I don’t know how to do relationships.
Don’t get me wrong. I know how to advise about relationships. I’d make a great family therapist or marriage counselor. I marry people—to one another, of course—in ceremonies, as the ordained minister with credentials recognized by the state. Ask me about your relationship and I will give you fabulous advice about how to do your relationship well.
But the second I get involved with another human in an intimate relationship, I turn into a raging lunatic.
I literally chased a man the other night.
Ran after him.
People, I don’t run. If a bear chases you, you lie down in a ball and protect vital organs. If a person with a gun demands something of you, you give it to them. If bullets start flying nearby, you get your body as flat to the ground and as behind cover as it can get, and you stay there. Fuck running. I have not run in years and I don’t intend to start now. But I ran to catch up with a man who was running away from me. Literally.
It’s like I give out some sort of inaudible and unintended signal that can only be heard by people who will help me create crazy in my life. A dog whistle of sorts emanates from my person. (Granted, we usually also create crazy in the bedroom, which is amazing and which I love with an intensity only matched by that of my orgasms. So, there are definitely perks.)
But I cannot figure out how not to be the most insecure woman on the planet when it comes to being in a relationship of a romantic nature. And even if the person I start the relationship with is totally secure, normal, and stable at the beginning, I make them nuts by the time we are a couple of months in, because my crazy is so intense that it spreads like a virus. And I’m not sure how to stop that.
I can keep you from getting my herpes, but not my insane, obsessive notions that I am unlovable and not good enough and being “punked” every time you attempt to love me well.
I constantly think I am being tricked into something. Into what, I do not know. But I am convinced there must be some form of deception happening. How could there not be, given my history?
It’s strange, because I see great models of what a “good man” is all around me. And I don’t mean that bullshit “real men _____” that accompanies toxic masculinity and the vomitorium that is men’s rights groups. The last thing I need in my life is some controlling, machismo, hyper-masculine ass. I’ve been with that. It didn’t go well.
When I say “good man”, I mean a balanced, thoughtful, feminist, who cares about the world and the people in it, and treats all people with respect, but offers an extra layer of that care and love to the partner in his life. My dad is one of these people, though he might not love that I call him “feminist” (I mean that you believe in equal rights for all people, Dad—which I know you totally do.) My “brother”, Adam, is one of these people. My friend, Luke, is one of these people. Andrew, Allan, Josh, Brian, Bryan, Matt, Joshua, Dan, Phillip, James, Ted, David, and the list goes on. Not to mention the long list of good women out there who model great personhood and great partnership for me to follow.
So, I see these good men and women, and then I think I pick one of these good men or women out of the lot of single people out there around me, and then things go really well for the first month, and then…
Then my mind starts to play the game where it thinks that I am not enough, so I need more and more evidence that I am enough. So, I cling and I push and I beg and I get all sorts of unreasonable. I know I am doing it on some level, I think. I used to try to deny it and to believe that I was constantly being gaslighted. (Not that I was never being gaslighted, because there was lots of gaslighting going on in my history, just not at the times that I was creating the problem.) Now I am more aware of it, and I have come to accept that I have a nervous attachment style—I need lots of assurance that the person I am with wants to be with me and considers me enough.
It has taken a long time for me to consider that valid—that need for assurance. But it makes all of the sense that I would need extra assurance, given the fact that I was locked into abusive cycles for much of my relationship history, and those cycles told me repeatedly that I was not worthy or enough. Now, I just sort of wait for the person I am with to start that cycle of abuse. And when they don’t, I start to become confused and anxious and weird.
That sounds stupid. To put the words on the page feels really strange.
To admit that I become confused, anxious, and weird when nobody starts a cycle of abuse is terrible.
It is sad.
It is devastating.
But it is so true.
So, I think that I have started it myself. I have convinced myself that now is about the time that my partner should start to treat me poorly, so I make comments or do things that cause conflict. I get angry that he leaves to go to his on-call job—even though I know he is on call. I ask if he is embarrassed to be seen with me, when he and I have just been walking down the street hand in hand. I push when he asks me to pull. I go when he asks me to stop. I accuse him of not wanting to be with me when he is with me. I do the weirdest things, because I think that conflict should happen now, and he isn’t starting it.
I’m breaking my own heart and blaming him for doing so.
