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In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
Derek is my favorite ex-boyfriend. Along the spectrum of damaging and abusive exes who litter my road of relationships past, he was one of the few truly decent guys who never hurt me.
We met at an undergraduate theater audition that was equidistant from our home bases in different Midwestern states. Neither of us got into the competitive program, but we exchanged contact info—back then, it was AIM screennames—and sent witty banter across the ether in the weeks following our respective tryouts. Soon, we were exchanging lengthy emails more than once a day.
A few months later, when I was accepted into a university in the town where he lived, it seemed like we might have a shot at something more than virtual flirtation. I drove into town with my teal Toyota full of moving boxes. He came over to see my new place and help me get the lay of the land. We purchased plants at Target and went to a forgettable film where we shared a jumbo Mr. Pibb. As our awkward, mostly platonic courtship progressed, we both confessed we’d survived recent relationship trauma. We agreed to take it slow in every sense of the word. He was the relaxed, post-abuse semi-serious boyfriend I didn’t even know I needed. He seemed to take comfort in the fact that I didn’t demand a label or too much of his time.
At 18, I also didn’t realize that a 20-something guy who needs to school everyone about his nuanced view of the world might be a jerk, even if a relatively harmless one. That’s because for a long time, caught up in the heady first days (and weeks, and months) of a fledgling potential romance, Derek’s good traits overshadowed his biggest flaw.
He was a mansplainer.
I should have spotted it sooner. His initial emails were often long-winded explanations about how yoga had changed his life or why he thought Wes Anderson was going to be huge. It’s not as if holding any of those beliefs makes you a patronizing creep. It’s all about the self-important presentation, the all-knowing attitude. Derek had both.
I soon found out that Derek’s condescending, male-centric commentary wasn’t reserved just for me. I once heard him lecture a counter clerk at a Tex-Mex joint about chilies. Another time, he cornered a multiplex concession stand employee and demanded answers about the butter substitute used on the popcorn. “I work at a movie theater too,” he said, as if that explained his entry-level entitlement to tell every other cinema staffer how to do his job. At the time, even though I was increasingly frustrated, I let it slide, thinking he was simply an ambitious intellectual or perhaps overcompensating for his wounded ego.
Within the confines of our relationship, almost any topic was fair game. When I tried to explain my devotion to Jane magazine, Derek began telling me all about its content. “My ex used to subscribe to that,” he said, as if it made him an expert on the glossy I’d read religiously for several years. We both knew a lot about music, but I’d never win a fight about whether the Rentals were a Weezer side project—even though I knew the answer. Eventually, I felt like I couldn’t hold my own about any issue. His habit was exhausting, even if he was still the kindest guy I’d known.
After he nonchalantly broke it off because he wanted to be unencumbered as he planned to “get in his car and drive west”—yes, really—he sent me a long-winded explanation about how great I was. When I attempted to discuss his egocentricity with him, I was met with even more explanations, more assurances that I just didn’t understand. I let it drop.
But every so often—and by that I mean every year or so—we'd try to reconnect, bolstered by happy memories of how much we’d helped one another overcome our hesitation and sadness about relationships. For that, we both remained grateful, especially as we moved on to date (and, in my case, marry) other people. But every time, he fell back into old habits, and I was put back in my place.
During one reconnection, I made the mistake of asking him for advice about buying a car. I didn’t have a lot of mechanics-savvy friends at that point in my life and figured a lifelong Audi aficionado might have a few pointers. In the course of explaining that I was seriously considering an old diesel Mercedes over a gently used Volkswagen, he mentioned that any VW would be a solid investment.
I politely demurred. “My last car actually was a Golf,” I explained. “I called it The Rig. It was the worst car, ever.” As usual, my lighthearted brush-off backfired. Instead of retreating, he responded with the inevitable lecture, the one I’d tricked myself into believing he might have outgrown. “Well you know,” he began, as he begins every seemingly helpful monologue about things only he can tell you, “It’s too bad you didn’t consult with me before buying it.”
Later, he stretched his mansplaining muscles even further, into areas I naively assumed were off-limits. Everyone has his or her strengths, right? Armed with a potentially pretentious women’s studies degree, I’d always thought I could offer some authoritative arguments in our discussions about gender. I never predicted that years after we split, we’d end up bickering over email about the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States because once in his entire life, he was asked to emcee a women’s shelter charity event. But we did. And that was one of the last times I bothered to write back.
He still knows how to get in touch with me, and if he finds this and recognizes himself in my description, I know he’ll likely want to hash out the decade-long misunderstanding. “You know,” he’ll begin once again, and he’ll tell me why his version of the facts is the only acceptable one. But I stopped arguing a long time ago.
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