Silence is communication.

That post from Captain Awkward that I reblogged earlier today? I want to talk about it some more. I followed the link to the Medium post under discussion and read the whole thing myself. Yes, it really is that bad. It’s also much longer than it has any right to be.

There’s this guy (if you follow the links, you’ll see his real name, but I’ll just call him JR) who’s really upset that his ex-girlfriend (let’s call her EM) cut off contact with him, so he’s written a long-winded essay about why cutting off contact with exes shouldn’t be an option for most people.

What is so horrible about cutting off contact with your ex? He would have us believe:

“Cutting off exes not only hurts our former partners but limits our own growth as well.”

He is in the “former partner” role and part of his rumination is positing that EM is sabotaging herself by not talking to him.

What kinds of things does he tell us about his breakup with EM, and how her withdrawal has hurt him? I’ll give you the edited highlights:

  1. JR emailed EM twice more, over a period of nine months, after she asked him not to contact her again. He describes it thus: “I wrote her two kind emails in the spirit of healing.”
  2. After that, she told him one last time that she didn’t want to hear from him, and threatened to get a restraining order.
  3. I quote: “After nearly a year of silence, I reached out to her and we began a series of conversations toward repairing our friendship. She said she had recently begun dating someone new and I think it was difficult for her to talk to me about our relationship. Her response was to withdraw again. There were misunderstandings and miscommunication.”
  4. His need for “closure” and “explanation” is a recurring theme. JR seems to be really, really eager to learn just what went wrong between him and EM, and really upset that she won’t go to the trouble of answering his questions.
  5. They were together four months and he’s still nursing a broken heart (his words) two and a half years later.
  6. Another quote: “Cutoff culture is violent in its own ways. The person cutting ties gets what they want, but the person getting cut off is left in a situation where what they need or want doesn’t matter.”
  7. EM’s cutting him off reminded him of the way he felt when he was a kid with an abusive mother. JR characterizes EM’s withdrawal from his life as “abandonment.”
  8. He publishes paragraphs from emails she sent to him privately, in his long-ass blog essay all about how she’s wrong to tell him to stay away.
  9. AND FINALLY, he suggests that maybe domestic violence happens because women are selfishly not letting men stay in their lives: “I believe that most domestic violence is the result of men with trauma histories reacting to powerlessness in response to experiences with their ex, friends, or family. Certainly men are responsible for finding nonviolent ways to respond to feeling powerless, but culturally we need to understand the dynamics driving these kinds of situations if we’re to reduce them.”

There’s more in his piece that I could bat around, but life is short and at some point I have to set boundaries, too.

I think I know some of what EM feels about getting away from JR. His position reminds me a bit too much of the breakup I carried out early last November. He and my ex would probably find they have a lot in common. To my ex’s credit, he gave up a lot sooner than JR, but I see a similar disregard for boundaries.

See the first list item: JR kept trying to take up EM’s time even after she told him she didn’t want any more contact. He admitted it himself, but doesn’t seem to notice how scary that is. She told him not to talk to her anymore, and he kept talking to her. She felt sufficiently threatened to bring up court orders. Now he’s acting like she’s the one who’s out of line.

JR has already demonstrated, to EM and to us, that her boundaries don’t mean anything. That’s not a good sign. His whole position is that she should not have the right to set those boundaries in the first place; that her telling him to leave her alone is “violence” on him. He thinks his unwanted communication was “kind” and written in the “spirit of healing.”

Okay. That he KNEW she didn’t want to hear from him anymore, and he STILL kept on dragging it out, pretty much destroys his credibility in issues of how people should behave following breakups. JR is not a credible witness. He has ceded the right to be taken on his own terms. Everything he says in his essay is suspect due to his demonstration of violating his ex-girlfriend’s clearly stated boundaries. The final list item is of a piece with his behavior. It’s in his interest to blame women’s self-protective behavior for domestic violence.

