Doctor’s Note: Today’s column includes discussion of sexual and emotional abuse.
Dear Doctor NerdLove,
I‘m a 30-year old university student from Germany and I’ve found your column quite helpful. Recently it made me think about a few experiences I made back as a young adult. This has been nagging at me for a while now and I would like to have an opinion. Just a few information straight away: I had three therapists since 2006, my last 2015 and I had a lot to work through since my childhood. I talked a lot with my therapists, but this topic was always kind of glossed over, because until recently, I had a different perspective on it. I apologise for the length of the letter.
Okay, let‘s get things started. When I was fifteen, I meet somebody on a video game message board. Let‘s call her S. I had no social skills, giant mommy issues (our mother was an violent alcoholic and very abusive towards my siblings and me) and abandonment issues. Me and S got in contact through an online TTRPG to Vampire the Masquerade. That was at the end of 2004. Another sidenote: S was an Asian-German, which is gonna be important for later.
S was twenty-five years old and she had a bad life story too (sexual abuse and she was diagnosed with a borderline disorder). We talked until three in the morning and I was tired, but excited at the same time, too. Finally I found somebody, that understood me, I thought. And she was very good at complimenting me, said I was intelligent and good looking. It helped, because I thought of myself as ugly. It also helped, because girls picked on me in school, one of them got even downright physically abusive. S was also good at pointing out big flaws in me. She was also funny and witty and wise, because she had worked through the stuff she had lived too. At least that‘s what she told me.
I tried to better myself, because I didn’t want to lose her and it did make me more sensitive for other peoples feelings and I started to be more accepting of people of other sexualities; she claimed to be lesbian, but sometimes also seem to be into guys too. Last time I checked, she identified as pan. I think at the beginning, she may had the best intents for me.
But from 2005-2006 the talking became more sexual, even if I didn’t recognize it at first. She made comments like that she would‘ve totally hit on me, if she hadn‘t been together with her then girlfriend. I felt kinda good with that, after getting turned down by a girl I liked. S also knew how I looked, because we had swapped pictures back and forth.
Then one evening, she was very pissed, because I didn’t recognize that she was making sexual (virtual) advances at me and really seemed to be turned on. I was astonished, because I didn’t think of her in that way, even though she was very attractive in her pictures. But aside from one sexual fantasy here and there, I would have never considered it. We had a long talk about the situation and I got curious and started writing a bit bolder and then it happened. We had cybersex. I was seventeen at that time.
The “sex” continued until 2009. If I should describe it today, it would be considered rough sex maybe, with light bondage and submissive fantasies by her, followed by written kisses and cuddle sessions (virtual of course). I guess some of it might have had a hint of rape fantasies — where she would write that she was just ‘laying still’ — but I wouldn’t have known the difference back then, because I never had a relationship before that. I just wanted her to come and make her feel good. She did say that she had rape fantasies, even through she was traumatized by abuse. At one point she suggested, that we might role play something like this, to test if I would respond to stuff like that. At the time I was afraid of turning into a rapist; I’d read too much of the wrong literature and like I said, I was very repressed and thought the worst of myself.
At first the whole sexting felt fine at first, I think, also, because S was good at writing her reponses in a very enthralling way. But over the years the descriptions of sex got darker, the more her mental health turned worse. I didn’t feel like writing some of the stuff she wanted, because I found it icky and disturbing, but I complied, because I didn’t want her to be mad at me. One evening it got especially bad, because after a very graphic session, she seemed to fall in a frenzy and let me wait for ten minutes, until she told me that she hurt herself. Those minutes where I didn’t know what happened to her, are part of the worst moments in my life. S apologized the next day and I said it was okay, but I couldn’t bring myself to masturbate for at least a month.
There were also some seducing scenarios, where I seduced her through writing, but backed off, when she said, that she really wasn’t in the mood. Knowing what I know now, I’m not surewhere the consent started and ended, because we never talked about that. We never had any discussions about what the rules to that stuff were.
She said, that this writing was some kind of game for her and I understood that at first, at least I thought. But to be honest, I was stupid, insecure and I would have done everything for her, so she stayed around. We also had the talk about what had happened at the first cybersex-session after the fourth one, where she was more concerned, that I could think of her as a slut (her words, not mine). I I didn’t; she was my best friend and I loved her, as much as you can love somebody virtual. So we continued, while she was still together with her girlfriend, with whom she had an open relationship, but only with women, so I guess we were cheating, but we were also not friends with benefits? It was confusing.
