emotional disconnection, sex and loneliness

Extreme fatigue makes me very thin-skinned. I become even more indecisive and I second-guess myself terribly. I revert to my deep programming, which makes me profoundly critical of everything and everyone (including myself), and I tend to become unable to see anything positive, whether that’s noticing beauty around me or remembering anything I’ve learned on my journey into sex positivity. I don’t much like myself while this is going on, but at least when this happened the other day due to the rigours of travel I was still aware that once I recovered I’d probably feel better emotionally. And I that’s what happened. Luckily, Jaime has the patience of a saint.

Despite the epiphany I had about sexual shame almost 5 years ago now, and the subsequent realisation that I also have difficulty with trust, I find I’m still struggling with a lot of the same sexual issues that I did before the epiphany.

Confession time: I’ve not had partnered sex in a year, and not because of lack of opportunity. Although things heated up for a while after the shame epiphany, I haven’t been able to sustain that. My libido is low, I don’t get turned on, and my only strategy to address this issue is to continue to read any book I come across that seems relevant. I know that it’s possible to enjoy and want and seek sex but I haven’t figured out how to make that happen for me.

This is, to put it mildly, deeply frustrating. As a child I was taught to be self-critical. I’ve been frustrated about my sexuality not being what I wanted (or what thought it should be, which is different) for pretty much my entire adult life, and it’s very easy for me to interpret this as meaning that there’s something wrong with me, which makes me frustrated with myself.

I haven’t known how to deal with that so I’ve either simply said the no that I felt (a more recent approach), or pushed myself to do the thing (my default). But I see now that, for my issues, pushing myself doesn’t work. In fact, I think it actively causes me harm. It’s comparable to the way that men are typically taught to keep pushing things forward (through a woman’s “I don’t really want this but I can live with it”) until they hear a no, but in my case both Wolf and Jaime are keen to give me pleasure (whatever that actually looks like for me) and I’m putting all the pressure on myself. If I don’t respect my own no, I’m vitiating my own consent. In other words, I am to some extent victimising myself — a sobering thought.

A few months ago I listened to a podcast about procrastination as a writing issue and one point stuck with me: shitting on yourself for perceived problematic behaviour not only doesn’t stop the behaviour, it can actually reinforce the very habit you’re trying to change. This is the harm of perfectionism. So to change the habit I need to be kind and generous to myself, which I find challenging. I also need to spend time figuring out what I like and what I want because, honestly, I don’t really know. (I do have a strategy for this but I haven’t done much work on it yet.)

The other day with Jaime I discovered a new factor that I’d never been aware of before. During a spanking he checked in with me from time to time to ask how I was feeling and what I was experiencing emotionally. He was asking for information but this was also a cue to be mindful of my emotions, which I found really useful. I told him I was experiencing the spanking physically but I wasn’t aware of any emotions that went with any of what he was doing and I felt completely disconnected from his feeling of being loving toward me, taking care of me, being invested in my pleasure, or anything else of that nature.

The next day, he was giving me oral, and when I checked in with myself regarding my emotions I found that I was experiencing it in an exclusively physical way as well. On top of that, I also felt the profound vulnerability that I feel with sex. Jaime takes good care of me and I know he’s seriously invested in pleasing me but I couldn’t perceive it. I just felt disconnected and lonely.

Why? My first belief about sex was that it’s a man taking something from a woman, and despite everything I’ve learned or taught myself, remnants of this view are still entrenched deep in my psyche. The mind has a tendency to use all evidence to confirm its deeply held beliefs (aka self-image or self-schema), and if any evidence can only be understood as contradicting that paradigm, it’s typically ignored.

In addition to this incorrect paradigm, I also have some sub-optimal general emotional wiring: my parents didn’t connect with me in a healthy and loving emotional way as I was growing up, and I’ve recently realised that I’ve always felt emotionally orphaned and fundamentally lonely. (If that rings any bells for you, you might be interested to read Jonice Webb, Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.) In the context of sex, it feels as though I lack the emotional sensors to detect warmth and caring and love.

As often happens for me, I wasn’t really aware of the intensity of my feelings during the encounter until I started thinking about them consciously, and in this case discussing them with Jaime (and weeping throughout — this shit is fucking difficult). I let him know about the isolation I was feeling and asked him to try to create an emotional connection with me verbally.

And you know, it actually seemed to work. Hearing explicitly that I am loved made me feel it in a way that physical affection has never been able to successfully communicate because of those generally incorrect messages about what being physical and sexual with another person actually means. And I enjoyed myself more, which from a rational perspective is unsurprising, but to actually feel it as an experience felt a little bit like magic.

