I know I said at the end of my last post that I’d write more about “failed S&M encounters”, but that’ll have to be my next entry, because this is what I feel like writing about now. The first half of this post originally appeared at the girl-power site Off Our Chests; the second half of this post is an update, culminating on Friday morning.
So, I have this ex. I dated him for a long time, but we haven’t really talked in ages. I suspect that I hurt him pretty bad when he dated; he hurt me pretty bad, too.
I’ve written about him only a few times. For instance, I wrote about him when I discussed my history of figuring out how to reach orgasm, because he … was not a good sexual partner. He pressured me in a lot of unpleasant sex-related ways. During one fight, he even shouted at me that he didn’t care about my sexual satisfaction.
I know that he was manipulative. I know that he ignored my needs. And I know that he hurt me. But I also believe that he loved me. I know he understands me deeply, and respects me in a lot of ways. I know I was important to him, and I know I wasn’t always the most reasonable partner myself.
Where is the space for me to reconcile these things?
I once wrote a long post about him that got very different reactions from different readers. A commenter on one feminist website informed me that he had abused me; she told me that I “should” admit that I am a victim of abuse. Whereas a writer an an anti-feminist site wrote a whole post about me titled: “Another Sexually & Emotionally Defective Feminist.” The post described me as “histrionic” and “flawed” and “melodramatic”. This armchair psychoanalysis concluded that my sexual identity makes me “defective,” and that the whole experience arose because of my own failure to understand myself.
It seems that from the outside, some observers will conclude that he was “at fault”, and some will conclude that I was “at fault”. Obviously, I’d prefer to believe that he was “at fault”. But maybe “fault” isn’t the most productive way to think about this?
I know he hurt me. The relationship was incredibly problematic. I see some of the things he said to me in descriptions of emotional abuse tactics such as gaslighting. That post defines gaslighting like this:
For our discussion, I consider gaslighting to be a repeat, systematic series of lies that are designed to make the victim doubt her reality.
… Gaslighting can be intentional, such as … where a partner purposely moves or hides your stuff to make you feel forgetful and untethered to your memory.
Gaslighting can also be an unintentional side-effect, as a classic outcome of living with a narcissist, or with a partner who is trying to cover up their pattern of abuse, or with the addict trying to cover up their addiction. It is done in order to preserve the … [gaslighter's] vision of himself as an honest and upstanding person without actually doing the things that would make it so.
For example: after the fight when my ex told me that he didn’t care about my sexual satisfaction — after I walked out of the room, and walked around crying for hours before I finally had to come back because I was staying with him and had nowhere else to go — after that fight, he told me that he’d never said those words.
I know he said those words. I even said, “You can’t mean that,” and he repeated them. But I was so tired, after all the fighting and the crying, that I didn’t push when he told me that he never said it. All I felt was disjointed confusion and pain and … lack of words.
I let him create the reality between us — or he took control of that reality, with his subtle social violence. And our sex life remained bad. So bad that when I think of having sex with him today, all I can feel is shivering disgust.
Maybe he didn’t mean to do it. But it’s important for me to understand that even if he didn’t mean to mess with my head so much, he did it anyway. It’s important for me to understand that even if he didn’t mean to hurt me so bad, he hurt me. It’s important for me to understand those things because it helps me trust myself; it helps me value my own emotions; it helps me protect myself.
Late in our relationship, he gave me a ring. It was a valuable ring; an old heirloom. After we broke up, I tried to give it back. “No,” he said, “it’s yours, I gave it to you. I want you to keep it.”
I didn’t especially want to keep it — but I kept it. I didn’t know what else to do.
Years later, I was leaving the country. I found the ring as I was packing up my life. I called him and told him I wanted to give it back.
I left the call to the last minute, because thinking about calling him made me so anxious. We talked for a while about nothing important, and I remember thawing. I remember thinking, oh, that’s right, he’s smart and funny and he knows me so well. I liked him for good reasons.
It took me a while to bring up the ring; half an hour or so. I said that I knew it was an heirloom, that someday he’d meet someone else who should have it. I said that I didn’t want to wear it. That I didn’t want to keep it at all.
It was late at night and I recall standing, stretching, listening to his voice on the other end of the line.
“No,” he said. “It’s for you. I gave it to you. If you don’t want it, then you can sell it or give it away or bury it or throw it away. I don’t care what you do with it. It’s yours.”
