DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I think I’ve come to the denouement of my real problem, but as it was a painful process and is still ongoing, I’d like to relate my story and see if you have any good advice for moving forward.
I cut ties with a toxic partner about a week ago. I think one of the hardest things about our relationship was seeing massive red flags everywhere and allowing myself to have my mental slate erased like an Etch-a-Sketch by the fact that this abuse was unintentional.
So, in 2013, I was feeling good about being alone when I met Jake (names have been changed to protect the innocent) online. We seemed to hit it off, so we started going out. We had mind-blowing earth-shattering sex that eclipses my memory of our first year. He was unemployed, and I helped him with the caring kick in the ass he needed to start making money again and move out of his parents’ house. He felt a lot of guilt about mooching off their support since he quit his lucrative last IT job and squandered his savings. I was also living at home, and understood the shame that comes from not having income.
I quit my retail job to work in my field in 2014 and was glad of it because my resume had even more holes in it than Jake’s swiss cheese history. I was let go about a month later. This was a big blow to my self-esteem but Jake was there to get me through the rough times. After living with roommates for a year, he decided to move with me to a shared house where I would be independent of my parents. He floated the idea of being my sole source of financial support, so I could focus on my career without stress.
Then he asked me to marry him.
I was a little taken aback since we were both kind of anti-wedding if not anti-patriarchal-symbol-of-property-exchange, but I said yes. In the months leading up to my moving in with Jake, his insistence on a D/s relationship became subtly more aggressive, and I said sure we can try that. I’m probably a french vanilla with sprinkles as kink goes, and it wasn’t difficult, until I got triggered one evening and was unable to “red” out (red means stop, yellow means slow down, like a stoplight) of a scene. I insisted that this was due to a scene dynamic I was unprepared for, but Jake cooled his jets and held onto resentment that I wasn’t into being kinky. A few months later, I tried to take it in a different direction – dog seemed to have a different connotation than slave to me, so I suggested pet play. Jake didn’t understand the distinction, but was excited to learn.
A few months later, I moved in with him. The roommates we shared a townhouse with were passive aggressive and weird and made life annoying. Worse, tensions at his job were inciting Jake to look for new work. When OPM investigated his candidacy further due to a fudging of being fired to a “mutual decision for me to leave,” Jake’s chances for keeping his new job seemed to diminish (as far as I know he still has it, go figure). We had a huge fight about whether the government was right to brand him not suitable for a clearance – I insisted that it was not a personal judgement of his character to say that if he lied to the government in fear of losing his job, maybe he wasn’t the best candidate for a clearance. He locked the door to our bedroom and bathroom for an hour.
Having resolved that fight semi-peaceably with a decision to table our engagement, which involved shearing off my bride hair, we moved forward. I got a job as a pet sitter and dog walker that was stressful but allowed me to be financially independent for the most part. I got a much better job a year later that was just enough above minimum wage for us to afford an apartment in an expensive part of the city closer to Jake’s job, where he was put on non-cleared overhead for a negotiated salary of 63k or so. Mine was somewhere around 30.
So we moved into our own one bedroom apartment in 2017. Fights were regular. In the interim years, my friends had stopped inviting us to social engagements. My family mentioned they wanted to see us more often. But whenever I would see someone without Jake, he treated it as emotional cheating, and leaving him out of my life. I increasingly wanted time alone in the apartment, which only spurred on Jake’s feelings of abandonment.
Somewhere around the third time I was provisionally fired and made to look for and train my own replacement at my job, I stopped making transfers for rent to Jake. My salary had been cut but I couldn’t find work elsewhere. We fought about it but never discussed it. He insisted that if I spent less on frivolous things, I’d have the money to pay him.
I walked out of my job one day and into the ER for fear of my safety from suicidal depression. Jake was supportive and joined me at the hospital. I quit my job officially later that day. In the months that followed, I worked on myself and got two jobs to make ends meet – part-time at the job I’d quit a month ago, and part time dog walking. Things had reached a comfortable lull that I was thinking Jake and I could move forward from. I asked him about getting out of our lease and he said not to worry about it.
