It’s been a weird sea change for me the past few years, building up an online presence. It wasn’t like this at all in the past. I worked on the sidelines of publishing, mostly as an editor at some literary magazines with occasional publications in little magazines that nobody really read. Won some writing awards only a handful of people cared about (but which did help me pay my rent, so there was that).
But I was mostly an obscure poet and playwright who worked a bunch of jobs to make life happen. I was devoted to my spouse at the time, who mostly seemed to think I was annoying — but I was happy even to be tolerated. I’d gotten it in my head that I was a “small doses person” (unsurprising as I had a parent growing up who told me this all the time).
And after many years of covert and overt lobbying by him for non-monogamy, I finally agreed to open up our marriage, upon learning that good friends of ours who I respected (and who had a very good relationship) were polyamorous.
I was terrified at first, worrying that I’d lose my spouse. After all, he seemed to barely tolerate me, and now he had a whole world of options before him that were easy to audition, so to speak.
What happened instead amazed me. I found that practically every other person that I dated seemed to care about and just plain like me more than my spouse did. I felt beautiful and interesting for the first time in years.
I’d been slow to go out and date others, since I wasn’t really focused on it. I looked at having an open marriage as license to pursue interesting things when they showed up and not some kind of edict to go out and conquer the dating pool, manifest destiny-style.
I was happy enough having the freedom. I didn’t need to exercise it.
But once I did eventually start dating, I kept meeting others through my existing partners. And before I knew it, I was dating quite a few people.
And a few of these were actually very well-known people in their own niches. People with very big online followships. Minor Internet celebrities, basically.
And I watched after a breakup with one of these Internet celebrities as they wrote about what happened in our relationship and about me as a person in terms that absolutely gutted me. It was bad. And what they wrote about me was untrue.
Now, I’m not calling them a liar. I believe that what they wrote was their perception of reality. Part of why we broke up is that while we had a great time together, we never did seem to find a way to inhabit the same corner of reality. As a result, our communication was atrocious, and everything that a healthy relationship required was impossible.
We could never agree on an emotional truth. We’d consistently walk away from conversations having completely different impressions of what had transpired. (Which was shocking to me as I’d never experienced that in a relationship to quite this degree before. Especially when it was paired with how close I otherwise felt to them.)
Anyway, there it was. Lots of scathing writing about me in which I was named. Out there for many mutual friends and acquaintances and their many, many followers to read.
I’ll tell you: It was pretty darn scary. Especially as I was a nobody in comparison. And I’d uprooted my life to be closer to them and their social circles. And at that time, I didn’t have any local friendships that were older than a year.
I could feel the threat of having such a bad reputation so early on. I 100% worried that I’d become a persona non grata — that I’d be shunned. A social pariah.
That people would believe what was written and turn their backs on me.
I Let My Life Be My Testimony
So here’s what I did: Absolutely nothing.
I took a few deep breaths and decided to give people the benefit of the doubt. Or at least, to assume that they would give me the benefit of the doubt.
That they would read those words and understand that breakups can bring out bitterness in people. And that there was likely another side to the story.
Failing that, I hoped that they would understand I could be a flawed person (which I undoubtedly am, just not necessarily in the way that I was charged to be) and still be worthy of friendship or at least acquaintanceship. That what my ex wrote could be true,and yet I could still be tolerated.
I decided at that moment that I wouldn’t comment or write back. I wouldn’t go around talking to each and every person whose opinion I feared would be tainted by such charges.
I would instead simply let my life from that point on be my testimony. I would let how I conducted myself be the evidence for or against what was being said about me.
Living Well, Best Revenge, All That Proverbial Jazz
And over the next few years, I became a local fixture. Many of the friends that I worried would shun or exile me actually became even closer to me than they had been to the ex who had warned them against me.
Some of them would actually bring up those criticisms later, telling me that they’d never quite sit right with what they’d actually witnessed from me as a person.
Meanwhile, my ex went on to burn many other people that came in contact with them — and those burned parties all found one another and talked. My ex’s star power fell considerably. And they were dis-invited from many places.
Without my having to do or say a single thing, their future behavior provided a different kind of testimony to the people they encountered.
Was it easy not fighting back? No. But I’ve never regretted it.
Even though my fear had made me worry that I’d be socially obliterated by this Internet celebrity, I just ignored what they said and focused on doing me. And about a decade later, not only was I beloved by many of the people who were warned about me (and my ex had managed to alienate them by their own actions in the interim), I’d end up with a large platform of my own, writing about relationships, psychology, and the interesting people that I love.