of specific offensive behaviors. And as long as you can’t describe it, he’ll keep insisting he’s innocent of anything other than this overwhelming love for you.
I have said to friends more times than I can count that “I just love you so much” is a completely nonsensical response to accusations that he is making you feel like shit. “I just love you so much” is a reasonable explanation for trying to make your life easier, for supporting your ambitions, for holding you while you cry even if he wants to run for the nearest exit, for having a genuine conversation when he feels like zoning out. As an explanation for behavior that makes you feel insecure, guilty, angry, and/or unhinged, it totally fucking flunks the logic test. The kind of person who would use “I just love you so much” as a defense is simply not playing by the same rules as those of us in the reality-based community. Actions that honestly issue from love don’t generally demand justification.
But it is so bloody hard to see that when you’ve already been dragged into this other person’s world, where up is down and black is white and you are alternately a bitch or an angel, depending entirely on what this person’s ego is getting from you at any given moment. The reality is that you are actually non-existent in that world. You don’t have to do a single thing to make the transition from bitch to angel or vice versa; if you just remain quiet, this person will tell himself a story about your feelings that skews one way or the other, and has squat to do with your actual feelings. One day, because you’re ignoring him, you’re a stuck-up cunt; the next, because you’re not actively telling him to piss off, you’re the most amazing creature who ever lived. You’ve done nothing; all that’s changed is the story in his mind. And the story is never, ever that you’re somewhere in between. (That’s what makes it so hard to untangle yourself; the “angel” days can seem pretty damn nice.)
I have so far avoided getting tangled up romantically with those people–knock wood. But I know how easy it is to fall into their maddening traps, even if you spot what they’re doing fairly quickly and disengage. They will still keep trying and trying to send the message that you don’t get to say no, you don’t get to be pissed, you don’t get to reject them–their relationship to you will be on their terms, thank you very much. It doesn’t matter if you tell them flat out what your boundaries are, or you simply choose to walk away, or both–you don’t get to do that!
The thing they just will not accept is, you do. As I said to a friend going through this last night, the reality of any interaction with other people is, they have the right to reject you for any reason, rational or irrational. If one of my best friends wakes up tomorrow and decides she despises all people with blue eyes and will therefore never speak to me again, I’m screwed. I can feel hurt and woefully wronged all I want, I can feel that this is cruel and senseless, I can feel that I don’t deserve it, but I do not have veto power over the rejection. That’s what the people I’m talking about don’t get.
I mean, it’s just the fucking tip of the iceberg of what they don’t get, but it’s the thing that’s so infuriating. They feel completely entitled to get what they want from you, regardless of your feelings–which they usually have zero concept of–so they’ll just keep pounding on your door, screaming “Let me in!” fucking incessantly.
The good news is, you have no obligation to open the door. But it can be awfully tempting to, just to make the pounding stop. That’s exactly what they count on. Sick fucks.