trust 1: groundwork

It’s pretty much impossible for me to identify a single moment that represents “the beginning” of my new, healthy sexuality. My epiphany — when I realized that I had inherited my mother’s sexual shame — marks the moment when I took full ownership of my own sexuality, but that was only the last step in a long and complicated process.

A couple of months before the epiphany, I’d had an important realization that turned out to be highly significant, even though at the time it didn’t seem especially earth-shattering, and in some ways it struck me (afterwards, of course) as blindingly obvious.

After Wolf and I had been together for about two years and sex had already become infrequent, I continued to get more and more tense about physical displays of affection. I had a set of incorrect beliefs that amounted to a twisted and unhealthy logic. Touch was a continuum, from non-sexual at one end to sexual at the other. If I consented to Wolf touching me in a non-sexual way, that seemed to automatically include (or dispense with the need for) consent to be touched in the most intimate way I had ever agreed to be touched by him in the past, i.e. sex. In other words, if hug then sex, if that’s what he wanted. That conclusion is patently ridiculous, but through a combination of family history and dating experiences, that’s what I subconsciously believed and it scared the shit out of me. This flawed logic led me to conclude that the only way to effectively control or avoid sexual contact was to control or avoid all physical contact. So Wolf agreed he wouldn’t initiate hugs or anything else and would leave that to me.

By instituting this rule, I felt a certain amount of relief because it meant that I didn’t have to be on my guard against unwanted contact. But of course I wasn’t much inclined to initiate. After some time, I mellowed on the hug issue, but still felt uncomfortable with most forms of physical affection.

Years passed.

While Wolf was in the UK not so long ago, I had lots of time and space to think. There was no one around who I could possibly need to protect myself from, so after about two years my guard eventually came down. I didn’t consciously let it down, because I didn’t know how. It simply atrophied from disuse.

Once my guard came down, I got thinking about this history of ours and I calculated how long it had been since I had imposed the no-touch restriction. It had been ages, the better part of two decades, for fuck’s sake. And in the spring two years ago, in that quiet moment while I was leaning on the kitchen counter and just thinking, it finally bubbled up into my awareness that Wolf had faithfully followed the rule I’d laid down for all that time. Was he trustworthy? Yes, obviously! I couldn’t imagine what else he could possibly do to prove it any further. He had gone so far above and beyond. Did I in fact trust him? Yes. Unreservedly.

Because of other difficult things that were going on in my life, I had been reading and learning about boundaries, a concept that was entirely new to me. In some areas my boundaries were too porous, but this was an example of one that was too rigid. Like a person who is too focused on dodging other pedestrians on the sidewalk, or simply on her own feet, I’d failed to notice this 20-foot tall emotional wall made of grey cinder blocks and topped with barbed wire. Huh. Time for some demolition work.

I first imposed that rigid boundary to keep me feeling safe, then maintained it for years out of habit. It had become obsolete without my noticing it; it had served me for a while but I didn’t need it anymore and it had become a hindrance rather than a help. I didn’t have to police Wolf. Rather than maintaining that wall, I could just draw a line on the ground and leave it to him to respect it.

Wolf had been demonstrating his trustworthiness for ages; I had developed a certain amount of trust in him, but not as much as he had earned. After becoming aware of both the trustworthiness and the trust, I allowed myself to relax into my trust of him, to allow myself to be vulnerable because I was perfectly safe with him.

Until very recently, I had thought that this realization about trust was a precondition for my epiphany about sexual shame, but now I think that trust and sexual shame are separate issues and not connected in a linear fashion. Instead, I see them as parallel strands that are equally important. If I’d worked out the sexual shame issue first, perhaps trust would have been the epiphany. Either way, I figured it out.

My new knowledge and attitude was in one sense hard-won: sexuality had been a troublesome issue essentially all my life up to that point.

In another sense though, it couldn’t have been easier. I’d been doing reading and work on personal growth, spurred by some incidents that were entirely unrelated to any of this. I started with interpersonal relationships and “know thyself” type reading, and then, because I decided to follow where my curiosity led, I ended up reading about sex and relationships too. When I finally stumbled over my grand solution, it felt like an unlooked for gift, like a duffel bag filled with stacks of unmarked bills in a garbage can in the park.

Maybe it seemed too easy and thus necessarily superficial. For a while I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And then, after I’d forgotten about it, it did.


Anne Katherine, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Jan Black & Greg Enns, Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1997).

 

Dark Ages 20: Bad Boy, a special case

Dark Ages is a series about my dating history. I left off six months ago, saying that Bad Boy would be getting his own post “soon”. Oops. But now, finally, here it is…

My relationship with Bad Boy was seriously fucked up, but there was also a level of complexity that I was unable to understand back then. From time to time over the years I’d look back, shake my head and wonder what the hell had happened. It took years, but I think I’ve unravelled it all.

During the relationship

We met, had a bit of a romp that night (but no sex), and started dating immediately. I vaguely recall that it seemed good at the beginning. I don’t know when it started to go bad — within a couple of months I suppose. Things soured gradually.

