My husband Joe is objectively wonderful. He is kind, generous, supportive, makes our grocery list, cleans our toilets and was our primary caregiver for most of our daughter’s first year. We are approaching the 10th year of our first meeting and our first 2+ years of “dating” was, even objectively speaking, dog shit.
The details matter, but they don’t matter either — essentially, he broke my heart repeatedly and I was in such bad shape that no one in my life could even pretend to support me when I said that I would give him another chance a week before my 30th birthday. But then something happened that seems controversial and even harder for people to believe: He changed.
We’ve both changed. The toxic behavior disappeared and our communication improved drastically. Slowly but surely we became good together. Great even. Since then, our relationship has given my friends (mostly false) hope when they’re dating not-so-great guys. In addition to wanting to know my “tricks” to get a man to change, they want to know how I managed it most of all knowledge would he change?
In the eyes of my friends and family, Joe was a huge red flag. I understand why they weren’t in favor of me signing up to suffer more pain and humiliation. In the age of endless possibilities with a swipe, our overriding dating advice, if someone even raises “pink flags,” is to freak out and run away. Know your worth, don’t settle for less and move on.
This encouragement is to save us from wasting our time, but I think now we have a new problem: folding too fast. If there is no room for error, forgiveness and growth, how are you ever going to know what could have been?
Thinks Michelle Obama We’ve glorified so much what a good relationship looks like now that younger couples are quitting before testing the strength of a potentially lifelong partnership. At the risk of sounding like women who waste their lives fighting for bad relationships, I think she’s right.
Sometimes – and only sometimes – we might throw out the best husband with the bad friend.
My husband and I met when we were both on the rise. Joe was six months out of a codependent relationship he had been in for 10(!) years. I had just come out of a verbally abusive nightmare of a relationship I’d been in for four years. The Relationship is an example of when I should have heeded the advice to walk away. I’m certainly not advocating women ignoring abusive or dangerous red flags or behavior of any kind in hopes that things will change. In my previous relationship, giving up was the only choice—I just had to have the courage to do it. And a few days after I finally made it, I met Joe.
We both needed something light, fun, non-committal – a rebound from the Coke Classic. But we fell too hard. Our drunken meetings quickly led to entire weekends together. He was a beacon – this feisty blond man pulling up in his Mini Cooper in front of my heartbreaking apartment and cheering and singing for Robyn through the open sunroof like an absolute tool. I’m a sarcastic Aquarius who was born swearing. Joe is joy. I’m… often perceived as mean.
All of this added to my embarrassment when, in the first year of our relationship, he abruptly broke up with me, not just once, not twice, but three times. Then he kept me busy for months with endless phone calls and hangouts while I cried and shamelessly begged him to give us a real chance. He said he needed more time. He had to be single. I didn’t care what he needed – I needed him. We both played our part in the unhealthy dysfunction.
Eventually, when I found out that he was actually dating someone else and had lied to me openly, I cut off all contact. He really lost me. I left. When I called and confronted him, I thought this would be the last time we would ever speak. In retrospect, this phone call was the first step towards our future together. I wanted to say my part and never see him again. The fact that I was absolutely at the limit of tolerance was what triggered the change for Joe. But by that point I was no longer interested in his revelations. I felt like an idiot and was 1000% done.
Joe started making changes in his life. He immediately broke up with the much younger girl he was dating. And he left. Not wanting to talk to him, he wrote me long letters about his thoughts and feelings, which he had been afraid to share, and left them in my mailbox. Desperate to get my attention and beg for another chance, he posted downtown Toronto with hundreds of copies of a painting of a crown I bought him for Christmas.
Still, I didn’t want any of it. I thought about calling the police if he wouldn’t leave me alone. I took photos of the posters as proof. It might have something to do with the fact that I was writing a crime show on the network at the time. Sure that this was the end of our story, I re-downloaded Tinder and swiped ad nauseam until I got to a screen that said, “There’s no one new around you.” Honestly, a bit on the nose .
But Joe didn’t give up. After a few weeks, I agreed to an interview. He wanted another chance. He acknowledged all his mistakes, vowed to change and worked to ensure we move forward. I was tempted – that’s all I wanted to hear. But I didn’t know if I could trust him. I didn’t want to look like an idiot again, and I knew that this time nobody would be rooting for us. Above all, I didn’t want to get hurt again. But I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, things could be different this time. If that call was our shaky first step toward our future, my decision to take the step and forgive him was our crucial and crucial second step.
It took a long time before we walked together and then learned to walk. We had to work hard and commit to being honest about what we needed. We haven’t moved in together in four years. Now a decade later we have matching tattoos of these crowns and I have taken his last name. Sometimes I stare at it with our little girl and think how easily none of this could have existed.
I’m uncomfortable when friends ask, “How did you know he was going to change?” because it implies I knew anything at all. I was just trying to follow my gut feeling. I always get a little embarrassed when I tell our love story like there’s something in it: “I let this guy treat me like shit, but now look at my ring!” I didn’t know he didn’t mean me would humiliate again. Or that he’s worth it. I think knowing when to leave and when to fight for a relationship is a lot harder than we admit. But I also think that second chances can change everything – if we choose to give them.
When asked for my relationship advice, I offer these three principles:
- Nobody knows anything. Nobody knows if he will change, come back, cheat on you again or be the man of your dreams. There is no knowledge, only a feeling.
- You are allowed to change your mind. Even if you said something breaks the deal, who cares? Don’t let your pride kill your growth.
- Sometimes we’re all assholes. Even you. Don’t you deserve forgiveness? Life expectancy in 2023 is too long for this unrealistic, impossible level of perfect behavior.
My relationship with my husband used to be terrible, now it’s great. It’s something that seems pretty hard for others to believe. I see your skepticism. But why are we so skeptical that things can get better, and how does that skepticism actually benefit us? When I look at my friends’ relationships and marriages, I see that couples are overcoming things I never thought they would be able to do. I think Joe and I just did it a little bit earlier, in our 20’s and early 30’s, when people tended to run away when the going got tough without even thinking about it. What I see around me now is encouraging, not because friends will settle for less than that, but because they believe in the resilience of their relationships and that overall, the good outweighs the bad.
After Joe broke up with me for the third time, I luxuriated at the mall and bought an Aritzia white tank top that read in big black letters, “THE HEART WANTS WHAT THE HEART WANTS.” It was — we can tell – very cool pathetic. My friend Katrina made me promise never to wear it in front of Joe. But of course I did. When we got back together, I wore it to bed with him every night until it completely fell apart. This cheap, silly, worn out tank top I think is a most wonderful symbol of our love. Embarrassing, imperfect and kind of stupid. There are quite a few of those very old tank tops for sale online right now. Maybe I’ll buy one for our 10th anniversary of our meeting. Give him a second chance.
Karen Kicak is a television writer and filmmaker. She is co-showrunner, executive producer and writer of the International Emmy-nominated comedy series Workin’ Moms on Netflix. Her directorial debut short, Volcano, had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. She has been featured as a writer in Glamour, The Kit and The Toronto Star and has a Tiny Love Story in The New York Times. All in all, she’s a pretty good Karen.
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