Originally published 11/7/2017 - original thread here
It looks like I never tweeted about how I destroyed my relationship and abused my partner for years with trash talking so I will now
Back in like 2009 I had a boyfriend. He's since died. Long story. Anyway, our relationship was not healthy for the first couple years. One day we went to his nephews birthday party. It was just him and me and the nephew and his mother and sister, and we were two guys who met each other in a first person shooter online so of course I trash talked because that's what guys do.
Bowling was ok but his family seemed really distant. Figured they still weren't comfortable with him having a boyfriend. We drive home afterwards, he's glum as hell. No explanation. He had horrifyingly intense clinical depression so I didn't think much of it. A while after we get home he comes to me crying. His mother had called him afterwards, sobbing. Begged him to break up with me.
At first I'm saying, wow, what a bitch, what a homophobic asshole, and he starts tearfully telling me no, no, she's right, you're a fucker. And he tells me that I spent the entire time at the bowling alley insulting him. I didn't let him get away with anything. If he hit the pins I insulted him. If he missed the pins I insulted him. Nothing was safe. I never congratulated him. Even if he got a strike I just used that as a springboard to say "that was luck, you didn't accomplish anything and you'll fuck up later"
This was a critical moment in my life because he told me all this and my response was instantaneous acceptance. I didn't fight it, I didn't say "no you don't understand" "I didn't mean it that way", I didn't say any of that bullshit. Thankfully. I said "christ, I'm so sorry, you're right, this got way out of hand and I've been so mean to you and I'm never going to do it again"
It was the first step I think I ever took in becoming a person instead of just going through the motions in life and being a default man.
I converted, right then and there, to someone who does not insult friends for fun. I try my best, anyway.
It's not that I don't make sarcastic quips when I think it'll be funny, but there's a difference between an insult, and a play insult. And if the other person isn't laughing you need to stop. And you can't /hurt/ someone. You can't poke their bruises. You can't pick the things you know they have a hard time with to joke about.
More than anything though, just... Chill out. Compliment your friends. Pick arbitrary times to tell them "you did great at that". Even if you have a trash-talky relationship with someone for real you need to mix in some positives.
I mean. Do you. I've only lived my life. But I promise you won't go *wrong* taking my advice. It won't *hurt* anything. And it fixed my relationship. After I dropped the shit talk it was like I had a boyfriend for the first time, not a roommate. My constant put downs made it impossible for him to feel safe around me.
Hey guess why it was easy for me to accept microaggressions as legit when I started hearing about that concept
There's all these behaviors that serve to distance us from other people by constantly attacking them in little ways. Trash talk ruins cooperation, friendships, relationships. Coworkers and friends find ways to remind their PoC friends that they aren't white. And, as I've spoken of before, men keep each other at arms length with little injuries. Insults, threats, shoulder punches. Hard language, aggressive tones and body language, out and out violence. They're jaw snaps, reminding you: "don't fuck with me." Alpha dogs that are "friends" but never miss an opportunity to remind each other "you're not on top, buddy, *nobody* is."
I want to stress that not all of this is about fragile hypermasculinity. I'd almost say these are parallel phenomena with a common cause. Basically I don't think I insulted my boyfriend to keep him distanced from me or pump myself up. I did it because we were told men do that. But the REASON men do that is to maintain a constant image of hierarchy, either showing other men they're inferior, or saying, "we're on the same level here, we're peers, good to work with you, but don't you dare try to outpace me, I'll rip your throat out." Because of: vulnerability. Imposter syndrome. Inferiority complexes.
Masculinity isn't the only example of this behavior, but it's the unifying, universal experience that drives the majority of these problems from one direction or another, so I tend to just refer to the whole situation that way.
A lot of people have talked about this in the context of gender, race, sexuality-based power imbalances and that's all legitimate and important. But this is pervasive, it happens even between straight white men who have no apparent differentiating factors. And what makes it particularly nasty is that, as usual in the case of "it's just a joke", it probably isn't.
You're a straight white man but your straight white male coworker is insulting you for being 5" shorter than him? He means it. He's smiling and laughing but you can hear that he means it. Because he does mean it. He just doesn't realize he means it. We all judge. We all let our shitty prejudices influence how we see other people, but most of us who work in offices etc. Don't show them. Not casually, that is. We politely do not tell our coworkers "you're short, so I feel like I need to beat you up," but culture says that men insult other men.
