Prism & Pen
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Prism & Pen

A Gay Man’s Survival of an Abusive Relationship

Part IV: Never Letting Go

The Crow after. Over time, my ex’s wounds became my own and grew harder to hide.

Let’s just get one of my biggest shames out there from the start

I slept with my abusive ex almost the whole time we were “friends” after breaking up. He’d ended things with the promise that we’d still be in each other’s lives. And we were, inextricably, for nearly four years.

I slept with him as he dated someone else, at first not knowing he had met another guy because he kept it a secret, then not caring because he’d complain about this new boyfriend all the time. And we loved each other.

I didn’t tell anyone else, and I don’t think he did either. At least not until he told his boyfriend. (It didn’t stop then, in case you were wondering.) I was too ashamed — of my neediness, my clinging, the cheating — but that didn’t stop me from doing it.

I was ashamed of a lot. I (mostly, at least) successfully kept the most problematic aspects of the relationship hidden from everyone. That didn’t help the isolation, but people just wouldn’t understand. I didn’t need everyone else’s judgement.

Besides, he confided in me, I was his best friend, he still loved me. He’d tell me that he’d get back together with me if he could, but this was better for us. There was always a carrot dangled in front of me.

So I could handle the waiting, justify the cheating, deal with the shame. He’d realize he didn’t need to protect me, he could stop being so noble, I could handle it, and we’d get back together and live happily ever after.

But it wasn’t easy. He told me once that he had “let me go,” and I think a part of him may have actually thought he was setting me free or something. I think there were genuine flashes here and there where he saw the damage and wanted to stop it. But ultimately, that was buried.

He’d tell me I needed to find someone else to date, all the while sleeping with me and telling me no one would ever be as good as him. Sometimes I’d push to be more in his life, feeling like I wasn’t an actual friend, just a way for him to have his cake and eat it too.

Other times, I’d try to pull back. He made it clear that adults were able to be friends with their exes and implied that not being able to handle it was being weak.

I tried cutting things off completely after a couple years. I recorded a goodbye video, gave it to him, told him I loved him, but I just couldn’t handle it anymore. He understood and we went our separate ways. I think it lasted a couple days.

He soon found reasons to contact me, to ask for my advice or my help. Then he’d find something to give back to me. Or maybe he needed me to get something. We’d meet up, and that would be okay, wouldn’t it? So what’s the harm in trying to hang out again? Within a month, he was back to wishing a happy birthday to his “dear.” Within two months, things had settled back in exactly as they were.

And as difficult as it was, there was still that part of me that welcomed it. How could I be upset with him when I barely fought the inevitable?

I’d try stopping the sex sometimes, but it never lasted.

I’m not blameless, but I was never the one re-initiating it. A part of me always welcomed and craved the connection, but I told him many times over the years how tough it was on me, how hard saying no to him was, how much of an emotional tether it was to him.

That never seemed to make a difference.

One time, he asked to hang out and I agreed but said I wanted to be clear beforehand that it wasn’t going to end in sex. He flipped out and made me feel like shit he’d just scraped off his shoe for making that assumption. I didn’t understand what had happened, but I never tried that again.

And when I met a guy I liked, he’d talk about how he’d need to meet him and we’d all have to get together. I felt the only way for anything to work was if I found someone he’d approve of. But his approval was not easy.

That’s how I was living my life by then. Everything was filtered through what would be okay with him, not with me. It was easier to not risk his disapproval, so I’d just let whatever I had been thinking of drop. Even if it was a guy.

Plus, I was still waiting for him to realize he didn’t love his new boyfriend like he loved me.

So instead of dating, I’d hook up. He’d egg me on, telling me that if he was still single, he would be doing the same. But he had to know everyone and everything. I couldn’t hold anything back. I couldn’t have anything to myself.

This was for his safety, he told me, since we were still sleeping together. If he found out I did hold something back, he’d tell me I was a slut, that I was going to give him some disease, and what if he passed it on to his boyfriend?!

That’s something else I still hang on to. There’s still a lingering element of shame, of feeling like I can’t talk about things like sex with my friends. Like I still have to hide everything.

Us, ’80s Night with his friends a couple years after the breakup. He was dating someone else. I was not.

I was desperate for a connection with someone who wasn’t my ex, but how was I supposed to build something new when I couldn’t get past the old? I wanted a life outside my ex, but didn’t know how to meet people and form bonds without them being drawn in and becoming another part of his world.

That happened. There was a guy I went on a couple dates with, then settled into a casual friendship. My ex then met him, independent of me, and they started chatting. I spent the rest of the friendship casually asking if he still talked to my ex, worried that anything I would say or do would get back to him.

Then there was worrying that others would realize how pathetic I was.

That came close once or twice. I was humiliated when someone would ask why they needed to meet my ex and I didn’t have an answer. “Because he said so,” I would think to myself before just dropping it and backing off.