That is what’s going on when someone asks an ex to stop contacting them: it is not violence, it is self-protection. Women, especially, have good reason to be wary of men who fail to respect boundaries. If you haven’t read The Gift of Fear, I heartily recommend it. Gavin de Becker is very clear, and detailed, about why women have every right to be on high alert when men fail to respect boundaries. Behavior like JR’s doesn’t necessarily escalate to violence, but when violence does happen, a man’s refusal to hear the word NO is a common precursor.

If there’s a verbal tic in JR’s post, it’s the question of, “What the heck happened?” For example:

With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.

Also, too:

Rather than face my need for explanation and desire for resolution, she chose to withdraw.

This is a frequent talking point from JR: he just doesn’t know what happened between him and EM. He only wants an explanation! He needs “closure.” He doesn’t understand what went wrong between them.

Here’s what I think happened: those “misunderstandings and miscommunication” during the process of them supposedly “repairing [their] friendship” were EM trying to explain to JR what he’d done wrong by her, and why she didn’t want to spend time on him anymore, and he didn’t like what he heard. It isn’t that he doesn’t understand so much as that he doesn’t want to understand.

No one owes an explanation for a breakup. The act of ending a relationship carries a message: someone doesn’t want to be involved with the other person anymore. The simple fact of “I don’t want to be with you anymore” is a perfectly valid explanation for breaking up. When people like JR demand explanations from their exes, I don’t think they even want explanations, really. What they want is a debate. I think what JR is really trying to accomplish is to force EM into a competition that JR believes he can win. He wants to convince EM that her reasons for breaking up are invalid, and that her ending their relationship was a mistake. Ultimately, he wants to be in her life again. That’s a reward unto itself for a guy who can’t let go.

That’s what my ex wanted to do when I told him it was over: he wanted to keep me talking with him long enough to convince me to change my mind. My decision, oddly enough, was based on an incident of non-communication on his part. I asked him for a discussion of recent issues between us, and he…ignored my message. Over four full days passed without a single word before I told him I was done. Silence IS communication. When the relationship is still ongoing, silence says: “Your concerns are unimportant. I have more important things to do with my time than honor your need for conversation.” After a breakup, silence says: “There is nothing I believe you’re capable of saying that’s better than not hearing from you at all.”

In my case, cutting off contact didn’t exactly get me what I wanted. What I really wanted was, first, for my partner to engage with me in an honest discussion of our issues. I wanted him to listen to me while I told him that he had crapped all over my personal boundaries, and that it was really obnoxious that he acted like I was the one who needed to change. When he didn’t do that, I realized that our relationship was going nowhere, that he didn’t respect me, and that I didn’t feel very friendly to him. I wanted him to understand how he’d shown disrespect to me, but just in case there was any doubt about his disregard for my boundaries, his response to my notice of breaking up was to follow me up the goddamn street and try to beg his way back into my life. Everything he said was all about what he wanted, what he’d assumed of me, what he’d expected, what he had in mind. No matter how many times he repeated those lines, they did nothing but confirm my suspicions that the dude hadn’t spared ten minutes to think about my feelings. I couldn’t get what I wanted, but cutting off contact was the closest thing that could be arranged. There was nothing to be accomplished from standing there and letting him keep saying things that basically translated to, “But I didn’t think you’d mind if I ignored you!”

When JR keeps wringing his hands about how he just needs “closure” from EM, and she won’t tell him what went wrong, what I see is that her reasons for breaking up weren’t good enough for him. His objection to “Cut-Off Culture” is not really a matter of his vulnerabilities. The real violence was to his sense of entitlement. EM bruised his ego by refusing to stay in his life when he wanted her to, and he’s been going after her ever since. That sense of entitlement gives her every reason to want him to get away from her and never come back.

I’ll finish up with a little list of my own. To recap:

  1. Your ex does not owe you any more time than you’ve already taken. She is not responsible for bridging the gap between your needs and your support system. You are not entitled to her friendship.
  2. A breakup does not require an explanation beyond the fact of the breakup itself. If you think you need closure, what you’re probably seeking is an argument.
  3. Silence IS a form of communication. Sending no response at all still sends a message.
  4. Without honoring boundaries, there can be no respect. Without respect, there can be no kindness or healing. There’s no substitute for respect.