When an Abortion Destroys a Relationship

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader opens up about her experience in vivid detail:

Hello, I would like to submit the account of my abortion to your series. I don’t believe it’s represented in the stories posted so far. It’s significantly different in format from the other stories, but I wrote it as I experienced it. It’s the story both of an abortion, and also how that can destroy a relationship and unexpectedly impact a life.

As a professional, high-earning, independent woman, the unexpected difficulty of this experience on both a personal relational level was shocking. I wish I’d had known what I now know going in to the experience; I would have handled it much differently and perhaps in a way that could have mitigated its destructiveness. I hope my story will help others.

Thank you for this series; I found it helpful. Choosing to terminate a pregnancy is choosing between two bad choices. The silence and stigma around it makes something that is difficult much, much harder.

***

I should start with my age: I’m 34. So it may be that this was my baby, my only chance to have a baby.

My boyfriend doesn’t like to use condoms and I have always tried be careful about using them when I might get pregnant. Not a foolproof method, obviously. He says that with his last girlfriend, they would never even have sex when she might be ovulating. Afterwards, I wonder about this, and why he is different with me.

When I tell him I was pregnant, he asks, “What do you want to do?”

I say, “I don’t want to have a baby.” And that’s true. We nearly broke up a month ago. I have chronic health problems. And he is only 26, still exploring and playing.

I live in Europe and my family is in America. Less then a year ago I moved countries to be with him. I am in a strange country, amongst strangers. I have friends but none close. In my mind’s eye I see myself alone, after he leaves, trying to care for an infant and manage a chronic illness. Or worse, moving back to America to live with my aging parents. Both seem like the end of my life.

Finally he says, “I guess having a baby isn’t the right lifestyle for us right now.”And that was it.

During the following weeks I am sick and exhausted; morning sickness starts as soon as three weeks after conception. He is solicitous and helpful. Often he puts his hand on my belly and talks about the baby. I say “don’t call it a baby. It’s just a cluster of cells. We’ll call it a jellyfish.” He doesn’t say much, but he keeps touching my belly.

One evening I tell him that I feel bad. Bad for not wanting this child. Bad that I am not the kind of person who wants to have a child, that I am too selfish to give up my life. Bad that I am scared of stepping into the unknown. There are people who have children, and it is the making of them. Their lives and their hearts blossom. “I’ve never felt so much love,” they say. Or “It’s the hardest thing in the world, but it’s the best thing.” And I believe that for them it’s true. I am not sure it would be true for me, and I do not think it’s the sort of thing one ought to take a chance on.

I tell him all of this, because our conversations about the abortion have been thin and flimsy—just a few exchanges, as if we were talking about the weather or what to cook for dinner. I don’t know what he’s thinking, and I’m worried. He doesn’t say much.

On the day of the procedure, during intake the counselor asks me, “Why do you want to have an abortion?”

“Because I don’t want to have a baby,” I reply.

“Not now, or not ever?”

“Not ever, but definitely not now. I don’t want to have children, and neither does he,” I say confidently.

My boyfriend makes a noncommittal sound. I look over. I touch him lightly on the knee. He shakes his head and looks away.

In a fraction of a second I know that he is not okay and that we should stop, that I should ask for a moment to talk with him in private. But I don’t, because it would not make a difference. Maybe it would even make things worse. The thought of not having the abortion is terrifying. And the doctor is waiting.

The procedure is fast—less than 10 minutes altogether, with a machine that makes a noise like the suction at the dentist’s office. There’s a nice Dutch man telling me exactly what will happen at every moment, answering every question. Safeporting, it’s called.

The doctor tells me I did very well. When they wheel me back to the waiting area I am dizzy and sweaty, and think I may pass out. Across from me there’s a girl sobbing. They put her in a room and close the door, but we can still hear her.

The cramping is not too bad, six out of ten (they always ask you to rate on a scale of one to ten), but then the pain fades. I place my hand on my belly and say I’m sorry over and over in my mind.

During checkout, when the cramps have gone down to a one, the nurse says, “You’ll be fine. I’m not worried about you at all.” I ask her why she works in an abortion clinic and she says, “The people here are healthy. In the hospital, people are sick and old and scared.”

