Throughout his adult life, author John Buchan-Nicol has been drawn towards relationships that are not loving and nurturing but coercive and controlling.
Coercive relationships are not uncommon but it is rare to find such an account from a male perspective. Buchan-Nicol, who writes under a pseudonym, has just released an emotionally raw yet surprisingly funny memoir of poisoned pursuits: Janus. A brutally honest, inspirational, and unforgettable read, it reveals how the author has been trapped into seeking the antithesis of true love over and again because of painful experiences during his childhood.
In this exclusive article the coercive relationships survivor charts his warped romance with uncertainty and insecurity.
By John Buchan-Nicol
Right from the start we got on. She was Estonian and beautiful. And though I definitely liked her, I quickly became enamoured with the idea of being enamoured, after such a long and loveless marriage. So much so, that I overlooked two serious red flags which were waved in front of me.
The first was that she was a convicted stalker. The second was that she was a self-proclaimed psychic.
So I’m not glossing over the elephant in the room, Reva—my Tinder date—was indeed a convicted stalker, who was actually on parole when I met her. But she presented it as a ‘misunderstanding’ between her and some guy, a man in a position of trust, so I made the decision to make up my own mind and not to Google her . . . a choice I’d later regret! The second and more pressing issue, though, was that of her alleged clairvoyance.
If you believe in psychic abilities then that’s your prerogative but I’ve never subscribed myself. As such, I really felt compelled to inform her, that first afternoon, that as far as I could see it her talents were nothing but thoughts in her head. Clearly, however, I didn’t have the heart nor the guts. And because, after my time in an ashram (albeit a sanitised US celebrity retreat in New York State and not a crusty attraction in Goa), I was now an informed layman on the subject, well equipped with a full smorgasbord of ‘New Age’ chit-chat, way beyond the normal banter of wind chimes, dream catchers and pan pipes … something she instantly picked up on.
So, on the third date when she came up to my flat with a large candle and two decks of cards—one pack of Tarots and one pack of animal spirits—and said that she’d do me a reading for health and love, I kept an open mind. At which point she did her thing and flipped over the ‘Death card’, for health! For my love, meanwhile, she revealed some poor dude impaled on seven bloody spikes! To which, on seeing my face, like Munch’s Scream, she quickly offered a reading on career prospects, to which I declined and instead pushed the animal deck her way, insisting on a rerun for love. She flipped over the Peacock, meaning that happiness can only come from being your true colours. How prophetic she was.
Claire, my ex-wife, got her kick from being miserable. She was addicted to conflict. If everything was going smoothly, then she was unhappy. I’d lived in that way for years. At first— before I really knew Claire—I thought it was all because of me. If only I jumped that bit higher, moved that bit faster, managed to move the house just that bit to the left … then life really would have been in harmony with my wife. After years of tiring attrition, however, I realised the hard way that the game in this relationship wasn’t about the outcomes. It was all about the process and the anguish, grief, trauma and drama it engendered. Problems and issues were presented not to be resolved but just to be endured, to be relished and capitalised upon.
Thing was, I’d been here before with my previous fiancé, Gisele with one ‘L’. An American, self-described “complex intellectual” and a victim of her own beauty. Like Claire, she also needed control. She, too, needed to control the world around her and the people within it— especially her partners. Finally diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, she was elated! Like this diagnosis was an excuse … a licence to be horrible to me. At first, I didn’t think it was all that bad. I mean, borderline what? That was until I read up on it and saw that it’s borderline between psychosis and neurosis, in that she had traits of both psychiatric pathologies but was also completely self-aware, thus dangerous and untreatable. With her acute and consistent fear of abandonment, she not only tried to control who I saw and spoke to, but even my thoughts. She, like Claire, then, was in effect totalitarian, utterly dominating and yet paralysed by her mistrust of me. Her need to control who I saw, where I went and what I spent my money on was, thus, utterly absolute. This even though she, herself, was completely impulsive and often reckless, both with money and indeed sex.
