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This year, I asked some of my favorite writers to reveal their broken relationships to the world. For our "Dealbreakers" series, they investigated factors that ended their previous romantic affairs, discussing rifts as serious as an ex's racist fetish and as absurd as a one-night-stand's sexy tampon request.
Everybody has at least one Dealbreaker story in them—the best ones prod at the psychological hangups of both the writer and their former loves. Writing them isn't easy. I interviewed eight of my favorite Dealbreaker writers about their experience baring their relationship history. Here's what happens when you hang out your dirty laundry—and your ex sees it.
Dealbreaker: She Looks Too Much Like Me, the story of a relationship with a younger woman who reminded Shauna Miller of her former self.
"I learned that telling one side of a story involving two people can end up making you look like a jerk. Mostly to the ex that I wrote about—she was pretty pissed, and I did second-guess whether writing about this without warning her (we don't speak) was a dick move. You know writers, 'always selling someone out.' But even the fallout made me realize that this end of the story was mine to tell—it was a story about me, not her, really. Uh, she didn't really buy that. And if you'd like to feel like an ass sometime, try explaining to an ex that you were 'just telling your story.' But really, it was cathartic to own this. You don't always have to be the good guy. That's how you end up trapped in relationships that make you miserable."
Dealbreaker: She Needed Me, the story of a girlfriend who clung so heavily to Mike Riggs, neither of them had the space to figure out what they really wanted.
"It took me seven years to write this piece, because I had two more long-term relationships after Susan in which I failed to strike a balance between want and need. So, this essay was less a dealbreaker as the column defines itself—because clearly, this particular issue hasn't kept me from entering into relationships—and more an attempt to map my emotional topography. A better understanding of the terrain is necessary for changing one's route."
Dealbreaker: She Was Too Freaky, the story of Wylie Overstreet's one night with an overly-insistent exhibitionist.
"Kissing and telling can feel good, but in this case it didn't. The only thing I could think about after publication is if this woman somehow found the article, she'd undoubtedly murder me (and rightly so). Or worse, my mom could find it. In trying to think of my Dealbreaker, I was forced to confront how long I've actually been single (the last time I was in a relationship, George W. Bush was president... in his first term). This has been a personal choice (simply a matter of dedicating my focus elsewhere), and I'm by no means looking for sympathy. But writing this did give me pause. Maybe its time to rejigger those priorities and get the personal life back on the burner, lest I end up shouting at kids to get off my lawn and playing with model trains in my basement."
Dealbreaker: He Has Low Self-Esteem, the story of the guy who pumped himself up by dragging Samhita Mukhopadhyay down.
"Writing this piece about my destructive habit of dating guys with low self-esteem was really hard. I can analyze things to death when it is either justified anger or removed from myself emotionally, but it is so much harder to write about something that is so personal. I was afraid that he might read it and that I had gotten the whole account wrong and I was afraid that I would look weak for falling for someone that clearly treated me very badly. But the reaction instead has been overwhelmingly positive... I think it is a very personal example of the very intricate and unknowing ways patriarchy functions in our dating lives."
Dealbreaker: He's the Only Gay Boy I Know, the story of the boy A.M. Bowen pursed because there was no one else.
"You know the idea that the distance provided in killing someone with a gun facilitates violence? You don't have to see someone die, so you worry less about killing them. Instant Messenger came out when I was in the sixth grade or so, and I noticed almost immediately that people would say brutal things to each other via IM that they would never say in person. Internet communication fostered cruelty. This was a bad trend; it became especially dangerous when wielded by middle schoolers.
I've been suspicious of airing dirty laundry on the internet ever since. But I thought there was value in telling this story: It spoke to the confusion of growing up queer. In the 'It Gets Better' era, I know these kinds of stories matter to queer youth. So I figured I'd try to do the whole internet-overshare thing as an exercise in empathy. I tracked subjects of my piece down on Facebook, wrote them messages, spoke on the phone for a while to one of them. I sent them drafts of the piece. They didn't tell me it was cruel—which meant I hadn't been as mean to them as I thought, or they were nicer to me than they should have been. In any case, we all got to reflect on the weirdness of being teenagers, being closeted, aiming for whatever dudes you could meet, and being much smarter about those things now that we're in our mid-20s. It was an unexpectedly rich experience, talking to these boys again. There's something fun about subverting the nastiness-enabling qualities of the internet."
Dealbreaker: He's Got an Asian Fetish, the story of a guy who loved Lena Chen for her ethnic background, even when his stereotypes didn't match up to her reality.
"The most overwhelming emotion I felt while writing my Dealbreaker was a sense of shame. I was 18 when I dated the Dealbreaker guy, and I'm embarrassed at how long my younger self let the entire relationship go on. Writing about it let me call out his behavior, but it also allowed me to reexamine my self-esteem issues and the general uncertainty during that period of my life. The fact that I cringe when thinking back to it all suggests to me that I've come a long way."
Dealbreaker: He's Anti-Abortion Rights, the story of the cute guy Chloe Angyal could never have sex with.
"The most common reaction I got was from women who also don't want to sleep with anti-choice men, but who work in jobs that aren't explicitly feminist. As I mentioned in the piece, the nature of my work means that conversations about politics, and especially about reproductive justice politics, happen pretty early on, so asking where someone stands on abortion doesn't come totally out of the blue. For women who work in, say, human resources, or in other fields that aren't explicitly feminist, it's not so easy. My advice is to find a piece of reproductive justice news—the proposed Mississippi personhood, for example— and use it to spark a conversation about where each of you stands on reproductive choice."
Dealbreaker: He Won't Go Down on Me, the story of the months A. McCarthy spent giving without receiving.
"I was really encouraged by the support I got for the article from some of the womanist/feminist blogosphere heavy-hitters, including Jill Filipovic, Renee Martin, and Amanda Marcotte. At the same time, a lot of their commenters saw me as the feminist anti-Christ and seemed to think that I had no sense of remorse for any of my behavior, even though I explicitly included references to my mistakes so that I wouldn't come off as victimized by the relationship. It was a brutal experience to be judged in that way, but I'm glad that it started conversations about the importance of mutually fulfilling sexual relationships. Writing about those years of sexual deprivation allowed me to let go of a lot of resentment and frustration that I'd felt both during and after we dated."
Dealbreaker: I Can't Afford Him, the story of the boy who couldn't understand Garland Grey not coming from money.
"Sometimes if I'm casting about in despair at the thought of never getting married, I tend to indulge in flights of historical revisionism, where I recast each of my exes as "the one that got away"—the missing puzzle piece I callously discarded, my only chance at happiness, etc. Now there is a permanent record in the court of public relationship history to remind me why it didn't work out. I can't argue with hard evidence. At the same time, I certainly felt more tender towards him, remembering sweet things he had done during our relationship. It's easy to reduce people from your past to pithy biographical summaries—'the one who didn't understand money,' 'the long-distance disaster,' 'the one who believed in fairies'—but even though I know it didn't work out for very sound reasons, it doesn't stop me from being appreciative for the time we did share."