In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
I never really wanted to go out with Josh.
We met at a birthday party thrown by a friend of my mom’s. The adults had invited us there specifically to set us up, and we both knew it—this was small-town Texas, where teenage matchmaking was practically a professional sport. I was a 16-year-old on the verge of turning politically liberal and religiously indifferent, so I wasn’t about to fall for that old game. Josh, on the other hand, was a budding conservative who did what he was told.
He asked me out. I hesitated. Then, I imagined the conversation I’d have with my mom later if I said no. “Why didn’t you say yes? Was there something wrong with him? He seemed so nice, Courtney, you don’t have to be rude.” I said yes.
I didn’t know that four years later, I’d be pissed off on a cell phone outside a bar in the rain, my friends dancing inside and Josh hanging on the other end of the line. Josh hated bars, so anytime I went to one, it was a girls’ night out. He hated that even more. I’d dress in something sexy and dance with my friends. Josh would text incessantly, worried I was flirting with another boy or drinking too much. I’d ignore him for hours, then finally call him back.
A typical exchange went something like this:
COURTNEY: “What is the emergency, Josh?”
JOSH (pathetic): “Nothing, I just wanted to see what you were doing. Why didn’t you answer the phone? Are you ignoring me?”
COURTNEY: “I am in a bar. It is loud. And I am doing things other than checking my cell phone. Do you want something?”
JOSH (hurt): “I just wanted to talk to you.”
COURTNEY: “Josh, I am out, and you knew I would be. Go hang out with someone. Do your homework. Watch a movie. I will talk to you tomorrow.”
JOSH (tactical): “Are you having fun?”
COURTNEY: “I was, before I had to come outside and call you.”
JOSH: “Why are you outside?”
COURTNEY: “Stop asking me questions! I just said I would talk to you tomorrow. I want to go back to my friends.”
JOSH (deliberately): “Why are you getting so angry? I’m just asking why you’re outside.”
COURTNEY: “I’m hanging up now. Don’t call or text me again tonight.”
JOSH: “Will you at least call me to tell me you got home safe?”
COURTNEY (beaten): “Oh my God. Fine.”
JOSH (sad voice): “I love you.”
When I got home, he’d tell me how boring his evening was, and we’d fight about whose fault that was. Four years earlier, I had emerged from a verbally abusive home and straight into Josh's arms. At first, his attentions made me feel safe. Now, they circled reliably around the same feedback loop: Josh would act jealous and manipulative; I’d respond with hostility and aggression; he’d use my anger to position me as moody and hysterical and himself as faithful and put-upon; I’d start to think that maybe I really was overreacting; we’d both apologize; he’d finish with something like, “It’s not that I don’t trust you, I just love you so much.”
Josh was an expert at that emotional turn. He always told me if he thought my outfit was inappropriately revealing (he just wanted me to know how I looked to the outside world). He made passive-aggressive remarks about my occasional drinking (he cared about my health). He expected us to be together every minute outside of class—even while I was studying (he just wanted to spend time with me). He took pains to befriend each of my friends so that he could tag along whenever we hung out (after all, they were his friends now, too). And he disapproved of some of those friends being male—especially my former high school classmate, Justin, who lived over 200 miles away. To Josh, he was still a little bit too close.
I recognized early on that this behavior was not romantic or cute. But I failed to see it as out of the ordinary. “I would feel lucky if my boyfriend loved me enough to get jealous,” my friends would tell me. Or, “Wouldn’t you be more worried if he didn’t act jealous sometimes?”
I eventually gave up going out—it didn’t seem worth it if Josh was going to ruin my night and make me feel like a bitch. But I still kept some things to myself. When Josh pushed me about marriage, I told him I wouldn't even consider it until I'd graduated. And when Josh told me he didn’t want me to talk to Justin because he thought he was attracted to me, I called Justin up and talked to him more—about books, school, religion, politics, and sometimes, the relationship I could see no way out of.
Then, Josh shipped off to basic training. Desperate to move his life along, and upset that I'd delayed marriage, he'd decided he needed to march in his brother's footsteps straight into the Air Force. Suddenly, we were apart for the longest we had been in years—a whole summer. He couldn’t call me all the time, much less wait up all night for me to come home to him. I began to envision myself outside of this relationship. I looked good there.
When I decamped back to my home town for the summer, I found myself spending all of my free hours with Justin—not because I had to, but because I wanted to. It felt liberating to be wanted by someone who didn’t need to control me. We flirted for a while, but he wouldn’t make the first move—I was, after all, in a relationship. I’m grateful that he didn’t, and that I was the one to decide that what I had with my boyfriend wasn’t worth keeping. I kissed my friend, and sent Josh my Dear John.