I couldn’t sleep tonight—faces of old flames and flings flashing through my mind—I thought about calling one I still talk with from time to time, asking him where we went wrong.
Maybe that would help me understand this question I’ve been asking myself lately: Where do I keep stumbling in my (over before they’ve hardly even begun) relationships? What is my pattern?
I thought about my first boyfriend… the first time I ever “made out” at sixteen. How awkward and unsure I felt. I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and I was afraid of it going further than I was ready for if I responded too much. Afterward he told some of our coworkers that he cheated on me because I just laid there.
I thought about boys I had crushes on as a teenager—especially about the boy who drunkenly took my innocence at nineteen. The one I adored, even though he wouldn’t be my boyfriend. I only wanted him to kiss me and hold me and tell me he loved me.
I didn’t want it from him that way. I told him no.
And when he forcefully entered anyway, I pretended to enjoy it. I told myself that this was love-making like in those romantic movies. What else could I do?
I had kissed him, curled up next to him on his bed… Anyway, I was probably just a chicken, and besides, it was good I got that over with—now, I wouldn’t have to worry about my “first time” anymore.
That house was full of friends and colleagues. I supposed I could have stopped it, faced the embarrassment, anything would have woken the dozens of bodies sleeping under that roof, but I had no idea that making love wasn’t supposed to hurt.
I thought about the guys I barely knew, but clung to in my desperation for validation that I was loveable. I though about the couple close guy friends that I really had loved but was unable to keep. I thought a lot about the paranoid eyes of the man I had stayed with the longest, and about how my body felt slamming into that indented wall.
I thought about the women whose gentle, safe arms I fell into for a moment to escape the threat of men. I thought about all the men whose hearts were an abyss of unavailability.
Those who lived too far away or had no time and space for me—the ones who were somewhere else, or with someone else. The men too old or too young or simply walking very different paths then my own but that for some reason I still poured so much of my energy into.
Tossing and turning in my bed, I thought and thought about why? What is the pattern? What is the lesson? Where is the mistake I keep making time after time?
Faces and kisses passing before my minds eye—faster and faster—why? They had nothing in common except me.
Then like a ton of bricks in the dead of night, it hit me: I am the same girl as I was when I laid there, paralyzed by fear, at sixteen.
I am terrified by the thought of truly connecting with men. Terrified of intimacy, real multi-dimensional, lasting emotional intimacy. And I am terrified to even admit that out loud—to expose that vulnerability.
The truth is, I have no idea how to relate in a healthy way to men.
I have struggled so much with trying to find what is a healthy expression of my femininity. From the time I was very young, and realized that me being a girl meant mostly that I was supposed to be something other than what the boys I was friends with could be. My baseball cap and holy blue jeans didn’t fool anyone. As I grew our differences became more obvious.
I wasn’t welcome on the baseball team, I had to use the bigger more awkward ball, throw softer, and run less aggressively. Being a “girl” was apparently an insult that meant you were weak. I was supposed to put on a shirt now, though my brothers still didn’t have to on those hot summer days.
Girls weren’t supposed to get dirty and scratched up and climb trees with the neighborhood boys. I was supposed to want to be kissed by them, and in time, I did. One neighbor boy with particularly nice eyes and cute freckles definitely did not like or want to kiss me after being shoved backward down a grassy hill for picking on my little brother.
Eventually I gave up on trying to prove I was not weaker, but just as good as the guys, and accepted my lower status. Sweet Valley Twins books and Saved by the Bell on TV said I was supposed to talk silly, use the word “like” a lot, and twist my hair with my fingers while I giggled.
I was supposed to wear a bra so my breasts wouldn’t bounce too much, and definitely not run when boys might be watching. My best friend and I decided we should swing our hips more. So I wiggled when I walked, but it only made me feel more awkward and stiff. Maybe I was supposed to color my lips with that oily, bad tasting, salmon colored Avon crap if I wanted someone to kiss me like Jack kissed Rose in Titanic.
And then there were the magazines I found under my older brother’s bed, and in the tree house out in the woods that belonged to those neighborhood boys… Was I supposed to make faces like those?! Yikes! Was my body supposed to do that with a guy if they kissed me?
I knew I wanted someone to kiss me—and I knew that because I didn’t have a penis I wasn’t supposed to play hardball. And that being a girl was nowhere near as good as being a boy. Beyond that I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to relate with boys once our differences became apparent and friendships became complicated.
