‘I Was in An Online Relationship For a Year, Then He Ghosted Me’
It all started about six weeks into the first COVID-19 lockdown in Michigan, after I « liked » a stranger on a dating app, one who lived in another state, more than six hundred miles away. After I had flipped through all the local men, I got curious about what was happening in other cities, particularly the one that had become the largest COVID hotspot in the country—New York City.
After changing my location to encompass New York City matches, my experience on the app was pretty similar. I found myself declining every profile, not because I thought I was better than the men, but because I don’t enjoy making small talk with strangers. Something has to pique my interest before I make a move.
Then, one April morning, there it was before me—a colorful, abstract drawing, created by an artist named Ben* in Brooklyn who said he loved flashy belt buckles, his mom, and Agnes Martin.
I told myself not to click Hinge’s heart button. After all, I reasoned, a professional artist in New York wasn’t going to be interested in a Midwestern dork living in the suburbs who, if she’s lucky, publishes one or two poems a year. Then, as I fiddled with the app, I thought: Oh, what the heck. A « like » on a dating app is a compliment and compliments are always nice.
Fifteen minutes later, he sent me a message. I explained I wasn’t actually located in New York; I was just snooping. We exchanged a few niceties that night and I thought that would be it. But then I heard from him again the next day.
At first, I found Ben a bit peculiar. He told me I could talk to him about anything, which seemed like an odd comment coming from a stranger. My internal reaction? I don’t know you, dude. I’m not telling you my deep dark secrets.
But the more we talked, about the country, our lives, how he married his ex-wife after knowing her for only a month and how she cheated on him several times, the more my attachment grew. One afternoon, after I complained about the functionality of the app messaging system, he sent me his phone number and we moved on to texts.
Six months into our conversation, when I told him I didn’t know what to buy my brother-in-law for his birthday, Ben sent me half a dozen ideas. When I was offered a management position at work a month later and was unsure whether I should accept it, he said he was so proud of me and encouraged me to take the job. When depression kidnapped my mind a few weeks after that, and I deactivated my social media, he said, « Don’t worry. I like you enough for the both of us. »
He was chipping away at my walls. But I was still cautious. I’d been down this road before. Men, lonely and depressed, had come into my life and covered me with compliments. I have patched them up and then they have left, using their newfound self-esteem on someone else. I’ve basically been the Florence Nightingale for needy men.
We talked about art, in general, and his art. He told me about the show his gallery had postponed because of the virus and his plans to carve a woodblock so he wouldn’t have to go into the studio all the time. He asked me about my poetry and every time one of my pieces was published, he bought a subscription to the journal, which was both kind and generous. No other man had ever purchased my poetry. Most men don’t even ask me about it.
Seven months in, I told my therapist I needed to stop talking to Ben. I was worried that when COVID ended he was going to fall in love and disappear. He had married his wife after a month, after all. I told her that he was likely « one of those guys. » She disagreed and told me not to overthink it. « He seems more evolved than other men, » she said. « He uses the word vulnerability. »
A week later, when Ben told me I was interesting, fun, thoughtful, and beautiful, and so much more, I ignored him. Then he added, « I know that makes you uncomfortable. »
« Yes, because people say those things and then they leave, » I texted him.
« You’re being silly. I’m not going anywhere, » he replied.
Every time Ben sent me a message, I assumed it would be the last. We lived in different states, eventually he would move on. But 2020 turned into 2021 and we were still talking, not always every day, but close.
And it wasn’t just texting and emailing, there were videos, too. So many videos. When I told him that whenever I eat a mango, I stand over the kitchen sink, sucking on the pit, he sent me a video, his mouth filled with a giant, flesh-covered mango seed. I sent various food videos in return—me eating an orange, a chocolate bar, a ridiculous one where I’m gagging on apple cider vinegar. He recorded videos of himself, working in the studio. In one, he suggestively rubbed paper against an inked woodblock as he stared into the camera. Then he touched himself. He said he was thinking of me. I watched the video twice, with my hands over my eyes, peering through my fingers. I was starting to feel like maybe I was in over my head.
When I told him we needed a new project for the new year, he said we should confess something every Tuesday. Confession Tuesday. A day for telling secrets. « I hope you know you can trust me, » he said. And I did. I learned to trust him, the way sailors learn to confide in each other when they’re away at sea. I told him things and showed him things. All kinds of things.
Not long after that, confused about where this was headed and afraid of my growing attachment, I sent him an email. « What is going on here exactly? Because sometimes I have feelings for you that I don’t want to have. » His reply was swift. « Oh, I’m sorry, Erin. I thought I made it clear in the beginning that I couldn’t have a long-distance relationship. »
I remembered no such conversation, but it’s possible it happened during our first exchange on the app, when I had no interest in dating him, and such a statement would have seemed obvious. Despite his protests, we had a relationship of some sort, and an intimacy, albeit not in person. So I told him I felt like a placeholder and he insisted it wasn’t the case.
