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Part One: An abusive relationship, from a man's perspective
Jens talks about the six lonely years he spent in a controlling relationship with a man, and how he found the strength to end it
I met my friend Jens in 2014 at an improv class. He was hilarious, exceedingly kind, and so easy to talk to. We became close quickly, and soon I was sitting him down to tell him I was worried about his strange relationship with his male best friend and roommate, one Jens shared a bed with and who seemed to control parts of his life. After our conversation and talking to other friends and a therapist, Jens realized the relationship was an abusive, codependent one, and he quickly left it, moving out and never looking back. Today, Jens and I discuss the details of the six-year relationship and how someone he initially thought was so wonderful ended up controlling his social life, kept him from dating, and even separated him from his family. And, in the next edition of CSBC, I’ll tell you about the greatest love story of all time: how Jens met and—years later—married his wife Adrienne. Jens’ story is a sad one, but one that brings him to a place of incredible happiness, and the kind of romance that no longer exists in the Tinder age.
Jens and me at a party in Bushwick, 2015
We need to talk
Jillian Anthony: Maybe we can start by talking about where we met, which was an improv class.
Jens: We met in the 300 level [at Upright Citizens Brigade]. I got an email from you asking to go to a comedy show, which I didn’t realize at the time was a date. I’m so oblivious. Even the comedian was like, “Y’all are on a date?” and I was probably like, no? And you were probably like, what the hell?
[Laughing] Yeah. Just from the way things went on that first time out I was like, oh, he’s not into me but we’re going to be friends.
Or you were like, gay?
I definitely was like, gay maybe? Which would also be great. I was very happy to be your friend. What year did you move to New York?
2014. I had graduated college a year prior and worked for less than a year in finance and was about to blow my brains out, because I had made the wrong life choice for myself. And I moved to Peru for three months to learn Spanish. And then my best friend Dominic* at the time was moving to New York for a job at [a tech company]. So I thought, I’d love to live in a city where there’s more Spanish speakers and where I can do improv on a bigger stage, and my friend is there, so I went to New York.
What’s the history of your relationship with Dominic?
We met in a religious setting in college in Seattle. Dominic was a small group leader. He had this magnetic personality. People just wanted to be his friend and to be part of what he was doing. There was never a dull moment and we just had so much fun. I grew up always feeling like I was straight and I was into girls, never had an attraction to a man, was always into straight porn. Then with him I was really comfortable being physically close, like we would sit close on the couch or we would sleep in the same bed. We would do everything together. I didn’t think twice about it. And he made it feel really normal too. And that was kind of the dynamic with him and a lot of his close friends.
Something like six months after we became friends, I would crash at his place a lot. We would sleep on a pullout couch and he would kiss me on the cheek, then on the mouth, and something kind of sparked in me like, oh, I don’t like that. I had a conversation with him where I said, “I don’t want to be weird but I would rather not kiss on the cheek and stuff.” And he just snapped and was accusing me of being homophobic and that I was accusing him of being predatory. He said it was so hurtful that I would put him in a category of someone who was making someone uncomfortable, and he’s being a loving friend, and he has so many friends that he has similar relationships with, and if I don’t like it then I’m the weird one. I expected him to say I’m sorry, and we came out of the conversation where I’m the one apologizing to him. I felt terrible and was thinking, how can I salvage this relationship? What’s important to note is that I was very insecure at the time. He was the center of our social group and I thought, if I’m not friends with him I’m not part of this friend group, I can’t go to this church anymore.
You felt valued by being valued by him, which is a very common experience. It sounds like you put out a boundary, which is always hard to do, and he shit all over it. You were probably being gaslighted and you felt like, maybe I am wrong, maybe I am being homophobic.
Oh yeah. I felt really shameful. And I could see, whether it was authentic or not, that I hurt him. The boundary shattered and then it just all went downhill as far as the momentum of the relationship. Then he would kiss me right on the mouth.
So he really pushed back. Was this in private or in front of other people?