The vulnerable feeling generated by that first sexual encounter felt similar to the thin-skinned feeling from fatigue in the way it brought my deep programming to the surface. But what if it doesn’t just bring up the ugly? What if the whole package of programming is summoned up to the surface and can be communicated with directly instead of through the layers of learning and rationality that usually muffle it? If so, this could represent a shortcut in the process from knowing something intellectually to actually feeling it. Our initial experiment suggests that this might be true.

Sex for me is still fraught and likely will continue to be for some time. The epiphany about sexual shame and the realisation that I have difficulty trusting are both essential elements but the fact that I’m still having the same kind of difficulties as before proves that they aren’t the whole story. I feel like I’ve just stumbled upon another key and I’m feeling optimistic again, for the first time in a long time.

communicating with my dad — criticisms of others

Previouscommunicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

The current low-key weirdness with my dad has got me thinking. I’d never really given his complaints about other people a great deal of thought — I find them unpleasant, so I mostly try to tune them out so they don’t affect me too much — but it’s now taken on more significance, so perhaps it would be worthwhile to explore the issue and see what I could figure out.

The complaint I interrupted on Christmas Day was about his neighbours; there’s apparently a light mounted on the outside of their house that they have aimed into one of dad’s windows. It’s a weird thing to fabricate and I think it must be true but it’s also a weird thing to do in the first place. Given the fact that this is far from my dad’s only complaint about them, I’m left wondering whether they don’t understand what the problem is with the light, or whether it’s a deliberate retaliation for something dad had done previously. Either way I suspect dad has handled it poorly, since he’s prone to biting his tongue until he explodes.

I don’t recall what prompted this particular odd diatribe, but during one of our recent calls prior to Christmas he started bitching about naming practices among Black people. The names were made up and sounded silly, he fumed. This seems like a same-sex-marriage sort of situation to me: if you don’t like it, don’t do it. Problem solved. I don’t see how the names of Black kids affect his life in any way, and the complaint strikes me as petty, not to mention racist.

He has also complained about his friends not returning his calls, though I’m sure I don’t have all the facts. Are they not returning his calls at all, or are they not returning calls as promptly as he wants? Maybe they’re legitimately busy; maybe they’re returning the calls in a reasonable time but he’s impatient. Perhaps there actually is a pattern of people not returning calls, and that raises some questions in my mind; I can see it happening with one person who may be being kind of a jerk, but if this is a trend among his friends, then it’s dad who is the common factor.

He often calls me, not to talk to me, but because he was trying to reach my mom and she wasn’t there and he wants to know if she’s around or not. She’s super busy all the time, so I’ll ask him if he left a message. But he doesn’t like to leave messages, so she probably doesn’t know that he even called. When he does leave a message, she has explained to me that she doesn’t return the call right away because she needs to be in the right mood to talk to him. I wonder if others do something similar.

He has friends who he used to stay with when he came to town, but that stopped after they had some kind of confrontation, which he complained to me about repeatedly. The way he told the story it certainly sounded like it was all their fault, but now I’m not so sure. He didn’t speak to them for months, maybe a year. And then somehow they started talking again and I’m not sure how.

By a wide margin, the number-one subject of my dad’s complaints is his wife’s son, complaints about whom I’d estimate have featured in about half of our conversations over the last 15-plus years. (The son is, I admit, very difficult — manipulative, entitled and dependent.) Complaints about her daughter are not infrequent. He complains about his wife’s anxiety and how she doesn’t like to be left at home alone so she comes with him everywhere and he never gets a break.

He scorns the uncle whose thinking is wrong despite his extensive education. He resents the aunt who is self-centred and makes every conversation about herself.

What I think these complaints reveal is that he has specific expectations of people and when they don’t meet those expectations, instead of adjusting the expectations (or discussing the issue with them calmly with a view toward mutually satisfactory problem-solving), he gets angry. But expectation causes disappointment. Or to put it another way, I think he’s making himself miserable.

My dad isn’t stupid. He’s very clever when it comes to figuring out mechanical things and building things, and at the same time he can be very sociable. I think he could figure out people if he chose to, but he seems to get more pleasure and/or satisfaction (if you can call it that) from judging them.

Next: communicating with my dad — criticisms of me

communicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

Previouscommunicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

Ordinarily my dad calls me every 3-4 weeks or so, and I think 6 weeks is about the longest he ever goes without getting in touch.

I became aware of the lapse of time after about a month and now I keep wondering when I’ll hear from him next. At this point it’s been over 7 weeks since that brief, tense conversation — this has reached the edge of our normal timing and is now steadily inching away into uncharted territory.

Since his primary mode of operation seems to be to judge and criticise others, I strongly suspect he thinks that I was judging and criticising him.

Self-image in the sense of identity is remarkably persistent and immune to logic. He must have learned to expect attacks, and so he sees them, now, everywhere. I learned not quite this lesson but something similar. Up to a point I can relate.