« I really like you, but it’s complicated. It’s the distance. That’s the only reason, » he told me. After a day or so, and many words of reassurance, I was pretty much over it. He kept reaching out, which made it easier. Maybe he genuinely cared about me, even if he weren’t going to date.
On reflection, I think talking on the phone or over a video call made both of us nervous, in a purely social way. So we did neither. Ben once said that he thought video dates were scary and I agreed.
And meeting up wasn’t really discussed. During that first year of COVID, I was barely seeing my family and I had no intention of getting on a plane. I once said something about how we were never going to meet and he said, « I’m sure we’ll meet someday. »
Around this time, Ben finished the woodblock prints and promised to send me one. I asked him not to. « They’re worth too much money and you worked so hard on them. One day, we won’t talk anymore, and I won’t want it in my house. » He didn’t understand why I kept acting like our online relationship was going to end. « We’re going to be in each other’s lives forever, » he said.
He sent the print. I sent him a video of me opening the box, gently, afraid of damaging the paper; a piece of him in the room beside me. I traced the tangled lines with my eyes. From six hundred miles away, he had made me smile.
In the Spring of 2021, Ben got vaccinated. I did too. He told me he was becoming a vegetarian, which was surprising, considering he once sent me a meme mocking vegans. « What led you to this change? » I asked, knowing that when a grown man decides to become a vegetarian, it’s often because of a woman. « Oh, I’m just trying to be healthier. »
And then it happened—cellular tumbleweed. A week later, exactly one year after I first hit the heart on Hinge, I stopped hearing from him.
When I asked, a week later, if he was okay, he said he was great. He was just taking a break from his life because he didn’t have the bandwidth for anyone right now. « Please give me more time, » he wrote. « You mean more to me than you know. »
What I knew, in my gut, was that Ben was dating someone. But I couldn’t understand why he was keeping it from me. When you have feelings for a person, when you’re attached, it’s difficult when they start dating someone. But if you’re honest about it, that transition is possible. The man who told me I could talk to him about anything was lying to me by omission.
After spending a month overcharged, overthinking nearly everything and checking my phone often, I swallowed my pride and sent him a polite message, asking him how he was doing. Only then, did he tell me the truth. His life had completely changed. He’d met someone wonderful and it had turned into an all-consuming relationship. My prediction had come true. Coronavirus cases were decreasing and he had fallen in love, apparently instantaneously.
He admitted he hadn’t been a good friend. He had been selfish, and he wanted to make it up to me. I was willing to try; I felt that I could be happy for him. All he had to do was stay in my life. But he never contacted me again. I had been officially replaced, like an actress on a soap opera.
I wanted to tell him I hated him, but « hate » wasn’t an accurate description of what I was feeling. Fear was more like it. I was afraid of him, afraid that trusting a man was now no longer an option for me.
I did tell him some of this, in my final message, sent after another six weeks of silence. In it, I called him a horrible person. You used me, I wrote. You are not a good man.
At times, I regret this email. I don’t know Ben. Not really. But I don’t believe his intentions were malicious. He stopped caring. Does that make him a bad person? I don’t know. But after a year of constant contact, we are strangers, once again, and I feel more alone now than I ever did during the pandemic.
From the beginning, I sensed it would end this way. I felt the truth the entire time, hidden beneath the words. My heart is broken, not in the romantic sense, but because I allowed myself to believe that this time things would be different, that maybe, when you go through so much with a person—a global pandemic, social unrest, an insurrection—they won’t leave quite so easily. But he did.
I’m still on the app, but I rarely message anyone. Last month, a guy in Seattle messaged me. I didn’t rush to respond. I didn’t want to get attached. I came to discover that he grew up in Michigan and that his mother still lived here. After a couple of weeks of light messaging, he asked if I would be interested in a video chat. This time, I was the one explaining why I couldn’t have a long-distance relationship.
At this point, I don’t have much hope as far as relationships are concerned. And that’s okay. There are a lot of great things about being single. For instance, I don’t have to attend a bridal shower for my partner’s cousin’s fiancée whom I’ve only met once.
Relationships can feel a bit like riding a Tilt-A-Whirl. But with Ben, I still don’t know if the knot I often felt in the pit of my stomach was my fear of being vulnerable, or whether my gut was trying to tell me something about how our relationship would end.
Erin Bealmear is a writer based in Detroit, Michigan. You can follow her on Twitter @womeninart.erin.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
*Name has been changed.