Totally private. I look back on my life and I can’t believe I spent four years having this secret relationship. Someone told me that no one’s lies can do you more harm than the lies that you tell yourself. And I was able to lie to myself and tell myself, “I like this. This is good. You love this person.” He had so many amazing qualities I’ve never seen in someone; he can really make people feel alive. So I would get psyched up and be into it and we would be close and make out. We never had sex but there would be touching and rubbing in bed. And then every month or so, it would boil up and I would snap and say, “I can’t do this anymore.” It was this vicious cycle, just like the conversation I described earlier, where he’s like, “How can you say that? It’s not gay, this is totally normal. It’s not sexual, we’re just friends, you’re being perverse about it.” He would talk me down and I would say okay. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story of David and Jonathan in the Bible? David was a great king of Israel and Jonathan was the son of the king before David, and they had a really close relationship. Some people interpret it as homoerotic, and other people say they were just really close. They would greet each other with a kiss and it was very intimate between them. At one point David said to Jonathan, “Your company is more valuable than that of women.” So Dominic would draw these parallels, like, “No it’s not weird, it’s not wrong, it’s just like these two people in the Bible.” That’s pretty fucking sick and twisted. No means no. I don’t care if there’s a story about two guys in this book that had their own arrangement.
Not only does no mean no, but he was using something that both of you valued and trusted and used as your moral compass to manipulate you.
You nailed it on the head. My family thought our relationship was super weird. They could tell something was going on and Dominic would say, “They don’t get it, they don’t want you to be close to me because they judge, they want to control you, they don’t understand the kind of love that we have for each other.” I do take a lot of responsibility in that I kept feeding into this and saying yes and pushing my family away.
That’s textbook abuse and codependency, right? The person gets you to shut off the other people in your life that are close to you. It’s good to take responsibility, but you are one of so many people this has happened to, and it’s not your fault.
Yeah. He broke my trust with everyone that really cared about me so anytime they reached out, I would shoot them down. My sister approached me at one point to ask me if I was gay, in a really loving way. And I just demonized her for it and pushed her away.
You and Dominic were close for three years of college, then a year after college in Seattle, then you lived together in Brooklyn for two years. So during those four years around your family in Seattle your family was watching you change. Did you feel like you were being taken away from your family?
I would lie to myself to go back and forth. It was like I was coming in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I would break down and really miss them and then other times, if I wanted to be happy, I would tell myself the lie: No, this relationship is what you want and it’s good.
During those four years were you guys dating other people?
He had a girlfriend for the first three months that I knew him, then he broke up with her and he never dated another girl.
Was that Adrienne [your future wife, who you and Dominic met in college]?
No. Oh right, that. Dominic had a fling with Adrienne [in college] but they never formalized the relationship, and that was the closest he ever came to being with a woman again. I had a fling with a girl freshman year of college and we started to have a relationship. I was getting to know Dominic and he influenced me to cut it off. He was like, “This girl, she’s super religious and you are not, so why would you date her?” So I broke it off with her.
That’s intense because that was really early on too.
Yeah. It’s weird to break it off with a girl that you’re totally attracted to. I remember just being in tears.
That’s so sad. Did you feel like you didn’t date other people or pursue things because of this relationship with Dominic?
For sure. I was attracted to a number of women throughout college that I was interested in. I knew it wouldn’t go down well with Dominic and I was so infatuated and engrossed in our relationship. There was that need to be with someone I was physically attracted to, but as far as that emotional fulfillment, I had that with Dominic.
So college was ending and you were moving to Peru for three months. What was that conversation like? I assume he didn’t want to let you go.
I don’t know where the strength came from to separate myself for three months from him because I know he wasn’t a fan. But that was a really good three months for me. I was in this other country and learning a new language, meeting new people, and I was like, oh wow, this is who I am. I was meeting myself. When I went back to New York I had a conversation with Dominic where I said, “No more of this physical relationship. I don’t want it anymore.” And for some reason when I said it that time, it stuck. We continued to sleep in the same bed but there was no more advancements, no more kissing, he wouldn’t try to touch me. So I thought, yeah, I can do this. I can have this friendship with this person that I love and not be in pseudo-sexual slavery.
In Brooklyn, you lived in a one-bedroom and shared a bed with Dominic. What was the money situation?
