In the last decade of his life, Burt Reynolds would often talk wistfully of his former girlfriend Sally Field. “She was the love of my life, and I screwed the relationship up,” he said in 2016. “That sense of loss never goes away.”

Sally and Burt became Hollywood’s golden couple after starring together in the 1977 feel-good comedy Smokey and the Bandit. “You can see it in our faces. We were sort of, you know, deeply entangled,” Sally, 75, said of their instantaneous attraction on the set. The romance survived almost five years, but Sally called it off in 1982. Though she never spoke with Burt again, she remembered him fondly following his 2018 passing. “He will be in my history and my heart for as long as I live,” she said.

Sally still feels that way, but she’s also able to look back now with clear eyes. She feels that Burt’s professions of love for her were not based in fact, but were purely sentimental. “He had somehow invented in his rethinking of everything that I was more important to him than he had thought, but I wasn’t,” Sally insists. “He just wanted to have the thing he didn’t have.”

Sally calls their romance “confusing and complicated, and not without loving and caring, but really complicated and hurtful to me.” Burt tried very hard to control his girlfriend. In her 2018 memoir, In Pieces, Sally talked about how the actor would become “glassy-eyed” and “distracted” whenever she tried to talk about her sons or herself.

His jealousy of other men left her “terrified of running into somebody I might have known, whether sexually or not.” Burt, who was the bigger star when they began dating, seemed to also be threatened by her career. He tried to persuade Sally not to attend the 1977 Emmy Awards, where she won for her performance in Sybil.

In time, the actress recognized that her time with Burt echoed aspects of her damaging relationship with her stuntman stepfather, Jock Mahoney, who sexually and emotionally abused her as a child. “I had been carefully trained to fall into this,” she says of her toxic relationship with Burt. “We were a perfect match of flaws.”

Finding the strength to leave was an essential part of Sally’s journey, but she doesn’t look back with malice toward Burt. “I’ve always thought of him rather nostalgically … He was a very important part of my life, but for a tiny little part of my life,” she says. “It was so hugely important in my own existence, my own movement as a person.”

Sally never intended to hurt her ex or have him read the memoir she wrote to better understand her tragic past. It was published weeks after Burt’s passing. “This would hurt him,” she says. “I felt glad that he wasn’t going to read it, he wasn’t going to be asked about it, and he wasn’t going to have to defend himself or lash out, which he probably would have. I did not want to hurt him any further.”