‘Be frivolous, drink cocktails – and surround yourself with people who make you feel good.’ Mariella advises a woman getting over an emotionally abusive relationship. Photograph: Danil Rudenko/Getty Images/EyeEm
Work out why you were so susceptible to him – and pursue only what appeals to you, says Mariella Frostrup
The dilemma I’m a woman in my early 30s and six months ago I was dumped. Our relationship was long distance, developed quickly and was the most intense of my life. He is 10 years my senior and is a unique, charismatic, charming man who makes a good impression on everyone. In private, however, he could be unkind, judgmental and emotionally distant. He could also be demanding, controlling and critical. During our relationship he pushed me to enter his world of ideas, books, films and art. If I didn’t show enough interest, he would become disappointed and irritable. He would often ask me to articulate my thoughts and tell him what I needed, but I felt put on the spot and could never seem to act decisively in those moments – including in the bedroom. Now I am suffering a crisis of confidence as I struggle to define what makes me interesting. I can’t seem to separate my own interests from his – and they all remind me of him. I was in the process of moving to his city (for career reasons as well) when he ended it. My plans have become totally destabilised and I have lost my sense of self.
Mariella replies No wonder. That’s exactly what he was programmed to do. Most women I know have one such Svengali-style relationship under their belt. My own took up most of my late 20s, so I know what you are feeling. Often it’s men that little bit older whose inability to achieve their own ambitions gives them a craving for moulding others. These characters thrive on the taste of power it offers and the distraction from their own insecurities. Mostly, such relationships occur in our 20s when we are young enough to still be searching for our true selves and impressionable enough to cede responsibility to someone who makes it very clear that we’re not up to scratch. These “role models” tend to impress upon us our own deficiencies with enough conviction that we foolishly hand over the reins to them to make better people of us.
It’s such a common relationship type that I’m surprised it isn’t better documented. It tends to be more celebrated in bad erotica than it is scrutinised in psychological circles. What was EL James’s Mr Grey if not a man used to making a woman feel grateful for his attention and eager to shape herself to his desires?
Your letter talks a lot about him – what he did, what he said, what he wanted – and very little about why you were so supplicant to his dominating, corrosive presence. Why did you feel you needed his guidance? Working out why he was able to make such a land grab on your lifestyle and tastes, exerting what appeared to be a strong (even father-like) influence is key, not just to moving on but to healthier future relationships. Whether it’s unhealed scar tissue from an earlier romantic encounter, a reflection of your childhood experience of the primary male in your life, or an indication of how little confidence you have in the woman you are becoming, it’s a warning to take seriously.
As a 20-something, heartbreak makes for brutal agony that is swiftly forgotten as our lives zoom on. In our 30s we have to take responsibility for the choices we make and understand the mistakes if we’re to find long-term contentment. Those who want to wield power look for those susceptible to their influence – and that’s something you need to address. There’s nothing to be gained from chewing over the damage, only in building yourself up so you aren’t similarly available next time around.
It’s time to move on from this destructive passage – a challenging but entirely achievable goal. The best way is to be ruthless. Pursue only what appeals to you, ditch anything that doesn’t. Rebel against whatever his expectations were. Be frivolous, drink cocktails and surround yourself with those who make you feel more than the sum of your parts.
You need building back up and it’s a job that can only be trusted to friends and family, who’ll reflect back to you a more positive, tangible picture of who you really are. This man has very few of the positive qualities you describe, because beneath that veneer he’s an insecure bully who only gains power from his capacity to control. You’re well rid of him. Choose the best place for your career to progress, not based on the location of your lover, and get on with building relationships on equal terms, not in the shadow of an unnecessary self-appointed mentor.