Dirty John or Decent John: A Golden Rule Learned the Hard Way

Some Johns are just a little dirty. Mine taught me how to see through the blurred lines of love and know when it’s not right.

I missed the boat on the podcast, but I recently watched the Bravo series Dirty John. And while I’m still reeling from Connie Britton’s stellar Mid-Western sweetness, my own recent relationship left one resounding question in my mind. The infamous John Meehan leaves little doubt of his filthiness — the criminal record, the history of blatant lies, the ongoing drug abuse, and well…murder — but what about the slightly smudged-up, not completely obviously disgusting guys? Relationships are hard and no one is perfect. People make mistakes and we choose to love them through those slip-ups if we want our relationships to succeed. But that kind of love and devotion can also lead us to settling on bigger problems than we need or deserve. In a world in which even smart women settle for less than the best, how do you really know when it’s wrong?

The answer to this question in my own relationship came from one of my closest and wisest friends, and I’m ashamed to tell you that I stayed long after I probably knew the answer. In sharing this clever and oh-so-simple little trick, plus some warning signs to keep an eye on, I hope to save others from sticking for too long with their A-Little-Bit-Too-Messy Johns or Janes.

When I met — we’ll call him Mark — it happened fast. I had been single for about four years, my career was going great, and I was happy living alone with my big, mean cat. But then I met Mark on one of the few and infrequent online dates I forced myself to endure. It wasn’t love at first sight for me, but I liked him. He was a surgical nurse. He was smart and covered in tattoos and funny and cute, but not Ryan Gosling. And unlike almost every other guy with whom I’d shared a first date in New York City after meeting on an app, I heard from him. I heard from him a lot and it was endearing. He liked me. He liked me enough to adorably give me an ultimatum for our second date a few weeks after our first.

I had been out of town and busy, but was excited to see him again. So a couple days before the Fourth of July, we had a second date and a few drinks and a great kiss. Then we spent the Fourth watching fireworks on his roof with a few of my friends and a couple of his. He walked me home in the rain that night and from then it was off to the races. He swore he had never moved so quickly a few weeks later when we were laying on my bed talking and he told me that he already loved me. It was crazy, but I felt the same way. The fast pace was totally not my style and I had never experienced anything like those feelings before. Our brains connected in a truly rare way and he made me laugh so easily. He started talking about marriage and babies and I couldn’t believe this had all happened so easily, but I figured, “Hey, maybe this is the way it happens when it happens.” I was on board.

Then, tale as old as time in New York, eight months in, we found a great apartment and moved in together. Rent was too expensive to both have our own places if we were spending every night together. We were excited and we felt sure. I had lived with an ex in New York and didn’t want to go through a separation again, but this was the man I was going to marry and I couldn’t wait to live with him. In the “relationship” column on our lease, Mark wrote “fiancé” next to both of our names. I was happy. I loved him so much.

And then, in the few days before our move, the change began. Mark worked early hours at the hospital, but he had always been excited to see me in the evenings anyway. But when I stopped by to say goodnight one night, he was annoyed because he wanted to go to sleep. He was uncharacteristically cold and my feelings were hurt, but we were about to live in the same apartment and I’d have him sleeping next to me every night.

On the day we moved in, we fought. He was irritable and impatient, but I reminded myself that moving is hard. We had both been living alone for a while, and he seemed to be having a little bit of trouble with the idea that now he had another person to consider before making plans and decisions. This trait would become more and more apparent as he bucked every time he felt like a freedom was being stripped from him. Then, during our first weekend in our new place, he didn’t come home one night. He fell asleep at his best friend’s apartment, but he never called or texted and I was upset. The next morning, I expected the apologies to come flooding in from this sweet man who loved me. But instead, he was livid at my being upset. He woke up to my worried calls and texts and screamed at me over the phone and refused to come home. He told me that “sometimes this would happen.” I already knew that sleeping out with no warning was not acceptable for me in a relationship, but I clung desperately to the good things we had already established. I was determined not to have made a big mistake. I mean, I had gotten rid of half my furniture only days before.

A few weeks into living together, he walked out of his job. Though the hours and work were hard, I thought he loved his job and was a favorite of the very successful surgeon for whom he worked. He explained that he hated to complain, so he never told me how unhappy he really had been. I worked from home, so suddenly in February in New York City, we were both stuck inside our one bedroom apartment every day. Mark was moody and dark and he wasn’t sleeping at night. He started sleeping on the couch, making me feel unwanted and confused.

Mark had been a skateboarder in his younger years and was still a bit obsessed as he approached 40. The winter made him depressed because he couldn’t skate outside, so he spent his sleepless nights and jobless days watching skating videos on his laptop. He finally found another job at a surgery center in the city and was slated to start soon. But on an evening skating and drinking with his friends, he broke his arm. He had to push back the start date for his new job a few more months until his arm would be healed.

Breaking his arm sent his mood into a deeper spiral. The financial strain was hard on his mental state and I paid for everything — groceries, dinners out, things for the apartment — to try to ease his worries. He was drinking a lot. I love my wine, and our relationship had begun with lots of nights out for dinner and cocktails. We loved having an evening drink on our gorgeous rooftop, and Mark always picked up beers on his way home from work. But in this stage of unemployment, he was drinking more and earlier in the day. Since moving in together, our fighting had continued to get worse, and unsurprisingly, it was greatly exacerbated by booze. He had a fast temper, but I have my faults, too. I can be moody and difficult. So when his anger took scary turns, like throwing and breaking things in the apartment or storming out and disappearing for periods of time, I would feel like the fault was mine. I would be desperate for him to come back to me. I was constantly begging for that sweet reconciliation. This devotion and need and obsession with my love for him made me blindly accepting of the new realities of our life together. I loved him so much.