So what do you do when you need to insult someone? Where does the insult come from? When you reach into your subconscious for a zinger, what's gonna come up, hmm? What's gonna be on the top of your head?
he's short. he's soft-spoken. he got divorced three times he must be a real shithead. he's clumsy. he likes dumb pop music.
Yeah. Your shitty brain is gonna offer up a host of reasons you ACTUALLY look down on that person. And when you put that into "just a joke"? Ok, first, it isn't. And they can hear it, in your voice, they can hear that you mean it. And when you work with someone or live with someone, this kind of thing comes up over and over. And you escalate.
You WILL escalate. You won't NOT escalate. You WILL escalate and you will NOT notice you're doing it.
You'll make the quip about them being short. Then you'll exaggerate it next time. And so on and so forth until it's a constant topic. Pete is short. Pete can't reach the top cupboards. Hey pete let me get you two chairs to stack up. And before you know it he isn't laughing anymore. But he can't say anything, because you're just kidding around. It's just a joke.
This shit hurts everyone. I've been on both sides of it - just less than some because I'm 6'2" and loud and assertive. If you're small, if you're quiet, if you're anything other than a white guy who has a sharp comeback for anything you can throw at him, you're a target.
Culture is changing. It's not 1998, most people that are reading this aren't getting most of their personality from South Park. So first, you can talk to people who are doing this to you. Even coworkers. Try not to attack them if you don't need to. They probably don't know what they're doing. You're on solid moral ground if you snap and yell at someone, but if you're trying to *maintain a relationship* with them, approach gently. You may feel like they won't listen but they probably will listen. It may not be easy if you have a hard time talking about your emotions. But unless you work / live with real fuckermen or turbobros, there's a good chance that a genuine conversation will stop the insults.
"The jokes about my height - I know they're meant to be jokes, but they really hurt. Can you stop?"
There's only really two outcomes to that. One is a fight, the other is an apology. Hardly anyone really wants a fight. With that said - they might not feel like they owe you an apology. It's up to YOU to decide if you want to press the subject. Decide how hurt you are. Decide what you need. Is this person close? Do you need to feel close to them? Or do you just need it to stop? If it's a coworker you don't really do much with, it could be very hard *for them* to offer an apology without *crushing* emotional effects. It's easier for a friend. Pick your battles. Every time I have actually confronted somebody about this, and I've done it a lot, they have instantly apologized
You can ask someone
"Are these jokes hurting you for real?" Or
"do you want me to stop with the [x] jokes?"
When I HAVE seen this topic discussed, it was from the victims point of view. But it can be hard to know what to do as the 'aggressor.' Again: I have had this conversation many times. Sometimes MULTIPLE times, same person, same subject. Some people really like being the butt of certain kinds of jokes. They revel in it, they enjoy it, they own it, and it's okay. It won't hurt *anything* to still go to them privately and say
"Hey, it seems like you get a kick out of these gags, but is it really okay?"
"Because I know you've talked about being sensitive about [...] before and I want to make sure we aren't hurting you by accident"
Nobody is EVER going to be angry that you did this. EVER. EVER. EVER. You will never mess up a friendship or make things weird. This is a blank check to examine your own behavior and find "outs" that will save you face and shame in the end!
Think about your relationships right now. Is there anyone you think you might be doing this to? Have they blown up at you about it? If they haven't, IT'S NOT TOO LATE. It's okay. You can talk to them, and almost certainly if they ask you to stop everything will be ok.
One of the reasons that toxicly masculine behavior is performed even by people in their thirties, forties, older, is because there's no exit. If you DO accept that you were hurting someone, how do you exit without accepting that blame? That shame, that guilt? Remember that the core of toxic masculinity is vulnerability, fear of inferiority. Shame. The longer someone goes without getting their shit straight, the harder it is to exit. Doubling down is about avoiding shame. If you don't admit you were wrong - even to yourself - you don't have to work through the guilt of doing damage you can't undo.
Keep that in mind: emotional harm is unfixable. You can't unring a bell. You can't unhurt feelings. Everyone knows this, even the awful people. *Accepting that you hurt someone's feelings means having to live with that guilt forever* We talk a lot about improving and about how much better we are than the unwashed masses but, but, comma, but, we spit a lot of "just."
