I left an abusive marriage, and now I’m in love with a thief

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, DEC 12, 2007

If we move in together, should I buy a safe?


Hi Cary,

I recently escaped a long-term (by today’s standards), abusive marriage. I’ve done remarkably well for myself, I think, and I feel like I have my shit together. I became reacquainted with an old friend about a year after my divorce, and we became a couple. He’s everything my ex was not: kind, considerate, expressive, gentle and loving — in addition to being funny, smart, inquisitive and wise. We are very much in love.

The problem? He has been sharing with me some of the details of his life that occurred while we were out of touch, and they’re not pretty. The latest confession involved stealing large sums of money from an incapacitated relative. I stopped him before he went into detail because I simply can’t imagine him doing that. It’s as if he’s talking about another person whom he knew once, not himself. And there have been other things from his younger, wilder days that really scare me. A lot.

So, my question to you is, to what extent do you think people can change? I would like this man to move in with me, but how do I tell him that I’m considering buying a safe so I can keep my financial papers secure? How can I trust someone who could do the things he’s saying he did? He does express regret, and assures me that he’s “not that person anymore.” But who is he now? And why the need to share this stuff?

I have a tendency to be suspicious of anyone who’s nice to me, but I think in this case I need to be careful and protect myself. Yet I don’t want to hurt him, as he has been nothing but good to me. So, tell me, do you think a tiger can change its stripes?

Worried and Wondering

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Dear Worried and Wondering,

I would really slow down with your plans to move in together. You need to know more. You need time to digest this troubling information, and you need time to set up a support system. By support system I mean a network of women who have been through what you have been through and who meet regularly and have a set of principles they live by so they don’t repeat.

You need to become part of such a group in order to get useful feedback on what you are doing. You are in the middle of this thing. You can’t really see it. I can’t see it either. But I can sense it: Some kind of dangerous pattern is replaying itself here. So I urge you to slow down and look outside of this relationship, to a counselor and/or a support group. Slow down and get some perspective. Identify the pattern.

Sure, I’ve seen people change their spots. But it isn’t easy, it isn’t quick, they don’t change on their own, and the spots remain underneath. I mean they can stop stealing from their relatives. They can stop getting into abusive relationships. But the forces and patterns are still there, so, without constant work with a group or a counselor, they often do other things that are just as baffling and dangerous but look different on the surface.

They don’t even mean to do it! That doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous.

This is something people don’t get: We don’t love doing it wrong. We don’t set out thinking consciously, I think I’ll rob my grandmother, and now that I’ve robbed my grandmother and told my new lover about it, I think I’ll rob my new lover.

It’s not like this guy you love is going to set out consciously to rob you. And it’s not like buying a safe is going to make you safe. I’m not going to set out consciously to go on a drinking spree. I’m not thinking it would be a great idea to go out and get drunk. But absent constant, steady messages from outside reminding me what will happen if I do, I’ll drift over that way. I’ll drift over to the bar. It has been a long time since I had a drink. But absent my routine, the constant reinforcing of messages, I’m drifting to the bar.

Furthermore, just putting a combination lock on the liquor cabinet isn’t going to solve anything. If I slip into a pattern of using substances to blunt reality, I’m done for. If this man you are with slips into a pattern of taking what isn’t his, the whole thing is already over.

You are in a dangerous situation and you need to go slowly. You need to talk to people who have been through what you have been through and who know about these patterns so you can see what you are doing.

It won’t be easy. The drive to repeat is enormously powerful. I think that is another thing people just don’t get: We are all about repetition. If we repeat the “good” habits, nobody is surprised. But when we repeat the “bad” habits, everybody is baffled. So I’m saying it’s not about the qualitative nature of what we repeat, it’s about the repetition itself. The drive to repeat is more powerful than we admit. It is at the heart of identity, for identity itself is nothing but a set of repeated actions.

It’s not that we think consciously, I’m going to really fuck up my life right now. We just love doing things the way we know how to do, the things that help us get to a place of feeling right. So if we can get to a place of feeling right by being with people who beat us and steal from us, well, it’s not that we really like people to beat us and steal from us. We wouldn’t just ask them outright, Hey, I’d feel more comfortable in this relationship if you would beat me and steal from me. I’m not saying “Blame the victim.” I’m saying: Beware how powerful are the forces that bring us together with our abusers.

And to that end: Do not be afraid to be overly cautious. Trust your caution, your instincts. You say you have a tendency to be suspicious of people who are nice to you. Well, what you call “being nice to you” may well be the insidious seduction that is a prelude to eventual abuse. So trust your mistrust. It may be the best friend you’ve got.

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