Dark Ages 19: insights

After I started this series, I soon realized that not everyone finds thinking about their dating history as “a depressing trudge down memory lane”. When I looked back, I saw lots of treading water in aimless and dissatisfying relationships, painful breakups, and few memories actually worth savoring. So I didn’t think about it. But sifting through these old layers in a methodical way has revealed patterns that I hadn’t previously been aware of.

First, some background. When I was little, I knew that you were supposed to get married and have kids. Yet by age 5, I already knew that I didn’t want kids, and I soon concluded that this wouldn’t actually be a problem because no one would want to marry me anyway. So self-esteem was clearly an issue from a young age. (I never dreamt about having a wedding either, but I’m grateful for that.) My parents weren’t physically demonstrative so I grew up essentially without touch.

Most of the childcare was done by my dad. My mom was present, but I’m inclined to blame her emotional distance on the sexual abuse she suffered at her father’s hands. My dad recently told me that after they split, he (my dad) wanted to take me camping (I would have been 11 or 12) and my mom was worried that he was going to abuse me; nothing of the sort ever happened. Interestingly, around that time it occurred to me to be afraid of being abused by him. Did I come to that thought independently, or did I somehow pick up on what was unsaid?

By the time I was about 12 or 13, I tended to feel more comfortable with boys than girls. It seemed like there must be some manual about how to be a girl and I was the only one who hadn’t gotten my copy. My mom never taught me to be “feminine”. There seemed to be all kinds of rules about being a girl that didn’t make sense and I didn’t know the rules so I didn’t play. I didn’t like shopping or makeup, I didn’t dress to be attractive, I didn’t like skirts and dresses, I didn’t travel to the school bathroom in packs with the other girls. I wore jeans and T-shirts, read a lot, rode my bike, kept to myself, and took martial arts classes.

I don’t know why I started dating precisely when I did, but it feels like a switch was flipped — suddenly it was possible and I needed to have a boyfriend. (I never worried about “being alone” in an existential way, and besides, the majority of my dating took place while I was still living with my parents.) I was seeking external validation: being able to attract male interest of a specific sort was a way to prove to myself that I had some worth. My relationship with my dad is generally OK, but the most hurtful thing I’ve ever heard was something he said to me. Prompted by some complaint from his girlfriend (now wife), he told me, “I love you, but I don’t like you very much.”

Feeling the need for a boyfriend made me somewhat opportunistic by necessity. I didn’t give a lot of thought to my preferences about appearance and personality, which were generally vague and unarticulated. Still, personality was vastly more important than looks, and I think my sexual shame contributed heavily to downplaying the role of physical attraction. I preferred intelligence but compromised easily. The most important quality in a guy was that he was interested in me: I found that very attractive indeed, but very occasionally it wasn’t enough (Buddy, Dude). After Bad Boy, I bounced from one guy to the next for months without the slightest sense of direction. I figured that this demonstrated I must be attractive, at least, though I didn’t find that conclusion entirely reassuring.

I may have sucked at choosing boyfriends, but I was really good at commitment. That’s not a good combination, as it turns out. I’d start dating someone and then feel like I should stay with him for some reason that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

While my parents were together, their relationship was generally civil but not warm and there was the occasional fight (shouting). This would be my model for relationships: duty and commitment without warm feelings or physical affection. My dad confessed to me recently that he was frustrated with the lack of affection and emotional connection, but I have no doubt that my mom felt too vulnerable to let him in. My mom told me recently that while they were together, my dad cheated serially. I’d wager that he was looking for the emotional and physical intimacy he couldn’t get at home.

Is “commitment” even the right word for what I learned from them? I think commitment should involve mutual promises to be good to each other. What I saw in my parents’ marriage wasn’t commitment but perseverance. The notion that a relationship is something to be enjoyed and not merely endured completely escaped me for a long time.

It took a long time before I learned to identify a bad relationship. I’m not sure I really did learn that lesson until I fell into a good one and had that as a point of reference. After Bad Boy, I was spooked for a long time but at least I eventually learned to check in with myself from time to time to see if things were still good or if they had taken a turn.