Perhaps patriarchy explains a bit of why it manifests differently in us. In the face of criticism, I feel fundamentally wrong, which happens to parallel patriarchy’s habit of finding a way to blame women for any given issue. Patriarchy also says men are generally right, and toxic masculinity authorises anger as the only valid emotion for men. If my dad feels fundamentally wrong, I think he externalises it and it thus manifests as easily feeling attacked. Those people are wrong, everyone is wrong! Then he gets angry.

I’ve known my dad to “punish” his friends by not phoning for months on end when he thinks they’ve wronged him. He has also complained to me repeatedly that he calls and leaves messages for people and they don’t call back, and why should he call them if they obviously don’t care to follow up? (These days I can think of at least one reason why these folks might not be motivated to call…)

Has he has decided to “punish” me by not calling? I’m trying not to get sucked into overthinking this question. Either he feels hurt or he doesn’t. Either he’s angry or he isn’t. Very little of that has anything to do with me. Either he’ll call or he won’t.

If he doesn’t call, is that actually a bad thing? I feel a sense of loss right now but it’s not about losing the relationship we have — it’s losing the dream of the relationship I wish we had.

It seems to me that not talking to him would do no more harm than talking to him would. So I’ll occasionally note that he still hasn’t called, and measure his outrage in weeks, and see how it goes. Perhaps he thinks that if he can’t complain about people, he has nothing to say. Perhaps that’s true.

Nextcommunicating with my dad — criticisms of others

communicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

Previouscommunicating with my dad — the standard dysfunction

Although my main disappointment when it comes to talking to my dad is that he expresses little to no interest in me, I felt that was a difficult issue to address directly: I can’t make him interested. I thought I should focus on something more concrete — a specific behaviour rather than a broad attitude.

It seems that dad’s complaints are mostly a symptom of focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive, which becomes especially clear when he repeats the same complaint about the same person over 10, 15, 20 years, rather than to try to address the issue somehow or to adjust his thinking about it.

I find it very easy to be negative and critical (I wonder why) so I have to make an effort to focus on the positive, and that’s something I’ve been working on for a long time. When I hear a bunch of complaints I feel vaguely shitty. I find dad’s complaints about people especially corrosive, and they leave me tense and grumpy.

The next time we spoke was Christmas Day. Within 3½ minutes (yes, I timed it), he was complaining. I started feeling nervous and tried to work up the courage to speak up, but then he changed to an easier topic and I was able to relax a bit. However, the conversation veered again and he was soon on to a complaint about his neighbours. He was really wound up about it. Venomous. So I said what I’d been practising: “Um, I’m just going to interrupt you there. I’m not actually interested in hearing complaints about people.”

He was taken aback. “Oh, and I suppose your life is perfect?”

“Hardly,” I chuckled.

“Well, what do you want to talk about then?” he snapped.

“Oh, well, maybe we could talk about some of my stuff.” I was holding a list of topics I’d prepared for just this eventuality.

The conversation stumbled for a moment, but he quickly grabbed the reins again. We didn’t talk long; he signed off, saying that he had a bunch of other calls to return.

I felt mostly good about it: I had determined that this was a boundary for me, I asserted it, and I defended it. I felt like I’d accomplished something — in this case, a particular kind of self-care. And then I cried.

I noted that I’d touched a nerve in him, not that that was my intention, but intellectually I found this very interesting because when I follow the “family rules” this kind of thing never happens. Ordinarily, dad snapping at me would have resulted in me feeling awful and like I’d fucked up terribly. This time I was just sad — that this is how it is, how he is, how our relationship is. These days I know that it’s not my job to manage anyone’s feelings, and it’s healthy for me to speak up for what I need, but actually acting on that knowledge is still difficult. I’m hoping it gets easier with practice.

(When dad complains and I feel shitty, is that a symptom of me still feeling some responsibility for his emotions? Is it me absorbing his emotions, and thus a sign of a boundary that needs strengthening? I may need to do more work on this, but even without that element, the fact is that my conversations with him — or rather, the times when I listen to him on the phone — are all duty and no fun, and I’m allowed to try to edit my life into something that’s more enjoyable.)

A family argument during the holidays is so commonplace that it’s a trope, and here I was, technically the instigator, but really just finally prioritising my own needs and protecting my wounds. I went over to mom’s later that day for supper and told her about the exchange. Her eyes lit up like I’d wrought magic. She was delighted that I’d prepared a list of topics.

Merry Christmas.

So, now what?

Nextcommunicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

communicating with my dad — the standard dysfunction

In late September last year I had a phone conversation with my dad that I found especially frustrating. While he was going on at length about every bit of minutia in his life, I was having difficulty getting a word in edgewise. He’d asked me precisely two questions, and interrupted one of those answers. When he’d had enough of the conversation, he signed off, leaving me annoyed and aware that we really hadn’t connected at all. I’d just been an audience. Again.