We live close by, only ten minutes by foot, so we walk home. The cramps start again soon after we’re walking. I have to stop, squeezing his hand and breathing through the pain. Then again, and again. Worse and worse, closer and closer. We’re almost home, and that’s good because I couldn’t walk much further. The stairs—three steep flights—take a while. When I get into the door I collapse onto the bed and curl into a ball, in too much pain to move.

He tucks me in and barricades me with pillows, brings me my computer and some juice and candy, and goes out to meet a friend. I don’t ask him to stay. I never ask him to do anything, only taking what he gives freely (except on the way home from the clinic, when he didn’t offer his hand so I had to take his).

I’m in too much pain to move, to watch TV, to eat. I’m up to a 7, now an 8. I’m crying now from the pain, and I’m scared. I curl tighter and wait for it to pass. I’m a Buddhist, and I believe that in the end, everything does pass. Or we do—which is the same thing.

The next day I work from home. When he comes home, he starts cooking, but he doesn’t say anything. I look up from my computer and go over to him. He tells me to go away. He starts yelling.

I have to admit, this part is blurry. (My memory is bad—this is common with my health problems.) But I remember him saying, “You’re a killer,” and “You’re not my partner anymore.” “Cold bitch,” he calls me. “I’ve known for weeks that this relationship was over, I was just waiting for you to have the abortion.” He says, “I want you out of here. Start looking for a flat, tonight.”

I freeze. This is my way. I had an abusive father, and I learned early on that if you cannot run and you cannot fight, the only thing left to do is freeze. He takes his food and goes out on the balcony.

For a few minutes I simply sit there. I can’t feeling anything, and my brain doesn’t work. It’s as if everything is behind a thick pane of glass. My eyes are wide and I cannot focus them. I cannot think. I don’t know what to do. I cannot stay.

I pick up my phone and scroll through the contacts. My friends are all in the place I left 9 months ago to move in with him. It was an act of faith, the first time I’d done that sort of thing. His love for me had been so overwhelming, his view of the world so clean and bright, I knew that if I didn’t I would always regret and wonder. So I jumped.

I keep scrolling. I don’t have any good friends here. I settle on V, who I don’t know very well but his lack of moral framework is to my advantage at this moment, and he’s from Macedonia so he’s chivalrous. He’s at a bar, but he’ll uber over.

In a daze, I put a few essentials into a bag and creep out of the flat, quietly shutting the door behind me.

On the street, I sit on the bench in front of the dry cleaner’s and wait. V is drunk when he comes to pick me up. I hold his hand tightly as we walk to his flat. When I tell him what happened he says, “Oh man you don’t drink. Usually when my friends get into trouble I just get them drunk and that fixes it.” A situation of this emotional scope is beyond his ability to engage in any meaningful way, so I ask him to tell me about his day, and he does his best. He says I can stay at his place for a while, and he will be staying in the center with a friend. Eventually he leaves and I go to bed. I lay on the bed looking up at the ceiling, and I feel as if I am being stretched on some terrible cold instrument.

The drama of the dissolution of our relationship is as undignified and painful as the end of every relationship. He cannot explain what has happened except to say, “The abortion changed everything.” Or else, “I need to work on myself, and I need to be alone to do that.” Or, “our views of the world are too different.” Or later,“You’re a terrible person. You’re selfish and fake. You used me and used me up. I am done with you.” “I need someone who is tougher; I’m always hurting you. You can't fight with me,” or, “You don’t want to have a baby, and I realize I want to keep that door open.”

V comes back after a week and I move back home.

My boyfriend and I fight. It’s unbearable. He attacks, I withdraw. I promise myself I won’t let him hurt me again, but after a few days I relent and approach. I still love him, you see. I love him so much my heart feels like it’s going to burst open from love when it’s not slowly suffocating.

We fight again, and it’s worse. I’m destroyed. I withdraw completely. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. I don’t have three in me. We stop talking and live in separate rooms—him the living room, be the bedroom, occasionally meeting in the kitchen. Eventually he finds a flat.

That morning of the day he’s moving out I say, “What is your schedule?”

“I’m not working today so I can pack. A car is coming at 4:30 to take my stuff.”

“Goodbye then,” I say, and close the door behind me. When I get home he’s gone.

I begin crying spontaneously when I’m alone—little micro-cries that come up out of nowhere. Sometimes they subside quickly. Sometimes I collapse on the floor sobbing after getting home from work. I stop eating properly.