I tried giggling when a crude coworker at my first job at McDonalds asked me to go out with him because I had big boobs. Soon after, I tried drinking more than I knew I should because it would make me feel less awkward around the guys, made it easier to accept their domination. In my naivety I tried being flirty back at their dirty, as if I had just tons of experience. I tried being cute and sweet, or smart and sassy.
As time went on, I tried just submitting to the one I loved even though he hadn’t respected my “no”. I tried being a best friend to one and still was left in the dust. I tried being everything to someone and anything I thought they wanted me to be.
I even tried giving my soul up to one, out of my twisted idea of love, intimacy, and what it meant to be a supportive woman. Then after ending up completely broken and tangled in a heap of pain, I wrapped myself with layers of undesirability by eating my fear.
Finally, I picked myself up by the boot straps, hit the road running, shaved off my long beautiful hair, and tried being so tough and so strong, so quick on the draw, so fiercely independent, determined to see even the slightest hint of deviousness in everything masculine, that no one could penetrate that barbed wire and chastity belt. And then I grew so sick, and so very tired of trying to be anything. Except. Me.
I have been learning who me is… most of the time I think I have a pretty good idea of that. She (me) and I have become rather good friends. I am growing more solid in myself and my wholeness every day.
I still struggle, though, with allowing the feminine in me to find her true expression. To let her be strong and secure, yet soft and receptive. I fumble at times with being a healthy “her” as a lone woman standing on my own two feet.
I have difficulties as a single mother trying to embrace my feminine while also strongly embodying the masculine in playing both roles trying to raise up my young son to be a good man.
So when life throws the threat of intimacy with a sturdy, red blooded, passionate, intelligent, emotionally and physically available man into the mix… Holy sh*t. Life suddenly resembles a panic attack.
My heart is pounding, thoughts racing. I can’t breathe. I can’t think clearly. My emotions shift into overdrive. My words are scattered. I am that same 16 year old laying in that dirty bedroom that smelled like old socks with my 21 year old manager on top of me. I am that 19 year old with a gigantic crush on her rapist. I am that 25 year old being a martyr for her abuser. Terrified that I have no idea what to do, how to do this “right”.
Terrified to take power. Terrified to give it all away. Terrified to trust in someone that might use any vulnerability to crush me or control me, to let someone in who might wreck everything I’ve worked so hard to build for myself.
In my panic and terror, it seems the only thing to do is to flee as fast as my legs can carry me, or to take up arms and fire a warning shot to send him packing.
I thought about all of this tonight, and though I am not sure what tomorrow will bring, somehow just admitting to myself that I am scared sh*tless by intimacy with men, gives me hope that I can begin to find my way past it. Maybe understanding and speaking this out loud to the world might be the next step I needed to take toward healing this fearful heart of mine.
A crucial breakthrough in finally finding true intimacy with someone who is not insecure, violent and controlling or devious and manipulative, predators as so many of my early tastes of men were, but is also not safely emasculated or unavailable as have been so many that I have spent my devotions on in recent years.
So, this goes out to the men out there who are maybe just as terrified of approaching me as I have been of opening to you. Or maybe it’ll speak to just one of you, ’cause really all I need is just one right man today to sweep away all of yesterday’s wrong ones.
If you are striving to be whole, if you are so close to wholeness that you can taste it, mostly steady in what it means to be a healthy man, but maybe still struggling with relating to women.
Lets do this together. Lean into each other’s edges and learn as we go. I won’t bite if you don’t—if you are a man who knows what it is to be comfortable and grounded in your masculinity, may I make a request from the bottom of my opening, loving, lady heart?
I will try my best to resist the urge to shoot or run. Please be patient with me as I drop my guard a little at a time. Comfort my fears, embrace me in my tears, invite me to get close, gently disarm me in your presence, and encourage me to stand strong in my femininity. I will let you share much of the lead and open doors for me, but will walk on my own and carry most of my own baggage.
I will soften these arms that keep you at a distance and lean on you just a little, if you’ll promise to treat me as your beloved, and not like your pet, your property, or your prey.
I will receive you into my heart and passionately welcome you into my body if you can show me that you genuinely care more about lovingly penetrating into my soul rather than my vagina (thought I don’t fault you for desiring both).
If you give it to me, I will gently hold your heart as my most precious treasure. Show me you are secure, and I will melt for you. I am tired of being a wide eyed doe, with wolves around every tree. I don’t want to have to stand sentry to my home and heart 24 hours a day, and I don’t want to be afraid of you anymore.
Will you help me?
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: Author’s Own