When I was a young, naive freshie, I met this guy, “Alex.” Alex was actually dating my friend when we first met, but we quickly became best friends, and I developed a crush on him after a time. I accepted that we wouldn’t be together, seeing as he was dating my friend, but apparently Alex didn’t feel the same way when he held me down and kissed me, despite my best efforts to tell him that this wasn’t right, he was with someone else, etc. Alex then proceeded to break up with said someone else and said that he did all of this for me, so we had to date.
Over the next month, Alex would touch me in ways I wasn’t ready for, even though he knew I had been sexually assaulted before and had trouble with things like that or being physically close with men in general. Afterwards, he would apologize profusely and tell me how much he hated himself for it and then do it all over again. Over the course of a year and a half, he continued to emotionally abuse and manipulate me (lying, cheating, telling me I couldn’t survive without him, making up stories about his past so I would feel sorry for him, accusing me of cheating on him, yelling at me when I tried to defend myself until I apologized, etc) until he broke up with me.
Even afterwards, he continued to coerce me into sleeping with him and make me think he still loved me until after another six months of that, I realized I had to get away from him. It’s now been over a year since I ended all contact with him, and I’ve been with two guys since then, but I seem to have a problem: each time I get close to an honestly nice, sweet, un-psychotic guy, I find myself terrified that I’m going to be drawn into another unhealthy relationship with another abusive boyfriend. With both of my past two boyfriends, I found myself happy at first until it started getting more serious and the “I-love-yous” started coming out. Then, it’s like I panic and have to end things right then and there. I’m afraid of being dependent on someone like I was with Alex again.
I’m tired of hurting good guys who don’t deserve to suffer for something someone else did, and I’m tired of being afraid of them. I’ve already decided to stop dating until I can get this under control, but I still have one problem: I can’t stop myself from liking people, and from those people liking me back. Is there any way I can make it clear to them that I have no intention of dating, and explain why I don’t want to be with them without getting the “not all guys” speech?
There is, indeed, Sparkler, and it can be summed up in two little words:
Because as much as your relationship-related trepidation stems from your various awful experiences with one awful guy, it is not actually about him at this point. It’s about how you feel about love as a result. And while what Alex did to you is absolutely not your fault, dealing with its aftermath is, sadly, your responsibility—which includes the way you talk about it, moving forward.
Based on the reactions you’re apparently getting when you end or decline a relationship, I’m going to guess that you’ve been framing this in external terms (“I’m afraid someone else will hurt me like he did”), rather than self-centered ones (“I’m not emotionally healthy enough to be involved with anyone right now”). And unfortunately, most guys—heck, most people—will register the former as being unfairly lumped-in with an abusive douchebag for no other reason than that they share a genital configuration. It may be arguable whether or not that’s a reasonable reaction, but it is a very human one—and it’s easy enough to avoid by being mindful when it comes to the way you talk about your feelings, making it clear that the problem is yours to solve.
Plus, speaking mindfully about your feelings is something you’re going to be doing a lot of, as you work your way through the fear of being victimized again. You didn’t ask about this, and you haven’t mentioned whether you’re in therapy or not, but I’ll say it anyway: professional help is something you should really consider, especially having spent the past year unsuccessfully battling this on your own. You bumped up against this in your letter, but I want to really drag it out into the light: Your problem is not that you don’t trust men, but that you don’t trust yourself. You don’t believe that you can tell the difference between a healthy attachment and a coercive, manipulative one. You’re afraid that you won’t be strong, savvy, or assertive enough to recognize another abusive relationship in the making and get while the getting is good.
A qualified therapist will help you unpack all of those fears, figure out what drew you to Alex in the first place, and pinpoint what (if anything) about that attraction was coming from a less-than-healthy place. And since you likely have access to free mental healthcare on your campus (you are a college student, right?), there’s no reason not to take advantage.
With that said, Auntie SparkNotes is not a qualified therapist, but I’ll give you this to chew on as a bit of a head start (you can think about it while you’re on hold with your campus counseling center):
When you don’t want to have sex, but allow yourself to be unhappily coerced into it anyway; when a guy breaks up with his girlfriend “for you” and you agree that you owe him a relationship for his trouble; when he holds you down and kisses you, and you say “But you’re with someone else” instead of “Stop”: There’s a common thread here, and it’s that you have real trouble asserting yourself at the expense of someone else’s desires or expectations. And if that continues to be the case, it does mean that you need to be extra wary of that tendency to suppress yourself on behalf of a boyfriend—and it does increase your risk of being targeted by abusive guys like your ex, who seek out people-pleasers as partners because they’re the easiest to control.
But that’s why one of the most important things you can do, for your own sake, is to get comfortable with the word “no.” Not just because learning to assert yourself is a vital safeguard against being consumed by an unhealthy relationship, but because if you do so early and judiciously with your potential boyfriends, it’ll send an unequivocal message about the relative steeliness of your backbone—and send the would-be abusive manipulators of the world running in the other direction.
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