Then one day he started a roundabout conversation about moving into a townhouse again, this time renting a room so that I could afford rent. At this point, I owed him back rent on our agreement of some $3000. Next day, the current lease was cancelled, waiting for my signature. He toured houses without me, and we had our last big fight, after which I stormed out to stay with my mom.
I moved out, and we stayed friends. We tried a few months later to patch things up. It didn’t work. My family hated how he sponged my time. Then the pandemic hit. Jake texted me, as he often did while we were together, saying it was difficult to be the person no one wanted to talk to. I texted back viciously that he could see a therapist, work on himself for once. He blocked me. My family and friends rejoiced and told me all the ways he was awful. I thought it was because they were trying to be supportive.
Then last week I was thinking (a dangerous pastime), wondering how Jake was and if he wanted closure. He wasn’t the type to just cut ties out of the blue. I offered an olive branch over text and he called me by our secret pet name for each other in return.
In the next week, I talked with him for about 8 hours a day for four days. Jake had started therapy and antidepressants. Was working toward getting better and wanted to be friends, even platonic partners. On the fourth day, my family intervened. Since then, I’ve been untangling a web of unintentional gaslighting going back almost 7 years. I wouldn’t say I’m not responsible for at least some of the toxicity between us. But I have learned that he does not care about me and that was all I needed to put him out of my life for good. I am aware of the ways I hurt him – most were made clear to me at the time; some I had come to on my own. I didn’t and still don’t know how deeply I was hurt by our relationship.
I know, and am sorry, that you have first hand experience with both sides of this kind of toxicity. I think that’s why I’m asking you, now that I’ve asked everyone else in my life.
I guess what I’m wondering, as someone intentionally oblivious, being manipulated and abused by someone just as intentionally oblivious of that manipulation, how to understand and prevent it from happening again?
How can I know myself when my mirror is so distorted from years of warping? How can I know my yes when my no has been so absent? How can I recover and share mutual intimacy with future partners? More importantly, how can I love myself after years of being “loved” the wrong way?
DEAR EX-VICTIM: This is one of those times where I REALLY wish you’d included more detail about what went down between you and your ex. Because, I’m going to be honest, EV: I’m not seeing much in your letter as it’s written that suggests a lot of abuse or gaslighting. Most of what I’m seeing is the story of two people who were a bad match, who stayed in a relationship for much longer than was healthy for either of them. While there are definitely some red-flags here — Jake losing his security clearance because he lied to the government about why he got fired, and having a temper-tantrum over it for example — most of them are flaws of character, rather than abusive behavior. There ARE behaviors that you describe that definitely butt up on being toxic or borderline abusive behavior, such as how he would get upset that you saw friends or family without him. Isolating somebody from their friends and loved ones is a classic sign of abuse. However, this doesn’t sound like he was trying to keep you away from friends or preventing you from seeing anyone he didn’t approve of; it sounds like he would have a big sad when you’d go out and make it your responsibility to manage his feelings. Which is s--tty, but not exactly abusive, honestly. A lot is going to depend on just what he was doing and how, and from what we have in the letter, it’s hard for me — a person reading this at quite the remove — to make that call.
Now I want to be absolutely clear: I’m NOT saying that manipulation or gaslighting didn’t happen, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Nor, for that matter, am I disagreeing with you that this was a toxic relationship or that this wasn’t abusive. All I’m saying is that it feels like details are missing that could help. So I can’t really comment on the specifics with THIS guy and tell you what to look out for based on your experiences.
That having been said, it sounds like you’re still processing things in the wake of your break up. That’s good. Sometimes it can take time to recognize what somebody did to you and to come to terms with it. Going back and looking at your relationship can help you recognize issues in hindsight that you can then be more mindful of in the future. Especially when you can look back and realize that behavior that you accepted as normal at the time was, in fact, a giant red flag. Or, for that matter that it was actually abusive.
But here are some things to be on the lookout for in your future relationships.
