Deconstructing a Conversation With an Emotionally Abusive Ex
“Trans Guys Can Be Assholes to Each Other Too”
When my ex and I were dating, I came to realize that he looked different to me when he was being, as I like to describe it now, a douchecanoe.
I do not mean that I saw him through a different light; I mean that his physical expressions were a tell. His eyes would glaze over as if he were shutting down, shutting himself off from me. His whole face would seem to sag and shift, morphing into a poorly constructed mask. It was different from his pain and grief, different from his boredom, and certainly different from his happiness.
After eight months of radio silence, he wants to talk. We meet at a coffee shop and he walks straight back to the table without ordering. He sits down and when he opens his mouth, I see it in his eyes and the set of his jaw: he’s about to be a dick, again.
He says: “First, I recognize that I hurt you. I am sorry for that. I am sorry that you were hurt, but I do not regret the actions.”
“A general piece of advice: Be wary of anyone who apologizes for your feelings and not for their actions.”
A general piece of advice: Be wary of anyone who apologizes for your feelings and not for their actions.
I don’t truly remember what his second point was because I was busy sighing to myself for having agreed to meet with him, but he says: “Third, you crossed a serious line with me.”
He pauses and I meet his glazed eyes and hear my heart starting to thud. I remember how long it took me to reconcile his behavior for what it was. I remember the months of not knowing what exactly I was apologizing for, just that everything was wrong and I didn’t know how to fix it and I thought it all must be my fault because he was good and I was bad. I remember the supernova inside my chest when things had started going wrong between us.
He continues: “You tried to talk to me when I told you I didn’t want to talk. That’s not okay.”
Let me present a scenario: Say that someone who I am in a relationship with punches me in the face. I’m shocked. I don’t understand why or where this came from or what I did. I know in the back of my mind that it’s not okay, but I love this person, and I think “There must be an explanation.”
So I try to ask. Maybe I’m even shocked enough that I can’t ask at first, that it’s not until I’m crying on a bus the next day that I realize something was wrong about what happened. I ask them to help me understand what happened, what I did, why they did this, and they tell me they don’t want to talk about it right then. And maybe I let them get away with that for awhile before I bring it up again, or maybe I push. Either way, they never give me an explanation. The next time they punch me in the face, I ask again. I think, “I just need help understanding. It’s okay. It’s okay, I just need their perspective.”
This time, they tell me they’re not in the mood to talk at all and put me through a week of silence. When we speak again, I’m so relieved to be talking to them that I don’t bring it up at all. If I did, they might withdraw again and ignore me entirely. I’m hurt and confused and I don’t know what to do.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
“I’ve promised myself two things about this meeting: I am not going to apologize and I am not going to argue.”
He sits there after he says this and I almost want to laugh at him. It isn’t funny, but it’s ludicrous. I take a deep breath. I’ve promised myself two things about this meeting: I am not going to apologize and I am not going to argue.
I say: “Interesting apology.”
I take another breath and I consider the argument, consider trying to make him see. But I don’t need him to see. I don’t need anything from him. “I’m not going to argue with you. I recognize that you live in a very different reality from mine, and at this point in my life I don’t think it would do me any good to try and get you to understand my reality.”
He huffs something and I repeat: “I’m not going to argue with you.”
He says: “But you’re not going to talk to me either.”
I say: “At this point, talking to you would be arguing with you.”
He tips himself back in his chair and mutters “Nor are you going to apologize, apparently.”
Scenario: Someone I’m dating punches me in the face, then asks me to apologize for my reaction.
Okay, Dick Cheney. Sorry you shot me.
“Scenario: Someone I’m dating punches me in the face, then asks me to apologize for my reaction.
Okay, Dick Cheney. Sorry you shot me.”
I’m not sure if I laugh out loud, but a tiny spark of morbid enjoyment has grown up inside of me. He has no power over me anymore. I might be imagining it, but it seems to me as if he’s realizing this and he doesn’t like it.
I say: “Well, considering your apology wasn’t particularly apologetic, no, I don’t really feel the need to at this point.”
He asks me what my reality is, even though I’ve just said I’m not going to try and explain it to him. Here he is, asking me for something that uncannily resembles that which so offended him eight months ago.
I tell him that the universe is a strange place. I tell him how it was weird timing to hear from him because I had just finished writing an article about our relationship, an article about emotional abuse and empathy. I don’t give him details, just the broad concepts.
