A Discussion of Unfortunate Behavior

I want to talk about abuse of power and abuse in the context of a relationship. They’re two different things.

Let’s start with abuse of power. An instructor at a writing workshop asked to “date” me about 20 minutes after the workshop ended. He meant, would I like to have sex with him? This was not abuse, although asking me right after the workshop end, when I had just been his student for a week, was sure slimy. I call him a sexual harasser because he did this to many young women he encountered, often more than once to the same woman. He wasn’t interested in them as people. He was interested in them as sexual targets, and he actively used any position of power he had to broach a sexual relationship with them. The workshop dealt with him appropriately. They stopped him from abusing his power as an instructor. However, he wasn’t “abusive” as it is used in the context of a relationship. He was not trying to isolate me, frighten me, or coerce me into something I didn’t want to do.

I have been in an abusive relationship. Whenever I set a boundary about sex, the other person variously sulked about it or stormed about it. Whenever I said I was uncomfortable, he told me how bad I was making him feel. He deliberately made me feel worthless for not providing him with sexual favors. That was a form of emotional coercion. He also threw physical objects around for time to time, which was frightening. He was a textbook abusive boyfriend.

I have been in a shitty relationship. My girlfriend was not terribly interested in my feelings, but she was happy to talk about herself, and I was delighted to listen; she was much more established in the writing industry than me. She taught me a lot of what she knew about how things worked and shared fascinating gossip. I thought I was in love with her, although in retrospect, I needed a lot of therapy. On top of that, she felt like my “in” to the industry. When we went to a convention together, I accompanied her to dinner with editors and published writers, and I felt like I was part of the in-crowd. After three or four months, she faded off and then broke up with me when I asked for more of her attention.

I spent the next three months drowning in suicidal ideation. I thought I might prefer to die than be without her. My reaction was a product of my brain chemistry, my particular insecurities, and a lot of other shit that was not, in fact, her problem or her fault. This was a terrible relationship for me, but it wasn’t because my girlfriend was abusive.

When two adults enter into a relationship, there is a reasonable expectation that harm may result. Breakups often hurt, and people on both sides usually lose social connections, access to expertise, and various amounts of power. This is the norm for a consensual romantic relationship, and either party has the power to end it at any time. The prospect of losing connections along with the person you’re dating does not make a relationship abusive. It makes it a normal relationship.

If what you’re valuing about a romantic relationship and a close friendship are the power they get you in an industry, then what you have is not an abusive relationship. What you have is a serious problem of treating people like stepping stones in your career. When people figure out this is what you’re doing, they’re not going to hold you up anymore.

I really did want to be friends with you, Alexandra Rowland.

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