Cheating, Stalking & Obsessing: I Was Joe In You

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
When Joe (Penn Badgley) stalks, tortures, and obsesses over Beck (Elizabeth Lail) in the Lifetime series You, I identified with him. I’m not proud to admit this, and this was a version of me a long time ago, but still, I related to him. This is especially true when he justified his behavior with the logic that this is what one does when they’re in love.
In the early aughts, in the last few years of my teens, I had my first boyfriend, and I believed I was in love. I first met him when we were 15 years old through a mutual friend. As all teenage romances go, our days and nights were spent glued to the phone. On weekends we would go to the movies and hold hands at the mall. Sometimes he would come over for me to help him with his Physics homework. Before long I was tagging along on his family road trips, and frequenting his house for family dinners. We talked about getting married one day, and said “I love you” incessantly. He sang “You are My Sunshine” to me every night before I went to bed, and spoke to me in baby talk. Some nights we would go to sleep without hanging up — we didn’t want to say goodbye or good night to each other. It was an all-consuming, can’t eat, can’t breathe without you type of love. It was rooted in possessiveness and a desire to also be possessed. It was the love of Romeo and Juliet. The love found in Bollywood films. It was fatalistic, and it was overwhelming. It was colored by pop culture and “classic” tales of love that morph what should be a mutual exchange of respect, adoration and happiness, into a circus act of boundless emotion and ego.
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It was the love of Romeo and Juliet. The love found in Bollywood films. It was fatalistic, and it was overwhelming. It was colored by pop culture...

Two years in, however, we went to separate colleges, but our campuses were not far apart. Before this, I went to an all-girls high school, and he went to an all-boys one. College was our first co-ed experience. We also both had our driver’s licenses at this point, and both owned cars. And, we were in the Caribbean, where the legal age for drinking is 18. We were both very outgoing, and started making new, different friends. With the demands of exams, and somewhat separate lives, I felt that I was losing touch with him. I began to feel anxious that he would leave me. He became very close with a couple he met at school, but I would never really be invited to hang out with them. I started to grow suspicious that something was happening between him and the girl. The thoughts consumed and worried me, and I started snooping through his phone and reading their text messages. When this couple eventually broke up, I felt threatened. I became obsessed with doing whatever I could to keep my boyfriend away from this girl. I predicted that what we had was no longer as meaningful to him as it was to me, and that he would be tempted to stray.
By the time I was entering my final year at college, it was becoming apparent that he really was seeing her secretly. Like Joe did with Beck, I made excuses for him, and gave him tests and opportunities to convince me that our love would supersede all of these “distractions.” He failed them all. Yet, instead of walking away, I chased him. Both figuratively and literally, I chased him. I once waited outside of his house in my car, while she came over to study with him. I knew he would have to take her home, and wanted to see how they would interact with each other when they thought they were alone. When they left, I chased them through the streets of his neighborhood, even running a red light. I keyed his car once, engraving the word “Liar” in the driver's door. He never mentioned it, just quietly had it fixed that day. I even once let myself into his house when I heard he was at home alone with the girl. I knew how to work their lock without a key. When my calm confrontation turned into a fit of crying, he called a friend of ours to come get me. I committed so many extreme acts that I look back now and shake my head.
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They call Joe “psychotic” in the show — was I psychotic too? I believe I was.

I thought, with these actions, he would see that I was fighting for him, and that what we had was worth saving. As I watched Joe trap Beck in the bookstore basement, and listened to him explain why he did all that he did, I wondered exactly how different he was from my own former self. What could I actually have been capable of, given the resources? They call Joe “psychotic” in the show — was I psychotic too? I believe I was.
The relationship was already practically over when I really started to act out, and yet at the time I still felt as if my behavior was reasonable. How could someone love me with such ferocity for years, and then turn on me? How could he lie to my face? He led me on and used me when he wanted me, then disposed of me when he had his fill. (Never did it occur to me at the time that some relationships aren’t meant to last forever.) I was unstable. I confided in anyone who would listen. Their advice was almost always to move on, but I never took it. I saw a therapist who barely helped. He was not trying to solve my problem — how to keep my relationship together. He was focused on helping me identify my anxieties. But I wanted specific solutions to save my relationship only. I was suicidal, depressed, and had lost almost 20 lbs.

We were two Joes. It was maniacal. Why did no one see that that, too, was unhealthy?

In the summer of 2008, just within a week of my 21st birthday, my boyfriend finally cut me loose. He severed all contact with me one day. A courtesy. I would have no choice but to leave him alone. What concerns me, in retrospect, is not just that I was out of control in reaction to the emotional trauma of the slow breakup, but that my sanity only came into question when the relationship was falling apart. Only when my feelings were unrequited did anyone suggest that I was losing my mind. What about when we were “in love”? Our relationship was a tumultuous ride of extreme fixation throughout its run. We were completely consumed with one another. We were two Joes. It was maniacal. Why did no one see that that, too, was unhealthy? People thought we were the perfect couple. The narratives on television, and the lyrics in many love songs justify this extreme attachment as “love.” As a result, too many of us really believe this is what love looks like.
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For so long I saw him as the villain. The cheater is the bad guy, right? You helped me put my past relationship into further perspective. About a week before watching the series on Netflix, I stumbled onto my old journal, where I documented all of this. I began to realize that I was the culprit in many ways. I was so stifling. Even in the good years, I only thought of myself, and the relationship I wanted, and ignored what he needed. He must have really wanted space. After reading my entries, I felt sorry for my former love. But like Joe, I was not the only one to blame. Beck had her own demons, as did my guy. Seeking physical attention from other lovers to fill voids and frustrations, instead of exercising introspection, patience, accountability, and communication. Beck avoided confronting Joe with her feelings; a sign, to me, that she was too immature to deal with the layers of an adult relationship. I cannot stress enough how vital communication is to a healthy relationship.
Since then, I have had a few different romantic relationships — all diverse and educational. From a nine year long live-in situation, to a whirlwind passionate fling with a much younger man, a long-distance situation, some short-lived casual dating, and some healthy grown-up love. For me, the most important lesson so far has been identifying my self worth. Like Joe, I always felt I understood this. Both Joe and I insisted we were wonderful partners, and wanted to prove that. What I know now, however, is that valuing yourself is separate from valuing your ego. Egos are boastful. Their self-esteems are based on validation from other people, and not from within one’s self. When you truly value what you bring to the table; who you are regardless of partners, friends, family or colleagues, you don’t need to advertise. You will never feel extreme jealously when you are happy with yourself and your own qualities. You will never feel like you’re not good enough for someone, but instead will focus on whether they’re compatible with you. It becomes less about fighting and competing for love, as we have been conditioned to think, and more about freely sharing mutual positives. You will seek out a partner who complements you, not one that completes you. Trust will come more easily, as anxieties over loss and abandonment fade way. Breakups will be easier to overcome when you don’t immerse yourself totally in another person. Knowing who you are, and what makes you so special, is integral for entering into a healthy relationship.
With gratitude, I’m happy my ending was different from Joe and Beck’s. I initially found the show a bit silly, but soon recognized that I was once Joe. I encourage you, if you find yourself getting tingly for this “love story,” to watch again from the beginning, and consider how differently it could have all gone down with a bit more communication, less shadiness, and if everyone’s ego was quieted. Spoiler alert: There would be no show. (Not on Lifetime at least.)
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