Last year around this time I was at the tail end of a brief relationship with my old favorite training partner. I wasn’t even a year out from leaving my abuser, I hadn’t been dating; I was terrified of male attention. Scott and I had known each other for years. We ran together all the time. He knew all my stuff and I knew a lot of his stuff and he was always kind and gentle with me. He helped me when I got panicky in public places and he seemed so steady.
It took months for me to be clear that I was attracted to him and even longer to comprehend that he was interested in me–broken, unstable, emotionally vulnerable me. I noticed how I felt safe and even normal with him, how the hours we would spend talking after a run were hours I wasn’t breaking down–in fact felt happy and engaged, intelligent and strong. I felt like myself. We didn’t have a lot of conversations about intentions or feelings, we just spent more and more time together and when we said goodbye our hugs would last longer and longer. My sense of safety and belonging from those embraces would stream a supportive undercurrent of happiness through several days after.
Scott kissed me for the first time beneath a brilliant fall moon on the beach at Falls Lake the night before my birthday. Being seen and held made me feel my own strength reappearing with increasing brilliance. In the final month of training before the New York City Marathon I shone like a diamond that had just been polished. I could finally run on the road again, I felt my self-worth reappearing, I was happy and confident.
We talked about his family and our experiences with therapy and why a stray Halloween wig lying on his bed made me recoil in fear one night, but we didn’t talk about what we wanted from each other or how we needed a relationship to work. I read a lot into the way he wanted to spend all his time with me and how tightly he held me every chance he got. I’d learned how to spot red flags that signaled a potentially abusive partner but was less clear what might signal an avoidant one.
In hindsight the signs weren’t actually so subtle. He spoke respectfully of his exes, but I heard no clarity about his role in why things didn’t work. He mentioned offhandedly once how an old girlfriend asked him to read Gary Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages–and he didn’t. He didn’t have many friends and the ones he had didn’t seem like strong connections. He couldn’t sleep with me touching him. Although he texted between times we saw each other, there wasn’t a lot of warmth or connection and we rarely talked on the phone. Still, I felt safe around him, we were happy in each other’s company. He was delightfully geeky and an amazing training partner. He loved to run trails and could hold pace like some kind of machine. I loved him.
In the span of a few weeks, my sick 15 year old cat died and I stress fractured my right 5th metatarsal. I couldn’t run–and then I couldn’t even walk. Scott was not interested in pool workouts with me. Suddenly he didn’t want to spend much non-running time with me, either. I went from strong but grieving to anxious and desperate to horribly depressed over a couple of weeks as I tried, carefully and persistently to get his attention. He stopped communicating with me almost entirely and I didn’t see him for an entire week. My therapist made me get the friend I was staying with on the phone one session–she wanted to know someone would make sure I didn’t kill myself. It hurt that much. Finally he agreed to meet with me over lunch.
We ate and talked. He felt far away. I waited for him to say something. He drove me back to my car and then seemed poised to say goodbye so I asked finally, “Is there something you need to tell me?”
He said he didn’t want to hurt me but that he wasn’t having the same feelings I was having. I still can’t remember much of the conversation; I was so distressed I cried and cried, clinging for comfort to the man who didn’t love me and hadn’t apparently given much thought to what might be the emotional fallout inherent in getting involved with his most traumatized friend. I definitely shut down completely for some period of time and stared, vacant and weeping, at the dashboard of his car. I think he might have said he hoped we could stay friends. I know he kissed me tenderly one last time–on the lips and on the forehead.
What I remember most is how pathetic I felt, going from his car to my own on crutches with the snow steadily falling as the day drew to a close, cold tears on my face. I felt worthless and nauseatingly alone. The friend I was staying with–the one who was on suicide watch–had flown out that morning.
I was trapped alone and immobilized by that snowstorm for days and my holiday season was a cold, dark, hopeless time. Walled off by my trauma, my depression, my limited ability to self-ambulate and my sense of total abandonment I wondered what had been the point of leaving my abuser at all and just what constituted rock bottom. I struggled to find people to spend holidays with–my friends all seemed exhausted with me. I’m honestly not sure how I got through it.
Scott asked me months later if we might go back to being friends, and I told him we’d have to have a difficult conversation for me to consider it. He said that seemed worth trying, so I met him. Normally reserved Scott started catching up on life stuff immediately, when we’d barely said hello. We walked and talked and there was comfort in the familiarity of him being there but very little sense of true caring or emotional safety.
When I finally brought it up I took responsibility for not seeking more clarity from him. I said how we hadn’t communicated our intentions and asked what his were; he wasn’t sure. I fished for any measure of personal responsibility. What I got was that when I was upset, he didn’t want to make things worse for me so he pulled away. I was so shocked at this appallingly emotionally immature logic I fell silent. He quickly changed the subject. Not only did he have no apparent regret about shutting me out at a vulnerable time when I needed him to be there for me–he wasn’t even emotionally available enough to stay present for the conversation I needed to have.
I needed, in order to trust him in any sense, for him to look me in the eyes and hear; “You hurt me. I needed you and you turned away from me. I’m hurt and I am angry. I need an apology.”
I didn’t need a miraculous movie apology or for him to compensate all the therapy bills spent dealing with the fallout or anything. I would have connected some of the dots for him; I’m generous that way. But at bare minimum, I needed him to hear me in that moment rather than turning away again. I never spoke to Scott again.
I thought I did better choosing Kevin*, I really did. He communicated well and clearly about feelings and expectations at the beginning. He checked in with me about sensitive things. I found out about the important relationships in his life and how he’s cared for even the challenging ones. Kevin* and I would sit down with our calendars and create events to spend nights together; I loved that. We made travel plans together well into next year. He said all the comforting words of validation I longed to hear. When we weren’t together he would call and text and send pictures–even when he was with family, even on busy work trips.
I don’t understand, really, how I fucked it up this time when all those signals pointed toward a partner capable of secure attachment. I don’t understand how this infinitely more emotionally available man has disappeared from view. I don’t understand how the best partner I have ever chosen has offered only the sort of avoidant, defended position I’ve heard before. Things could have been different. I don’t accept any version of “I am broken and I couldn’t have known any better or done things any differently.”
I understand that attachment avoidance develops as a response to emotional neglect from primary caregivers and intimate partners. I understand it’s reflexive and defensive and difficult to change–much as my attachment insecurity has been. I also understand that between avoidance and the proclivity of our culture to idealize male stoicism and self-reliance, there’s less internal motivation to unlearn that particular dysfunctional relational adaptation–even despite the painful result of repeated relationship failures.
My head understands all the likeliest explanations for the disappearance of my partner behind an impenetrable wall of defensiveness. My head knows I can’t get behind that wall and I’m supposed to turn around and try some other direction, searching for home without him.
My heart does not know. My heart can’t understand. My heart is broken.