It got even more confusing, when S’ mental health got worse. The boundaries got murkier and the game seemed to turn into something more serious. At one point, she wrote, that she loved me, even when we were just “friends.” She also said that she never sexted before, but I learned later that there were three other people — that I know of — that she was sexting with. Granted, it started after us, because those people joined the message board later, but still. S also became very angry at one woman for not reciprocating her sexual advances. In S’ mind, that woman turned from another good friend she liked to praise, to a real bitch in one day. I only know that the other woman turned S down, because I talked with her about her conversation with S. In hindsight it reminded me of my own first session with S, except that the other woman said no.
S got colder towards me as her illness got worse and I clingier. I needed her approval, but she couldn’t give it to me. I think at one point, I really fell in love with her, and so did two of the three other persons she was sexting with. We even had a little chatroom, where everyone hang out and I felt like an outcast, because she wasn’t spending her energy on me anymore. I wasn’t her only and not her favorite lover and that broke my heart, but also gave me the strength to break away from her. That was in 2009.
Since then I haven’t contacted her, except a little letter I wrote her 2015, when I was in a very bad place and contemplating. The letter was mostly about how I missed her and that I still thought of her, which was true. I also felt, that it was all my fault, because I left, when S needed me the most.
But now, after some time to think and learning more about sex, I don’t know anymore what to think. She was very ill, I believe that. And maybe she did like me and we leeched on each other for a while. But the older I get, the more it feels wrong, especially after reading so much more about consent. It wasn’t real sex, but it felt real enough for me and I still have a hard time falling in love or trusting another woman in a romantic way.
It‘s hard for me to imagine a romantic scenario, when I masturbate. It has to be about “just sex without feelings” and in those scenarios, it’s not me that participates, but a surrogate alter ego, that is as far away from me, as possible. The hardest I orgasm is when I imagine the sex with S, but after that I feel depressed and sad. My last relationship was with another Asian woman. This was also strictly online, including sexting. It wasn’t satisfying for me, but the important point is, that she was also into rough stuff. We broke up after she became emotionally manipulative and I was getting depressed. I think at least some of it was because this relationship reminded me of mine with S, only that I was the clingy one. It also made me think of the better sex I’d been having with S.
Now I‘m asking myself, if this can count as sexual abuse. The age of consent in Germany is at 16 (at least it was back then), so she wasn’t doing anything illegal, but now I just feel used. I know that she could be very manipulative, and I remember that I was very vulnerable, even when she let me do the first move. I often feel distrustful, I now talk with other women on OKCupid and other dating apps, and I always thought it was because of my mother and the girls that picked on me. But in this light, I don’t know what to think about S. We did only write to each other and I have never heard her voice. The pictures she showed me were from the same person, but that could’ve been of somebody she once knew.
She was my friend and I loved her and I missed her, but this doesn’t feel right anymore. And I also get quite anxious when I think were my responsibilities began. I mean, I was younger than her, but I also started some of the encounters and I respected her saying no, but she was very ill and nymphomania was part of her borderline disorder. I feel, that I just have said no and discourage the whole sex-thing and that may have worsened her condition, even if I didn’t know. When it got too weird, I should have said no. It does feel like it was all my fault.
Wants to be at Peace
Oh man, WTBAP, I’m so sorry that this happened to you. It’s entirely understandable that you feel conflicted about all of this, because you were caught up in a deeply, deeply shitty situation.
So hopefully I can provide a little clarity into what happened here. I think what happened is that you fell into a relationship with someone who’s deeply troubled and incredibly toxic. You were young, inexperienced and hurting and in a vulnerable place in your life. The bullying and familial abuse left you in a position where you were craving friendship and validation and didn’t know how to go about finding it; she took advantage of your situation and used all of it to manipulate you into a relationship that you didn’t have the experience to recognize as abusive and exploitative.
