‘I thought only stupid women fell for bad men’

That’s what Sophia Money-Coutts believed… until she was beguiled by a serial charmer. Here she reveals just how complicated a toxic relationship can be.

Photo by Victoria Adamson

When I was in my late 20s, I met a man who made me think Disney was right about love. I decided we were going to live happily ever after – not necessarily in a fairy-tale castle, but in a lovely house with a pack of children and a dog. Let’s call him Shaun. I fell deeply in love with him. Obsessively, crazily in love.

It started at a friend’s barbecue at the darkening end of the summer. As we sat in the garden, I noticed Shaun laughing at the other end of the table. He was outgoing and attractive – the kind of person you gravitate towards at a party.

After dinner, we sat, legs touching on a sofa, laughing at a book we’d found called Where’s
Bin Laden? Like Where’s Wally?, but you had to find a little cartoon Bin Laden in various European cities. An unlikely romantic scene perhaps, but we’d drunk a lot of wine. Had I ever been to Rome or Venice, Shaun asked me as we turned the pages. I shook my head. ‘I’ll take you one day,’ he said.

For me, who’d been a chubby, shy teenager and a late starter with boys, that was enough. A couple of days later, I was still thinking about him. ‘Can I add this Shaun guy on Facebook?’ I asked my friend Tash. I was nervous that it seemed desperate. Tash rolled her eyes and told me of course. So I added him.

Bingo, Shaun messaged me the next day and we arranged to have a drink by the river, the same week that I started a new job at Tatler magazine. ‘You must try to like the nice ones,’ said my editor, as I did my make-up beforehand. ‘I think he is nice,’ I said, grinning. Off I went to the pub, feeling as if I’d swallowed a jar of butterflies.

It was the perfect first date. No awkward silences. Shaun kissed me at the end of the night. He lived a few streets away from me, so we started seeing each other most days and, when apart, texted like addicts. He’d told me on our second date he had a one-year-old son with an ex-girlfriend and it was a tricky situation, but I shrugged. I had divorced parents, families could be complicated. No problem.

For the next few months, the relationship was all-consuming. ‘Finally!’ I thought. ‘This is what poets bang on about!’ Shaun met my family, he fitted in with my friends, he bought me presents – once, a picture book of London saying he couldn’t wait for our adventures in the city together. Everyone liked him because he was so charming. ‘I’ve never seen you so happy,’ said a friend.

OK, so Shaun and I were both drinking a lot, spending hours in London pubs, but those days were intoxicating – physically and emotionally – as we became increasingly entwined. We said we loved one another after six weeks and Shaun mentioned there was a particular restaurant in France where he wanted to propose. He hadn’t told Charlotte, his ex-girlfriend, about us, even though he was going to her house several nights a week to put his son to bed, but he promised he’d tell her about me after Christmas. Just after going on holiday with his mum and sister.

I was pathetically anxious about Christmas. We’d be apart for just two weeks but the stretch felt like years. Shaun was going to America; I was going to Kenya with a university friend. There was no mobile reception, but I checked my emails a couple of times, my heart leaping when I saw Shaun’s name in my inbox. His mum and sister were lying on the beach next to him and sent their love, he said, plus the distance had made him realise how totally in love with me he was. I smiled goofily and tapped back that I felt the same.

Back in London, after a happy reunion dinner in a Notting Hill pub, Shaun told me he’d come clean with his ex about us but it didn’t go well. One afternoon soon afterwards, he called me to say that Charlotte had googled pictures of me and asked why he was going out with someone ‘so ugly and big boned’. Friends queried why he’d told me this. I snapped back that we didn’t have any secrets. I was starting to get defensive.

At my birthday party, Shaun got so drunk he became leery, telling one of my closest girlfriends that I’d ‘pick’ him over my mates. I laughed it off, telling them he was just pissed. Internally, I felt a tiny alarm bell go off, but I ignored it.

On Valentine’s Day, he apologised but said he’d promised Charlotte he’d babysit their son. That was OK, I said, Valentine’s Day was absurd anyway. On other evenings, he’d arrive at my flat late after putting his son to bed, saying his ex had tried to stop him leaving or hidden his coat. ‘She’s mad,’ he’d say. ‘She’s a lunatic.’

‘Internally, I felt a tiny alarm bell go off, but I ignored it’

Again and again, I tried to be the laidback girlfriend. I would do anything to support him, and that meant submerging my own insecurities about the situation. I tried to stay calm while he insisted it wasn’t his fault and I had to bear with him. Then, one morning, I looked in his rucksack which he’d left in my bedroom. There wasn’t much in it apart from a travel itinerary. I opened it.

It was for a holiday to St Lucia with his ex and their son for the Christmas just passed, when he’d supposedly been away with his family. I texted him immediately, phone shaking in my hand. ‘Did you go away with Charlotte and Ben?’ ‘Has she emailed you?’ he texted back instantly. No denial. And he’d covered up this holiday for months, as he told me all those stories about how ‘mad’ his ex was. I sank on to my bed and wailed loudly.

But though I was hurt, I was still in love with him. I couldn’t just snap out of it. He reeled me back in by saying we’d never find another relationship as good as ours. It was around then that I developed the Instagram skills of a private detective and noticed he’d started following various women I’d never heard of, and they him, both liking one another’s  pictures. I realised that all my trust had evaporated. ‘Soph, you’re now unhappy so much more than you’re happy,’ said my little – and much wiser – sister.