One time, he introduced me to a friend of his he’d been talking up while we were out. We hit it off, exchanged numbers and started talking and flirting. This was perfect! I didn’t have to worry about introductions or approval. And again, my ex would egg me on, telling me things like, “He’s even hotter when you realize he’s smart, right?”

When I eventually told him I was starting to like the guy, he flipped out, accused us of going behind his back and told me it had all been a test. He then turned on the friend and cut him off.

Not me, though. I wasn’t getting cut off. I wasn’t being let go. I had failed his test, but he would forgive me.

I dropped that budding relationship fast. Years later, I made a couple attempts to reconnect, but whatever momentum had been building was lost. He was a link to a life I wanted to forget about anyway. Better to just drop it for good.

By this point, I was hanging out more with his friends. The ones he didn’t cut off. It was a slightly different group from the original ones, and one of them lived in my town. My ex visited that friend often. I guess he didn’t hate the area that much.

One time when he wasn’t around, they told me they wished he’d just get back together with me. I thought no one liked me, I said. They seemed surprised. I didn’t know what to think, but I started feeling more comfortable around them.

He then started telling me they all thought I was obsessed with him and needed to move on. I had to find a mature relationship and grow up. Just like that, the comfort began evaporating.

I fought so hard for something so toxic, trying to convince him we were meant to be. It bothers me that I abased myself so much, that I was so naïve. He’d go from telling me I was his best friend, that he loved me and thought about us getting back together all the time, to telling me I had to get a life, that I had no friends outside of him, that I was a liar and a fucking slut.

He’d tell me there was something wrong with me, that I was emotionally retarded and I needed help, that he didn’t trust me and was sure I was cheating on him when we were together. Then he’d say that he knew I was all about monogamy and being faithful… but wouldn’t it be great if we could still sleep together even when I was in another relationship?

He never planned on letting me go.

And the whole time he would do everything he could to convince me he was all-knowing, all-powerful — that force of nature I started out talking about. It ranged from magical “divination” telling him I was hiding things, to explaining he could read people like a book, so it was impossible to hold anything back. One time, he said that word got back to him about me. I shouldn’t underestimate how many people he knew.

As the years went on, I felt like I was losing my mind.

Every time I thought I was finding my feet, they’d be pulled out from under me. I’d be pushed away, then have the leash snapped tight. I felt trapped but didn’t know how to put an end to things that would stick.

I spent a lot of time pacing in my apartment. I was getting twitchy, got a mouth guard to keep from grinding my teeth, and was on pills to calm the constant burning pit that was my stomach. I grew angrier and angrier and fought with him more.

Worse, I was hardly sleeping, but didn’t know who to turn to besides him. He’d put on that disaffected air to make clear he didn’t have time for bullshit, calmly inform me I needed to stop this, then give me some of his Xanax and tell me to sleep it off.

St. Patrick’s Day with his friends, a few months before the end. No more cuddling up.

His last time in my apartment wasn’t to visit me. It was because he’d decided I was hiding things and came to find out what. He started interrogating me about guys I’d been with and what I was hiding and informed me that he could tell I was lying.

I was. I hated having to clear everything with him, share everything with him, filter everything through him. I couldn’t have anything to myself. He demanded to go through my e-mails, and I let him. I’m still a bit disgusted with myself for that, but I felt like a cornered animal.

I was so paranoid by then, I’d taken to deleting things off my own computer in my own home. But there were things I missed. It hadn’t been the first time he’d demanded to see an e-mail, once growing furious that I had been talking to someone I thought might be a new friend about him.

There was nowhere he couldn’t reach. And he proved it that last day.

He was furious when he found out I’d been in contact with guys he didn’t know about. I was sobbing, apologizing… it was bad, and it got worse. By the time he left, he’d informed me that he would be making my decisions for me. I think the calm way he told me scared me even more.

After that, I realized how much I had to get out. For real. It had gone far into dangerous territory. I think even he realized things had gone too far. When I started pulling away, he didn’t try to pull me back.

We were more distant for the next few months than we ever had been. Communicating with each other usually resulted in mutual anger. That was implied to be my fault too. He told me towards the end that he didn’t know what it was, but for some reason everything about me just infuriated him lately. He didn’t have a problem with anyone else, but with me it was “utter and total rage.”

By the time we had one last fight, months later, I’d finally reached my breaking point.

The fight was on IM while I was at work. I think it had to do with his friends and, as usual, me being horrible. I had enough and told him to get out of my life. I don’t remember exactly how I did it, but we never saw or spoke to each other again, other than for him to message me when he was leaving my apartment keys in my mailbox.

I wasn’t going anywhere near him, so I just threw the key I had never been able to use in the trash. And that was that. I just had to figure out what came next.

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Curtis Harding

Curtis Harding

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I get paid to write about soap opera news (Yes, that’s a thing!) but I’m also keenly tuned into social issues and news, particularly in the LGBTQ+ community.