"We" in this context is leftist / queer Twitter
"Just apologize if you were wrong" is rich coming from a group that acknowledges that if you're depressed maybe you can't buy food. Is that different? Yes, but it's not false equivalence. I've been both. I've been too goddamn depressed to buy food and I've been too goddamn embarrassed to apologize and folks, it's all fuckin hard. Hard. Hard.
Does that mean you should forgive your abusers? That's your decision.
Does it mean you should allow abuse to continue? No.
What it does mean is that if you're abusing someone you need to take *whatever steps* that *you need* to A) stop B) make it right. If you're having a hard time facing things enough to apologize or even discuss it, maybe that's understandable, but you can at least stop the behavior.
It's possible for decent, well-intentioned people to abuse others and not know it. Some abusers are not like this. Many are. That is to say, there are victims on both sides of the exchange I've described here. Victims of culture and repression. But one of them is more victimized than the other. So they both deserve some sympathy, but the *remedy* is more important.
I loved my boyfriend. That didn't mitigate the pain I caused him *one* *single* *bit*. But it did make it possible to apologize. And I learned from that. I learned from that nearly destroyed relationship that I could use love & compassion to find a path out of mistakes. It helped me see the humanity in every friend, every coworker, every stranger. I learned to look for thorns in my words before I said them.
Sometimes when you mess up, you ruin a friendship. But god, TAKE that lump, and MAKE something from it! Please, please do! Maybe you drive someone away forever. DON'T let it be in vain. DON'T stew until you expire on your deathbed whispering "but I was RIGHT!" Take your broken relationship and take all the pain and grind it down to powder and sinter it back together into action. Press that new part into yourself and be improved, upgrade yourself with the slag from your unconscionable actions
Hot take, this is why it maybe isn't the best idea to take someones word for it that someone is awful because they had a bad relationship
Like in fact I'd say this is the least reliable piece of information about a person you can possibly have. The worst someone can EVER be will be at the moment they get broken up with. I mean maybe they just get worse but, I can tell you that the first two years of my first relationship were just me being shitty in a thousand ways. But instead of either denying it or kicking myself forever, I am TO THIS DAY remembering things I did and learning from them
This is a story I've told a thousand times
Without getting into the details, I'm not sad about my boyfriends death
This'll sound weird but, he was a mess. He was suicidal. I'm not going to talk about it again right now. Point is, I did my best, but I was young and he was a mess. As I got smarter and less of a mess, he stayed a mess. Then he died for unclear reasons.
Everyone expects me to be sad. Every time I mention this to a new acquaintance they get that "I stepped in it" tone in their voice, because now they think everything's going to be morose for a bit. But it isn't. I just describe the scenario and move on. For his part, he was going to die anyway. I'm glad he didn't have to suffer any longer.
And for my part: I walked away from that relationship with a pocketful of life experience you can't get except by fucking up really hard. But HAD he dumped me, HAD he walked away, any complaints he had would not have been valid as soon as that happened. Because by the end of that relationship, the only things I was doing that were bullshit, I knew were bullshit. I just couldn't admit it. I wouldn't have repeated them. A new relationship would have been a new slate. And it was. Years later when I got into another relationship I didn't repeat any of the same bullshit.
I'm better now. I'm able to do a much better job of controlling my emotions, controlling my shame and admitting error. And yet, I have fights once in a while because I can't accept that I'm wrong. And in those moments the pain feels tangible. It feels like a rubbery barrier that I can't pass through. I try to access the levers to make myself apologize but my hands just slide off.
And so. I can't support a philosophy in which we look at a person who's fucking up and say "YOU KNEW!! YOU KNEW!! ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS STOP"
It's more complex than that
But, you, yourself, you can choose what direction to push yourself
As the performer of abuse you can choose to fight your fear and shame.
As the receiver of abuse you can choose to offer "outs"
That sounds like apologia. I do not mean it that way. I will explain.
You owe absolutely nothing to a person who's treating you like shit. Period.
But everyone has to make a decision when there's a dispute in a relationship
Is my partner a bastard? Or do they need work?
Am I at risk? Am I in danger?
Can they get better, or are they an incorrigible asshole?
And everyone makes this determination every time they get in a fight. And every relationship has fights.
