My Own Valentine
I don’t really have strong feelings about Valentine’s Day one way or another. For people who put a lot of stock in it, it seems like an arbitrary day to either celebrate your love for another human (best case) or to put undue pressure on oneself to have that one particular human to whom to show love, affection, and undying devotion — and (if you have that human) to properly perform all those ideals. For people who insist the whole thing is a corporate scam designed to coerce people into spending money on one another in a spectacle that is tantamount to a simulacrum of true affection, I get that too.
It is a weird day that puts a lot of weird pressures on folks. I went to my usual wine bar for a little self-love on V-day, because why not? Because I’m happy as I am, and I am a very good date to myself. I enjoy my own company, and I really enjoy pinot noir. And indeed, I was excited to discover my favorite pinot being served in a flight of Belle Glos wines, so, single lady bonus! Three great pinots for me!
But as I sat in this bar, planning my upcoming week, I reflected on what this day means to me. In fact, I even explained to a bar tender that V-day is really Victory Day for me — liberation day. Though, I haven’t celebrated it openly as such during all the years I was with my (most recent) ex, every year I am reminded of the same thing: Valentine’s Day is the day I kicked out my abuser. And it seems particularly resonant on this, my first V-day single since that fateful February in 2005.
A little back story — in case you didn’t know already: I married a sociopath when I was 19. It went about as well as you might expect.
Everything went to hell really fast. I mean, we didn’t even make it through the honeymoon before we figured out that things were terribly wrong. And I say we, but I suppose that is generous. I don’t really know how aware he was of any of the emotional content of our relationship. I just know that at some point even he couldn’t ignore that things were shit.
We’d been in and out of counseling. I’d been treated for a number of ways he’d recklessly endangered my health. Though I didn’t have the vocabulary for it at the time, he was gaslighting me at every turn. And, not because he’s a bad dude. Unfortunately, he’s just damaged. And this was the only way he could cope with the unforeseen and unmitigable intimacy that marriage brings upon people who naively believed that the “hard part” was over at “I do.”
But the poor guy was definitely living in denial. Or some alternate reality. And as much as I’d been starting to question my own grip on reality, when Valentine’s Day came up, we ran into some hard facts that I just could not sweep under the rug whilst cowtowing to his version of reality.
We’d been married for nine months, and at this point had been living in separate bedrooms for a few months, just to try to see if some space might improve our situation. (Spoiler: it didn’t.)
He came home a few days before the holiday (which was on a Monday that year) and asked me if I’d like to do something for Valentine’s Day.
In utter shock, and with what I’m sure were bulging eyes, I responded with the incredulity that was the most diplomatic emotion I could muster (having suppressed outright contempt and laughter).
“What?! What is it that you want me to do? You want me to go out to some cliché ‘romantic’ dinner and make googly eyes at you over the tops of some candles just so that we can pretend that our marriage isn’t a giant pile of shit for one day??”
I was told nastily that I should “at least make an effort.” Or that we should. (But the implication was on me, to be sure.)
And that was it. That was the absolute limit of my credulity for this human who had tested all my other limits. The proposition that this person who had risked my life, stripped me of my identity and sense of self worth, taken my scholarship from me, and permanently damaged my body, that this person then wanted me to sit across from him at a table, look him in the eyes, and act like I was grateful for him and for his presence in my life — well, that was too much for me.
I don’t really remember how the conversation went, but I do know that I finally stood up for myself. I know that I insisted this was ridiculous, that I insisted he acknowlege just how terrible the state of our relationship was. And those were major victories in a relationship where my husband had, for months, been living entirely in an alternate reality because our marriage had dragged up his own childhood traumas, and he had never learned to cope with emotional difficulty because of it. Having my truth acknowledged was so powerful it was almost a coup d’état.
The outcome was simple. Things were so bad that we should not share a vicinity. We hoped that some space and some distance might also provide some clarity, and a place of calm from which to attempt to repair our broken relationship. That hope was in earnest, even from myself, when it was expressed.
And so, that Monday he packed his things and moved back into his mother’s house. We didn’t have much in the way of possessions to split, having lost most things in a fire five months earlier.
The separation did, indeed, provide some much needed perspective. I took time to just breathe — to not be under constant stress and anxiety because I never knew what fresh horror awaited me at home. I started to realize some key things, topmost of which was that I’d cut myself off from some much loved people because my ex had found it “inappropriate” for me to be friends with other men. Because what relationship could men and women possibly have to one another except sexual? And if one was already married, then there was no point whatsoever in maintaining opposite sex friendships… (oh the deep irony of later realizing I was bisexual and that exclusion of men from my life would never have saved me from damnable temptation).
I re-contacted one of these people, a friend and ex-boyfriend named Mark, who for some odd reason had been a staple in my life since I was 15. And maybe my ex did have something to worry about in that case: Mark had been my first love, and I still cared very deeply for him. In fact, I still do. But at my ex’s insistence, I’d cut this much beloved person from my life. He was the first person I reached out to after the separation, so that I could apologize for having let my ex talk me into eschewing our friendship. I should have stood up for him. I should have showed some loyalty.
I then arranged to go out to dinner with my old friend Mark, and my new friend Tara, who had only known me as a married woman. One of the most telling moments in that split happened after that dinner, when we were all leaving a great little Peruvian restaurant on Maryland Parkway, where we had all eaten some delicious version of chicken and rice. As we left the restaurant, I can remember running out, laughing, and getting a piggy back ride from Mark. It was a deliciously verboten thing to do. My affections for this man were definitely a-kindle, and here I was, still married, not having decided what I was doing about that, and touching — I mean physically touching — his body with my own.
Innocently enough, my friend Tara — who had been the one person unconvinced of my ex’s worthiness to keep me — made an offhand comment that this was the most animated she’d ever seen me. Which I can readily believe.
But the moment of crushing realization was when Mark, shocked, responded by saying, “really? Because this is the most subdued I’ve ever seen you.”
And in that moment, I realized just how transformed I’d been by this toxic marriage. It became clear that I’d either have to be crazy, or go crazy to go back.
My actual, literal sanity and my marriage were incompatible — mutually exclusive conditions.
So, every year on Valentine’s Day, I celebrate my liberation. And yes, in years past, I’ve done this quietly, by choosing not to engage in festivities with my second spouse. Instead acknowledging how meaningless the day is, if the relationship is not already one full of celebration and love. That the day itself cannot save a relationship, and it certainly cannot fix or change a marriage. It didn’t save my first one, so in my second we didn’t even try to pretend on that day. We were at least more honest with each other than that.
This V-day, I get to celebrate both total liberation and an extraordinary amount of love in my life. Maybe it’s the pinot talking, but I feel inordinately fortunate to have friends, loved ones, and unbearably hot flames in my life. But for Valentine’s Day, I raise my glass to myself — to celebrate my relationship to, love for, and companionship with me.