I broke up with him (more tears – I should have been sponsored by Kleenex during this period of my life), but it took over a year for us to properly disentangle ourselves. And this was the really damaging bit. On multiple evenings, I would be drawn back to his flat, keeping it a secret from my worried, disapproving friends. As I wept into my wine glass, he’d say there was nobody else for him. Part of me knew his behaviour was toxic, but more of me thought it was romantic – me and him, a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, pitted against everyone else.

‘He reeled me back in, saying we’d never find another relationship as good as ours’

The situation got darker. I insisted we should leave one another alone, but Shaun often ‘popped up’ in the coffee shop I went to at the weekend, or outside Vogue House, where Tatler is based, when I nipped outside to get lunch. I didn’t feel stalked. In my head, it felt like he was devoted – and I was a junkie and he was my fix. On one of these moments, outside my office, I told him that I was going to Scotland for a story that was being filmed for a BBC documentary about Tatler.

A few weeks later, arriving at the hotel, there was a bunch of flowers in my room. ‘Haha, guess who?’ said the anonymous note. Then there was a knock on the door. It was Shaun with a bottle of champagne. He’d called up the hotel, told them he was my boyfriend and said he wanted to surprise me. Creepy? Romantic? Both? I let him stay the weekend, and then, after he’d left, broke down in tears in front of the documentary’s director. The situation was so unhinged. I cried every day. My mood changed every three seconds. ‘Maybe I need antidepressants,’ I sobbed to the director.

I didn’t need antidepressants. I needed to move on, but why couldn’t I let go? And it was only with the help of a friendly stripper that I did. She began following me on Instagram while the Shaun situation was still dragging on. Weird, I thought, clicking on to her profile. Her photos were of her in glittery G-strings, tagged at Stringfellows. And then I saw that Shaun had liked several of her pictures. I was so confused by this point, so suspicious and deranged, that I messaged her. ‘Am so sorry to be NUTS,’ I said. ‘No idea how much you know about me and Shaun, it’s the longest, most torturous story! But I’m trying to work a few things out because I think he has a bad habit of not telling the truth.’

The stripper replied, sweetly, with her story saying she was so sorry – she and Shaun had slept together many times – and that he’d messed her around and lied to her about other women. She’d even messaged his sister at one point, ‘a ranty message about how her brother treats girls. I’m not proud, I just wanted to humiliate him like he did me, though I’m sure that I only embarrassed myself.’ She’d only started following me, she explained, because he’d mentioned having a mate who worked for Tatler.

It was like a switch. I’d suddenly had enough.

I emailed him: ‘Do not come near me ever again or I will tell the police.’ I’d always wanted a dramatic love life, but there were limits. How had I been so stupid – for so long? I used to watch women in bad relationships and think, ‘Why the hell are you staying with him?’ But when you’re there yourself, it’s not that easy. If you’ve been there, you’ll know.

I met up with Shaun’s sister to say her brother needed help with his lying. I blocked his number. I saw a therapist. I read about psychopaths and learned why women can be susceptible – we think we can help them, we want to solve whatever their problem is, we value the importance of a relationship, any relationship, over our own emotional needs.

They, meanwhile, like the drama of such rollercoaster relationships and the feeling that they can toy with someone, pushing them away and pulling them back in again.

I slowly emerged from the fog in my head and started to feel normal again. Then, a few months later, a woman I vaguely know came up to me in the pub. ‘You’re the one who went out with that sex addict,’ she said, laughing. And I laughed back, although inside I was winded. There had been many other women, she told me, he had a real problem. It still stung slightly but it all made sense.

Photo by Victoria Adamson

Several years on, I am in love with someone else. A man who doesn’t make me feel insecure or make me worry that I’m ‘big boned’ (how that phrase stuck). With him, I feel stronger, not weaker. And I don’t hide my feelings because I don’t need to – we talk, openly, about any niggles we have.

In my new novel, my chaotic heroine Polly is obsessed with Sense and Sensibility and finding a relationship as passionate as Marianne and Willoughby’s – a relationship that rocks you and sends you nearly deranged. But what kind of man do we actually want in the end? Like my editor at Tatler told me that day, just before my first date with Shaun, you want a nice one. A kind one. Not a man who will drive you mad.

The Plus One by Sophia Money-Coutts is published by HQ on 9 August

How To Spot A Toxic Relationship

By psychologist and cognitive behavioural therapist Will Napier

1. Your partner’s behaviour is intense and provokes equally intense reactions from you. He may say that your relationship is the best he’s ever been in, then the next minute act offended when you don’t want to do something he suggests. This makes you apologise and feel as though you have to shoulder the responsibility for making everything OK. It can be mesmerising but often we mistake intensity such as this for intimacy.

2. When you’re together, you may act recklessly and take risks – drinking more heavily or taking drugs. It could even be speeding in a car. Something about it can feel thrilling and illicit. But what would your friends say?

3. You stop liking yourself because your partner has contaminated you with his own insecurities, trying to make himself feel better by putting you down.

4. You find yourself making excuses for your partner’s unacceptable behaviour. Not good. It’s time to learn to value your own needs and to realise that a relationship based on subjugating yours is doomed.

5. Your partner stonewalls you if you try to raise any issues you have in the relationship. Open communication is replaced by passive communication. This includes sulking or the silent treatment, so you have to guess what you’ve ‘done wrong’ and put it right. Never a healthy sign.

6. You feel you’re constantly walking on eggshells or lurching from one drama to the next. Because of this you feel depleted – the relationship is sucking the energy out of you. This may manifest itself physically and you may want to sleep more.

7. You’re keeping the relationship from your family. Or hiding the worrying aspects of it. Secrecy is the number-one sign of unhealthy, addictive behaviour.