I wasn’t good at knowing when a relationship should end or actually ending it. I dislike confrontation and I dislike hurting people. I took too much responsibility for the pain of others because their pain hurt me too: that’s a boundary issue due to sensitivity and things I learned at home. I ended two relationships because I thought it was the right thing to do (Small Town, Badger). On two occasions, I broke up with a guy to date someone else (A/V, Gamer). I was dumped once and I found it embarrassingly excruciating (Guitarist). With the rest, things failed to get off the ground, weren’t going anywhere because of distance issues, fizzled out and/or ended mutually.

I wasn’t good at knowing when to start a relationship either. Regrettable things happened when I made snap decisions. I took it slow with Gamer and it went OK; we’re sort of in touch but have little in common these days (for one thing, he goes to sports bars now). Things went better when I actively put the brakes on. Although the split with A/V didn’t go well, we rebuilt our friendship and I still consider him a good friend. And then there’s Wolf, my partner for lo these many years.

I had/have a thing for creative types, which I suppose I knew at the time. A few of my boyfriends and most of my crushes have been musicians. There were artists, writers and actors too. I was into art and singing, so it’s not impossible that I was attracted to what these guys were doing (more than who they were) because they were doing the things I wanted to do, more or less. My preference for creative guys didn’t prevent me from trying sporty guys (Tall had the redeeming feature of also being creative, Small Town didn’t), but I’d call it an unsuccessful experiment.

So my challenges were: low self-esteem; the necessity of being in a relationship; commitment, in the form of perseverance; external validation; not knowing what I wanted other than wanting to be wanted; lack of physicality; and the thread of sexual shame throughout. Self-esteem still pops up as an issue sometimes, but I’ve experienced a lot of healing in all of these areas – from increased maturity, my relationship with Wolf, and now through self-awareness and personal growth.

As it happens, I also learned a lot about Bad Boy – not so much during this process specifically, but in recent years. He’s a special case, and he’ll get his own post soon.

Dark Ages 3: Tall and Drift

Tall was 6’2” (a full foot taller than me), athletic, good looking, with a shock of thick black hair — he looked like a model. And he was smart.

An early winter evening, we’re alone at my place. I very deliberately complain about my sore shoulders. Taking the bait, he tells me he had taken a course on massage — a lie. But he thought he needed some justification beyond my hinted invitation. Perhaps he honestly believed that the massage was his idea…

He had a curfew (the only person I knew who did) but snuck out of the house routinely to be with me. His place was about a 15-minute walk away (at my pace), but because of his long legs and the fact that he always jogged when he came over, it only took him about 5 minutes. He literally ran to me! He was a good guy, I thought I was in love, and maybe I was.

[Around this time, my mom informed me that she was pregnant, which didn’t seem to have been planned. She took this opportunity to tell me that she would “take me to the doctor” if I wanted. I got her drift, more or less. She didn’t seem to be overjoyed about the pregnancy, and she sure as hell didn’t want to be there talking to me about sex. Mortified, I declared that I was still a virgin; it was the best possible answer to an awful and unstated question. This conversation probably could have been somewhat more awkward, but I’m not sure how…]

In late spring, a group of us drove to a nearby city for the weekend to attend a high school drama festival. Who knows what the accommodation arrangements had been, but Tall and I conspired to be by ourselves in a room together one afternoon. A first for both of us: we tried to have sex. Although this was something we had both chosen, I was much too uncomfortable and tense and dry. ‘Sex’ came to the party with ‘should’ again, and they both ended up acting like assholes.

We successfully lost our virginity to each other on Mothers’ Day. (In subsequent years, I’ve repeatedly had the devilish thought of sending him a card.) Of the act itself, I don’t remember anything beyond thinking “this is not great at all”, and probably “why do people like this?” We were in the basement at his place, and his older brother came home around the time we finished. Tall shouted “Don’t come downstairs!” a couple of times, and he didn’t, but we couldn’t have been much more obvious. I’m fairly sure he smirked at us later.

Tall kept coming to my place after curfew and we’d just hang out. Things were cooling off — physically or emotionally or both, I’m not sure — but at the time I assumed that not wanting to be physical meant I had fallen out of love. (I now recognize it for a sexual shame pattern.) We were together for about 7 months, then agreed to split when he went to his dad’s for a month during the summer. I was choked when he met a girl on the plane and started seeing her immediately. I imagined, in vain, that we might get back together when he came back to town. I don’t know whether I was hurt because I was in love or because of the sting of rejection.

