What Responsibility Do We Have To Those Who Date Our Abusive Exes?

The shame and stigma surrounding abuse prevented me from speaking out about a former relationship. Then I got an email from the woman my ex dated after me.

I’am under no illusions that I’m anyone’s savior. Still, in my late twenties and early thirties, I spent a stretch of almost seven years attempting to “save” my ex, TC*, from his addiction, his self-loathing, his insecurities, and generally from himself. TC’s past was marked by childhood sexual abuse, so for a long time I shrugged off the toxic elements of our relationship because I knew about his traumatic past.

Ultimately, however, I accepted that continuing to stick around, even as a friend, so I could keep trying to save him — despite the abuse and the tears and the insecurity, and when he didn’t even want saving anyway — would only have harmed me further. So in mid-2011, I cut off all contact. A year later I moved from Chicago to New York and didn’t give him or what had transpired between us much thought. I knew he was dating someone and was pretty sure there’d been some “overlap” with me, but what did I care at that point?

Back then, my longstanding policy was not to feel responsible for my ex-partners’ lives after parting ways. It was my view that a romantic partner’s choices after our relationship had ended — how they may or may not have changed as a result of our being together, how they conducted themselves with other consenting adults in my wake — didn’t fall under my purview. Such a burden was too large for me to bear, and, if I’m honest with myself now like I try to be, I didn’t see myself as important enough or having the kind of sticking around potential to really affect anyone’s life in a significant way. Because of that general philosophy, it didn’t occur to me to worry or care about the person TC was dating next.

And then I got an email I still think about whenever I write or speak on how alcohol abuse and sexual assault and/or intimate partner violence are intricately connected for so many of us. I knew who it was from immediately, though the subject just said “seeking the truth.”

I didn’t see myself as important enough or having the kind of sticking around potential to really affect anyone’s life in a significant way.

I felt a lot of things at once. To be clear up front, none of those things were negative feelings about her — the woman who came next — and I didn’t feel intruded upon. By that point, fall of 2014, I’d developed a modest public platform, so getting unexpected messages to my public email account was, and remains, a pretty regular occurrence.

Still, as I considered what it must have taken to reach out to me, my heart sank for the woman who dated TC after I did. You don’t write your boyfriend’s ex from three years earlier — the one who knows all his friends and coworkers and former coworkers and drinking buddies and family (so, everyone) — without thinking about it very hard and realizing you don’t have anywhere else to turn.

Inevitably, I wondered: If I hadn’t played off what happened between he and I, if I had said something — anything! — to someone — anyone! — would his reputation as a good ol’ boy who was sometimes a sloppy drunk, but a pretty alright guy, have been tarnished enough to save his next girlfriend?

What responsibility did I have — do any of us have — to face our abuse in service of the people who come next?

TC was a drinker. (I presume he still is, but I don’t have access to any information that would confirm it.) He’d started working at the bar where we met while he was still in college, so he was initiated into thinking 20 beers and a bottle or so of Jägermeister at the end of a shift was standard. To say that drinking was a lifestyle for 90% of the staff and all of our service industry regulars is an understatement. When I tell my doctors or friends just how much we consumed regularly, they look at me like they can’t believe I’m alive; I share their wonderment.

So while we were dating, I was drinking right alongside him five or six days a week. I dismissed his abusive behavior — especially the economic power he wielded over me when my financial situation was precarious — as being the result of our toxic, alcohol-infused lifestyle and his childhood trauma. I couldn’t work the awful schedule I did for most of our relationship without access to his apartment, and our grocery shopping together meant I could finally eat decently. It took years — until the #YesAllWomen conversation, in fact — to realize that those times he came home extra drunk and woke me up because he wanted to have sex were real violations. I “gave in” because I couldn’t do most of my life if he got upset enough to throw me out; I wasn’t consenting because I couldn’t say no.

My story is complicated — like so many other people’s stories—and my involvement with TC lasted well beyond the years we were an official couple. Once I achieved some level of economic stability and moved into a safe, lovely one-bedroom condo and changed jobs so we weren’t working together, his power was gone — and with it the abuse. No one would call our friendship+ (we weren’t dating, but we were more than friends and still physically involved) healthy by any stretch, but at least the last three years we were “involved,” that involvement was on my terms.

At some point, he began dating a married woman with two kids, which broke his only dating rule. I didn’t know about her until months later when we were basically over, but he also didn’t have an obligation to tell me; we weren’t exclusive and I was certainly seeing other people. And around that time, we had other things to talk about. I got pregnant and, considering our lifestyle, the obvious choice for both of us was to terminate. He even took me to my appointment and looked after me the rest of the day.

But then came the weirdness, the gaslighting, the guilt. It wasn’t all that surprising to watch a rather advanced alcoholic have a feelings delay of several months, so it was easy for him to just say yes when I asked if his behavior was related to the pregnancy. I’d eventually discover why he’d been making me feel guilty for terminating — he was too embarrassed to admit that he was responsible for breaking up a marriage. When he finally came clean about what he’d actually been upset about, I felt only relief that I wasn’t his partner; while I was escaping, she couldn’t begin to know the mess she was inviting into her life.

It took her less time to figure it all out than it had me — of course, his alcoholism was more advanced and she had her two kids to consider. As I opened her email, I assumed she was pregnant just because that’s true of most who write me out of the blue.

“Hi Katie,
I was hoping you could help me with something, differences aside.”