Now, in retrospect, I see Gisele as a serial cheat, often bedding with men in the most peculiar of circumstances; their attentions validating her chosen sense of self at any given time. So, when she was intertwined with the scuba diving instructor on our family holiday to Mexico, as I waited patiently—unaware—outside the classroom eating a burrito, she was clearly being validated!
Claire then, like Reva, and like Gisele before them, did all like their alpha males. Most likely they did validations better (?). When I first met Gisele in Washington DC, she was transitioning out of a relationship with Joe, the US Secret Service Officer. Then there was Greg the marine, who turned up at our apartment with the sand from Fallujah still on his boots. And there I was, answering the door to Action Jackson in full camo, only to hear, “I’m Greg. I’m here for Gisele!” before he left disappointed, finding that she’d failed to mention she now lived with some weird Scottish bloke (yours truly).
Then there was Leslie, the body builder and stretching expert, and Mike, the Sports Illustrated model, who, as well as being considerably attractive, also composed a piece of music for her on his very own organ. And so, it went on. Gisele even flirted with losers, broken souls and men with very low self-esteem. Really, anyone she felt she could hook into her Pied Piper procession, parading them past me to keep me in check, making me feel inferior and so grateful to have her hand against the swath of other competing suiters.
So why did I buy into any of this? Well, it all originated from my childhood. My youth spent with my stepfather, as we clearly recreate in adulthood what we have learnt as kids. The issue was that he was capricious and cruel. He never beat me, ever. But what he did, in some respects, was worse. He was a psychological tormentor, using brains instead of brawn in a unceasing effort to disconnect me from the family unit. He employed reason against sophomoric reaction. He determined what would hurt me and then effected it with sheer ruthlessness. He would encourage one action one day then scold me for that same action the next. His houses were like museums where the trappings of my childhood were consolidated to a cupboard in an upstairs guest bedroom—a room which I was forbidden to personalise while the ground floor never gave any indication that a child ever lived there. I’d make excuses for his behaviour to my friends; for his weirdness, like a beaten spouse justifying the abuse they’ve received. Though, ultimately, people start figuring stuff out, by then it’s often too late. With my stepfather, this vendetta lasted a little child’s lifetime.
So now, as an adult, I have a psychological need to be on the back foot. If my ex-wife, Claire, was addicted to conflict then it can be said that I am addicted to imbalance. I hunger for uncertainty in love and affection, and flee from women who truly care for me, preferring to be around ladies whom I can’t quite work out. And that’s where both Gisele and Claire were ‘perfect’ for me. Caught in a pattern of acceptance and rejection, often both within a single day, I simply re-enacted what was normal to me. I was home … being my true colours!
Janus by John Buchanan-Nicol is out now in eBook and audiobook formats, priced £3.99 and £4.99 respectively. The eBook edition can be purchased from Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, while the audiobook version is available on Audible, Apple Books, and Kobo. You can hear an 11-minute sample of Janus, narrated by Steve Worsley, here.
Exclusive interview with John Buchan-Nicol
We speak to author and coercive relationships survivor John Buchan-Nicol to learn more about his life, as well as about his new book, Janus, and his advice for others who may be suffering in toxic relationships.
Q. You are a survivor of multiple coercive relationships. Why do you think you keep getting drawn into such toxic relationships?
A. In short, I need to be on the back foot. I am truly addicted to imbalance and uncertainty in love, and always seek relationships where affection is conditional. Conditional of me being a serf, a slave, a servant to the status quo … a willing participant in a game of capricious and often cruel indifference. It is a mix match of carrots and sticks thus wielded by those who don’t deserve it—yet are empowered by me—to rule like a dictator, no less, over my entire day and night, often all at a whim. I am, I suppose, simply recreating what I knew for love as a child—a general distaste for me at worst, or a tolerance at best.
