I’ve been thinking lately about romantic relationships and why I’m terrible at them. This is not me being too hard on me–this is objectively true. I haven’t been in one in six years, but I doubt I’ve changed that much in the meantime. Actually, I have changed quite a bit, but it’s still my bugaboo. Here are some of the major things I’ve put up with:
- Being lied to by an ex who said he had broken up with his last partner before I came into the picture. When I found out it wasn’t true and confronted the ex, he said he had opened the relationship, even though the other woman wasn’t happy about it. I’m not sure it was open except in his mind, but even so, it’s not the good way to do polyamory. Even later, I discovered that this person suggested opening the relationship specifically to date me, which made it even more suspect as he had been my best friend up until that point. We broke up and got back together more than once. He wanted to date me and his ‘ex’ at the same time, but then put his foot down when I started dating someone else. We ended up monogamous, but I’m pretty sure he was messing around with the ‘ex’ on the side.
- Being told by another ex that he wanted to open the relationship, and then he freaked out when I became interested in someone else. Dumped me because he wanted to be open and I didn’t (in the end), and then found out from reading his LiveJournal that he found my love ‘so tiring’ which was never mentioned once in the four years together. I got the last laugh, though, when he wanted to be monogamous with their next girlfriend, and she dumped him for the other guy she was dating.
- This one is complicated. I became involved with a couple. He went abroad, and she and I started dating. She had a problem with alcohol, and I had to drag her out of the Gay 90’s (sic) (gay club) because she was acting so obnoxious, one guy told me to get her out before she got herself in trouble. I dragged her to my car, and she started fumbling with the door as I was driving. I screeched to a halt, and she puked (thankfully, after opening the door). When we got to her apartment, I dragged her upstairs and deposited her on the couch and sat with her for half an hour. I made sure she was breathing before leaving. In addition, she stopped the sex once she started feeling guilty (though she and her boyfriend were open), but then would tease about what she would love to do to me even though she wouldn’t do it.
- Emotional abuse and the very real fear of physical abuse with a healthy side dish of gaslighting.
Any of those should have been deal-breakers, but they weren’t. At the core, it was about the fact that I had absorbed the idea that I should be with someone at any cost, that I was not worthy of someone better, and that I should be grateful that someone, anyone would want to date me.
Full acknowledgement: I was a hot mess when I was in my teens and twenties for many reasons. I was not a good girlfriend, but one thing I did was try my damnedest to make it work. I bought into the notion that it was up to me to make sure a relationship worked and that if it failed, it was my fault. Relationships take hard work! The saying goes. Funny, though, how most of that work is expected to be done by the woman of a heteronormative relationship. I’ve been reading the fabulous Captain Awkward*, and I’ve had several realizations about my relationship style from reading the archives.
- I have the tendency to manage other people’s feelings. I am a pro at reading social cues (even if I sometimes ignore them), and you could even say that I’m hypervigilant. For me it’s a PTSD thing and a ‘parents who make you responsible for their emotions’ thing, and I know it’s my issue. However, society has encouraged women to be the keeper of the emotions, especially in a romantic relationship, and it’s our fault if a relationship falls apart because we weren’t sensitive enough to our partners’ needs. I’ve always known this about me, but the number of letters written by women (of all sexual orientations, but mostly straight) who describe how they’ve twisted themselves into knots for their partners only to get shat on, then worry about how to fix it without hurting their partners’ feelings depresses the fuck out of me.**
- I learn about what my partner’s interested in. I want to emphasize that this is a good thing in general, but it’s not good if only one person in the relationship does this. It’s another thing I see in the letters quite a lot–the woman makes an effort to learn about her partner’s passion while he makes no effort to learn about hers or even worse, belittles it. This can include hobbies, pop culture tastes, and even professions.
