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My Ex Is a Survivor of Abuse—and It Tore Us Apart

"He described our fast-burning romance as a fantasy, but it had all seemed very real to me. It wasn't part of a strategy to overcome a painful history. It was dates on a calendar, a feeling of security, what I thought was only the beginning."
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

It all changed with a confession.

When my boyfriend first sat me down to talk, our relationship was in its early, most thrilling stages. We'd only been dating three months, but I found myself impatiently waiting for future milestones—to be able to say we'd been together a year, for my friends to think of us as a pair. I was falling in love, though I hadn't reached the point of saying it yet.

He began by apologizing for pulling away physically. We were propped up on stools at a wine bar in Hell's Kitchen, our knees barely grazing. This was news to me; maybe I'd been too wrapped up to notice before that night. But I thought back a few hours earlier, when we sat in the dark at Fun Home, and I casually rested my hand on his knee, like we had on our first few dates to the movies. He went stiff and made no move to reciprocate, so I withdrew, assuming he was deep into the story. I recalled one recent Sunday morning he'd sprung out of my bed to make coffee, hesitating when I asked him to come back and cuddle.


His resistance to being touched had nothing to do with me, he said; this had happened to him before. Over the previous weeks, he'd started making offhand references to a number of ex-boyfriends, a point of insecurity for me that I'd been meaning to bring up. That night he told me his last serious relationship had lasted over a year, until he reached a turning point and could no longer stand for his ex to touch him at all.

He took a deep breath and confessed: From the time he was in eighth grade until he went away to college, he had been molested by a close family friend, an older man who's since passed away. His parents had no idea; he'd confided in his siblings at a later age. More than 20 years later, the shadow of this unthinkable abuse remained with him. It was evident in his need for control in intimate relationships, he explained, his instinct to shrink away from physical contact, and his fear of letting anyone get too close to him.

I felt a catch in my throat as I said I was sorry, and that I was glad he told me. I was too numb with shock to feel the true weight of the news. I wanted to hug him, and it was crushing to think it would make him uncomfortable. He said watching Alison Bechdel's troubled childhood unfold onstage had struck a chord and moved him to open up to me. He'd already scheduled his first therapy appointment for the next day; he'd been in therapy before but was determined to try again. Our connection felt different than his previous relationships, he explained. It was time to face his past, so we might move forward.


We held hands on the walk back to my place, and I spent a sleepless night lying next to him, my mind racing.

Our meeting had been a sort of modern-day fairy tale. It started ten years ago on a crowded dance floor in Chelsea, a one-night stand with a handsome guy from out of town. After he moved to New York a decade later and we matched on Tinder, we had a sense that our reunion was fated. As he had on the night we met years ago, he made the first moves—suggesting, after only a few dates, that we spend New Year's Eve alone together, and asking later that weekend how I felt about "dating dating."

Even as my mind (and my friends' faces) told me we were moving too fast, it was the best kind of fun. Who turns down a trip to Miami, where he invited me to a friend's wedding just a few weeks later? He began laying out a vision of our future together that was both romantic and convincing: plans for the summer, a visit to his family's cabin in Maine. It was, I realized later, just the level of bald-faced enthusiasm I needed to overcome my usual skepticism, which I buried away during those first months when our physical relationship seemed in sync with our emotional one.

When he told me about the abuse, he gave me an out. If this was more than I'd signed up for, he said, I should feel free to walk away. But what kind of person would I be if I'd jumped at the offer to leave? I promised him I wasn't going anywhere.


We stopped having sex. We agreed that he would have to initiate whatever physical intimacy he was comfortable resuming. I knew he felt guilty and was careful not to pressure him or reach for him without invitation. A few nights after his confession, he admitted he wanted to move slower still. We had just come from a party, where I had enviously watched my friend and his new boyfriend casually show their affection—a hand at the small of the back, an arm draped over the other's shoulder—while I resisted every urge to do the same.

Back at my place, I changed into sweatpants before realizing he'd sat on the sofa in the dark and still had his shoes on. I joined him but wasn't sure if I should touch him, so I folded my knuckles and made slight contact with the side of his leg. He said he didn't know if he could do this, but he wanted to try taking it one day at a time. He wanted us to cut back to seeing each other once a week and stop assuming we'd sleep in the same bed, even just side-by-side, after every date. This is what he does, he said, draw someone in very close and then quickly push them away.

We occasionally cuddled on the couch as we had before, but rather than wrap his arms around me, he'd pin them tight to his chest, his elbows against my back. I'd turn to him in the street for an impulsive kiss, and he'd sweetly offer his cheek. Maybe his company is enough, I thought. There was a lot more to our relationship than sex.


Telling the whole truth to anyone felt like a betrayal. When people asked how my relationship was going, I hedged and said my boyfriend had pulled a typical commitment freak out and kept the details to myself. When I finally opened up to a close friend, she reminded me that this was the time when most new couples wouldn't be able keep their hands off each other. But maybe that's the fairy tale, I thought, and this is the reality I need to figure out how to cope with.

Five months after we first reconnected, I sat across from him in the window of a sleepy French bistro, staring out at the sidewalk as he told me he'd like us to be friends. We'd just spent a Sunday morning wandering through an exhibition titled Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible at the Met Breuer; even as my face went slack, I recognized his poetic timing. In sorting through his past, he'd shut down his romantic feelings for me, he said. Sad as it was to hear, of course I could see he had a lot of emotional work ahead.

I didn't know how to feel. After so many false starts with less available men, I had been ready to let go. But I seemed to have fallen for a mirage. He described our fast-burning romance as a fantasy, but it had all seemed very real to me. It wasn't part of a strategy to overcome a painful history. It was dates on a calendar, a feeling of security, what I thought was only the beginning.

I kept returning to the feeling that he'd been in control from the outset, just as he said he needed to be. I'd gone along for the ride happily—it was the happiest I'd been in years—but I also felt like I'd been taken for one, too. Still, I struggled to blame him for anything that happened between us, because of what happened to him all those years ago. Was I even allowed to feel manipulated? Betrayed? Furious? It's difficult to consider a survivor of abuse responsible for any behaviors that result in its aftermath, even some decades later. He was just a kid then, and I can't begin to imagine what he went through.

It took me a long time to come around to the truth: He's an adult now, and I'm hardly the first man he's convinced he's worth loving before shutting down and walking away, leaving a broken heart behind. In painting a detailed portrait of our future together, when he knew the likelihood he'd be gone before then, I realized that what he'd been was reckless. His feelings may have been genuine, but their intensity had been fueled by fear of the inner demons he knew would come between us.

A few months later, he moved away from the city, and it felt like another kind of ending. No more worrying a ghost is just around the corner, or wondering whether we could ever be friends. And no more daydreaming about that perfect stranger from the dance floor, the one with the playful grin, only in town for the night.

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