Dating While (Semi) Damaged is a column about returning to the dating world after an abusive relationship, offering insight and occasional advice.
A few months ago, my Facebook feed became clogged with people posting pictures of TV characters that defined their personalities. When I decided to join in, it took me a minute to assemble my trio: Tweak from South Park, Paris Gellar from Gilmore Girls, and Anya Jenkins from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I thought of Anya first. A thousand-year-old vengeance demon recently turned human, her lack of understanding about social norms makes her shockingly blunt. This is part of Anya’s charm. Her refreshing frankness is often necessary. This is me. I have no filter. I am unabashedly honest about both good and bad matters. This straightforwardness is a trait my friends find (mostly) charming.
Let’s talk about ghosting.
If there is no real spark or interest, and this seems mutual, ghost. It’s fine. However, if there is or was a strong connection, disappearing isn’t the best course of action. You owe the person some explanation.
On two occasions, I ghosted.
It was never that I wasn’t interested. I was, very much so, but the idea of any kind of a physical relationship terrified me, and the emotional aspects of being a girlfriend felt constrictive. Texts that once made me giddy would slowly come to paralyze me with fear. I would have heart palpitations at the thought of getting involved. If a text came at the gym, I would flinch on the elliptical and shake my head back and forth, an uncontrollable physical reaction of pure panic.
I was not sure how to explain this so I just… didn’t.
I stopped responding, somewhat abruptly, until the other person took the hint. Let me be clear — I did a bad thing. I do not think you ever get a pass for treating people poorly. This is not an excuse. It is an explanation. I did not know what to say because what can you say in these situations?
“I’m sorry, but I was abused, terrorized, and coerced into sex pretty regularly for the past two years and — even though you seem awesome — I illogically feel you’re going to treat me like garbage too, so maybe we should just be friends.”
No. Of course not. You offer a condensed version of events.
“Hey, I had a great time with you, but I’m getting out of a bad relationship. I’m not sure I’m ready for this, but let’s be friends.”
In some ways, the problem was my nature. Condensed versions of events and Erin Wisti are antithetical. Without feeling I could be completely honest, I froze. However, my hesitance went deeper than that. This guilt over withholding facts can be traced back to Randall.
I feared the people on the receiving ends of my rejections would demand more information, information I was not ready to share.
Randall raged against phoniness like an overgrown Holden Caulfield. One of his favorite catchphrases was, “I’m the kind of guy who calls people out on their bullshit.” Randall’s definition of “bullshit” was any behaviors — including subjective opinions, lifestyles, and preferences — that did not fit into his rigid worldview. He would call me out if I had different boundaries than him regarding physical contact. He would call me out when I turned down sex without a specific reason. He demanded naked honesty but distrusted everything I said. Sometimes, I didn’t know why I felt the way I did, but this was never acceptable for Randall. He would make up his own interpretations.
You don’t want to sleep with me because I’ve put on weight and you’re not attracted to me.
You said “I’m moving to New York and Randall’s coming, too” instead of “We’re moving to New York” because you were trying to impress that guy.
You don’t want me to sit next to you while you write because you don’t want to share things with me.
I would end up folding under his rapid-fire accusations, admitting to things about myself that were not true just to get him to stop yelling. Once, he talked with pride about an essay he was writing about funerals.
“There’s this tendency to put the deceased on a pedestal,” he said, “Why not just tell the truth?” Coming from a small town, I recognize names in the local obituary frequently. I usually have some memory of the person. If it’s a good memory, I share it with the family. If it’s a bad memory, I keep it to myself. When you’ve known someone from kindergarten to graduation, you recall many awkward moments.
This is a humbling reminder not to take yourself too seriously. To someone, somewhere, you are no more than that one person who did something embarrassing that one time. But in the immediate wake of a death, it would be cruel to share such stories. Withholding these anecdotes and offering a generic condolence is not called being phony. It’s called displaying a basic level of human decency.
At times, I eschew social norms intentionally. There are topics people do not discuss — sex, death, loneliness, mental illness — that I will discuss without hesitation if they need addressing. I know, however, there are times when it’s best to adhere to the norm.
This is the difference between Randall and I.
I bypass norms thoughtfully. Randall bypasses norms because he does not understand or care about other people’s emotions. Despite my history of ghosting, I do care about others. I need to do better.
I do not know when I will be able to have a real, functional relationship again. I do know I am going to try to be more forthright in the future. If I get scared and need to back away, I will suck it up and give a half-truth.