With that said
I do not, for a second, want to imply that you owe someone your sympathy if they're threatening you or verbally abusing you
But I also can't tell you how to judge that situation. I don't have the ability to.
However: if you're in a situation where you're doing ok but there's one particular thing someone does that SUCKS, and you've ALREADY DECIDED that you want to repair that relationship instead of throw it out, then maybe this article will provide some tools for you.
Above all else, I want you to take care of yourself. Doubts, worries that you're being "oversensitive", get people hurt and killed. So I am not trying to tell you how to feel, I just want you to know that there are options if you're looking for options.
You don't deserve to feel OK about a transgression
That sounds harsh but listen: the best outcome of an argument is usually you accepting that you fucked up and feeling bad forever. Feeling bad is important. It's the PURPOSE of an argument. You're SUPPOSED to feel bad. Forever. Otherwise you'd relapse. So, as someone who Fucked Up, don't go looking for absolution. If your relationship rift is healed, that's all you might deserve.
On the flip side: if you ARE trying to make up with someone who wronged YOU, be careful about apologizing for making them feel bad. They'll plumb really really hard trying to fish for that "sorry I blew up at you" but don't offer it unless you feel it's appropriate
Further conversation on Twitter convinced me to add to this.
One of the most sensitive situations where this advice applies is within relationships. So as even-handed as I've tried to be throughout this article, please accept this advice verbatim: DON'T MOCK YOUR PARTNERS INTERESTS. I've done it, I've been all the way through the process and out the other side and I'm telling you it's just not worth it.
It can be a cute in-joke for you to call your girlfriend a weeaboo for liking anime. You know, you're being ironic, because when you met her you mocked her for real for it, or maybe she mocked herself for it, or maybe you're just making quips about the internet's long running joke about this. Maybe she likes cheap pop music. Maybe she likes kinda crappy fantasy novels. Maybe she likes dating sim games. It's your "thing" to joke about all these.
I just. I can't explain how hard it is to do this and not fuck it up.
It starts out that way. It's your thing. It's that elbow nudge. The knowing joke that's funny because you're rolling your eyes, maybe at the way someone used to treat her. But you get into a habit. You get to saying it every single time that topic comes up.
"nice gundam, looks just like the other 200 you made"
"oh you got new anime! translators note, teacher/student relationships are normal in japan"
"ah, i see you're listening to the new Britney Spears. i'll keep my music that means something down and use my headphones"
Out of context these look mean as all hell. Yeah, they are. They really are. But people say these to each other - and it's not necessarily abusive. There are relationships where this is a back-and-forth kind of thing. And there are lesser forms of it that aren't painful. And some people even manage to have these kind of in-jokes and not have it get out of hand.
In a lot of cases though, here's what happens: one day, your girlfriend gets a new model kit, and when she hears you coming into the bedroom she throws a towel over it. Because in that moment she knows what's coming, she knows you'll make the quip and she knows, from experience, that it'll kill all her motivation to work on it. It'll sap the joy right out of it.
I am speaking from experience, once again. I've done this. I've ruined my partners interest in things. I've ruined my friends interests even. It wasn't on purpose but it happened and I didn't detect it until it was way, way too late.
It's insidious because they can't see it either until it's too late. It was an in-joke for both of you at first, after all. It was your thing. They made the jokes too, sometimes against themselves. They don't notice the day when it tips over the balance point, when the funny is gone and they start feeling genuinely bad.
And when they do notice, often they blame themselves. They feel like they're ruining the joke, like you're doing nothing wrong and they're just overreacting. Being too emotional. Not being able to take a joke. I mean, they know you love them, they know the joke isn't meant to do any harm, so it's their fault, right?
Another level of escalation is when you do this with friends, or in public. Sometimes that can be what puts it over the edge, what makes them finally realize that you're hurting them. You're at lunch with friends and laughing and joking and you yell some snipe about, "hey Esra doesn't even know what movies came out in the last year cause she won't watch anything that isn't in JAPANESE" and everyone starts howling with laughter and she's sitting there, not laughing, feeling absolutely crushed, and blaming herself.
Just stay the hell away from this. Don't play with fire. Don't ruin your relationship over a dumb joke.
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org - I would love to hear your input, stories, disagreements, etc.
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