Q. How would you react if you were approached by a woman who seemed to be genuinely loving towards you?
A. Well, up until now I’d run a mile! Unconditional love for me feels uncomfortable, out of place and out of sorts. I simply don’t know how to react to it; to someone expressing an interest in me as an equal, as a partner, and as someone who wants to nurture me, support me, grow and develop with me, and even build memories together. It’s just not something I can grasp. I mean, I can understand it at the cognitive level, but I can’t emotionally reconcile what it is not to be in a state of constant conflict and strife, and so held down and pulverised by a barrage of continuous circular arguments which only seek to satiate my partners’ need for more of the same. The game then was never about outcomes, but the process. The process of grief and trauma and anguish and the rest. As I write in Janus, problems were never there to be solved, but to be wallowed in and exploited. A suiter who never offered this just wasn’t for me … nor the millions who walk this earth just like me. It’s very sad; very sad indeed.
Q. You have had some very painful experiences. What motivated you to share them in your new memoir, Janus?
A. Coercive and controlling relationships respect no boundaries of class or culture and carry no passport. More so this abuse. I mean, that’s what it is after all, often taking place behind the metaphorical ‘closed doors’ of two people’s intimate lives, as the aggressor seeks to control you so utterly, often severing your ties with friends and family, even activities which you once held dear—as everything to them is no longer a pursuit to enjoy but activities that they must endure … less there’s a challenge to their one-party state authority. And then, in time, they’ll subjugate you by restricting your movements and cutting off funds, even slashing away at every bit of independence and spirit you’ve ever had until, finally, like any good dictator, they’ll convict you of thought crimes. That’s crimes of your mind … not of deeds nor actions or even intent, but of your aspirations, your dreams and wishes, your soul itself. It is, then, a living hell. A rabbit hole where up is down and left is right, and where all laws are made so that they can never quite be followed. The message of my memoir then, is that you may be alone but you’re never in isolation. There are lots of us suffering, just like you.
Q. What was the most challenging part of your story to share?
A. The most challenging aspect is admitting that I’m not over it. I’m in no way cured of this curse. Still to this day, even—having lived it, breathed it, written about it and detailed it down in all of my many introspections—I find it near impossible to be comfortable with someone who truly cherishes me. While as a catharsis? Everything and nothing in short, as finding a cause is not finding a cure. Though understanding a source, I will say, can at least better prepare you for your direction of travel and ultimate destination.
Q. Your book is notable in the sense that it provides a rare account of a man being trapped in a controlling, abusive relationship. Why do you think it is not more commonly understood that this situation can affect men as well as women?
A. Where to start? Rape is not a crime of sex but of control and power. It’s about one person’s vile and violent attempt to dominate another human being. It’s both an affront and an outrage … but a pure act of rage it is, as a perpetrator acts through the prism of everything they are to that point: cruel, callous, and capricious of mind. But it’s not exclusively a female problem. In the sense of control, men are also regularly raped in all settings and all walks of life, from the very young to the very old. In common, though, all victims of abuse are scarred. And if the abuse is ongoing, as coercion is, then the scars can never set nor heal. Some men come to terms with it; most don’t. But with men and women alike, there is the carrying of a shame; a self-imposed stigma, an irrational guilt even, often leading to self-loathing and more. It’s hard, then, for anyone to admit that someone has dominated them, or indeed still dominates them so completely, taking away part of them, arbitrarily dismissing them on the basis of pure utility for their own sadistic machinations. In effect, then, all victims of all forms of abuse are devalued. And that invasive feeling of worthlessness is hard to reconcile, let alone express, whoever you are.
Q. You have spent your entire adult life pursuing exclusively wrong, painful relationships. If you could warn your younger self to avoid this path, what would you tell him?
A. Nothing. It sounds a flippant answer, but it’s true. My young self is why my old self is the way it is. No amount of insight would have altered the fact that I was bullied into the person that I am today. I’m a victim. I didn’t ask for it for, seek it out, or had the ability to alter the course I was on, because back then, to me, this bizarre and callous upbringing at the hand of one man was normal. I had to grow up to see just how wrong it all was. And by then, I’d formed. I’d become the man that I am today, with all of my susceptibilities.