To start with: how does they act at the start of the relationship? Are they incredibly demonstrative and effusive with their feelings, telling you how amazing you are and how crazy they are about you, even though you barely know each other? Do they seem to feel much more strongly than would be warranted by the length of time that you’re dating? This is often a sign that somebody is love-bombing you — trying to overwhelm you with attention and affection so that you don’t notice how quickly the relationship is progressing or other red flags. Similarly, pushing for high levels of commitment early is a warning sign. Trying to get somebody to commit to a relationship when you’ve only just starting to get to know each other is an indicator either that the other person has low emotional intelligence or is trying to lock you down before you can get away.
Next: how do they respond to your having and enforcing boundaries? Do they demand that you let them do the thing they want anyway? Do they argue with you about why you have that boundary or why they should be allowed to ignore it? Do they continue to push at your limits, even when you’ve told them to stop? That’s an indication that they see boundaries and restrictions as things that happen to other people. Now keep in mind: it’s one thing to disagree with your boundary; it’s another to not respect it. People can think that your boundary or limit is absurd, wrong-headed or a mistake; that’s a matter of opinion. However, if they still respect that boundary, then this isn’t a red flag; it’s merely a difference of opinion. We can think it’s absurd that, say, somebody thinks coffee is poison and refuses to drink it. But as long as we don’t try to convince them to have a cup (or try to trick them into drinking it) and respect their desire to avoid it, then we can disagree all we want.
How do they treat you around others? Do they neg you, insult you or undermine you when you’re out with friends? Are you always the butt of their jokes? Do they bring things up in order to embarrass you or make you feel awkward? When you’re celebrating a success, do they do or say things that diminish what you’ve accomplished? Do they make you feel as though you’re a failure or worthless? Do they mock or belittle your ambitions, goals or dreams?
For that matter, do they constantly question your views or beliefs? Do they insist that you have to be mistaken about things that you know to be true? Do they make you question your judgement and doubt your own instincts? Are you almost always wrong, especially about things that make you upset or hurt you? Are you “always making such a big deal out of things” or “blowing things out of proportion”? Do they make you question your view of reality?
While we’re at it: are love and affection conditional? Do they withdraw and act cold to you when you’ve done something wrong? Do they use things like the silent treatment and a refusal to answer calls or texts as punishment for when you “misbehave”? Are you always unsure about where you stand with them, or do you feel fairly certain and secure in your relationship?
Do they do things that scare you, especially deliberately? This can include anything from reckless driving, yelling and screaming, damaging or destroying property (including punching walls, smashing or throwing dishes or glasses) or otherwise making threats? For that matter, do they threaten to hurt themselves if you do something they don’t like, including leaving them?
Do they try to control you and your actions? This could be direct or indirect. They could pitch a fit or make a scene in public in order to embarrass you when they don’t get their way. They could put up such a fuss when you go out to see friends (constantly demanding to know where you are, what you’re doing and when you’re coming home, pouting and crying and acting hurt, etc) that you end up not seeing them because it’s too much of a hassle. Or they could insist on having control of, say, your finances, your medication or other necessities.
It’s worth noting: this isn’t an exhaustive list, nor is it definitive. Sometimes people can act in ways that hurt us without realizing it. Other times there can be scrambled lines of communication and people simply aren’t being heard or trying to get their needs met in unproductive ways. But when a potential or future partner trips one of these red flags or sets your Spidey-sense tingling, then it’s important to examine things as carefully and dispassionately as possible. It may well be a good idea to get the opinion of a friend whose judgement you trust, just so that you can have an outsider’s perspective.
But more than anything else: pay attention to how they make you feel. If someone makes you feel insecure, unsafe or otherwise uncomfortable, listen to those feelings. Those are warning signs, and should be taken seriously. It might be nothing. It may end up being a big mistake. But often, those feelings are a sign that things are wrong, even if you’re not consciously aware of it. So examine your relationship with Jake, process what happened, what he did and what you did… and then learn from it. The lessons you take away from that relationship may be what help you exit a future, toxic relationship at speed, instead of spending another 7 years with someone who’s manifestly wrong for you.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org