Being Haunted

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

View from the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill

This past weekend, James (my husband) and I went into town for our 10th anniversary. We live less than an hour outside of San Francisco, but for much of our twelve year relationship we lived in the city proper. It’s still our favorite place, so rather than take a bigger, going-away type vacation for our 10th, we decided it would be more fun to go into the city, stay in a hotel and enjoy our old haunts.

I don’t write much about my marriage, not because I’m trying to hide it but because I feel very protective of it (as I do with all of my close relationships). The truth is that things have not always been easy for us. In fact, things were pretty hard (though not in the way people might assume for a non-monogamous marriage). Our beginning was complicated and that set the tone for many years.

One of those complications is a former lover. Let’s call him Patrick. I’ve mentioned him in passing before, most recently here. Patrick and James were good friends when James and I started dating. I started seeing Patrick and his partner several months later. James had his own relationship with them, so the four of us made a very happy quad for about six months. Then James asked me to marry him and it all began to deteriorate.

I’m going to skip details here because this relationship has pounds of material in it and not all of it is relevant. Suffice it to stay, my relationship with Patrick became toxic just as my relationship with James was flourishing. The abuse was subtle – Patrick never hit me or left marks. He never did anything that would raise red flags. He was too smart for that.  Everything was intensely reasonable and impossible to argue. He was a lovely steel-trap.

When James and I told him we were engaged, what had been a good secondary relationship took on a different tone. Patrick decided that if James was getting what he later called “an official claim”, he deserved an even bigger one. Apparently, he’d been biding his time, waiting for me to leave my nice, stable primary. When I didn’t, he quietly and systematically went about cutting me off from the portions of my life that didn’t revolve around him – everything from my work and studies to my family and James. Why did I let that happen? Because I didn’t realize what he was doing until much later.

This is incredibly difficult for me to admit. Even now, when I read over that last paragraph I think, what a fucking idiot. Where are your boundaries, girl? All I can say is that I went into this situation distracted by serious, pre-existing problems. By the time it was bad enough for me to notice, I was in quite deep.

So, why didn’t I leave Patrick when I realized how bad it was? For all the regular reasons. I loved him and I didn’t know how. It was like standing at the edge of a cliff, knowing I had to jump but not being able to. Something had to push me. The thing that finally did was realizing how reflexively I’d begun to lie and hide my stress from James, because he and Patrick remained friends after the quad failed. I was weaving excuses because I knew things with Patrick were fucked up. That’s when I finally left.

I broke up with Patrick abruptly, via text, because I knew if I spoke to him he would try to reason me back. I felt immense relief when it was done and a general sense that everything  was okay. A few months later, Patrick and I had tea. The dust had settled by then and it seemed that closure would be good. So I sat across from him at one of my favorite cafes and we had a very civilized conversation in which he told me that he had seriously considered killing me after I left him.

I realize that sounds like a melodramatic threat, but it was not. Not from him. He told me because he meant it. What’s more, he wanted credit for not doing it. The truth is, he could have done anything to me at any time and there was nothing I could have done to protect myself. He was not a “bad boy”. I’ve never liked bad boys. He was, however, a legitimately bad man. Civilized, yes. But only insofar as it suited his ego. He was the sort of man who would put a knife to your throat to prove that you could trust him. I know, because he did that too. And no, that is not the point at which I decided to leave. It took me close to another year. Thankfully, he decided not to follow through on the impulse he had after I left, mostly (he informed me) out of respect for James. He spoke as though my life were a token of his enduring respect for his friend, a fact that still nauseates me. I haven’t seen him since.

That was roughly 10 years ago, very shortly after James and I got married. In a way, our wedding anniversary is the anniversary of my leaving Patrick too and, as with all anniversaries, it ended up being a good time for reflection. This may sound unlikely, but there are things about that relationship that I’m intensely grateful for. Because of Patrick, I know I’m freakishly cool under pressure and that I tend towards anger instead of fear. He was the first person who showed me how to play with my dominant sexual impulses. And because of Patrick, I know that it doesn’t matter how smart you are, you can still get played. As a result, I have a fantastically low tolerance for bullshit and manipulation, balanced by a weirdly tenacious compassion for most of the people who try. They can fuck off forever, but I still can’t hate them. I’ve been gamed by the best. I have no patience for also-ran’s.