- I value their time over my own. If my partner needs me, I’m there. If they want to do something, let’s do it! Again, the opposite isn’t true, but more because I don’t feel I have the right to ask for something myself, and I identify too strongly with being the giver/listener/helper. Also, I have a background in psychology, which makes me naturally empathetic. This happens in my daily life as well as in my romantic relationships. I’m the one who has people unloading their entire stories on me when I just want to buy my fucking groceries, man! I also can feel other people’s emotions, especially negative ones, without even trying. I’m the Saver who will listen for hours to someone’s problems because they Need me! I’m getting better at it, but being a Savior is a heady feeling, I’ll tell you what. I’ve seen many letter writers talk about this, and it’s something else that society encourages: making your man better. Love will make a man better, we are constantly told. No, it won’t, and it’s insulting to the man to boot. Plus, who the hell wants a partner who is a lifetime DIY project?
- I am unrealistically hopeful and cling gratefully to any crumbs thrown my way. This is another theme I saw in the letters. “He said he’s not ready for a relationship.” “He said I’m too good for him.” “He said he didn’t want to hold me back.” I’ve heard variants of these, and it always means, “I don’t want to be with you.” Period. Full stop. No qualifiers. It’s also a way for a partner to keep their options open, consciously or unconsciously.
Here are things I’ve learned from binge-reading the archives of Captain Awkward’s website. I knew most of them already, but sometimes, I need to see it in black and white before it’ll penetrate my brain. One, if it’s not an enthusiastic yes, it’s a no. Two, it really is better to be alone than in a shitty relationship. Three, intent doesn’t matter. (Were they being malicious, did they mean it when they said ____–doesn’t matter. Take their words at face value.) Four, while relationships are work, they shouldn’t be HARD all the time. The work should be negotiating when to see each other, if everyone is getting their needs met, etc. It shouldn’t be, “Do we want to be together? Don’t we?” every goddamn day. Next, you don’t need a reason to leave, and you don’t have to explain it. That’s not been a problem for me as I’m more likely to be dumped than to dump, but that’s because I hold on to the bitter end.
The biggest (self) script that I appreciate from that site is: Is your partner doing 10% of the ____ you’re doing? Mostly, it’s used in the context of emotional agonizing, but it can fit for many other things as well. Until I saw that question, I never thought to think about the emotional labor I’ve been doing in concrete terms. Now, one caveat: I give way too much in all ways (the one ex saying my love was tiring was not wrong–he was just wrong to post about it online, using my name, without ever having told me), so a partner giving 10% of what I do in terms of, say, listening to my problems is actually reasonable. However, they have to give that ten percent willingly, and they have to be accepting when I say, “You know what? I’ve been doing too much of the emotional work in our relationship, and I’m cutting back.”
I’m thinking about this because I want sex. Another thing I appreciate about CA is that there are plenty of polyamorous, asexual/aromantic, and non-traditional relationship people on the site, and it’s helping me explore what I actually want from someone in a romantic/sexual relationship. I realized early on that I did not want to get married for political and personal reason. I’ve known all my life that I didn’t want to have children, and soon, that won’t be an issue. Later, I realized that I don’t want to live with a romantic partner (never have), and more recently, I’m questioning whether I even want a romantic relationship at all. I’ve written about it before that I get enough emotional connection and support from my friendships. I also know that I get really clingy and lose myself in a romantic relationship. I don’t like that about myself, and I like who I am better outside of a romantic relationship than when I’m in one. Yes, I probably could work on that to the point where it’s not true, but it’s not high on my list of priorities.
You know what is? Sex. I love sex. A lot. And I haven’t had it in a variety of years for many reasons. I’m finding it to be more and more of a distraction, so I want to focus on that. Healthy sex with a person maybe people, which means navigating many potential waters of troubles. I’ve never had a woman not understand what I meant by just wanting to be FWB. Men? Yeah, no. They’re OK with it at first, but then they’re all, “But I looooove you!” and can’t understand why I don’t feel the same way in response. I’ve also had several male partners not believe me when I say I have a high libido. I have my theory why that is, but another post for another day.
Bottom line: I need sex. It’s up to me to find a good way to reach that goal.
*I have some issues, but 90% of it is awesome.
**Do NO #NotAllMen me because I know women who are emotionally abusive/absent/assholes, but the pattern is that women take care of men’s feelings.