My husband, Joe, is objectively wonderful. He’s kind, generous, supportive, makes our grocery list, cleans our toilets, and was our daughter’s primary caregiver for the majority of the first year of her life. We’re coming up on 10 years since we first met, and our first 2-plus years of “dating” were, also objectively, dog shit.
The details matter, but they also don’t ― the gist is he broke my heart repeatedly and I was in such a bad state that no one in my life could even pretend to support me when I said I was giving him another chance one week before my 30th birthday. But then something happened that seems controversial to say and even harder for people to believe: he changed.
We both changed. The toxic behaviour disappeared and our communication drastically improved. Slowly but surely, we became good together. Great, even. In the years since, our relationship has given friends of mine (mostly false) hope when they’re with less-than-amazing dudes. Beneath wanting to know my “tricks” to get a man to change, what they really want to know is how did I know he would change?
In the eyes of my friends and family, Joe was one giant red flag. I get why they weren’t in favour of me signing up for more potential pain and humiliation. In the age of endless options with a swipe, our predominant dating advice when someone shows even “pink flags” is to cut and run. Know your worth, don’t settle for less, and move on.
This encouragement is intended to protect us from wasting our time, but I think now we have a new problem: folding too fast. If there’s no room for mistakes, forgiveness and growth, how will you ever know what could have been?
Michelle Obama thinks we’ve glamorised what a good relationship looks like so much now that younger couples quit before testing the strength of a potentially lifelong partnership. At the risk of sounding in favour of women wasting their lives fighting for bad relationships, I think she’s right.
Sometimes ― and only sometimes ― maybe we end up throwing the best husband out with the bad boyfriend.
My husband and I met when we were both firmly on the rebound. Joe was six months out of a co-dependent relationship that he’d been in for the past 10(!) years. I was freshly out of a verbally abusive nightmare of a relationship that I’d been holding on to for four years. That relationship is an example of when I should have taken the advice to walk away. I’m certainly not advocating for women to ignore abusive or dangerous red flags or behaviours of any kind in the hopes that things will change. In my previous relationship, folding was the only decision ― I just needed to find the courage to make it. And a few days after I finally did, I met Joe.
We both needed something light, fun, noncommittal ― a Coke Classic rebound. But we fell too hard. Our drunken hookups quickly bled into entire weekends together. He was a beacon of light ― this bouncy blond man pulling up to my heartbreak apartment in his Mini Cooper blasting Robyn and singing 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 he abruptly broke up with me not once, not twice, but three times during our first year of dating. Then he strung me along with endless phone calls and hangouts for months, as I cried and shamelessly begged for him to give us a real shot. He said he needed more time. He needed to be single. I didn’t care what he needed ― I needed him. We both played our part in the unhealthy dysfunction.
Once I found out he was actually dating someone else and had been baldfaced lying to me, I finally cut off all contact. He lost me, for real. I was walking away. When I called and confronted him, I thought that would be the last time we ever spoke. In hindsight, this phone call was the first step toward our future together. I wanted to say my piece and never see him again. My being absolutely at the limit of tolerance was the catalyst for Joe to change. But by that point, I didn’t care about his revelations. I felt like a fool and was 1000% done.
Joe started making changes in his life. He immediately broke up with the much younger girl he’d been seeing. And he cracked open. Since I wouldn’t talk to him, he wrote me long letters about his thoughts and feelings that he had been scared to share and left them in my mailbox. Desperate to get my attention and plead for another chance, he postered downtown Toronto with hundreds of copies of a painting of a crown I had bought him for Christmas.
Still, I wanted none of it. I thought about calling the police if he wouldn’t leave me alone. I took pictures of the posters for evidence. This might have had something to do with the fact that I was a writer on a network cop show at the time. Positive this was the end of our story, I re-downloaded Tinder and swiped ad nauseam until I got to a screen that said, “There is no one new around you.” A bit on the nose, frankly.
But Joe didn’t give up. After a few weeks, I agreed to a conversation. He wanted another chance. He owned all of his mistakes, vowed to change, and made the case for us moving forward. I was tempted ― this was everything I had 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 no one would be rooting for us this time around. More than anything, I didn’t want to be hurt again. But I couldn’t help wondering if maybe, just maybe, things could be different this time. If that phone call was our wobbly first step toward our future, my decision to take the jump and forgive him was our critical and decisive step two.
It took a long time for us to learn to walk and then run together. We had to do a lot of work and commit to being honest about what we needed. We didn’t move in together for four years. Now, a decade later, we have matching tattoos of those crowns and I took his last name. Sometimes I stare at him with our baby girl and think just how easily none of this could have existed.
I feel uncomfortable when friends ask, “How did you know he would change?” because it implies I knew anything at all. I was just trying to follow my gut. I always feel a little embarrassed when I tell our love story, like there’s an element of, “I let this guy treat me like shit, but now look at my ring!” I didn’t know he wouldn’t humiliate me again. Or that he would be worth it. I think knowing when to walk or when to fight for a relationship is much harder than we let on. But I also think second chances can change everything ― if we decide to grant them.
When asked for my relationship advice, I offer these three principles:
- No one knows anything. No one knows if he’ll change, or come back, or cheat on you again, or be the man of your dreams. There is no knowing, only feeling.
- You’re allowed to change your mind. Even if you said something was a deal breaker, who cares? Don’t let your pride snuff out your growth.
- We’re all assholes, sometimes. Even you. Don’t you deserve forgiveness? Life expectancy in 2023 is too long for this unrealistic, impossible bar of perfect behaviour.
My relationship with my husband used to be terrible, and now it’s great. It’s something that seems quite hard for others to believe. I see their skepticism. But why are we so skeptical that things can get better, and how is that skepticism actually serving us? When I look around at my friends’ relationships and marriages, I’m starting to see couples overcome things I never would have thought they could. I think Joe and I just did it a little earlier, in our 20s and early 30s, when people tend to cut and run when things get hard, without a second thought. What I’m seeing around me now is heartening, not because friends are settling for less than, but because they’re believing in the resilience of their relationships and that, overall, the good outweighs the bad.
After Joe broke up with me the third time, I wallowed at the mall and bought myself a white tank top from Aritzia that in big, black letters said, “THE HEART WANTS WHAT THE HEART WANTS.” It was ― we can say it ― 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 disintegrated. That cheap, dumb, worn-out tank top is, I think, a pretty wonderful symbol of our love. Embarrassing, imperfect and kinda stupid. There are currently a whole bunch of these exact old tank tops for sale online. Maybe for our 10th anniversary of meeting, I’ll buy myself one. You know, give it a second chance.
Karen Kicak is a television writer and filmmaker. She is the co-showrunner, executive producer, and writer on the International Emmy-nominated comedy series “Workin’ Moms” on Netflix. Her directorial debut short film, “Volcano,” had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. She’s been published as a contributing writer in Glamour, The Kit and The Toronto Star, and has a Tiny Love Story in The New York Times. All things considered, she’s pretty good for being a Karen.