That summer, I got a bit part in a community theatre musical and met Drift. We flirted, drifted together, had some pleasant times, drifted apart again. This relationship was uniquely low-key. I have only one clear memory of him:

At my place, on my bed, in the dark. He’s sitting cross-legged and I’m sitting on him. We’re making out, I grind gently on his erection. No pressure, no ‘should’, just… nice.

I never knew him well, but I don’t think we had much in common. It probably happened because I wanted to be with someone and he was there.

Ah, high school. The events are generally bland, the emotions intense, and many of the memories cringe-worthy. For better or worse, things got more interesting in university.

Dark Ages 2: Lucas and Guitarist

Lucas and I had become good friends. And then…

Late summer nights, black velvet sky, occasional glimpses of northern lights. Hanging out with friends who didn’t know what we were up to. Exchanging secret, knowing glances. We should, we shouldn’t… Should we?

In the late summer, a few months after First moved away, Lucas started going out. I broke it off about three weeks in because I didn’t want to ruin the friendship, but we couldn’t keep our hands off each other and were back together a week later.

I think Lucas must have been the first guy to give me oral, but I’m embarrassed to say that I have no recollection of the event. At some point I got in my head that we would have sex (not that I particularly wanted to); I told him and he bought condoms, but it never happened. Just as well: this was the first (but certainly not the last) time I connected ‘sex’ with ‘should’, and put pressure on myself. I don’t know why Lucas was ‘should’ while First had been ‘shouldn’t’ — maybe because we got along better?

Perhaps I realized deep down that we were better suited to be friends, but when I broke up with him after three months, the timing was entirely down to the fact that I wanted to pursue someone else.

I tried out for the school musical for the first time and got a lead role. Blondie was the other female lead and her boyfriend, Guitarist, also had a major role. I got to know him, spent time with him.

Just the two of us at his place, an older house with wooden floors. Chilly night outside. The warm glow of lamplight inside. I sat on the shabby couch. He sat beside me on the floor, playing guitar and singing a song that he had written, sometimes looking into my eyes. I almost believed that he had written it for me.

He told me that he and Blondie had split; I dumped Lucas to date him. For three days.

Guitarist and I went to a party at Blondie’s house, and he dumped me. Another first. I was gutted, the emotional pain so intense that I figured it must be love and told him so (cringe). He was back with Blondie the next day. In my agony, I skipped school.

Of course I hadn’t loved him and I may not have even liked him all that much. It was the flat rejection that knocked me on my ass, regardless of the source. As excruciating as it was at the time, I had almost completely forgotten about him and being dumped — how’s that for perspective?

Dark Ages 1: First and HFH

I met First and Lucas one day in the summer, not long before they both transferred to my high school. Lucas and I were in the same grade; First was four years older but only two grades ahead.

First and I started spending time together. I remember being attracted to him in some way, but it was neither physical nor intellectual. It was my first time experiencing such yearning. I think now that I wanted to be accepted and desired, and the specific source of acceptance and desire was largely irrelevant.

September, the weather sunny and warm, blue sky. Outside the side door of his parents’ house, as I was leaving, he gave me my first kiss. I grinned and floated all the way home.

With that, we were going out, and I learned that a direct question like “Would you go out with me?” was not to be expected. We went out. Much too long. Whenever it was that the requests for sex began, I deflected them.

Over a year later, First and I were on a hiatus when I went to a New Year’s Eve party and met Home for the Holidays. HFH, three years older than me, was a student at a university across the country. He was the first guy who flirted with me, the first to make out with me in a car, and the first (and only, thank goodness) to massage my pec through my heavy winter coat, apparently thinking it was my breast.

First and I got together again for some reason. A month or two later, I got cheated on for the first time: he slept with Lucas’s girlfriend, and I broke up with him. Again, we sort of drifted back together, with nowhere else to go.

The relationship slowly shredded like rags. I didn’t particularly like him, I just wanted to be in a relationship and couldn’t yet identify the kind of relationship that you should leave.

It finally ended when he moved away to a big city that had captured his imagination. I shudder to think how long we both might have failed to end it if he had stayed.