Life after an abusive relationship

When I met my ex in 2014, I knew he would be a terrible person to date. A fun hook-up, perhaps, but nothing more.

He was too young, too unsettled. He smoked too much and was super-insecure.

He was a dangerous combo of cute, amused by my jokes and great in bed. At 36, I was a starving artist serving pizza to tourists for rent money.

Every fibre of my being said to be careful. Something just was not right with this fella. By the time I realised my mistake, I was caught in a web of co-dependency, love, fear and self-delusion.

The first time I tried to break up with him, he threatened to throw himself off a bridge. The fourth time, he violently abused me. And yet I still worried about him more than myself. Before I finally got out, he tried to drive us both off a cliff.

I never doubted that I needed to leave, but I kept putting it off - partly because I was addicted to him, but mostly because leaving is when women in abusive relationships are most likely to get killed.

Once I left him, I was terrified of men, especially anyone who looked like him. My first priority was to regain my confidence. I threw myself into comedy, writing - and my community of powerhouse women, who nurtured me back to health.

Kickboxing classes helped me not only to feel strong again, but also gave me a healthy outlet for my rage. But I soon realised this fury was not actually at him.

Forgiving my ex was the easy part; forgiving myself was another story. How could I, an ardent feminist who had worked so hard to love herself, end up with a violent, misogynistic sociopath who made me hate myself?

Because I was sick, I realised. Dangerously co-dependent. The worst part of getting out of an abusive relationship was not being able to trust myself and my choices anymore.

After a year alone, I was back to my old self again, stronger and more confident than I had ever been before dating my ex. I was ready to let men back into my life.

I spent the next two years on Tinder. For the first time, I let my intuition be my firewall, not logic or ego.

I ruthlessly screened men before meeting up. After a while, I could tell from their first message if they were worth my time. Generic messages that were clearly copied and pasted were a red flag too.

Stupid questions, such as asking me what my super power would be, were almost as bad.

My profile included pictures of myself as a raft guide, climber and world traveller. There was so much they could easily inquire about as an ice-breaker. Men who would not read my profile did not impress me.

I went on dates regularly. For the first time in my life, I let men I was genuinely interested in take me to dinner without feeling obligated to give them anything in return.

But I told them the deal instead of putting us both in that awkward position. Relationships are built on trust, and it was going to take me longer than the usual woman to build, I told them.

If they truly liked me, they would have to be okay with waiting. Shockingly, they appreciated my candour.

I got my feelings hurt along the way too, but that only taught me how to recognise pink flags: a phrase I use for men who are good people but totally unavailable.

You like me, but call only every three weeks? You never initiate texts? Sorry, I do not chase men anymore.

My intuition looks at the whole picture now. I finally learnt to choose truth over fantasies.

Friends were shocked at how quickly I bounced back. "You're doing great. Almost too great," my sister said one day. "Just don't be surprised if you have a whole new level of trauma to work through when you get into a relationship."

Did she not realise I was practically unbreakable at this point? My ex was behind me now.

Until this sweet French guy came along a year later. I met him while travelling around France. In my mind, the stakes were low.

No need to have my guard up since I would never see him again.

But during our four days together, he treated me as if I were a precious pearl; paid attention to how I liked my coffee; carried an extra layer around in case I got cold.

When I cried in his arm for no particular reason while cuddling one night, he stroked my hair and did not try to make me stop.

When I lashed out at him for no particular reason, he said maybe I needed some fresh air and time alone.

He asked if he could see me again before I boarded the train and has called me every single day since.

Now that I am working and living in Spain, we see each other regularly. But I insisted we kept things "open" even though neither of us wanted to date other people.

I even encouraged him to talk to other girls because that put less pressure on me to commit.

But when I found out another girl was, indeed, pursuing him, I cried foul. How dare he played by the rules I created. "I won't be fooled again!" I said that night. "Or abandon myself for anyone."

He said: "My love, I'm not fooling you. I just want to be your boyfriend and am waiting for you to let me."

Amazingly, he has been patient, kind and willing to work through the ghosts of my ex's past inserting themselves into our relationship.

I am constantly looking for red and pink flags, and even creating them when they are not there.

The truth is, there are no red flags. These are just old wounds, not made by him, but exposed now for him to clean and bandage anyway.

Thankfully, he does not seem to mind.

WASHINGTON POST

• Melanie Hamlett is a writer, comedienne and creator of the Smashing Stories podcast.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 04, 2018, with the headline 'Life after an abusive relationship'. Print Edition | Subscribe