I had low self-esteem to begin with and it got lower while I was with him. I had gone from feeling like I needed to be in a relationship to feeling like I needed to be in a relationship with him, even though I wouldn’t have said that being with him made me happy — if I’d even thought to ask myself that question. (I don’t think I knew what happiness looked like. Either that or I didn’t think my happiness in a relationship was particularly relevant to anything.)

Once when I was feeling down on myself, I asked him if he thought I was pretty; he couldn’t answer the question without first referencing his own appearance and getting affirmation that I thought he was good looking. He pressured me for sex constantly, and, not allowing myself to be aware that I didn’t want it, I just gave it to him.

I’ve always been quiet, low-key, and low drama. This relationship turned me into a “half-dressed, shouting at each other in the middle of the street” crazy person. I didn’t recognize myself. There were times when I’d get upset about who knows what, he’d do or say something in response, and I’d end up vibrating with tension and frustration, ready to scream, wail, punch the wall, or all of the above.

The immediate aftermath

It wasn’t until I was well out of the relationship that I started being able to see what had happened. I’ve always been very honest, so it never occurred to me that he would lie to me, repeatedly, about trivial things. And I was naïve.

Here’s an example: his dad owned a small business (true); his dad went on a business trip to LA (maybe); he accompanied with his dad on that trip (probably not); he got driven around in a limo (ridiculous lie); he saw a major band at a concert (lie). At the time, I was a bit envious that he’d seen the band, since it was one that I quite liked.

And another: he had seen a modestly famous singer perform (probably a lie); he met and danced with her (ridiculous lie). But it made me jealous, which I suppose was his intention.

His lies taught me to be skeptical, cautious and closed off. Or rather, they reinforced my natural tendency to keep myself closed off. I had been badly hurt and I concluded that it was safer to keep my distance.

Much later

Over the years, I’d look him up the odd time in the phone book, and later on Facebook. I was very happy to have nothing to do with him, but I hadn’t been able to heal all the hurts and I was still wary. I kept an eye on him the way I’d keep an eye on a spider on the basement floor that was getting too close while I tended to the laundry.

Then out of nowhere, he tried to friend me on Facebook. I saw that he was still living in our hometown, while I had moved to another city. I ignored him. He pestered me, asking why I didn’t friend him. I explained that my friends list was small, I only connect with people I want to stay in touch with, and we hadn’t been in touch. He eventually huffed off, but not until he took a dig at me for “not being over him yet”. Whatever.

About a year later, he got in touch again and now wanted to meet up. Fuck. Wolf and I had just moved back to our hometown so I no longer had the convenient excuse of living in a different city to avoid a meetup. I suppose I could have lied or blown him off in some way, but my sense of integrity wouldn’t allow me to do anything but face the issue. So I messaged him; I successfully resisted the urge to tell him it was the worst goddamned relationship I’d ever had, and instead said simply that I didn’t understand why he wanted to meet up because “our relationship was not good”. Major litotes right there. Even so he completely flipped out. It was just bizarre. And his overreaction rattled me.

He wouldn’t let it go, but he did regain some composure. If I capitulated now, it might save further unpleasantness in the long run. I rarely find myself worried about my personal safety, but we lived in the same city now: if I thwarted him at this point, would he escalate and try to stalk me? [To my male readers: you may not be aware of it, but it’s a commonplace for a woman to perform a cost-benefit safety analysis regarding a personal interaction with a man. It’s most definitely A Thing. The options are often stroke the guy’s ego versus risk being harassed or attacked. A woman sacrificing her pride and authenticity on the altar of safety is nothing new.]

Eventually, I agreed to the meet, at a new restaurant where we had no history. I guess I was hoping for some kind of closure, and I admit I was a little curious. I had dressed up: I was going for devastatingly beautiful ice queen and it wasn’t hard to feel remote and emotionally distant. He had unintentionally taught me to be on my guard, and demonstrated how well I’d learned that lesson. I leaned back in my chair, creating physical distance. My responses were polite and never overly enthusiastic. I’ve had job interviews that were more warm and cuddly.

He looked different: he had gotten into body-building (quelle surprise) and had bulked up. His face looked a little different too, in a vaguely Mickey Rourke-ish way. Had he gotten into boxing? Botoxed his lips? I suppose it was just the years, and we had been so young. He managed to make himself reasonably pleasant, smiling and joking. He asked me if I was nervous, and then he admitted that he was. Except for some superficial changes in appearance, he seemed like the exact same person he had been ages ago; it was disconcerting.

And as we sat shooting the shit, the lies began again. What had I been up to in the intervening years? One interesting thing I’d done was to visit Thailand. Oh, he had been to Thailand too. Well, maybe; I could see him wanting to hang out at tourist beaches. I also spent a year in Japan. What a coincidence, he had ridden a motorcycle through Japan. Whereabouts? Ah, he couldn’t remember the names of the places. Like hell he’s been to Japan. I left it. We went our separate ways and thankfully I haven’t heard from him since.

I dub thee “Narcissist”

Soon after this meeting, a book* about narcissists caught my eye at the library. I didn’t really know anything about narcissism, but it piqued my interest and I wondered if it might describe him. I took out the book.

