January 12, 1997

I love best outside of relationships. Committed romantic ones, at least. When I'm in or even contemplating a relationship, there's a sense of obligation for me that ruins everything. It's like reading a book for a class in high school -- it might be the best book in the world, but if you have to read it, you're not going to enjoy it as much.

I don't react well to pressure, and for me everything about the way people often meet and get together is fraught with incredible pressure.

It starts with a first meeting. Oddly enough for someone who puts this amount of personal information out on the Web, I'm tremendously shy with strangers in person. I never know what to say, other than to answer a direct question. (My job ensures that I learned how to deal with that!) Ideal social conditions would be that a third party known to both of us be present at all in-person encounters with relatively unfamiliar to me, for at least the first couple of months. Three times the possibility of conversation that way; it's much less awkward. E-mail is a little better because you have time to think about what you're saying. But still, I suck at meeting people, even just to be friends.

Then there is the paranoia. It's really odd for someone with such low self-esteem to feel this way, but it doesn't take much for me to suspect a guy of being interested in me. And the gut reaction to that is: "Run away! Run away!" No matter what a nice guy he is. No matter how long I've known him. "Just get out of here! (Unavailability is about the only mitigating criterion -- guys with girlfriends can't possibly be more interested in me than the partner they've already got, right?)

If (and only if) I know a guy really well, and have known him for quite a length of time (three months of daily e-mail after knowing him vaguely for two years is about the least knowledge my hindbrain has been willing to accept) the flight reflex can be suppressed long enough for me to actually try and balance it out with my conscious awareness of the good points of the guy. Which is the only reason I've actually ended up in relationships. Twice in almost 24 years (well, 10 if you start counting at the first time I was ever asked out). I just can't trust that easily -- not all that surprising, considering.

But there aren't a lot of guys who want to wait until I know them well enough to feel some degree of comfort. Of course, it's not exactly what you'd think about doing unless you're shy and/or suspicious like me. I like shy guys, generally, because they're much less pressuresome. Though being quite shy myself, I can understand how long waits can get frustrating. Patience is a difficult virtue to hold on to when you feel attracted to someone; I probably wouldn't have it if it weren't forced on me by the fact that I can't feel attracted to someone until after I feel comfortable with them.

So I say no most of the time. I tell the minor bald truths that probably come across as complete rejection.
"Do you want to see a movie?"
"There's not really anything in theaters that I'm interested in."


"Would you like to go to dinner this evening?"
"I''ve been sitting here eating chocolate-covered pretzels all day at work; I don't know when I'm even going to be hungry."
Part of the point for putting up this essay is as a subtle hint that, at least from me, that's not a rejection; it's just a statement that I would need to get to know you better in a safe-feeling setting before being alone with you. Maybe there are other people, shy by personality or suspicious because of their pasts, who act this way. (Of course, there are probably people whowould intend any of the rejoinders mentioned above as a complete rejection and who are cursing me for encouraging suitors to take such words otherwise, too.)

Or sometimes I can say yes. But that's not the end of problems. Like an invitation from a guy I sorta knew to go see a movie I wanted to see, with him and his friends. Safe situation, fun evening. But that didn't make the getting-into-something discomfort any less. The prospect of future stuff involving being closer to this really cool guy was anxiety-producer of the year. So I told him the gospel truth, that I had enjoyed the evening, enjoyed his company, but didn't feel comfortable yet with the idea of a relationship. I suggested that it would be cool if we hung out together as friends. (But I wasn't comfortable enough to add this detailed an explanation of my feelings, just as I don't think I'd be able to write this essay as an e-mail to the guy whose dinner invitation I turned down last Friday. Weird how telling the world can be easier than talking directly to one person.)

Of course, the panic reaction can wait much longer to do its work. The thing that worries me most, even with guys I have known for years, is my problems with sex. Being molested in childhood is an effective way to pound into a child that sex is very important. After all, Grandaddy wanted sex even from his prepubescent granddaughter -- it must be something really important to him and by extension all guys, right? And a lot of the behavior of guys I've encountered tends to reinforce that theory. Like the one who complained that I didn't kiss him right, because I don't feel that tongue contact is necessary for every brief off-to-class goodbye kiss. Like the one who went into a sulk every time I said "No, not today." Et cetera. Giving them sex becomes an obligation, and not an enjoyable one. I pressure myself to be ready when they want it and become racked with guilt when I unable to live up to that expectation. That pressure I put on myself never helps -- it just causes more performance anxiety, and leads to a stressed emotional state that is constantly on edge. That's when touches start to trigger flashbacks -- even a hug can feel like a trap if he holds on to me so that I can't step back. More intimate touches become intolerable. While of course, the guy on the other end of this is frustrated, especially because he can't really do anything to help when that emotional state gets triggered. (One ex wrote about this in a poem called "Unearthed.") But even the guys who are genuinely concerned about me are also concerned about getting some. They take every chance to sneak a touch, being sure they're never going to get it any other way. And touches that feel furtive are the surest way to remind me most intensely of my grandfather, kissing me "accidentally" on the mouth while Mom and Grandmother were in the room and such shudder-causing memories. Positive feedback -- each reaction from one person seems to cause a repeat-and-escalation of the other's behavior that triggered the reaction. Good way NOT to solve any problems.

And such problems slop over into every other aspect of life. I start trying not to spend time alone with him because I feel like he's going to make passes which by now I'm too stressed to have any chance of responding to positively. Time with him in public or with other friends is safe, because advances can't go as far as would make me uncomfortable with others around. And since I like cuddling and touching at times when they don't feel threatening, he sees that as a signal that it should be safe to continue when we're alone later, right? But it turns out not to be. So the couple gets farther and farther apart, and more and more frustrated...

Talking about it doesn't seem to do a lot of good. The stress escalates and things blow up, destroying the relationship, before either side has a chance to work through changing such well-entrenched behaviors. Again, no one has the patience to live with the situation while it creeps through a slow metamorphosis; it doesn't feel like you can live with it anymore unless things change right then!

The weird thing is that after the breakup plus a little time for recuperation, friendship can thrive and so can a sexual relationship -- with the same guy I've just been hating for his constant pressure! Once the commitment to trying to be a couple and a big part of one another's lives. who try and make one another happy, is gone, things can flow much more naturally. If you don't have to see him everyday, it's much easier to be interested in having sex a lot of the times you see him.

Similarly smoother sailing happens in a sexual relationship with a close friend whom I've never been romantically involved with. There was a little discomfort at first, as he was eager and I prefer to go a little slower. Some guilt in me over not giving him sex very often, but that went away as I realized there was no reason why we should do it other than that we both wanted to. A realization I wish I could apply in my romantic relationships, or just find guys who were willing to hear it.

Then there are the ones who weren't interested in romance or sex with me. And the ones who were, but didn't abandon me after I told them I wasn't comfortable with the idea of our going out. That I could feel so close to a guy without romance or sex involved was also a mind-boggler. I wish some guys who've drifted away now had thought that way. (Though of course there are a few that I'm glad to be rid of as well.)

Is this an average survivor's experience? (Assuming there is such a thing.) It doesn't seem to be too far out, from what I've read. Maybe this will give someone out there a clue until they can Inter-Library Loan Allies In Healing. But mostly, I'd had this in my head to write for a couple of months now, and today it decided it was coming out NOW! If it helps anyone, so much the better, but I wrote it because I had to.

And maybe this will help get some of my discomfort out in the open, and these two relationships I have for data points won't determine a line keeping on in the same direction, but some kind of curve which ends up heading somewhere entirely new. I hope so, and that eventually these zombie memories will be laid to rest instead of walking through my present wreaking still more damage.

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