Mixed Feelings: A Better Version of Love
Dear Mixed Feelings,
Last year, my partner of many years was accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault. He denied it. We had many long conversations about it in which he tried to reassure me. In the meantime, I did my own detective work, but I could never get closer than third-hand accounts. Yes, other people had heard the same rumors I did. They often believed these rumors thanks to his habits of leering at women or talking down to female colleagues or even making advances (sometimes wanted, sometimes unwanted) toward women. There was a series of formal investigations into his behavior but they ended inconclusively. That is, they didn’t turn up enough evidence to warrant consequences. He was simply warned off behavior that could be interpreted as harassing.
He kept insisting that after so many years together, I knew him. Couldn’t I trust him to tell me the truth? But that was part of the problem. I did know him. I knew that while he was capable of being extremely affectionate, silly, thoughtful, and supportive, he could act out when he didn’t get what he wanted. He felt entitled to sex with me, and would ignore clear signals of disinterest. If I said no outright, he would sulk and stage long conversations about how we weren’t having enough sex. (We were having a lot of sex, objectively speaking.) These conversations made me feel pressured, that our relationship was at risk. Often he talked about the allegations against him in a legalistic way that made me suspicious he was leaving space between his words for real actions to slip through unacknowledged.
Ultimately, we broke up over all of this just a few weeks ago. But I am having a hard time moving on because I still don’t know what happened. I really loved him. We had a connection that I’ve never had with anyone else. I don’t know how to deal with not knowing. Or how to say that in fact I knew enough, that he way he treated me when he didn’t get what he wanted wasn’t okay. How do I move on with my life?
Dear Still Reeling,
When I was thirty I ended a ten-year relationship with the first man I ever really loved. I knew that ending the relationship was the only option for us both, but it took over a year to fully separate our lives. At the end of that year, I found myself obsessed with the question of whether or not my ex was a good person. It felt imperative that I know: Good guy? Or bad guy? Which was he? If I could just figure it out, I told myself, I could move on with my life.
One day, in an attempt to answer this question, I lugged our old hard drive off a high shelf in my closet. It was a beast of a machine with heavy metal housing and two lengthy cables. I had this idea that if I could plug it in and scroll through our old photos, I could find something that would help me get a clearer head about him. To my surprise, it only took a few minutes to find what I was looking for.
The photo was from 2003: a picture of my ex and a pretty brunette sitting on the floor, kissing. Her name was Jenny. I’d known about Jenny, so the picture wasn’t a surprise. But the date on the bottom was: September 2003.
September? I thought he and Jenny had met the following February, when they’d both been traveling solo around Thailand, when he and I were officially seeing other people. He’d told me a little about her when he got back, after we started what became a much more serious relationship. But September? In September he’d been writing me letters full of longing and loneliness, sent from the one-room house in the Andes where he lived while in the Peace Corps. I’d been down to visit him August. He’d come to see me in October. And in September, apparently, he’d been kissing Jenny.
It wasn’t even the kiss itself that upset me as I sat, stunned, on my couch with my computer in my lap. It was that they’d bothered to take a picture of the kiss—it had been worth documenting. But what really got to me in the days and weeks after I found that photo was that I had to totally rewrite the story of our relationship. It was my first year of grad school and, though I was miserable, the romantic story I’d told myself about the two of us had been enough to sustain me. I was in love with someone thousands of miles away, someone who was also alone and lonely, someone who was watching the sunset and thinking of me. He’d said as much in his letters. There was no reason to think otherwise.
Except, when I looked back on that year, there were, in fact, lots of reasons to doubt him. For one, when we were together he never actually said he loved me. Instead, he would write the words in German on a random page in my notebook that I’d find weeks later. Once, while I was visiting him, we took an overnight bus to a tourist town where we went white water rafting and jumped from cliffs. That night, we stayed out late drinking cocktails. We were sunburned and tipsy and I felt infused with happiness. Or, more accurately, I was already anxious about having to leave him again, but I could see happiness in the periphery if I turned my head fast enough. Finally, I dared to ask what would happen after I went home. Would we make plans to be together when his assignment ended the next year? Suddenly he was distant, and then cold. I’d ruined the evening. When we got back to our hostel, we found that his dog, who’d been waiting for us, had chewed up one of his shoes—shoes he couldn’t afford to replace. Angry with me and now the dog, he packed his bag, put the dog on a leash, and walked out. It would turn out to be the first of many nights he’d storm out on me, but I didn’t know that yet. I certainly didn’t know that he was also kissing someone else.
