A few months ago, I went to visit my friend, whom I'll call Sarah. Sarah and I are super close, but because our primary method of communication is by texting, sometimes I miss bigger problems she's having amid our day-to-day capslocking.
So it took me by surprise when, as the two of us were sitting in a bar, Sarah sighed. "I really need to get a handle on this Sam thing," she said.
"Sam?" I said. "Isn't he that dude you met on the bus that one time? Who likes the Giants? He got kind of weird, right?"
"I mean," she said. "I got really busy and sort of stopped texting back, and he, like. Freaked out about it a little."
Sarah's honest, but she's not dramatic. And given that I'm a person who tends to broadcast her feelings with a megaphone, I occasionally overlook her decisions to very deliberately tell me when something's bothering her. In this case, I didn't realize how serious the situation was until the two of us, along with a few of her friends, went to a show the next night.
As we separated from the mad rush of people streaming out of the venue, I got the sense that someone was following behind us way too closely for comfort. We were headed toward a dark parking lot, so I immediately tensed up -- it didn't matter that there were three of us, my gut was screaming at me to get my keys out and hold my belongings close.
Sarah and I have that sort of telepathy-through-facial-expression you develop after years of living in each other's pockets, so I could tell she was nervous, too. Finally, the guy peeled off -- I still have no idea why he was dogging us so pointedly -- and Sarah breathed a huge sigh of relief.
"I totally thought we were gonna get mugged," I said. "Or something."
"Well, there are three of us," Sarah said. "But no, I could just see his Giants jersey out of the corner of my eye, and all I could think was -- Sam likes this band, and Sam has this jersey, and. What if."
"Was it him?" I said.
"No," she said. "No, it wasn't."
Even so, though, she looked visibly shaken. "What exactly did he do?" I asked.
"Nothing," she said. "It's just." She took out her phone and poked at the screen, then showed it to me. I scrolled up. And kept scrolling. Going back for days, there were messages from Sam -- long ones that went on for pages, telling Sarah how much he'd valued their friendship, how hurt he was that she'd cut him off, begging her to forgive him for "Whatever he had done to make her so angry," then accusing her of lying to him or being heartless when she didn't respond. For pages and pages.
"Didn't you guys, like…not hang out that much?" I asked.
"We went on two dates," she said, putting a palm over her face. "Two!"
After going a bit off the grid during her finals, Sarah said, she'd come back to find Sam having an epic fit through their various communications channels. Alarmed, she'd asked him to stop contacting her -- which had only made things worse. She'd tried unfriending him on Facebook, she said, but he'd made a new account and started messaging her from there, too.
"Plus," she said grimly, "I don't want to escalate things. He knows where I go to school. He knows where my apartment is."
Now, Sarah worked for a locally based NGO in a newly industrialized country for two years after we graduated. I've seen her take her fair share of calculated risks, from hooking up with someone she met on Craigslist to moving to a strange city where she knew no one for a summer when we were in college. She's the kind of courageous that makes me feel braver by proxy, just to live up to the standards she doesn't know she's setting. But this dude -- this cowardly, obsessive dude who had never explicitly threatened her -- had her scared for her safety, because it was so clear just how little regard he had for boundaries. And I was scared for her, too.
Over the next few days, I'd watch her face go grim every time her phone buzzed. Sam -- or the specter of him -- started popping up everywhere. A shock of adrenaline would spike through me every time I saw a white dude around town with sandy hair, and I dreaded the thought of this creeper confronting us head-on.
And the worst part was, I'd seen this all before. Maybe not to such an extreme degree, but not long prior, I'd occasionally get strings of the same kinds of texts from someone I'd stopped responding to months ago. A different friend still never goes on GChat for fear of her ex-boyfriend sending her barrages of aggressive IMs during her workday. And we've all seen the kinds of messages that men send to women who don't respond to them immediately online. All of these situations have the same thing in common: Men seeking "closure," and reacting so violently when they were denied it that everyone involved felt legitimately nervous.
(I've witnessed this behavior from women, too, don't get me wrong. But they seemed far more likely to slink back to their corners and cry on their friends' shoulders than, say, accuse their former partners of being frigid bitches. Repeatedly. For months.)