She wanted to know about something that happened around Christmas of 2010; she’d decided he had been lying to her and understandably wanted to know just how far back the lies went. Apparently he’d claimed to have been with me on a certain date to exchange gifts, and she wanted to know if she’d been deceived.

“Something(one) very important is hinged on this.”

My heart sank. I wrote her back immediately, wanting to validate her feelings and concerns even if I didn’t have the exact information she was looking for. That timeframe was the tail end of my involvement with TC, so it was possible I saw him the day she was asking about, but it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary. My memory simply hadn’t made note of it because I didn’t know to be paying attention.

“Hi. I’m sorry to hear that whatever is happening is rough enough that you’re reaching out to me. I can imagine that was a hard decision.
You’re right that he has trouble with the truth. I gave him a lot of slack for that when we were together because of 1) my own issues 2) his childhood trauma. He can be very endearing and it’s hard to know when it’s genuine and when to question it. I don’t know that I’m going to be much direct help in answering the most specific thing you’re after… But, if you think he’s given you reason to be unsure about something — you probably aren’t imagining it and should trust that feeling.”

I told her I’d flipped through my calendar and Facebook albums trying to nail down that date. I told her when we’d stopped talking and that I hoped she found the answers she was looking for.

In the days between my response and her next — and last — email, I agonized over what to do and what I should have done. I’m not someone who deals with feelings of regret as I’m rather forgiving with my past self, but I couldn’t shake it. I hadn’t just terminated my pregnancy because I’d drank a bottle of Jameson a day during the few weeks before I could confirm it or because I didn’t want kids. I very specifically knew I didn’t want him to be a father; just imagining him being responsible for a vulnerable, brand new human gave me nightmares.

While I would never ever blame another survivor of abuse and assault for not reporting or speaking up, I was struggling to extend that same generosity to myself.

When she finally did get back to me, she apologized for the delay, saying she was “running errands with the baby all day” and thanked me genuinely for responding. My heart sank again. She told me more about why the day in question mattered so much to her — she was venting, but also showed me kindness. I felt a kinship with her; there had been overlap with the person TC had dated before me, which he’d also awkwardly lied his way through.

While I would never ever blame another survivor of abuse and assault for not reporting or speaking up, I was struggling to extend that same generosity to myself.

After thanking me again for sharing my thoughts and experiences, she told me that yes, things were really bad. She was able to call him an addict in her email. Everyone around both of them were drinkers, so she would have been entirely without anyone who would understand or validate her fears that he was deceptive and manipulative. She said their baby was three months old.

“Time to start uncovering what I think are lies and for me to make a decision.”

When I wrote back, I told her a bit about what was actually happening around that time; I didn’t tell her about the abortion because I didn’t want to sound in any way as though I thought I’d made a better decision. I purposely used loaded, truthful language in the hopes that if she was still contemplating whether to keep dealing with his bullshit that I might save her the time I spent sticking around not realizing I didn’t have to.

“We’d been through a lot, I hadn’t owned up to the abuse yet and I needed that four years of my life to have not been complete, meaningless bullshit, so I wanted some closure. I also really did want him to be ok and, since I didn’t know about you, I was really worried he was wallowing (or worse) by himself. As bad as he is when he has someone around, he’s borderline suicidal by himself. Which is NOT your fault/responsibility or mine. It isn’t your job to fix him any more than it was mine.”

I told her that I didn’t feel like I’d been very helpful, but, yes, he was absolutely a very committed addict who didn’t think he’d live to be 40 anyway and assumed he’d die alone. I told her he’d fed me the same lines about not being good enough and I should run away before I get hurt. I wanted to alleviate some of the self-blame I knew she must be feeling for falling into a care-taking role with him.

“[H]e cheats to give himself an asshole ‘out.’ He sees himself as a bad person and when the cheating/lying comes to the surface he can say ‘See; I told you I was — no good — not good enough for you — untrustworthy, etc.’ It’s something abusers and addicts do as a blame deflection/manipulation technique. They get to walk away thinking: ‘Well, I told her…’ <shrug> It isn’t unique to him; it’s textbook and most of us empathetic humans are pulled in by it.”

I said I was sure she would do what was right for her and her family, that I hoped she would find peace, love, and support. I knew “good luck” sounded hollow, but said I meant it with sincerity and kindness.

Their child would be almost three years old now. As best I can tell from sporadic Facebook posts connecting he and I through mutual friends, she chose to leave. From time to time I think about reaching out to her, but I don’t want to intrude. If she wanted more from me, I think she would ask.

I don’t carry guilt anymore about not speaking up at the time; I understand the dynamics of abuse now and know I couldn’t have handled it any way other than how I did. And I’m speaking up now — as are so many others. Sexual assault within relationships is real. Not all force is physical; manipulation can and does remove the ability to say no, and then to speak out about it.

Sexual assault within relationships is real.

We all have a responsibility to talk about this very uncomfortable topic, to remove the shame and stigma of being abused. Her feeling that I was the only one she could reach out to is an indictment of our entire culture. She couldn’t go to anyone in their life, her family, her co-workers, her friends. I was the only one she thought would believe her.

This month and every month, we all need to speak up. It’s vital that those in our lives know that we are a safe place to come should they be in her situation — that, at the very least, we will believe them. Sexual assault and abuse are messy and complicated and never the fault of the injured party. We must break down rape culture so that people like me and the woman with whom I share an abuser don’t feel isolated and without resources to change our circumstances.

  • Name has been changed.