Dating and relationships in general. This is something that I’ve been historically bad at. This seems a strange paradox to me because I’ve always wanted to be in a romantic relationship. Only I have no idea how to kick game. I’m somewhat clueless to when women show interest in me and I end up clinging to unhealthy forms of relationships when I do get in them. But to be fair, how I’ve handled my relationships in the past are ways that I’ve had modeled for me by those closest in and popular culture.
I’ve come to realize that most of how I’ve been handling my relationships, not to mention the role models that got me there, are monumentally unhealthy. In the following, I’ll be going over some of the lessons that I was taught while growing up and how I’ve adapted to or overcame these unhealthy ways of connecting. So let’s jump in where it all started for me in the romantic world, with sex.
The Importance of Sex & Dating
This is a loaded topic and one with many avenues. I’ve written about this some in my post about porn and porn addiction. This remains a difficult topic for many including myself. I’ve stopped using porn, almost a decade ago, but it is something that is ubiquitous in the culture. And something that I was introduced to at the age of eight and by my caregivers. This was much too early to be taught about sex through pornography. But in relationship to romantic connection, I might as well have been taking a trig class in between recess and nap time. I was out of my element.
To start, there was a lot of unhealthy messages being sent to me by those around me at the time. Mostly about the importance of sex and how it’s connected to how we belong. And this isn’t anything new for sure. We seem to struggle with this a new each generation. This was the case for my family. From my grandmother being a model and ridiculing her children for not fitting the standard of beauty she felt as though she imbued, to her children handing that standard down and the angst, to my generation.
Also, porn addiction that was handed down generationally. Time and again the message was that if you weren’t attractive or sexually desirable, you did not belong. I given this cue at the age of eight, probably sooner. When sex appeal is equal to belonging, and your only map to navigate relationships with, then it stands to reason that sex becomes the most important aspect of your relationships.
Using the Wrong Map
And this was how I navigated almost all of my relationships. If I wasn’t trying to sleep with some woman, I was objectifying them to my friends in the most obscene ways. And nothing was off limits. I was also comparing myself to those around me. Who was more attractive? Is she more into my friend or me? And on top of the constant objectification, there was my porn addiction. Every relationship was somehow rooted in sex. This was unhealthy.
And that’s not to say that all of the above ways of relating to sex is unhealthy. Sex is enjoyable, fun and a way to bring another level of intimacy to your relationship. Also, I don’t want to proselytize about how sex is to be feared. Or in some way is inherently dirty or morally wrong. But the messages I was being sent as a child definitely carried with it a sense of hidden moral ambiguity. Usually by my caregivers avoiding talking about it, or doing it in clandestine ways. And if you’re using the moral compass of an eight year-old, things can look pretty black and white, right or wrong.
Fast forward to my romantic relationships in my twenties and thirties and I was following in my family’s footsteps by treating women with disrespect. And no surprises, I didn’t hold onto many relationships using these methods. I was also terrified of being emotionally available to my partners as well. This goes hand in hand with objectifying women. Because if I didn’t see women as people with emotions, I wouldn’t have to be open and vulnerable with them. This was something that took a long time to realize, after thawing from my emotions being frozen.
So sex really came to mean emotional detachment from my partners. The very people I was looking to belong with and to. These were the unhealthy lessons I was taught and used in the ways I related to my relationships. So if objectifying women was the main way I used to detach emotionally, how did I make the U-turn to being emotionally available? I did a few things to open up emotionally again. And it started with acknowledging our shared humanity. First in myself and then in women.
Waking Up Into Our Emotions
The first step towards inhabiting my emotional world again was to recognize the ways I was leaving them. And what I was using to guard myself against them. For starters, objectifying women was the main barrier between me and cultivating intimacy with the women I was with. I had to first recognize that there was fear in me that I had been running from.
My fear stemmed from the time I was first abandoned by my family and allowed to be abused by my caregivers. Once I confronted that fear, I was able to see women as people with emotional worlds all their own. Not as potential threats to my safety or belonging. I could then appreciate the nuances of their personalities instead of reducing them to one dimensional objects.
One of the ways I was perpetuating this belief was, as I said above, by using porn. When I stopped, my emotions were then more available to me. But there was a fair amount of work that needed to be done to untangle the mass of unprocessed feelings and emotions I had been covering over.
Meditation & Yoga
This is where my meditation and yoga practice comes into the picture. Through meditation, I was able to slow down my emotions enough to understand which emotions were which and why I was feeling them. And yoga taught me to stay when things got uncomfortable. If what you’re doing to avoid emotions amounts to pleasure seeking, such a porn or drinking to dodge being uncomfortable, then there is most likely a backlog of difficult emotions to feel your way through. This is where the difficult work lay.
If you are doing this work and there is any amount of trauma or abuse, I recommend doing it with a professional therapist. And it’s sometimes wise to rely on medications a well. This was the opposite of the message I was given. The one that said “real” men muscle through tough emotions. This is dangerous and toxic. It’s okay to ask for and rely on others for help, and medications when it’s wise to do so. The road can be difficult and scary at times, it’s best not to go it alone.
Emotional Intelligence & Cultivating Intimacy
Once I was able to slow down enough to feel my emotions, this was when I was able to cultivate emotional intelligence. I am slowly becoming fluid in the language of my emotions. This was what I had been missing in my romantic relationships with the women I was with. If I wasn’t able to understand my own emotions, there was no chance that I could understand what my partners were experiencing.