There is no one to talk to; this comes with too much shame. The friends I did tell didn’t know how to respond, and they don’t want to hear more. I begin to notice that bridges and heavy traffic areas are places one could easily die. I draw further and further into myself. Some days are not terrible. No days are good. I don’t want to do anything or see anyone. There is no longer anything I care about. I wish I could stop. Not die, just stop.

***

Babies hurt me now. A month after the abortion, while I waited for my luggage at the baggage claim, three babies surrounded me, all under a year. Two are very small, less than six months. One is right next to me, leaning towards me in its carrier, looking straight into my eyes, his own eyes wide, blue, and unblinking. So close he can touch me. I cannot bear it, but I stay there because I think this is my punishment. When I get home, I unpack, and I cry.

I think there are two of me now, moving forward in parallel; my current self, and another me who is due to have a baby on January 23. She is still loved, and maybe she is happy. Or maybe not. But she is not alone.

This next reader also had a huge fight with her partner over her decision to abort, and the fallout “ultimately prompted me to leave that rather toxic relationship”:

I was 23, studying creative writing in college, working as a barista at a coffee shop, and living in North Texas. I was in a short-lived relationship with a fledgling filmmaker who I’d characterize as macho. When we had sex he refused to wear a condom because he said we were engaged and basically married—that was the end of that discussion.

It was late July and my period was lagging, so I decided to purchase an at-home pregnancy test. The experience was almost comical because of my anxiety. The first wand slipped right out of my hands and splashed into the toilet. I had wondered if that was the reason First Response includes two. After I fished out the first wand I unwrapped the second. It was a very discomforting process. Imagine reading very simple but technical directions while peeing, while hovering over a cotton wand and waiting for two little lines to show up. I mean, in what other medical cases are people granted access to examine their diagnosis?

After a few minutes, those two little lines connected to form a pink plus sign.

I wanted professional confirmation. I made an appointment at a Planned Parenthood. I peed in a small plastic cup and awaited the results. The diagnosis stood: Positive.

My heart was pounding. My future plans raced through my head: finishing school, my internship, writing, a career. The nurse asked me about my plans. I immediately said I didn’t intend to keep it. She asked if I would like to make another appointment and I said yes. I was four weeks along—too far for the abortion pill, so it would have to be a surgical procedure.

When I announced my decision to my then-partner, he became irate. Immediately he bombarded me with antagonistic questions. Why didn’t I want to keep it? Was it someone else’s? It must have been if I didn’t want to keep it. He just went off on me verbally.

I couldn’t stand it, so I went to the bathroom to contain myself. He followed me, but I shut the door and locked it. He began to pound and yell at the door. I couldn’t handle it. This was verbal abuse at its most extreme. Once I heard him leave the apartment, I made a mad dash for my purse and car keys. It was late at night and I didn’t know where to go, so I drove my car to a space across the sprawling apartment complex, parked, and cried myself to sleep.

The next day, while he was at work, I gathered up my belongings and moved in with a friend. I kept my appointment.

When the day came, I wasn’t fully aware of what my payment options could be and only had enough to either pay for my fall semester of school or use the money to pay for the abortion. I canceled my classes for that semester and drove myself to the appointment.

When the nurse called my name, my stomach immediately tightened up. She walked me into a clinic room and told to change into a gown and wait on the table. The process from there went rather quickly and was over in a blur. I remember the doctor and nurses who came into the room all wore surgical masks so I couldn’t see their faces. The doctor explained the procedure and told me to lie down. While the procedure was taking place, one of the nurses asked if I’d like her to hold my hand. I said yes to the polite gesture and entrusted her with my right hand.

I looked up and concentrated on the spots in the vanilla ceiling tiles during the procedure and told myself it was going to be alright. Then I felt a sharp stinging pain. I looked away from the tiles and met the gaze of the nurse who was holding my hand. Tears streaked down my face. She looked at me straight into the eyes. I saw her dark brown eyes well up and she quickly looked away. I still believe that was the most intense visual connection I’ve ever encountered with a stranger.

Once the procedure was completed, I was whisked away to another room with other women. I was told to lie down and rest.

I had confided my plans to the friend I was staying with, and she insisted on picking me up from the clinic. On the way home she stopped at Starbucks and bought me some tea. We went home.  I stayed nestled on her couch for the remainder of the day watching movies.

After the procedure I felt a change—not as if I had lost something, but like I had gained, if not power, then a second chance. I didn’t feel guilty. I felt free.