‘He’s Pushing Me Away. Should I Take the Hint?’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack.

¡Hola, Papi!

I met this guy in my first week of college, kicking off an intense and rocky friendship. His pain and trauma was always evident to me, even when he thought he was hiding it well. Our shared experiences fostered a level of understanding and support I have yet to find anywhere else. We started dating, which led to me finding out just how intense his borderline personality disorder (BPD) could become. 

We broke up, which ended up bringing us even closer, I think because he saw how I refused to judge him for his mental-health struggles. Our relationship grew stronger, but it also shifted dramatically, swinging from prolonged periods of no contact to multiple moments where we seriously considered dating again. For years, we would tell each other how good our platonic friendship was before making out behind our friends’ backs and blaming it on the alcohol.

Make-out sessions aside, we held off on dating, knowing the damage that path has done to our friendship. He knew and always reiterated that his BPD and his trauma would not allow him to commit to me, even if or however much he wanted to. His gut feeling would never be truly convinced that I was not going to hurt him. 

Still, we eventually decided to give it another go. I thought we had grown, and I wanted to get rid of that lingering “what if?” My dream of being with him lasted one night, after which he seemingly changed his mind, although it took him another month or two to inform me. I always (always) let him off the hook, no matter how hurt, in love, or confused I was, because I knew how much of his behavior was informed by his trauma.

It’s now six months after this breakup. He always told me how much he wanted to keep our friendship alive above all else and how important it was to have somebody around that knew their way around his brain. I always felt the same way. He responded to an attempt to reconnect by saying he was “tired of us,” only a week or two after (presumably) drunkenly reiterating that he missed me and our friendship. I’ve always let stuff like this go, but this time, I’m struggling to forgive it.

Do I (again) ignore his attempt at pushing me away, based on the belief that it stems from his trauma and that it’s what he would want me to do? Or do I take the hint and accept the possibility that I’m never going to see my best friend again? I feel like the second choice does right by the pain his rejections cause me, but also lets his trauma “win” by eliminating from his life one of the only people who sees and loves the complete version of him. What should I do? 

Hurt Person

Hey there, HP! Those are my initials too.

To make a long story short, I think you’re in a mutually harmful relationship and it would be best to step away from it. But something else caught my attention in your letter, and it’s something I’ve been eager to have a discussion about: trauma.

I’m not trying to scold you or to diminish anyone’s struggles. We all have struggles, and they are not to be dismissed. But I think “trauma” has become a linguistic workhorse that’s pulling way more weight than any one word should, and the way it gets deployed to explain away conduct is a phenomenon worth unpacking.

Trauma, to me, is when a negative past experience asserts itself into the present, informing behavior in an undesirable or harmful way. Being bullied in early adolescence, for example, might make one distrustful of their peers and reluctant to open up to others, even friends. Such a person might desire connection and be frustrated with their shyness but struggle to overcome their protective instinct to push people away.

Crucially, a person might not be aware that such instincts are rooted in traumatic life experiences at all. They might be engaging in coping mechanisms without even being able to name what they’re coping with in the first place. That’s why it’s important to interrogate our behavior and be frank about how and why we’re getting in our own way. We need to be willing to tackle our issues at the source and put in the work to improve ourselves.

It’s that last part, I think, that’s been greatly diminished in conversations about trauma. It feels like there is a lot of emphasis, in general, placed on the part where we identify our trauma, and awareness has become the primary goal. Indeed, trauma is often conflated with identity, becoming another avenue for self-expression, like astrology or sexuality. It’s a way to communicate to others: This is who I am, and this is why.

The why of it all is why (ha), I think, trauma has become such a popular identity marker for many. Individual human behavior is complex, motivated by any number of factors. We contradict ourselves. We are inconsistent. We do things that sabotage our own happiness. We harm ourselves, and we harm others. This is confusing, and like anything that causes confusion, it makes people anxious. So we seek easy answers and justification.

“Trauma” does it all. It links behavior to innate identity, flashes a sympathetic backstory that explains and justifies an individual’s actions. Maybe I’m a cynic, but it seems to me that we are in an era of justification, where people aren’t so much interested in changing anything about themselves, but in explaining themselves. I’ve come to think of this as “validity culture,” which is chiefly interested in affirming that the things you were going to do anyway are fine, or even good.

The language of therapy and self-improvement is an appealing device on this front, because it makes it sound like something healthy and productive is happening. I think, for example, of the way people will file selfish or antisocial behavior under the label of “self-care.” But all this behavior, self-destructive behavior, self-centered behavior, would occur with or without the cosmetic language of awareness. Touting awareness of your actions does not alter their impact. It just paints them as beyond your control. “This is just who I am.”

Personally, I do not identify with my trauma. My trauma is something I struggle with every day, something I want to challenge and overcome. My trauma informs my behavior in ways I hope to disrupt, because that behavior is often a detriment to myself and to others. The existence of my trauma does not erase or excuse the harm I do to others. Most people hurt others because they themselves are hurt. This is neither new nor unique, and it does not become more interesting or complex because we can identify trauma as the root of the issue.

This is all to say, HP, that, again, it sounds like you are in a harmful relationship with this person, and while I’m sympathetic to his struggles, it is not your perpetual responsibility to accept whatever treatment he decides to dish out at you. You might see sticking around as noble perseverance, but you also might just be enabling him. He needs to understand that his words and actions have consequences.

I’m not saying we should abandon our friends when they manifest mental-health struggles. Certainly not. But we also don’t have to stick around in relationships where love is conditional and we only exist at the other person’s convenience. You are also a person. I’m willing to bet you also have trauma. You deserve happiness and stability, and I would take some time to reflect on why you feel you absolutely need to keep a person in your life who has repeatedly told you to go away.

I’m rooting for you, HP. Be gentle with yourself.

Con mucho amor,

Originally published August 1, 2023.

Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘He’s Pushing Me Away. Should I Take the Hint?’