My ex says I harmed them. How can I disagree without invalidating their experience?

A reader navigates wanting to challenge a previous partner’s version of events—without turning the conflict into a “he said, she said” situation

Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world. Have a question? Email [email protected].

Hello Kai,

How does one dispute untrue allegations from an ex-partner, while still being compassionate to their experiences and not turning the conflict into a “he said, she said” situation? My ex and I had a sour breakup last year, and the situation hasn’t gotten better in the interim. Over months, I spent many hours talking to them, trying to heal things. Eventually, I had to block them on social media because—even after having agreed to stop contacting me for six months— they continued to send me long paragraphs calling me a liar. I was so stressed out by the messages that I would start trembling anytime I received a text from anyone. 

Lately, I’ve heard from various people that they’re been talking about me in extremely negative ways. They’ve said they want to warn the community that I’m a liar. When someone disagrees, they claim I have manipulated these people. I absolutely do not want to control their thoughts about me, and I believe they are fully allowed to dislike me! At the same time, they have been coercive with me and extremely manipulative. They’ve called me blocking them “violence.” I feel that it isn’t fair that they are trying to isolate me from the community, especially when I can’t share my own feelings without fearing the situation would devolve into a big unhelpful public fight.

I want to remain compassionate, and so I have not said negative things about their character—I’ve only expressed frustration about their behaviour. I don’t think they’re a bad person (I actually think they’re awesome), but they don’t believe me. I want them to be around friends; I just don’t want to consistently be the target of their vagueposts. How can I stay empathetic to them, while also not validating accusations that aren’t true? Is there a way to work this out, or do I just have to continue accepting that I’m going to be a villain for them? 

Trying to Learn and Be Compassionate and True

Dear Trying, 

I am so sorry to hear about what you have been going through. Queer breakups in shared community are so often full of pain and rage. They shake the fragile webs of connection that we have so laboriously built around us—and the tragedy of being human is that even when we are doing our best to be kind and compassionate, sometimes we still hurt and get hurt by others. In moments like this, I believe that compassion becomes a matter of faith: choosing to believe in our own innate goodness, even when others refuse to see it and choosing to believe in the goodness of others, even when they are refusing to show it. 

 

In this case, I have to say that unfortunately, Trying, I think you do have to accept that you are going to be the villain of your ex partner’s story—at least for now, and perhaps for a very long time. While you may eventually find some way to heal the relationship, your ex will need to actively participate in the process for it to work, and it seems to me that what they are expressing through their behaviour is that they are not ready to heal with you. At the same time, I do find myself concerned by some of the ways that you say they are treating you, which to me seem to cross some important boundaries. 

Of course, I don’t know what happened between you and your ex that caused your relationship to end. Perhaps there was a severe, traumatic event that opened a rift between you two. Maybe someone cheated and the other felt betrayed. Or maybe the two of you broke up because one person was always doing the dishes after dinner and they just got fed up with it. Whatever the reason, whatever the scope of the hurt that was caused, the sad truth is that you clearly are the villain in your ex’s eyes, and there is nothing you can do to change that if they won’t allow you to. 

 One of the most difficult things in the world is releasing the idea that we can heal the hurt that others feel toward us if only we try hard enough. Yet if we are able to let go of this fruitless striving and surrender to the possibility that we may never be able to heal that hurt and never be forgiven, then we can sometimes achieve at least a small measure of inner peace. 

“What would it be like to turn inward and focus on your own healing instead?”

As you say in your letter, Trying, your ex is fully allowed to dislike you. I might even go a step further and say that they are allowed to hate you (though this is very sad), to blame you and to talk about you badly with their friends (though this is very unpleasant, and I hope they stop). Based on what I’ve read in your letter, Trying, it seems unlikely that you will be able to repair things with them, simply because you’ve already tried for so long to no avail. What would it be like to free yourself from that responsibility? To turn inward and focus on your own healing instead?

With that said, I’d like to return to some of your ex’s behaviours that concern me. As I said, they are allowed to feel however they feel about you, and even to talk about you negatively with the people in their life. I would say that it is inappropriate for anyone to send you multiple messages against your explicit wishes, particularly if those messages are denigrating or disrespectful. While context is important and every relationship is unique, I believe as a general rule that it is important to respect requests for non-communication, and that we should all get to choose whether or not to engage in ongoing contact with another adult. This is a basic element of the way that consent functions in contemporary society. 

You mentioned that your ex has called you blocking them on social media “violence,” which also feels concerning to me. I see this kind of rhetoric from time to time within my own queer and trans communities, and I do not like it. I believe that we all have the right to boundaries, and to enforce those boundaries (including through social media blocking), and I do not think that anyone has the right to demand a personal relationship with anyone else, even where a personal relationship once existed in the past. This is, once again, a cornerstone of the practice of consent. 

Finally, Trying, I do not believe that anyone has the right to try and undermine your relationships with your own friends and close community. In any small community, there is going to be a certain amount of gossip and shit-talking; this is one of the realities of community life. Yet there is a difference between simple gossip, venting or speaking one’s truth and actively campaigning to cut someone off from the meaningful relationships in their life. There may be times where it is necessary to “call out” someone for seriously harmful behaviour (such as sexual or physical assault), but this strategy has many ethical complications and should be a method of last resort. Even then, it is still inappropriate to try and isolate someone entirely, because the fact of the matter is that in queer community, everyone needs friends to survive. 

So what can you do, Trying? If you still want to work on things with your ex, I might suggest letting them know that the door is open if they would like to talk to you in a way that feels safe and respectful for everyone. A requirement of conversation might be that both of you get to have witnesses present and that only discussion that is explicitly invited will be allowed (that is, no messaging without consent). I would encourage you to get clear on what behaviours are not acceptable to you.

However, I would suggest also working with your own friends to develop a strong network of support for this particular situation—folks who know what’s up, whom you can rely on if you need to talk things out, and who you know will back you up. I would also suggest that you and your close friends develop a standard message that you all stick to if and when this situation comes up in the community—a message that is kind and respectful to your ex, but also makes your position and your boundaries clear. 

For example, it is perfectly appropriate to say, “I disagree with that version of events, but I understand that [your ex’s name] is angry with me and I respect that. I hope they can respect my space as well.” A friend of yours might say something similar: “I don’t think that’s the way Trying sees it, but I know they respect [your ex’s name]’s feelings and want them to be okay.” This kind of messaging is compassionate and de-escalatory, while also not validating a version of events you see as untrue.

As for the vagueposts, unfortunately, there may not be much you can do about those. You can only surround yourself with good support and stay strong in your own truth.

Take care of your heart, Trying. Situations like these can be deeply wounding. Remember your values, the goodness of your intentions and the reasons why you believe in compassion and kindness. Remember to offer that compassion and kindness to yourself as well. I believe in a better way of addressing hurt and harm, of being in community with each other. I hope you keep believing with me. Someday we’ll bring those better ways into being. 


Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her latest book, Falling Back in Love with Being Human, a collection of letters and poetry, is out now from Penguin Random House Canada.

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