Early in our relationship, I had asked Mark about drugs. He said that he had recreationally used them with friends, which was not uncommon for a young person in New York. I don’t know why I asked when I did, but I must have had some suspicions. He didn’t tell me the truth, but then again he had never told anyone the truth.

The truth came in September after his arm had healed and he had started his new job. His parents had come to New York to pick us up to drive us back to Pennsylvania for Labor Day weekend. It was my first visit to his hometown and my first time meeting many extended family members. When Mark came home from work to meet us for the long drive, he was upset. Something had happened at work, and though he promised to explain later, I had no idea what was going on. Based on his easy anger, I was afraid he had gotten into a confrontation with a co-worker.

The next morning in Pennsylvania, I begged him to tell me what was going on. He pulled over into the post office parking lot and told me that he was going to go to rehab for drugs and alcohol. He explained that he had a past with opiates, and that he had recently been stealing drugs from work. He had been approached the day before by his managers after they had become suspicious of his behavior. I listened and responded with love. Though it was jarring news, it at least helped to explain his strange moods and I felt relieved that it wasn’t his feelings for me that had changed.

His job was supportive and he was strangely relieved to be caught. He wanted to stop using drugs and it felt freeing for him to finally talk to other people about this dark and secret part of his life. I wanted him to be healthy and I hoped that this would be the answer to the problems in our relationship. It was scary and unknown, but it also felt like a relief to know - for the first time in our relationship - what was going on.

One important note here: in that post office parking lot, I still didn’t know a lot of the truth. He led me to believe that he had been stealing pills from work — he was stealing needles. He told me that his drug use had picked back up when he started this new job — he had been using at his old job (hence his moody, sleepless withdrawal when we had first moved in together). In the airport on the way to Canada for a vacation months into his sobriety, he nonchalantly told me that he had gotten an STD test a couple months earlier. Though he’d tried to be very careful with his needles, he said, he never was 100% sure. Instead of being understanding of my shock, he was extremely irritated when I reacted negatively to his candid revelation that he had put my health in jeopardy.

But I put those feelings aside so that we could have a good vacation. I didn’t want him to be mad at me. I loved him so much.

As selfish as a drug addict’s behavior can be, a recovering addict can be even more self-centered. This is by necessity, they say in the programs. I was understanding and supportive of his recovery, but I never stopped wanting back the guy I met. Our fighting subsided for a while, got better sometimes, but it never stopped.

In this new phase of recovery, I entered a new phase as well: a phase of intense and paralyzing insecurity. Mark was distant and preoccupied, and I was deeply grieving the affection and attention I used to get from him. To make matters worse, his new life came with new friendships, specifically one with a girl from AA with whom he communicated too much. Thus began a toxic cycle of my feeling neglected and acting out by making passive aggressive and distrustful comments, which only made Mark colder and less interested in showing me the love that I so desperately wanted.

There are a few important things that happened here that I feel I should recognize. First, my behavior was causing big, huge problems in our getting along with each other. I don’t know if the trust between us was fixable at this point and his behavior still wasn’t perfect, but trust is necessary to move things forward. Addicts innately damage trust by their actions when they are using, but when they working hard to do the right things, it can be very hurtful to them when they are still met with distrust. Second, your partner should never make you feel worse about yourself. When I expressed feeling unwanted, a person who loved me would have made a concerted effort to make me feel wanted. Instead, Mark would only get angry and more distant if I expressed a need that wasn’t being met. You should always always always be able to express your needs, and they should be met with understanding and willingness to improve. Thirdly, and this is a big one, my happiness and feelings of validation should not have revolved around Mark. Your partner should bolster you and provide support and make you feel great about yourself, but they can not be your only source of confidence. It is my responsibility for allowing myself to get to that place, and for holding out for a person and a relationship that didn’t exist anymore.

In the end, after a lot of improvements and a great trip to Paris together, Mark broke up with me a month before the lease on our apartment expired. He said he was nervous to come home every day and his happiness relied on moving on. I can’t say now what role the girl from AA had to play in this, and that’s not my concern anymore. To say I was surprised and upset is an understatement (I had an appointment for us to see a new place together the next day), but the reactions from my friends and family affirmed that this was the right thing for me. My mom really hit the nail on the head when I called her in tears and she said, “You never would have ended it.” She was right. I was devoted. I wanted it to work and, at my own expense, I would have done anything to try. Because it’s complicated when you love someone and it’s hard to know when enough is enough, especially when that person has a problem and you have decided to love them through it.

So here is the trick that I promised you. If I had listened to it and been honest with myself, I would have saved myself a lot of time by getting out when I first deserved to get out. I have two nephews, Smith and Gray, and a niece, Claire, who I love more than anything in the entire world. Kids provide a unique brand of perspective because they are sweet and innocent, and if you have some in your life, you know that your love for them is unlike any other kind. My beautifully wise friend — we’ll call her Yamuna because that is her real name — gave me this piece of advice during all of my confusion with Mark: “Think about what you would find acceptable for Claire, and don’t let yourself settle for any less.” It cut me to the core then, and it still does today.

If you’re in the thick of it and you’re unsure whether to stick around or cut and run, I encourage you to think about someone in your life who you want desperately to protect. It’s sometimes too hard to see clearly when it’s you in the middle of it, but thinking about that sweet, little person can provide the clarity you need. Looking back, there are years of things that I wouldn’t want my sweet niece to ever, ever put up with. I hope she doesn’t because she deserves so much better.

And you know what? In the clarity of the “after” part of this story, I can say definitively, irrevocably, uncompromisingly: so do I.