High but brittle self-esteem? Check. When didn’t get his way about the Facebook friend request, his “flipping out” looked a lot like a narcissistic rage, a sort of grown-up temper tantrum. When we were dating, he had wanted to feel good about himself and used the narcissist’s strategy of putting me down so he could feel that he was better than me. For the narcissist, facts are malleable: they exist to serve goals like looking impressive, hence his lies past and present about trivialities. Narcissists want you to think highly of them and be impressed. There’s a shallowness: they lack self-awareness and thus they don’t grow.

Narcissists have deep hurts from childhood, and as a result empathetic people want to help them. Beware: it’s a trap! A kind person will want to give a narcissist a hand up. The narcissist will take that hand and use it to pull you into the pit with them, then trample you down, stand on top of you and gloat.

Even though I hadn’t yet learned about narcissism when I met up with Bad Boy, my intuition guided me well. I had already figured out that he had lied to impress me and otherwise manipulate me, so when he began lying I took everything with a grain of salt and offered only polite reactions. No gushing. Like smothering a fire with a blanket so it can’t get oxygen, I deprived his ego of fuel and he simply fizzled out. Our meeting was civil and I haven’t heard from him since.

I was over him a long time ago, and now that I understand his narcissism, I’ve finally healed from the harm he caused me.


* Wendy T. Behary, Disarming the Narcissist: Surviving and Thriving with the Self-Absorbed (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2008).

Because I didn’t make note of the title at the time, I went back to the library to track the book down so I could footnote it here. While flipping through it, I found information about the sorts of people who tend to fall prey to narcissists. I suppose this spoke to me at least a little when I first read it, but now that I know myself so much better, I can see that young me would have been a narcissist’s favorite snack.

I had an epiphany

Before

My partner1 and I have had an excellent relationship for almost 20 years (we married almost 10 years ago). But not even a year in, the sex declined rapidly and remained minimal. Like once-every-two-months-ish or less.2

Because of me.

I wanted to want to. But — for some reason I couldn’t figure out — I didn’t actually want to. The result: I was on my guard at all times and simultaneously felt guilty that I didn’t want it. Completely torn. I was grateful (and occasionally a little surprised) that my partner stayed with me through it all. Top all of that off with another helping of guilt.

Then

For the last couple of years, my partner has been studying overseas and thus has been away for 2 to 6 months at a time, and home for up to 3 months at a time. I hoped that my anxiety about sex would decline while we were apart, and that my defences would drop on their own. Maybe then I could make some kind of improvement.

About a year ago, I started to have serious challenges with work/family (it’s a family business — so complicated). I started seeing a counsellor occasionally and doing lots of reading on anything remotely relevant to the situation: toxic workplace; body language; passive aggression; my personality and the personalities of others at work; anger; boundaries; sensitivity and the highly sensitive person (HSP).

It took a while, but my sexuality began to thaw this past summer as hoped, and I started doing some reading in that area as well. I had always felt uncomfortable with sexuality generally. I had never experienced anything particularly negative — it just seemed to be an attitude or belief that I couldn’t shake, no matter what sex-positive stuff I read or how I tried to correct my thinking.

Somehow, the phrase ‘sexual shame’ came to mind, and now I had a search term. I was able to confirm that, yes indeed, sexual shame was what I was experiencing. Now, where the hell did it come from?

Suddenly

A throwaway line in a book about HSPs changed everything for me: the sensitivity of HSPs makes it possible for them to be deeply affected by the hurts of others, for instance a sensitive child picking up on the past sexual trauma of a parent.3

Whoa.

My mother was sexually abused by her father.

This is all I know about it. The fact that I know at all is, in itself, highly improbable.

What if my negative attitude about sex is actually hers, not mine?

Sex is shameful and bad. Being married doesn’t make sex OK. Sex is not enjoyable. Always protect yourself — merely saying ‘no’ is probably not sufficient. If sex can’t be avoided, it is to be merely survived. Men are dangerous and can’t be trusted about sex. Sex is absolutely private and should never be discussed with anyone. Displays of affection, sensuality or sexuality are always inappropriate. All of these incorrect beliefs are consistent with an unhealthy attitude created by abuse.

Finally — finally — things started to fall into place for me. I don’t think I spent much time pondering: the realization alone seems to have thrown the door wide open. Perhaps the other personal growth work that I had done (getting to know myself better in general terms, learning about sex positivity) had established the necessary groundwork. I’m not sure. But now I’m off to the races.

So here I am, in a long-term committed and deeply loving relationship, finally enjoying my sex life (thank fuck!) and wanting to express it, but oh god not to anyone I actually know!


1   For the purposes of this blog, he prefers the term ‘partner’ rather than ‘husband’ because the latter has a lot of connotations that he doesn’t care for.

2   I haven’t found any reliable definitions in my brief research on the point, but in accordance with this article, I accept the term ‘sex-starved relationship’ as meaning sex less than 10 times per year. A ‘sexless relationship (marriage)’ would then mean no sex at all.

3   I didn’t make note of the book at the time, but I think it was either The Highly Sensitive Person, or The Highly Sensitive Person in Love, both by Elaine Aron.