At some point, the majority of women will date the type of guy Kristin Carmichael calls a jerk. He’s charming at first, abusive later, then won’t take “no” when told the relationship is over.
Carmichael is a social worker in Santa Fe, N.M. Her college boyfriend turned out to be a stalker. Through her work at a hospital and a women’s shelter, she’s counselled thousands of women who were trying to leave or stay away from a bad relationship.
“Staying gone is not a sprint, it is a marathon,” she observes in her new book, X That Ex: Making a Clean Break When the Relationship Is Over. “If you resist going back to your partner a thousand times, and on the 1,001st time, you relent, all your hard work can be unravelled.”
Bad exes will say anything to get you back, everything from, “I love you; I’ll change,” to, “We’ve got to make it work for the kids.”
Carmichael has heard it all—so much so that one day while driving home from work, she decided to pull her car to the side of the road so she could scribble down all the browbeating tactics she’s heard over the years. Her idea was to make a list that would expose the “secret playbook of bad exes.” Knowing what he’ll say gives women a chance to plan a defence when he comes back pleading for forgiveness.
“If I were to find the commonality in what over a thousand women have told me, all agree on two things,” Carmichael said on the phone last week. “Number one, it was the emotional abuse that hurt more than anything else, even if the woman had been beaten black and blue. The second is, everyone thinks he’s a nice guy. I hear it on a daily basis.”
An abusive partner usually tries to deepen your insecurities by berating the thing you’re most sensitive about—for instance, the size of your thighs or scope of your intelligence. After the breakup, expect him to start validating your feelings and apologizing for the cruel comments. “Digging and filling the hole” is what Carmichael calls it. “I know it’s messed up, but this ploy works,” she writes. “If he called you stupid, expect him to say, ‘You’ve always been smarter than me.’ If he called you ugly, expect him to say, ‘You are so beautiful.’ ”
He may promise to change by asking for help, saying, “Just tell me what to do. Without your help I won’t make it.” Carmichael scoffs at this. “Oh, this is a good one! It is basically an offer for you to become his counsellor, mother, priest and conscience all rolled into one.” The reality is, your futile attempts to change him will leave you feeling drained and like a failure.
He may also announce his intent to seek professional help, the kind you were urging him to get before you left. “He might say, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about it, and you are right. We should go to couples’ counselling.’ ” The trouble is, once he has secured your affection, he’ll probably abandon his efforts to get help, and if he does follow through, Carmichael warns, “don’t let your relief at his seeking help overwhelm your good sense. There are many, many steps in between.”
“Of all the tactics manipulative exes use, the most effective is if there are children involved,” Carmichael says. Expect your ex to say, “I miss the kids so much. Why are you doing this?” The kids may cry and beg you to take him back. “Don’t let them make the decision for you,” writes Carmichael. “You don’t allow your kids to eat candy and french fries at every meal. Trust that you know what is best for them emotionally.” Involve a third party to communicate between you and your ex, suggests Carmichael.
Well-off women may be more susceptible to getting sucked back into a bad relationship, she says. In extreme cases, when the verbal abuse turns into violence, she can leave and stay at a hotel, but this deprives her of the advice she’d receive from a counsellor at a shelter.
Typically, a bad ex will beg you to be his friend. “You are not being ‘mean’ by refusing to agree to this,” Carmichael advises. “By the way, here is how you tell an ex you don’t want to be friends with him: ‘Edward, I cannot be friends with you.’ Notice that you do not have to tell him why, rehash the past or negotiate this in any way.”