Dating. This is something that I have historically been, notoriously bad at. This always seemed a strange paradox to me, because I’ve always known that I want to be in a relationship, only I had no idea how to navigate them. I was completely clueless to when women had shown interest in me, and ended up clinging to unhealthy forms of relationships in my past. And a lot of how I’ve handled my relationships in my past, are ways that I’ve had modeled for me by those closest in to me and popular culture.
But what I’ve come to realize is, that most of how I had been handling relationships, and the role models that got me there, were monumentally unhealthy. In the following, I’ll be going over some of the lessons that I was taught while I was growing up, and how I’ve adapted or overcome from these unhealthy habits of connecting. So let’s jump in where it all started for me in the romantic world, with sex.
The Importance of Sex and Dating
This is a loaded topic, and one with many avenues to travers. I’ve written about this some in my post about porn and porn addiction. This is not an easy one for lots of folks, including myself. I’ve stopped using porn, almost a decade ago, but it is something that is ubiquitous in our culture. Something that I was introduced to at the age of eight and by my caregivers at that. This was way too early to be taught about sex to almost any degree, but in relation to romantic connection, I might as well have been taking a trig class in between recess, nap time and lunch. Out of my element.
To start, there was a lot of unhealthy messages being sent to me, and those around me at the time, involving the importance of sex and how it’s connected to belonging. And to be sure, this isn’t anything new. We seem to struggle with this a new each generation. This was the case in my family and one that was driven home countless times. From my grandmother being a model and ridiculing her children for not fitting the image or standard of beauty she felt as though she imbued, to her children handing down that ire to my generation.
Or the porn addiction that was also handed down generationally. Time and again, the message was that if you weren’t attractive or sexually desirable, you did not belong. This was the message I learned at the tender age of eight, along with a few others that I won’t go into detail about. But all roads lead to Rome so to speak; love and belonging hinged on whether or not someone wanted to have sex with you. When you are left with sex appeal as equal to belonging as your only map to navigate relationships with, then sex becomes the most important aspect of your relationships.
And this was how I navigated almost all of my relationships. If I wasn’t trying to get with some woman, I was talking about women to my friends in the most obscene ways. Nothing was off limits. Either that or I was comparing myself to those around me. Who was more attractive, is she more interested in my friend than me. And on top of that there was the porn addiction. Every relationship was somehow rooted in sex. This was unhealthy.
And that’s not to say that we can’t have a healthy relationship with sex. Sex is enjoyable, fun and a way to bring another level of intimacy to a relationship. And I don’t want to sound as though I’m proselytizing about how sex is to be feared in some way as inherently dirty or morally wrong. But the messages I was being sent as a child definitely carried that sense of hidden moral ambiguity with them by 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.
Fast forward to my romantic relationships in my twenties and thirties, and I was following in my family’s footsteps by objectifying women as sex objects and treating them with disrespect. It’s also worth mentioning that I didn’t hold onto many relationships. I was also terrified of being emotionally available with others. This goes hand in hand with objectifying women. Because if I didn’t see women as beings 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 emotional freeze.
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 carried with me 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? There were a few things I did to open up emotionally again, and it started with acknowledging our shared humanity. First in myself and then in others.
Waking Up Into Our Emotions
The first step towards inhabiting my emotional world again was to recognize the ways I was leaving 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.
The fear for me 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 others, mainly 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 sex 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.
This is where meditation and yoga came 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 to dodge being uncomfortable, then there is most likely a backlog of difficult emotions to feel your way through. This is where the work lay.
If you are doing this work, and there is any amount of trauma or abuse, I recommend doing it with a professional counselor. And it’s sometimes wise to rely on medications. The message I was given was that real men muscle through tough emotions. This is dangerous and toxic. It’s okay to ask for and rely on help from others and medication 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 and Cultivating Intimacy
Once I was able to slow down enough to feel my emotions, this was where I was able to cultivate emotional intelligence. I became fluid in the language of my emotions. This was what I had been missing in my relationships with the women I was with. If I wasn’t able to understand my own emotional states, there was no chance for me to understand what my partners were experiencing.
And there were many emotions to untangle. What was most striking about this process was, that feelings would arise all at once, and be bundled together and 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 through coffee and alcohol. Speeding past or numbing them. But it wasn’t until I felt the full force of them by reducing the ways I was running from them, and by feeling their individual affect on me, that I was able to begin to develop intimacy with my emotional world. This also had the effect of making my emotional world less overwhelming. And subsequently less terrifying.
This is how we cultivate intimacy in our other relationships as well. By attuning to our emotional needs, we’re able to recognize the emotional needs of our partners and respond to them. Sounds simple, but it takes a lot of digging, listening and caring for what comes up. And staying with the difficult emotions is what’s so, well, 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, first I was treated 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 also the amount of neglect I also experienced as a child. This was where my distrust in others was cast, and what took the most work to overcome. Without the reassurance that you are being cared for, or at least your basic needs are being met, you feel as I did, that people are inherently selfish and dangerous on top of feeling all alone.
So being able to rely on others is something that flies in the face of logic and is also terrifying to even begin to think about. If you’ve been taught that those who are your caretakers are also your abusers, this becomes a problem when your supposed to rely on your ride or die (partner) for the most intimate support. If you’re unable to trust those who are closest to you, including yourself, how do you learn to rely on others and yourself?
Patiences, Forgiveness and Practice: We’re all Just Humans
Patiences is a difficult skill to hone. But if we don’t develop it, there’s a chance that we will react poorly to those whom we rely on. Especially when they make a mistake that hurts us in some way. 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.. And remember, they’re human and bound to make mistakes.
So we’ve accepted ourselves and others as imperfect. But does that make it any easier to weather the hurt feelings or little betrayals along the way? Sadly no. This is where cultivating patience is so important. In sitting with these difficult emotions, the ones I was talking about above that I would avoid by pleasure seeking, numbing or speeding past, I learned to accept them as, yes 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, how I feel about them, and what their intentions are. Most likely the times where my loved ones hurt me aren’t the norm. And when they do, that doesn’t take away any of the past feelings and experiences I’ve had about and with them that are filled with love. Also, their intentions weren’t most likely malicious.
So with patience comes understanding and forgiveness. And this is most important with the person you’re most intimate with. Your romantic partner. If you learn to trust one another’s intentions, then patience and forgiveness will come second nature. But if your trust has been breached in the past by those closest to you, patience and forgiveness also takes practice.
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 high 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, 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 myself.
This is where practicing forgiving yourself is most important. Because neglect is a habit. It’s something that is learned. Either modeled for us or something we do to avoid the difficult parts of living our life and being connected. For me, I had to listen to myself when I as feeling off or overwhelmed. It wasn’t clear at first, the feelings of being neglected and abused, because they felt so normal. But the more I practiced listening inwardly to the feelings of being overwhelmed and of pushing myself too hard and ignoring my physical needs, the better I became at recognizing what I was going through and what I needed.
This type of understanding is something that can be used to attune to others’ needs. And these are the basic building blocks of intimacy in a romantic relationship as well. If your S.O. looks overwhelmed from a long day at work, recognizing what they are feeling and responding from a place of empathy, of “how can I help, I’m here for you”, is an essential way to build trust and intimacy. And if you’re not sure what to do, ask!
There are few things that can harm a relationship more, from my experience, than mind-reading. Feeling you know what the other person is going through without asking, and that 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 and myself. 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 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. We often feel like, well I do anyways, that we need to be like Brad Pitt from “Fight Club” in order to be loved by someone else. 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. Peace, and thanks for reading : )