I was reminded of this dynamic when I read this Medium article that's been circulating over the last few days. Wrapped in a cushion of New Age lingo about "healing yourself," our protagonist, Jeff, explains that his ex's decision to cut him off for reasons he didn't understand had doomed both of them to a life of stunted emotions. Jeff doesn't go into details of why they broke up in the first place, but after they try being friends again, he explains:
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.
She stopped responding to my email and when I called to inquire she blocked my number and emailed me to stop contacting her. Over a space of nine months, I wrote her two kind emails in the spirit of healing. Finally, she replied, “I do not want to see or hear from you ever again” and threatened to file an anti-harassment order against me.
He goes on to spend a whole lot of time railing against "cutoff culture," describing how being dumped with no explanation can trigger all sorts of deep-seated traumas, including -- in Jeff's case -- his history of emotional abuse by his mother. He then reflects, "Women want us to be passionate, masculine lovers, yet we’re expected to turn off our emotions and let go the moment we’re dumped. If we persist in asking for communication from a woman who has cut us off, we may be considered a perpetrator, as exemplified by Emma’s threatening me with a court order."
Finally, he concludes with feeling empathy toward Emma's show of ostensible immaturity, imploring us all to put our partner's psychic well-being over our own in cases where cutoffs are imminent.
To which, I can only say, fuck off, Jeff.
I mean, seriously. In Jeff's specific case, it really sucks that he has a history of being emotionally abused, and I sympathize with that. But that is no excuse to reconstruct that abuse in the life of your partner with yourself as the abuser this time around.
I don't throw around the term "emotional abuse." But disregarding someone's boundaries -- blatantly reinserting yourself into their life when they have no desire to have you there, to the degree that they are threatening you with a court order -- certainly feels that way. At the least, it's harassment. That stuff wears on a person in ways that are hard to imagine until they're taking place in our own phones, on our own accounts, places we once felt secure. Men are cast as the perpetrator when they won't back off because they are perpetrating feelings of being trapped, of being caught between the desire to please and the desire to prioritize our own safety. Sarah even said it: She was afraid to do something like change her phone number, because she didn't want to make Sam angry to the degree he might take drastic action.
What a lot of guys don't understand is that for most women, even saying something like "Please stop talking to me" is hard, scary work in and of itself. We're taught to concede, to simper, to ensure that we let people down gently, to say "sorry" even when what we mean is "leave me alone." So when we do draw firm boundaries, it is genuinely frightening that the tactic we've come to view as a last resort has turned out to be ineffective.
And hey, maybe we should be more blatant. After all, I'm sure Emma spent a while trying to drop hints that she wasn't particularly interested in rekindling their sputtering flame. We certainly read pages upon Internet pages decrying women's unwillingness to be honest with men, imploring us to just tellthem we're not interested instead of leading them on like the cruel, friend-zoning sea-witches we are. In theory, it shouldn't be a big deal to frankly elect to cut someone off. Life is too short for so much drama.
But what does this honesty get us? Campaigns like Jeff's, or Sam's, or my friend's GChatting ex-boyfriend. Incessant rattling of the knob we'd thought we'd firmly locked, the cold terror of fearing the day they finally get back in. For men like these, a house on fire is better than no house at all.
Because that's what this comes down to, honestly. When romantic relationships end, the "winner" -- i.e., the one in power -- is the one who's asking fewer questions about where it all went wrong. When you deny certain kinds of people that privilege, they demand it instead. Their cutoff-ers have left them robbed of their agency, and the prospect is so chilling that they will hound their former lovers -- or, in Sarah's case, casual acquaintances -- until they get it back. What they don't realize is that even if they do get those answers, it won't bring back the relationship.
Meanwhile, they're only reiterating what they've been taught in so many other spheres: Women's boundaries are often mutable. Keep pushing, and they'll eventually fold, because sometimes it's just easier to let the monster in than to listen to it scratching at the door night after night.
I know being dumped without an explanation isn't fun. But it happens to everyone, and it's way more productive to just write the relationship off as a wash. It wasn't meant to be. Ultimately, "Cutoff culture" isn't leaving men emotionally stunted. It's a mechanism for people to protect themselves -- and it should be respected.
Kate is Tweeting: @katchatters.