But he knew I’d never throw it away or give it away or sell it or bury it. And as I stood holding my cell phone, I remember thinking that this was the last hold he had on me. I recognized how I felt. I was feeling disjointed confusion and pain and … lack of words.
I didn’t want the ring. I didn’t want it.
But, “Okay,” I finally said, and we said goodbye and hung up, and I still have the ring.
I don’t especially stay in touch with him. He contacts me sometimes and says we should hang out. I always find excuses not to see him (though sometimes I can’t avoid it). It’s been years, but I’m still keeping my post-breakup distance. And I know that hurts him. Sometimes I feel smug that I came out of the whole affair with no desire to see him; sometimes I feel a little angry, sometimes I just feel sad.
I wonder if I’d feel more okay seeing him, if he hadn’t convinced me to keep the ring.
I originally published the above in late November. A few days ago, my ex contacted me and said he’d be in town. Said he’d love to hang out.
I’m going to give him a pseudonym. I’ve never named him in my writing before.
I’ll call him Mr. Blue Sky. Because he and I both love the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”: I can see blue skies through the tears in my eyes. Because his eyes are sky-blue, and he loves that song by The Who. Because when he and I were together, I felt like saying I didn’t love him would be like saying the sky wasn’t blue.
It’s been a long time.
Mr. Blue Sky texted that he wanted to hang out, and this time I didn’t make excuses. I told him I could see him for lunch but I wanted to give his ring back.
He texted some potential lunch details, and added: “I don’t want the ring back.”
I wrote back: “If I can do whatever I want with it then I want you to take it back, and I don’t want to see you otherwise.”
He wrote: “Did that last message just tell me to meet you so that you could give me back the ring?”
I took a breath. I wrote, carefully: “I would like to see you and hang out. However, I don’t feel comfortable seeing you unless I can give it back. Giving back the ring is not the reason I want to see you, but for me, it is a prerequisite.”
“As you wish,” he texted. I chose not to think about the “Princess Bride” reference, and we finalized lunch.
When we met, I simply handed him the ring box. Mr. Blue Sky took it, pocketed it casually. Said “Thank you.” It seemed so easy that I was startled.
We talked easily, too. There were a few pauses, but no hitches. Traded details about mutual friends. Asked after each other’s lives.
I wasn’t vegan when we were together. I hadn’t been to Africa. I didn’t have a damn clue about S&M, and now I get paid to lecture on it. God knows I wasn’t a professional feminist writer, though gender issues were important to me. I feel very different from who I was when we were close, but I’m probably less different than I think. The same characteristics, just a little shifted around.
Mr. Blue Sky seemed much the same.
We talked about the bicycle accident I had this year, the one where I broke my neck. He asked for details. I gave them. I watched him catch his breath. He hadn’t realized how close I came to dying.
“If I give you a hug, will I break you?” he asked.
“No,” I said, and he gave me a fragile gentle hug.
Me being myself, I totally failed to change the subject to something less intense.
“I was thinking,” I said, “after my accident, that if it had killed me, then I would have been the first from our university tribe to die.”
“Don’t say that,” he said.
“I mean,” I said. “Someone’s gotta die first. Might as well be me, right?” I laughed. I’m the kind of person who says uncomfortable things like that, sometimes, and thinks it’s funny.
“I don’t follow your logic,” he said dryly. He knows how to handle me, still.
It was on his way out the door that Mr. Blue Sky brought it up. He was putting on his jacket. “I gotta ask,” he said. His tone was faux-casual, taut underneath. “What’s the deal with the ring?”
I hadn’t been ready for the question. My pulse jumped.
“I just didn’t feel comfortable having it anymore,” I said.
There was a moment, so brief, super-charged. I almost said something else out of sheer anxiety, except I couldn’t think of what to say. I’ve been trying to give it back for years, I thought. Don’t act like this is new. Except I didn’t really think that. My thoughts weren’t really formed. I might have been holding my breath.
“Okay,” said Mr. Blue Sky. He smiled, in that way people smile when they feel like they should. “I guess that’ll have to do.”
Yes, I thought. It will. Except I didn’t really think that, either.
“Safe travels,” I wished him.
Mr. Blue Sky thanked me, and wished me well in return.
And left with the ring.
The image at the top of this post is of a human eye whose iris looks like a cloud-filled sky. It’s from the oeuvre of my favorite artist, the surrealist René Magritte.