Dominic worked at [a tech company] and I was a barista. I was paying like $400 a month to live in this really nice place in Fort Greene. He paid probably $1500 a month. That added to the dynamic because in college we were fiscal equals—if anything I had more money than him—and then all of a sudden it was like this. No surprise that he used that to his advantage. One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is that he was belittling. He could really puff me up and make me feel amazing and he could really cut me down and make me feel like, gosh, if I’m not with this person I’m nothing, I’m stupid. That was my biggest insecurity, that I was dumb. So he pays most of the rent, and he’s smarter than me, he’s more socially capable than me. He was in charge of what we did and who we hung out with. If I had friends he didn’t like he’d be like, “Why are you hanging out with them? That person’s a loser.”
I enter the story somewhere here. We started becoming friends and I loved hanging out with you. I met Dominic shortly after I met you.
It’s this sad story, then this little happy miracle comes along. My self-esteem was so down. I needed to be with Dominic to be worth anything, and we had all these friends that I felt like were friends with us because they wanted to be close to Dominic. Then I started this job in New York and started doing improv and I made friends that valued me for who I was, and they didn’t know Dominic. I don’t think I had had a friend for many years that knew me and not him. So these were people who knew me for me and really liked me.
And then the craziest thing that happened was when I got to know you, Jillian, and we became good friends. I thought, Jillian’s going to love Dominic, they both are exciting and fun city people. And then your mom was in town and I wanted to meet your mom and Dominic said, “No, I don’t want you to go meet Jillian’s mom, I want you to come hang out with me.” I called you and I canceled. Later you talked to me and said, “Why do you let that guy treat you that way? Why are you friends with him?” And I was so shocked. I was like, whoa, here’s a person I really respect, and she’s clearly a normal, functioning adult with a healthy social circle, and she’s telling me that I am the one who’s worth being friends with and not him. It was so backwards from everything I had known for six years.
I had known Dominic for awhile by the time I talked to you. It was just strange the way you guys interacted, and that you shared a single bed. But being an open-minded person, I was like, well, who knows what their situation is, and who knows what each person’s sexuality is. But you were very insistent that you guys were just friends and that you were straight. I remember specifically one night—that night we went out to Prospect Park to go to that rave in the forest that ended up being a prank by someone on the internet.
I wanted to go somewhere else and Dominic was like, “No, we’re going home.” He was very forceful and insistent, and it was that kind of vibe with everything we did together. And I do remember you cancelling on me. It was unlike you to call me and cancel like that, especially because I had really wanted you to meet my mom.
There were situations like that. Like at my sister’s wedding reception, Dominic was like, “No you’re not going to that, you need to be at this church event.” Or my brother’s graduation party from college. I went to that instead of a barbecue with our friends and Dominic got really pissed at me.
Something triggered me around the time you talked to me too: I was hanging out with Dominic and he put his hand on my back, and I shirked it off. It embarrassed him because we were at at a dinner table with other people. He told me, “If you ever do that again, then you can move out.”
I had a close friend at work who had been in an abusive relationship and was open with me about it. I asked her to talk and we went to Union Square park, and it was the beginning of the end. Because once you say something outloud you can’t put those words back in. You acknowledge the pain that you felt for so long, that you buried so many times and you’d only shared with one person, and they kept telling you that your feelings were invalid. I told her my story and she said, “Yeah, it’s abuse.” I felt so lucky I had all the tools I needed to get out. I had a place to go. So many people are in abusive relationships that are ready to go, but they financially can’t get out.
I went to two therapy sessions. Then I went home and I packed everything I owned in a duffle bag. He came home and I told him I was leaving and it became a two-hour conversation, and there were tears and it was really dramatic, and I left.
I thought you were the most amazing, loving, kind, fun person and I just sensed that something was off there. I was nervous for our conversation but thankfully you were openminded and listened to me.
I really admire you for that. It’s really hard for me to be honest when the truth hurts. And man, you really put the friendship on the line because I could have written you off like I did with my family members. But you said it anyways. I guess one big part I left out was the part about Adrienne.
We definitely have to talk about that because she’s your wife now!
*Name has been changed.
If you or someone you know needs help, or someone to talk to about a troubling relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. You can also chat them online 24 hours a day.
In part two of Jens’ story:
One of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever heard: Jens and Adrienne overcoming confusion, rejection, and a long-distance friendship that lasted through several international moves to fall in love and get married. Plus, the romantic gesture Jens created for Adrienne that was years in the making; you won’t read something this romantic in any Nicholas Sparks novel.
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