He says: “Can you recognize that you did things that hurt me, too?”
This guts me. I’ve spent all this time trying to accept his behavior as abusive. I’ve thought a lot about what it would take to make him see that, and how I wish he would open his eyes enough to try to see my experience. How to talk to him about what he did without his immediate response being defensive rejection.
So how can I justify my own immediate defensiveness? What if I’m wrong and he’s on the other side of this table, thinking about how he spent six months trying and failing to justify my actions until he was forced to form the words “emotional abuse” and slap them across his memories of me?
I feel the apology lick up my throat and I clamp it down hard. Later, I will spend the next three days asking myself “Why is this different? Do I believe in my experiences? Is this all a continuation of the invalidation in our relationship? Did he want me to apologize for my actions when he couldn’t apologize for his?” but for now:
I will not apologize and I will not argue.
I say: “…Sure. Yes. Our relationship was toxic and I recognize that it wasn’t good for you either.”
He huffs some more and pivots back to the article. He says: “I’m really pissed off that you used me as research without my permission.”
I say: “Well, it’s not about you. It’s about my experiences in our relationship. And those experiences belong to me as much as to you.”
He says: “It’s really hard for me to see you as human when you’re like this.”
I can’t help it. This conversation is ridiculous. “As opposed to what? A frog?”
He says: “When you’re sitting there, diagnosing me.”
More deep, deep breaths.
I facilitate a support group and in that space we talk a lot about “I” statements. I think about reframing this for him. That what I hear is not him accusing me of not being human, but of him feeling that I am not thinking of him as human.
I say: “Remember, when we were dating, and I would try to ask you about things that were going on with us? And I wouldn’t try to assume, but I was just trying to ask, and you would get really upset and accuse me of trying to tell you what you were thinking or feeling? You’re kind of doing that right now.”
He ignores this. He says: “If I could go back… I should have left sooner.”
I don’t need him to see. I say: “Yes. I shouldn’t have stayed.”
He says: “I tried to make you see that I believe relationships happen if they’re supposed to happen, when they’re supposed to happen, and you can’t force them. It’s clear that you were more in-love with me than I was ever going to be with you –“
I finally let out the incredulous laugh that’s been building since this conversation started. “Again, with the assuming feelings thing.”
He looks startled, but he keeps going. He says: “I’m going off of the patterns that I had seen from you, and you just kept wanting to rehash conversations and it felt like nothing was ever over. And I tried every way of saying that I believe relationships just are, they just happen.”
Again, why did I keep asking about being punched? Why couldn’t I accept things as resolved after days or weeks of silent treatment? Why couldn’t I see that if a relationship wasn’t perfect on its own with absolutely no effort or emotional labor, then it was never going to work?
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I say: “I’m not going to argue with you.”
“I could have given in and told him I was sorry that I hurt him, but not for my actions. Except that is not a real apology, and it goes against my principles to give false apologies.”
There’s more. He keeps talking and I keep telling him that I’m not going to argue. I’m proud of myself for more or less sticking to my resolve. I could have given in and told him I was sorry that I hurt him, but not for my actions. Except that is not a real apology, and it goes against my principles to give false apologies.
The truth is that I never wanted to hurt him, and I’m sure that I did. I realized while we were still dating that he lives in a very different reality from mine, but I imagine that reality is as real to him as my own is to me. I could analyze his accusations as projections, as with the reframing of “seeing me as human,” but whatever happens in his reality happens. And in the context of it, he has to do what is before him to do. I can’t change that, but I won’t give in to it.
When he leaves abruptly, on his way out he says: “If you see me around, you can say hi.”
Before this meeting, the last time I saw him was at Pride, two months after we broke up. I waved and he couldn’t even acknowledge me, except to glare. But he’s out the door now and I don’t call after him.
Another piece of general advice: You don’t owe toxic people anything. Not apologies. Not explanations. Not the time of day.
Gideon C. Elliott is a Seattle-based queer trans man whose previous written work has been mostly academic in nature. He has an essay published in Manifest: Transitional Wisdom on Male Privilege edited by Meghan Kohrer and Zander Keig and spends some time writing bad poetry about the state of our political environment. When not at work, he can usually be found volunteering or in a park crying over other people’s dogs. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on instagram: @theimmortaljellyfish.