I want you to understand: the confusion and hurt you’re feeling is completely understandable and utterly normal. Many people who’ve been in these relationships with toxic, manipulative people come out feeling the way you do. One of the reasons why survivors of abusive relationships have a hard time leaving is because they feel like they were somehow complicit in their abuse. Many people in sexually exploitative relationships like the one you were in will often blame themselves because of times when they were the initiators of the activity; abusers will often hold this over them as “proof” that they wanted it. But the fact is that they — like you — were in a relationship that they couldn’t handle, with a partner who wielded the power dynamic against them. They weren’t in a position that they could meaningfully understand the full impact or implications of the situation. It’s not proof that you were complicit, it’s evidence that you should never have been in that relationship in the first place.
The behavior you describe from S sounds like she was suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder. People who live with BPD often have issues with emotional self-regulation; they tend to have wild emotional swings and feel intense moments of both attraction and devaluation. They can be prone to impulsive, even dangerously reckless behavior — including excessive spending, drug use, self-harm and unsafe sex — as well as deep depressions and disassociation. When on the upswing, they can be incredibly passionate and idealizing, declaring how much they love or need someone; on the downswing, they’ll go to the opposite extreme: insisting that they hate that person or how incredibly horrible they are.
One of the issues surrounding borderline personality disorder is that people tend to not understand it; it’s easy to believe that people who have BPD are just manipulative shit-stirrers, people who cause trouble because they just like it. In reality, BPD is frequently a result of trauma; people diagnosed with BPD often have a history of abuse or trauma that’s left deep emotional scars. Their behavior is often a way of reacting to the harm caused by that trauma. This is why so much of their behavior is triggered by an incredibly deep fear of abandonment, whether real or imagined, by friends and loved ones. When they feel that someone may be about to abandon them, they’ll act out in ways to either try to keep them around or to push them away first. As a result, people living with BPD can be incredibly manipulative; they’ll go to extremes in order to maintain the feeling that they have control over their relationships. This behavior may include love-bombing, emotional manipulation, self-harm and intermittent reinforcement, where rewarding or punishing their partners seems to come almost at random. By creating these intense but sporadic moments of idealization and devaluation, they create moments of deep insecurity or fear of loss, then relieve it with periodic moments of intense affection. This pendulum swing causes intense anxiety followed by periods of euphoria when that anxiety is removed; the dopamine rush that comes from this is incredibly, powerfully addictive and it is incredibly hard to break. That same pattern of anxiety and relief is what casinos and game developers exploit in order to keep people pumping money into their games; that same fear of loss followed by slight wins is why loot-box mechanics in video games can be as damaging to people as gambling addiction.
Don’t get me wrong: none of this excuses what S did to you. You were in an incredibly abusive relationship with someone who treated you horribly. I just want you to understand why she was able to twist you up so effectively, why it was so hard to leave her and why this still haunts you. This was not your fault. None of this was your fault. You were preyed upon by someone who manipulated you and coerced you into a relationship you were in no position to handle and who exploited a psychological phenomenon that left you literally addicted to her attention. You are not alone; many, many people have gone through this, just as you have and IT WAS NOT YOUR FAULT. The most important part of all of this is that you got out. That’s the thing to focus on; it was bad, but it’s over. You had the strength and the courage to get away. What you’re feeling now is simply the after-effects; you’ve been through the fires of Hell and you’ve got the ashes to prove it.
You need to do three things, WTBAP. First: you need to go full nuclear on S. That means getting rid of everything, blocking her on every social network you’re on, blocking her number, her email, any means she has of contacting you. Excise her from your life like a cancer, slam the doors shut and seal them behind you. While I doubt you’ll hear from her again, simply going through the steps of cutting her out will make you feel better.
Second: go back to therapy, especially if you can find a therapist who deals with abusive relationships. You’ve been through the shit and you need someone who can help guide you through the healing process. It’s not fun and it’ll feel uncomfortable and awkward, but it will make you better in the long run. A trained therapist can help you work through what happened to you and help you find peace and closure.
Third: you need to forgive yourself. You weren’t complicit in this. None of this was your fault. YOU WERE NOT TO BLAME. You were manipulated and abused by someone who was deeply, deeply fucked up and you were in no position to know better. You were the victim here and NONE OF THIS WAS YOUR FAULT.
Forgive yourself for trusting someone you shouldn’t have, for caring for someone who wasn’t worthy of your affection and for not having had the experience to recognize a bad situation sooner. NONE OF THIS WAS YOUR FAULT.
You’ve been through the shit, but you survived. You’re stronger, braver and more resilient than you know. You’re still hurting, but you will get better.
You’ll be ok. I promise.
All will be well.