I’ve often wondered, in the intervening years, what I would do if I ran into Patrick again. I’d like to think I’d be distant and cordial. I’d like to think I could pull that off. For better or worse, I am not the same woman who was so thoroughly taken in by a charming sociopath that she almost lost herself. But I haven’t been tested. I haven’t seen him, so I can’t really know, which brings me back to this week-end in San Francisco with James.

There are parts of the city where we just don’t go, because they are crowded with the past. A bar here, a restaurant there…. While I don’t fear Patrick anymore, there are still places that feel cold and aversive because of him. He’s a ghost – after ten years, he’s still a ghost. I resent that this relationship still has the power to haunt me.

The fact is that whenever we go into the city, I could see him. But over this week-end, for the first time, that possibility filled me with impatience rather than dread. While I’m not idiot enough to seek him out,  it’s time to undo those last, tiny, persistent hooks – the ones that make my skin crawl whenever I walk down certain streets. I’ll be honest, I would be perfectly happy to never see Patrick again. I fact, I would prefer it. But if I should run into him some day, it would be worth it to snip the final thread and exorcise that ghost.


  1. That kind of incredibly clever abuse is hard to stop. It is so subtle at the beginning. You did deal with it and you and James are together. I wish you hadn’t been through that but we are the sum of our experiences, reactions, responses and reflections. You are an amazing woman and it is our privilege that you share these insights with us. Xxx

    1. Thank you, Honey. I appreciate that a lot, for many reasons. It’s a difficult and oddly frightening thing to write about. I’m just very grateful for the people who are reading it without judgement.. Xxx

  2. this is so deeply personal and informative, sharing this is a gift…relationships are tricky and a world all of their own and navigating them can be…intense. leaving them can mean that there are lots of things you have to leave, and become “haunted” by…such a great post and happy anniversary again!!! xxx

  3. Holy.Fuck.

    The deadly serious drama of this story is terrifying. I’m … I don’t know what the word is. Reacting. With a sort of awed shock. I guess the motive for homicide is gone, but … I still think staying out of the way is the best policy. Why invite interaction with someone like that, even to prove your own strength and security?

    Also, though, I hate the idea of anyone being able to steal SF from anyone else. That’s not ok either.

    Jesus, though. Scary shit.

  4. I would say avoid talking to him, especially in person, especially alone. He can be shockingly persuasive. So much so that I don’t want to fully accept this version of him, though I can’t counter it and you’re probably right.

    1. “Shockingly persuasive” is a good way to put it. That’s the biggest reason my aversion is so strong…even though I *know* this version of him is accurate, there are so many other versions that I’d prefer to remember. Even ten years later, it’s complicated and the wisdom of leaving the door firmly closed is impossible to argue. The bottom line is, I instinctively don’t want him anywhere near me. Thankfully, I doubt he has any lingering interest in me (one hopes). xx

  5. I read this right when I woke up this morning and I’ve been thinking about it all day. Mostly I just want to thank you for sharing it. You are one of the strongest, smartest, loveliest women I “know” (it shines through everything you write). I admire all those qualities and the vulnerability it takes to highlight their truth.

    I had a slightly watered-down version of Patrick and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Extricating yourself from someone manipulative and smooth, who you also care about, who knows all your buttons, is not easy. Also there is a lot of shame around knowing someone is bad for you but not leaving them at the first (or 15th) red flag. If someone as strong and confident as you also had difficulty with that, it means that it is, in fact, hard. Not a sign of weakness. Which is one of those things that it is easy to know intellectually but hard to feel. So, thank you for making it real. It means a lot.

    1. Thank you, Maria. That’s incredibly lovely of you. And thank you for sharing a bit of your experience too. I have to admit that as I was writing this post, I was shocked by how far down the rabbit hole I fell without realizing it. And you’re absolutely right – there is so much shame in not leaving when the red flags seem so obvious in hindsight. I wouldn’t wish that kind of experience on anyone. I wish it didn’t seem to be such a common one. If nothing else, I’d love to shed some light on the stigma attached to this kind of abuse, because it’s so subtle it can be hard to acknowledge, even years after the fact. xox

  6. This post both frightened and awed me, Malin, and all I can say is that you’re one seriously strong woman – to go through this relationship in the first place, to recognise it wasn’t healthy and to remove yourself despite all the persuasion and peripheral ties, and, finally, to reflect on this person in such a measured and calm way.