Let’s be fair—bad men broke me. The toxicity of relationships prior to now was all their fault, and not my fault at all. I was captive, beaten, raped, assaulted, and abused in all sorts of ways. They are responsible for that. And part of that toxicity is seeping into my present, so they are also partly responsible for what is going on with my relational challenges today. There is no doubt that the breaking that was done before is still affecting me now, and some parts might always stay broken.
But what worries me now is that I fear that I have become toxic. What worries me today is that my only way of being in relationship has been the way of toxicity, and I might not know how to be other. I might not know how to be the partner I expect my partner to be, because of the brokenness that lingers and the places that are still wounded and scarred.
What if I have become the face of my enemy? An enemy that I was in love with, and whom I thought was in love with me, by the way, so I somehow tie love to the war that we were fighting inside our home—inside our life together. What if I can’t figure out how to love without warring?
How do I love without warring?
I suppose that is the question for which I need an answer.
And that question isn’t easily answered. Because you can give me the facts and the formulas, and you can tell me how to move forward without warring, and you can tell me how to love well, but that doesn’t mean that my psyche knows how to follow that instruction.
We all have certain areas in life where we act somewhat automatically. Muscle memory is an example of this. You don’t keep thinking through the way that you are swinging a bat or whisking some eggs or signing your name or rocking the baby. Your body remembers those sensations and it starts to do them automatically, without you having to use up conscious thoughts about how or when you perform particular movements. Your body does the things.
And I have some sort of “muscle memory” about the way I do relationships. Doing them differently takes rewriting the code that is already imbedded in my brain. It’s like trying to become left-handed after 44 years of having a dominant right hand. It’s nearly impossible, and it is excruciatingly difficult and hella frustrating.
It sucks. And I’m not certain that I am capable of making such a huge change. I am certain that making that change soon enough to salvage my current relationship will be some sort of miracle, because I have already pushed it beyond a point where anyone should decide to continue trying to love me, know me, or understand me. Once you literally chase a man down the street, things are likely beyond repair. If this man returns and states that he wants to keep trying to be in relationship with me, I will likely wonder what is wrong with him, and only become more suspicious. What kind of man would date someone so crazy??! Not a balanced, normal, secure man with healthy boundaries, right?
See, I am already planning the next wave of mistrust before I have cleared up the chaos of the last one. I’m a fucking mess when it comes to doing relationships.
Was I single for twenty years because I was focused on other things, or was I single for twenty years because I knew that this was how messed up inside I was feeling, and how poorly dating would go once I began to pursue it? It was definitely simpler to have short-term affairs with people in close proximity whom I didn’t find attractive as long-term partners. It was also morally ambiguous at best, and using people to fulfill my needs in a selfish and terrible way when you didn’t put a positive spin on things. But it got me through and kept me from having to address all of the things that I am putting on paper now.
It kept me from having to face my insecurity, my dependence on cycles of the past, my inability to move forward in healthy ways, my desire not matching my state of mental health, and the deep and difficult work that I still need to do to find balance and some semblance of “normal” in my life and relationships. Letting go of that buffer and finding myself leaning into loving someone has opened up all of those things and put my face right up in that shit. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to deal with it.
It isn’t that I don’t want a healthy, long-term relationship. I do. It is just that I have been doing the hard work of dealing with the effects of my past for so many years now, and I am very, very, very tired of doing that hard work. Opening up my heart to someone means opening up a new set of vulnerabilities and challenges and problems and ugly truths that I need to work hard to overcome.
I am so tired of having to overcome shit.
I am so tired of having to overcome shit.
That wasn’t a typo. I literally needed to write that twice, because it is doubly true.
It isn’t fair that I am forced to overcome all sorts of evils and errors and offenses and other things that other people placed upon me—things that I did not and would not choose. I keep fighting to clear away terrible things that I never gave consent for in the first place. I have to work to fix what other people broke. I have to deal with things that were forced into my life, and the perpetrators who forced this upon me, for the most part, work at nothing. Most of them have jobs, partners, good health, financial security, and what look like lives of happiness and fulfillment. Granted, things aren’t always as they seem, so I won’t claim with certainty that none of them are haunted by their past or struggling in some way. But I can say that they have much that I do not, and that I do not have those things because of the consequences of their actions. I need to overcome the consequences of their actions. And it looks as though they need to overcome very little.
I know that life isn’t fair. I can hear my mom’s voice saying it each time I think to myself or say to someone, “It isn’t fair.”
My mom would always be quick to remind me that life isn’t fair.
But maybe it should be fair.