Over the next month or so, I pondered this and compared it to previous conversations with him. In that respect, this one had been unremarkable – it’s the way things usually went with him, but I’d always shrugged and didn’t think about it until next time.

This time was different. One reason was that I’ve been surrounding myself with authors and people online who say that if there is someone in your life who does something that causes you difficulties, you’re allowed to ask them not to do that thing. This is contrary to what I’d learned growing up, but it has finally started to sink in.

As I thought about my relationship with my dad, and in particular our roughly monthly calls, I became aware that he rarely expressed any interest in me, and the usual topic of conversation was the trivia of his life (down to his heel that still aches), much of which was complaints, and commonly complaints about his wife’s adult children (who are about the same age as me). I also began to realise that I don’t especially enjoy these calls. They’re just something to endure.

It had occurred to me that maybe he couldn’t talk to his wife about these things (and especially her kids), and so maybe he didn’t have anyone else to vent to. But he’d assigned me this role without ever asking me if that was OK, and as it happens I’m not OK with it, and I don’t actually have to participate in calls that I find largely unenjoyable.

The other thing that was different this time was that I’d gone for lunch with my mom at a time when this was still on my mind. Although we don’t generally talk about anything significant (that’s a whole other issue), I raised this with her, mentioning my concern that dad had no one else to talk to.

Now, my parents split when I was a kid and it was largely very reasonable, neither of them badmouthed the other, and they still talk from time to time. But she said matter-of-factly, “Oh, he’s like that with everybody.”

Huh.

I’d resolved to confront him in some way about the issue next time we spoke but I hadn’t figured out how best to handle it and that was stressing me out, especially since I was already thoroughly stressed about preparing for my upcoming trip to Japan. I eventually gave up on saying anything about it this time; it would have to wait until I was home again. But if he wasn’t interested in hearing about me, why should I shoehorn that info into the conversation? I decided not to offer anything, and in particular not mention the Japan trip unless he expressed a minimum of interest in me by saying something like “So, anything new going on?”

The next time he called was, as luck would have it, the day before my trip, and as the conversation felt like it was winding up, he happened to ask, “Got any trips coming up?”

“Actually, yes! I’m going to Japan tomorrow!”

“Oh! Good thing I called then,” he said with a touch of acidity.

I thought, but did not say, No, it’s good that you actually asked me one question about my life.

So we chatted about that for a bit, and the conversation felt more balanced and thus better than usual, but it didn’t solve anything.

I needed to do something more.

Nextcommunicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

F4TF: communication

This week, the F4TF team asks:

Are you comfortable discussing sex with your partner? Do you have the confidence to ask for what you like/want?

I can now, but it wasn’t always so.

For me, good communication is a hard-won skill. I don’t remember ever seeing my parents (before they split) discussing difficult issues, though I did witness the occasional blow-up. As for me, if I did something wrong, my mom’s disapproval was silently icy, while my dad would bite his tongue until he couldn’t anymore, then shout at me.

Since I started having relationships, there have been many times when I wanted to say something (for instance, about a difficulty I was having with the relationship) but suffered a sudden, paralyzing attack of muteness.

Talking about sex involved a foundation of general muteness topped with a thick layer of sexual shame. The inherent reticence remained a problem, but before I could even try to speak I had to know what I wanted, which meant I had to be aware of and acknowledge my wants. So I first had to allow myself to have wants. The net effect was that I didn’t have much, if anything, to say.

Things have improved a great deal for me, but it’s not always easy. My communication style still leans towards delicacy rather than bluntness. Wolf and I started really discussing things while he was still out of the country, so everything was mediated by the distance of Skype, or email, or curated Tumblr images. I’ve gotten over my reticence with him and I experience only occasional mild embarrassment, which is typically paired with a slight hesitation to speak. But do I still get a bit hung up at the stage of actually knowing what I want and allowing myself to want. That’s something I’m working on. Once I know what I want, I don’t find it overly difficult to ask for it.

Gawan and I have more to discuss, and this is the first time I’ve gone through the early phases of a relationship without being stuck on mute. In his frankness, he sets a good example for me. And given how we met, talking about sex was definitely going to be on the table! Things are complicated by the fact that this is long-distance, and we’re also discussing BDSM. If I’m unable to articulate an answer while we’re talking on Skype – whether from shyness or just not knowing – I’ll take some time afterwards to have a bit of a think and then write an email. I always find writing easier than saying it out loud.

In communication needs and wants, my exploration of the dark and hidden corners of myself is as big a part of the process as being able to give voice to what I find.