    And my blood actually froze when I read the following sentences:

    “He told me because he meant it. What’s more, he wanted credit for not doing it. The truth is, he could have done anything to me at any time and there was nothing I could have done to protect myself.”

    No one is immune to manipulation. We all have our vulnerable spots and it just takes that one clever person who can see how to do it and slip beneath our defences.

    Throw away those hooks, my darling, but make sure you don’t give him the opportunity to take a pound of flesh if and when you do.


    1. Thank you. Thank you a *lot*. It’s funny, I’ve been mulling on all of this all day, chewing on the post and the memories and that small chunk of history, and I’m a bit shocked by how much it still affects me. I suspect it always will and I may just have to get used to that fact. As you very rightly said, while I want to toss away those hooks, I don’t want to offer up a pound of flesh when I do. At this point, my hope is still to keep the door between he and I very firmly closed. xxxx

  7. Something this abusive and harrowing in many respects will have a tendancy to always haunt you to some degree. I am also an abuse survivour, a different sort of abuse, however, it really doesn’t matter what that abuse is it will always leave it’s mark and leave you changed.

    I like you do not tolerate fools or entertain mind-games. Anyone one that survives and is able to find some peace regarding what has happened to them is, I believe, stronger for that experience.

    Thank you for sharing your experience so eloquently.

    Velvet x

    1. Thank you, Velvet. You are right – experiences like this (or any form of abuse) stay with you, even when you’d prefer for them to fade. Actually, it wasn’t until I wrote this post that I fully understood that. Thank you so much for your comment. I wish there weren’t so many women who’ve experienced abuse (in any form), but it is good to be heard by people who understand. xx

  8. This was tough to read. My first impulse is to erupt into a three-headed Dragon of Wrath. But you clearly are much more measured and wise than I am. I appreciate the perspective and self-preservation in this post. It says a lot that you can undergo such an extreme experience and still be your sagacious self in writing about it.

    For all the horrors that make the news, we don’t hear about the emotional and psychological crimes that leave invisible but painful marks. I think a lot of people walk around every day haunted by this kind of thing. Your candor in sharing it is laudable, as always. So many people get trapped in self-blame and then they feel they can’t communicate about it.

    1. Thank you, Valerie. When I wrote this, I was concerned about hitting people without more warning… Even now, ten years later with a ton of perspective, I think over that whole relationship and a large chunk of my brain says, “yeah, but it wasn’t really *that* bad.” Even though I intellectually understand that it’s disturbing, emotionally, my wariness still battle it out with the conviction that I’m making a big deal out of nothing, so I don’t think I have a real appreciation for what it might be like for someone else to read it. I suppose that the real insidiousness of this kind of abuse. It de-legitimizes your instincts and undermines your sense of self-preservation, even in hindsight. Even when you know that you’d be alarmed if your experience had happened to someone else. I hope, if nothing else, that sharing this sheds a little light on the stigma and self blame, because that does stay with you and it’s hard to let go.

  9. Reading about Patrick made me shiver and think about the Patrick I had in my life. I always said I would not allow a man to abuse me, but it happened. It took me 6 of the 9 months I had a relationship with him to get away, to finally gather the guts to leave. And up to today, 20 years later, I haven’t been able to properly cut the invisible ties. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Rebel xox

  10. Holy Fuck Malin,

    That made my heart jump in my chest when you were writing about him wanting to kill you. I was holding my breath and didn’t realize it until I was done and processed what you had said. That kind of relationship you just want to keep washing the ick factor off of you. I’m glad you have James. Hugs from me.

  11. This hits home with all too much familiarity. Funny you should repost now. I read it when you posted the first time around. Thinking I was smart enough to be out the mess I live in soon. I’m not giving up. It’s a reminder to stay strong.

    Happy your past all this. The honesty and heart with which you write is a gift to the world.

    Aiden xo

    1. Oh, thank you, Aiden. That means a lot to me. I wish you weren’t in the sort of situation where it’s the smarter thing to leave, but I hope (really, really hope) that you’re able to get out of there and put it in your rear view mirror soon. Hugs. xo

Leave a Reply