And for me, there were many emotions to untangle. What was most striking about this process was, that feelings would arise all at once. And bundled together, wrapped in fear and anxiety. A life’s time worth of unprocessed emotions, all surfacing at once. Demanding my attention and without an understanding of what they were trying to tell me. This was overwhelming.
The ways I used to manage my emotions was by drinking a lot of coffee and alcohol. Speeding past or numbing them were my management methods. But it wasn’t until I stopped running from my feelings that I felt the full force of them and then felt each individual emotion and the affect they had on me. This was how I was able to develop intimacy with my emotional world. This also made my emotional world less overwhelming. And substantially less terrifying.
This is how I cultivate intimacy in my other relationships as well. By attuning to a friend or my partner’s emotional needs, I’m able to recognize and respond to them. Sounds simple enough, but it took a lot of digging for me to get to that point. Listening to and caring for what comes up. And staying with the difficult emotions is what’s so, well, so difficult in the first place. So what makes this possible?
Resources for Emotional Growth
For me, I needed to feel safe and supported again. This was most difficult due to the ways that I was abused growing up and second, how I chose to live as a reaction to my upbringing.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog the abuse I endured, but there was also a fair amount of neglect I experienced as a child. This was where my distrust in others, especially those close, was cast. And this is what took the most work for me to overcome. Without reassurance that your needs are going to be attuned to, or at very least, your basic needs are going to be met, you’d probably feel as I did. That people are inherently selfish and dangerous and will leave you lonely.
So being able to rely on others is something that flies in the face of logic for the neglected and also a terrifying prospect. If you’ve been taught that those who are your caretakers are also your abusers, this becomes a problem when you’re later supposed to rely on your ride or die (partner) for intimate support. So how do we cultivate trust?
Patience, Forgiveness & Practice: We’re all only Human
Patience is a difficult skill to hone. But if we don’t develop it, we’ll probably react poorly to those whom we rely on when they make a mistake that hurts us. Maybe it’s an off comment or a broken promise. We’re only human, it’s bound to happen once and a while. If it happens often enough, then maybe there needs to be another conversation about setting healthy boundaries. But it’s best to give the person the benefit of the doubt. Especially if they’re your S.O..
So we’ve accepted ourselves and others as imperfect. But does that make it any easier to weather the hurt feelings? Or the little (or big) betrayals along the way? Sadly no. This is why cultivating patience is so important. From my experience of sitting with difficult emotions, the ones I was talking about above that I would avoid by pleasure seeking, I learned to accept them as difficult, but also passing. They won’t last forever.
And once I got through the uncomfortable emotions and feelings of being hurt by my loved ones, it was easier to see what really matters. Not that I was hurt, but who the person is who hurt me. How I feel about them and what their intentions are. Usually, the times where a loved one has hurt me aren’t the norm. And when they do hurt me, that doesn’t take away any of my love for them. Also, being loved ones, their intentions were most likely not malicious.
So with patience comes understanding and forgiveness. This one is most important to practice with the person you’re most intimate with. If you learn to trust one another’s intentions, then patience and forgiveness will come second nature.
Taking Care of Yourself & Your Close Ones’ Needs
This was something I had to learn, am still learning. How to show up for myself when I need me most. Because I know if I’m willing to neglect my own needs, I’m going to have an unreasonably expectation of others when I don’t see them neglecting their own needs for the sake of what’s important to me, in the ways I would. And for the record, I recognize that this is unhealthy. For example, I would often think people were lazy if they weren’t pushing themselves to exhaustion in the ways I would push myself.
This is where practicing forgiving yourself is most important. Because neglect is a habit. It’s something that is learned and then repeated over and over. Either it’s modeled for us, or a habit we do to avoid the difficult parts of living our life and being connected. For me, I had to listen to myself, especially when I was feeling overwhelmed. At first, the feelings of being neglected and abused weren’t out of the ordinary. Because they felt so normal. But the more I practiced listening inwardly to my feelings of being overwhelmed and of pushing myself too hard while ignoring my physical needs, the better I became at recognizing what I was going through. And also how I needed to respond.
This type of emotional Intelligence is something that can be used to attune to others’ needs also. And these are the basic building blocks of intimacy in a romantic relationship as well. For example, if your S.O. looks overwhelmed from a long day at work, recognizing what they are feeling by asking and responding from a place of empathy by saying, “how can I help, I’m here for you”, is an excellent way to build trust and intimacy. And if you’re not sure what to do, ask!
Mind-Reading, a Relationship No-No
There are few things that can harm a relationship more, from my experience, than mind-reading. Thinking you know what the other person is going through without asking and thinking you know how it “should” be handled, is arrogant. Also telling someone else how they are feeling is equally as damaging. I used to operate from this mindset and it was one of the ways I stopped listening to my partners, family and friends. It was also a way for me to stay disconnected from those closest to me including myself. If you’re not able to listen, you have no idea what the other person is experiencing.
Take The Risks
And finally, if you’ve learned to cultivate some or most of these skills and you’re still willing to put your heart on the line, there’s nothing left to do than to get out there. Take the risk of being seen, heard and hopefully, loved. It probably won’t be easy. Especially if you’ve had your heart broken before. But it sure will be worth it. And you don’t have to be perfect to start. I’m guilty of thinking that I need to look like Brad Pitt from “Fight Club” in order to be loved by somebody. The perfect body, the right living situation, the perfect career… The list goes on.
In case you still feel that way, I’m here to tell you, you don’t. Just be you, or the closest approximation to that you can ; ) Be honest and forgiving to yourself, and you’ll do just fine with your relationships. Peace, & thanks for reading : )