Wouldn’t it be great if the people we dated came with warning labels? Caution: This person drinks too much. Caution: This person is not emotionally available. Caution: This person is a narcissistic serial cheater.
Just because we can’t see warning labels, or the red flags, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. Sometimes we ignore them at our own peril. Sometimes we see the signs but can’t interpret them.
I met my ex in college; in fact, I hired him at the campus radio station when I was assistant station manager. He dutifully showed up for his volunteer on-air shift without fail, so in my eyes, that cemented him as loyal and dependable. We started dating just before graduation and as the recipient of a prestigious academic award, he had his pick of job offers. I thought I had landed a real catch.
A funny thing happens when you’re newly in love: you put on rose colored glasses and the person you’re gazing at, along with the rest of the world, is rosy and bright and wonderfully sparkly. The downside of wearing rose colored glasses is that it makes red flags not look so red at all.
That’s the only way I can explain how I reacted, or didn’t react, when my ex handed me (he handed it to me!) the first big red flag. As we talked about our past relationships, he admitted that he’d cheated on every single one of his girlfriends. He left Girl 1 for Girl 2, then Girl 2 for Girl 3 (to whom he’d been engaged before Girl 4 came along), and so on…
Yet, how did I translate this? That he was merely a young stud out there sowing his wild oats. That he wasn’t meant to settle down with any of those girls. But now that he’d found me – his true love, his soon-to-be bride, the one he was building a life with – things would be different. In fact, I was so naïve that it didn’t even occur to me until years later that he likely left his most recent college girlfriend to date me – or much worse, that he hadn’t left her before he started dating me.
The rose colored glasses we wear are fitted with our own ethical lens – our values, morals and beliefs. I had no comprehension that someone who cheated on past girlfriends would be equipped to cheat on his own wife. Our marriage was protected by the vows we made to forsake all others, right? Of course, infidelity happens, but there was no way it could happen to us. It was beyond my grasp that someone close to me was capable of living a double life.
In the early fallout of my divorce, people would sometimes ask: did you see any signs? My answer: I wish. They were all there, only I didn’t recognize them or I dismissed them as “normal” behavior.
He moved awfully fast. We clicked right from the start, which to me meant that we were destined to be together. For the first time, I didn’t need to do the work to pursue the guy – he genuinely wanted me, and that felt great. On one of our early dates, he told me he loved me – but I didn’t say it back right away. Even at 19, I knew that it didn’t feel quite right. Of course, I was flattered. Within a month, he asked me to marry him. I honestly believed that it was because he loved me so much he couldn’t live without me.
He disrespected his mother. It’s true: you really can tell the way a man will treat his wife by how he treats his mother. While my ex loves his mom, he also snipes at her, belittles her and is overly critical of her. He acts like he knows better than she does. At first, I chalked it up to his tenuous childhood and that this was their unique way of communicating. But, you guessed it, I was also on the receiving end of his condescending tone – many times I was told to “give my head a shake” or “don’t be so stupid.” He’d even snapped his fingers at me to “fetch” something out of reach a time or two. Yuck.
He wore success to cover up a lack of character. At the office, he was focused on climbing the corporate ladder. He worked very hard to impress the higher-ups and complete his professional development studies to boost his status within the industry. While I believed his persistence was about making a better future for our family, it was only about appearances and earning his key to a decidedly un-family friendly VIP room of indulgences. What I saw as growing confidence was actually increasing arrogance, and success only fed into his sense of entitlement.
He used up every inch of leeway I gave him. Because he worked so hard in a stressful environment, he said he needed time to relax. So he golfed. A lot. At first, this bothered me as I was also juggling a career, busy home life and two young kids, but after being told not to be so “selfish,” I eased up. So I didn’t complain when he went golfing every weekend until 4pm. I didn’t complain when he woke up at dawn to hit the links. I didn’t complain when he golfed after work or went out of town to participate in tournaments with clients and colleagues. I simply smiled and told him to have fun whenever he slung his golf bag over his shoulder, never dreaming it was also the perfect alibi for his extramarital pursuits.
And then there was the night he didn’t come home at all. He had attended an annual industry event, where large amounts of alcohol are traditionally consumed. He’d come home drunk from this function in years past, but was always in bed by midnight. On this occasion, he came tiptoeing in as the sun was coming up. I was beyond furious and demanded to know where he had been. He said he’d tied one on and had slept it off in the car. I didn’t buy it and told him as much, but he remained stony and unapologetic. For the rest of the week, I slept on the basement sofa, crying and wondering if this was how my marriage was going to end. I was sure he’d been up to no good but without a shred of proof, I was left to believe it was only in my head. I caved and forgave him.
When D-Day finally came around a year later, he spontaneously confessed a decade’s worth of lies and transgressions – including the reason he hadn’t come home that night was because he’d been in someone else’s bed.
Remember that initial red flag that was handed to me when we began dating – his admission that he’d cheated on his previous girlfriends? As the atomic bomb dropped on our marriage it came back to bite me: “I told you right from the start that I’ve never been faithful to anyone,” he barked, as if it was my fault for trusting him.
Twenty years later, the rose colored glasses were off: I finally saw the red flag. (BTW, Maya Angelou was right: When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.)
Upon reading this, you’re probably thinking that the signs were so freaking obvious. I only wish they had been neatly stacked and added up together, but they weren’t presented to me that way. All I can say is that hindsight is 20/20 – we always gain better understanding of an event after it happens, not before.
The funny thing is I don’t blame myself for having missed the signs in the first place. This box of life doesn’t come with a deception decoder ring. I know I couldn’t translate what was right in front of me because I’d never seen it up close before.
If I could go back and tell my younger self to wake up and start reading the signs, believe me – I would. I’d also give her a hug and tell her that she deserved much better. Luckily, I know now that I’ll never miss or misread them again.