What did I know that night, as I sat on the bed waiting for him to come back? I knew enough, already, to see that there was a gap between the narrative I’d constructed about our relationship and the reality. In my story, he loved me. In reality, he was impatient, dismissive, unwilling to talk about the nature of our relationship, and withholding of affection when it suited him.
I didn’t want to look at that gap. I was twenty-two and all I really wanted was for him to love me. He’d suggested that I’d been demanding and unreasonable by asking about our future. I thought he was right. It would be years before I’d learn the term “gaslighting” and years more before I finally began to inventory all the ways it had been a part of our relationship.
So, was my ex a bad guy? He behaved in ways that were manipulative and dishonest. And yet, he was playful and funny and deeply affectionate. We had our own language, an idiolect of nicknames and jokes and gestures. Losing these things was painful. Finding the photo of Jenny didn’t make it easier. I wondered what it meant that I’d loved someone who’d been so willing to deceive me. I worried, still, that I would never love someone as much as I loved him, that no one would ever love me like he had. There was one thing that kept me afloat: I was a better version of myself outside of that relationship. I was lonely and confused, but I was free to let my intuition guide me—rather than his frequent criticism. I felt this freedom instantly. In a way, it saved me.
Here’s the thing, Still Reeling: maybe you will find conclusive evidence of what your ex did or did not do. Most likely you will not. There is plenty in your letter to suggest that whatever accusations have been made against him are credible. The United Nations’ definition of sexual harassment includes “unwanted sexual looks or gestures” and “unwanted pressure for dates”: two behaviors you attribute to your ex directly in your letter. If you are curious about the incidence of false reporting of sexual assault, the National Crime Victims Survey puts it at between two and ten percent. Only twenty-three percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police, making it the least-likely crime to be reported of all those in the survey. Most assaults are never reported, and of those that are, most do not have enough evidence to warrant a conviction in our current judicial system. In total, false reports represent a small fraction of the problem of sexual assault.
Let’s talk about what you know for sure. You know your ex pressured you, “ignored clear signals of disinterest” in sex, and behaved in manipulative ways when he didn’t get what he wanted. This sounds painful and cruel, and I’m sorry that you were treated that way. It sounds like your sex life fell far short of the standard of enthusiastic consent, which involves “paying attention to your partner as a person and checking in with physical and emotional cues.”
In her book All About Love, bell hooks argues that it’s essential that we have a definition of love, because if we can’t define it, we are more likely to confuse love with abuse. According to hooks, this confusion comes from thinking of love as a feeling, rather than an action. I am sure that your ex felt deep affection for you, just as mine did for me, but, hooks writes, feeling deep affection isn’t the same as love: “When we are loving we openly and honestly express care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment, and trust.”
Notice how she says that? When we are loving, not when we feel love.
She goes on:
To begin by always thinking of love as an action rather than a feeling is one way in which anyone using the word in this manner automatically assumes accountability and responsibility. We are often taught we have no control over our “feelings.” Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do. We also accept that our actions have consequences.
Maybe you’re not sure if your ex’s behavior counts as abuse. But it doesn’t sound like love—it sounds like love’s opposite.
The more time I spend researching love, the more I certain I am about one conclusion: to love someone is a privilege. That is, love is something we get to offer one another—with generosity and openness. It is something we choose to do, not something that happens to us.
When I think about love this way, I have to rewrite the story of my last relationship yet again: I didn’t love him—not with real care and attention—and he didn’t love me. I felt committed to him. I wanted to be loved by him. But he offered something that fell short of hooks’ version of love, and I accepted it. It is hard to write this even now, but it is true.
I think I became so preoccupied with the question of whether my ex was a good person because I hoped that if I could just call him a bad person, I wouldn’t have to grieve him. It didn’t work this way for me and it probably won’t for you. I had to take the time to acknowledge what was lost when our relationship ended, and to understand that, despite its flaws, much of it had meant a lot to me.
You don’t have to decide if your ex is a bad person to imagine that a better version of love exists. You don’t even have to decide—not yet anyway—if you’re okay with how he treated you. You may wonder if you deserve a better version of love, and it may take some time—maybe a long time—to find it. But you are free to decide how you want to be loved going forward. You are free to love others as if it were a pleasure and a privilege, because that’s exactly what it is. I hope you will.
Mixed Feelings is an advice column that draws on science, economics, philosophy, and psychology to tackle relationship issues. If you have a question for Mandy, send it to [email protected] or submit it here.
Rumpus original logo and art by Max Winter.