Maybe those men who did the bad things should have to make reparations of some kind. Maybe those men should have been punished for their crimes against me, instead of rewarded by a system that honors the white man above all things and casts victims to the curb as though they were not human. Maybe I should have been protected from the abusers, or given an opposing perspective, at the very least, so that I didn’t grow up to believe that I am worthless and unlovable and cursed and terrible and shouldn’t be alive.
But life wasn’t fair, and none of those maybes became realities. So, I muddled through the unfairness with my toxic thoughts until I became the maker of my own chaos. When nobody else was here to tell me how worthless I was, I told myself.
And now that a person is getting close enough to love me, I am showing him that I am too messed up to be lovable. He didn’t say it, so I said it for him, by chasing him down the street.
He came by to check on me the next day and asked me to forgive him for arguing with me. He asked me to forgive him! He took the blame for my actions.
I offered him forgiveness. Things have been strained and he has been a bit distant since then.
I text him periodically, asking if he still wants to be with me. He replies by saying that he is very busy at work and very tired, but he will call me as soon as he can.
I’m trying to choose to believe that he is very busy with work, and that this is all there is to the story—the truth being the text taken at face value. But there is a part of me that wants to create all sorts of scenarios where that text isn’t true, and he is using work as an excuse to keep his distance until he can fade out of my life without fear of some sort of crazed retribution.
And, honestly, this post doesn’t end with a nice little resolution and a happy, encouraging anecdote, because the story here is just what I stated: I’m trying to believe what he told me is true when the “muscle memory” inside of me is screaming objections at that belief. My mind is shrieking mistrust, and that is how it will continue, unless or until I can find a way of changing that part of my mind and the perspective on my history that leads it.
The truth of the past and the truth of the present are warring. So, no, I haven’t figured out how to love without warring, because a war is happening inside of me every moment. Even if I don’t fight with the one I love, I need to fight with myself to keep on trusting and to not let the ones who broke me in the past break my present, and my future.
At the end of this post I am still where I was at the beginning:
I don’t know how to do relationships.
…but I am trying to find a way. And that is progress of some kind, I hope.
Last night the chased man (definitely not the chaste man–to be clear) called and asked me what I wanted for dinner. I chose burgers, and he took me out to the best local spot for burgers.
While we ate, I was telling him about the article I wrote about our wild night and big fight and how I feel about being incapable of positive, healthy relationship where I don’t push him into madness and create chaos. And he said, “I’m going to stop you right there. No. No. There was rum involved. And nothing you did created that situation. You didn’t do that. You didn’t do anything. I know that I shouldn’t be drinking, and I have not had any liquor since the moment I left you that night, and you didn’t … no. Just no. Don’t put that on yourself. Don’t even think that for a second. I heard you say to me you forgive me, is that still true?”
I nodded in agreement, a tear rolling down my cheek.
“And you did nothing wrong, but if you feel you did I forgive that too. I think that we can work through this. I think that we are going to be fine. I still want to make this work, and I believe that it will. Unless you don’t want me around anymore?”
“I don’t want that,” was my quick and impassioned retort. “I want you with me.”
“Then I am with you. I would never deliberately abandon you. I would never try to harm you. I am with you.”
And all of the anxious attachment needs were met, and all of the wrongs felt righted, and dinner was lovely, even with tears in my eyes.
Maybe I overestimate my power to destroy things, and maybe I underestimated the power of this man to care for me well.
Later he took me up on a rooftop, high above all the neighboring buildings, and we watched the fireworks. It was the most amazing display I have ever witnessed! Perched above the city, as we were, we could see the shows put on at each beach, downtown, in the suburbs, and in the nearby neighborhoods. It was a 360-degree canvas bursting with light and sound, the winds starting to come up off the lake cooling our bodies, stripping down to our skivvies and dancing to his music and lying on my blanket and laughing. It was one of the most beautiful nights of my life.
The truth of the past and the truth of the present may still be warring. They may always be warring. But nights like these—when someone meets my fear and my failure and my feelings head on and not only answers with the best response but shows me something so positive to replace the negative in my mind—can do something that I hadn’t considered before now.
Nights like these can rewire the brain. Nights like these can form new memories.
And enough of these nights, added together, can make new muscle memory.
They can reform my system of beliefs about relationships and brokenness and trust and truth and love and commitment. They can rid my body and my mind of the toxins and replace them with healthier things.
I couldn’t imagine that before last night.
Now I can.
I guess there is a happy, encouraging anecdote after all!