Q. Why did you choose the title “Janus” for your book?
A. Originally, I’d wanted to write a story entitled ‘Bed’s Apart’, clearly being about the breakdown of my marriage. But that only got me thinking. I then wanted to write a tale called ‘The Day We Stopped Buying Memories’, meaning that moment in time when the financial cost of doing something outweighed the life experience, in that the memories you’d get from doing something new, or at least the memory of something different which you’d then have to cherish, was no longer worth the price to be paid … as in the latter years of my marriage. My ex-wife became fiscally paralysed, with everything having to be weighted on a cost/benefit axis. No longer, then, were activities there to be enjoyed, but again endured, especially if the cost was more than its perceived worth. For me, that was heart-breaking. Our kids were only young once. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. Money for the future is important, sure, but we’re all running out of time, and although no one wants to eat dog food in retirement, you can’t take it with you. Instead, then, and having really thought about why, yet again, I’d landed in the same position, with the same type of partner who I’d been with time and time again, I wrote a story called ‘Janus’, named after the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transitions, doorways, endings and, more so, duality. As such, Janus is depicted as having two faces—he presides over conflict, war and peace. What better metaphor, then; what better patriarch, than the god of time itself.
Q. You often recount your own experiences with a dark sense of humour, which is in stark contrast to the seriousness of the issue. Why did you decide to frame your memoir in this way?
A. I once read a quote by that clever Greek chap Aristotle, saying that, “Comedy represents men as worse than they are in real life whereas tragedy shows them as better”. A statement, though, which I always found to be a separation with no difference, as real life is never so black and white. All through my years I’ve been exposed to some phenomenal characters and crazy occurrences. That’s been my one blessing, I suppose, of which—through my eyes anyway—have always unfolded as scenes in a movie, sketches in a play or as standalone pieces of drama almost … be they sad, mad, bad or slapstick. How I then write them up in retrospect and piece them together into one cohesive narrative, often means that humour can be found in the unlikeliest of places ... though only in context and in retrospect.
Q. You are now single again. What advice would you give to people to help them heal and rebuild their lives once they escape from a controlling relationship?
A. Well, I’m no love guru, and as you’ll see in the book! I hate piety, infallibility, and anyone who’s holier than thou. I am, though, a chap who’s lived an experience, and so what I can say is to value yourself. Dominance, coercion, and control can only work if you are sufficiently devalued from the beginning, and your worthlessness continuously reinforced as time goes on. Own your true worth and you’ll be somewhat on the right path to recovery, in my opinion.
Q. It can be difficult in the middle of such a relationship to actually appreciate its toxic. What do you think is the key sign that it may be better to leave than stay?
A. Here are ten signs that you’re most likely in a coercive and controlling relationship and so should pull that rip cord and jump, if you can.
1. The leader, your dominating partner that is, is above the law … the law of the house. So, you can’t go out when and how you want, but they can.
2. The leader suppresses scepticism, so you can’t question anything, ever, less it causes a row, a malaise so bad that it will make you think twice about a future challenge.3. The leader delegitimises your former partners, making a mockery of past girl and boyfriends, husbands, and wives.
4. The leader is paranoid about external influences, lest they talk some sense into you.5. The leader relies on shame, usually with barbed comments about weight, general appearance, sex even or just other benign relationships … namely friends and family.
6. The leader is the ultimate authority, always right and infallible about everything—all of the time.
7. The leader tries to reform your thinking, warding you off from analysing issues.
8. The leader is a social snob, holding a narcissistic view of themselves and their position in the world, as well as of your social and family circle.9. The leader will seek to financially control you, taking your bank cards and moaning about a perceived overspend on something or anything. 10. Last, but absolutely not least, it’s all a big secret. Like any abuser, the last think they want is a torch beamed onto their wicked ways.
Any of that ring true? Right, now I’ll ‘fess up. That’s actually ten signs that you’re in a cult … a personality cult! Enough said!
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