I appreciated your comments on my own essay, and I’ll just share my responses here. :) Knowing when to walk away is so valuable, and it’s true that we often wishful-think our way into “signs.” Sometimes an abusive person does happen to be a psychopath or a sociopath. Other times, I suspect that abuse stems from another issue, like borderline personality disorder, where the individual genuinely does feel emotion (including love), and the abuse is a (very unfortunately warped) fear response designed to keep the loved one close. As the saying goes, Hurt people hurt people.
In my own life, there were a number of moments where I felt like the ex-boyfriend I wrote about was being sincere. Very sincere. Over a decade hence, I still feel that way. The problem wasn’t whether or not he loved me — it seems he did — but whether or not his emotional maturity allowed for a healthy dynamic, which it didn’t at the time. The other problem was that our values were very different; he was far more materialistic, for example, than I ever had any interest in becoming (he tried to rationalize this both as virtuous, provider-type stuff and as How to Show Gratitude for the chance to live “the American Dream”); I couldn’t imagine a lifetime dictated by his financial habits. Not to mention that his worldviews were heavily shaped by machismo, and mine were far more progressive and, well, women always lose when it comes to machismo. All of this to say… we were wrong for each other, but it wasn’t because he was a psychopath or a sociopath, and I do believe that on some level, in some way, he genuinely loved me. However, I also believe that even if we were more compatible with respect to values, and even if he did love me, it wasn’t going to work because abusive communication habits are still abusive. And I think that’s true of a lot of people in abusive relationships; the abusive partner is capable of feeling love, but there’s so much toxic bullshit that spills over into the love, from old pains that the abusive partner has not yet opted to take responsibility for and heal. So they keep lashing out, fearful of “losing” their emotional support person, and the effects are devastating.
There is a sort of hubris and deceptively high level of self-esteem that abused people carry: it’s true, a lot of them do think, “My partner can’t help but to love me; if I just hang in there through the hard times, they’ll see it. And I’ll get my happy ending.” What the problem is — and you’ve hit the nail on the head — is the idea that any single person can or should hold 100% responsibility for a relationship’s functioning. That’s an ego trap. It’s also something that women in particular are socialized for, groomed as they are to be caretakers from the moment they receive their first doll.
As for signs, I’ve noticed that some signs seem true while others feel true. It’s interesting because sometimes the ones that seem true — that is, they “make sense”—are smokescreens, while the ones that feel true — even if they make no sense at all in the current context — very well can be the ones that play out as truth down the line. “This is not a chess problem to concentrate on and solve. Trust, as when it is your turn at dice. Throw the elements here down. Read what has been given to you.” Those are some lines from Rumi, and I return to them sometimes in my mind when I’m hoping for some kind of “sign;” they remind me that I have often already been given my “answers,” and it’s not up to me to keep looking for others. It’s simply time to go within to what I feel and to trust in what my heart says. (And the heart’s genuine truth feels like a pure and primordial peace.)
Thanks again for the chance to reflect, Chris! And I’m also very happy to know that your mom and your sister got out of their own abusive nightmares. Wishing both of them continued love and happiness!