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 4: Small Town and a busy New Year’s Eve

I must have met Small Town in the fall of my first year of university; I don’t remember, nor do I remember much else about him either. I was interested in him because I was alone and he was interested in me. Even then, that seemed like a poor reason.

Small Town was about three years older than me, with a young and very unplanned child in his ex’s custody. He liked to go to the bar. (My first underage drink had been with Tall a few months earlier at a restaurant, and a little while later we got into a bar. Tall facilitated my meagre underage drinking but never had a drink himself; I got a mild buzz and felt like an idiot.) With Small Town, I got into the bar despite still being underage, drank and even enjoyed it a bit.

I slept with him a few times during our two months together. I wasn’t a virgin, and in a relationship you have sex, right? ‘Sex’ and ‘should’ again.

By the end of December, I was over it. Truthfully, I had never been into it in the first place. I stopped by his place early in the evening on New Year’s Eve, we had our talk, and I was a free agent in time for the parties that evening.

Party number 1 was at Buddy’s place. I had met Buddy a year or two earlier and we been friends for a few months. Eventually I figured out that he was interested in me, but for once I didn’t reciprocate at all. Still, he kept hanging around expectantly. At Buddy’s party, I met Dude. I enjoyed chatting with him, but it didn’t go anywhere.

At party number 2, I met Bad Boy. He was good looking, confident and flirty. I was hooked.

In the space of less than six hours, I had broken up with Small Town, missed or ignored two opportunities in the form of Buddy and Dude, and thought I’d made out well when I ran into Bad Boy. Little did I know the direction things would take from there…

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.