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?