Things that matter are not easy. Feelings of happiness are easy. Happiness is not. Flirting is easy. Love is not. Saying you’re friends is easy. Being friends is not.
Things that matter are not easy. Feelings of happiness are easy. Happiness is not. Flirting is easy. Love is not. Saying you’re friends is easy. Being friends is not.
For the sake of argument, let’s make it super sticky. Imagine you’re dating someone new, and you’re really into that person. Then the object of your affection asks you to share what you want and need in that relationship.
So you get brave and make yourself vulnerable. You tell the object of your affection that, although you understand the relationship is new, you’re enjoying that person’s company so much you’d be happy to get together… well, not every day (‘cause jeez, that might seem needy), but maybe every other day. And wow, it sure would be great if you could count on Saturday nights together. And really, you’d love it if neither of you were dating other people. And it would fill your cup if you could spend Valentine’s Day together. And just so you know, you like your coffee with sugar but no cream.
Then you finally look up from the floor and notice that the object of your affection looks totally freaked out. Said object then mutters, “Hmm… well, I’m busy this Saturday, but maybe the third Saturday of next month.”
And suddenly, as Brené Brown would say in her book Daring Greatly, you’ve just lost a lot of marbles from the trust jar.
I think we fail to express our wants and needs because we’re terrified of getting rejected or being judged or being perceived as needy. I had an experience like this recently.
I had gotten very close to a friend, and we had a lot of marbles in our jar. But then a point of conflict came up, and it left me feeling vulnerable and insecure and threatened, and I was craving reassurance, so I expressed a desire that we get together to talk about what had happened. Only my friend was feeling overwhelmed, not just because of our conflict, but because of other personal issues. My friend needed time alone, time to digest, and with great kindness, my friend rejected my request to process.
I felt devastated. Here I had made myself vulnerable, made my desire known, made it clear how insecure I felt, and my friend had chosen to prioritize a personal need for space above meeting my need for reassurance.
The more my friend pulled away, the more insecure and graspy I felt and behaved. Until I finally woke up from my self-absorbed state of neediness to realize that my friend had every right to prioritize a personal need for space over my need for reassurance. As much as we care for others and want to meet their needs, we all have the right to meet our own needs first (file under “I fill myself first”).
I apologized. My friend met my need two days later. I got the reassurance I needed. And our jar of marbles is safe and overflowing.
The true vulnerability comes in being courageous enough to make your want or need known, knowing that the person you’re sharing with might choose not to meet your need because it comes into conflict with their own – and that’s okay. Can you sit with the excruciating vulnerability of having your need sitting out there – exposed and raw – knowing that the person you’ve made yourself vulnerable to has every right not to meet it?
I get queasy just writing this.
None of us want to come across as needy, and yet we all have needs, whether we like to admit it or not. Even the strongest and most independent among us have moments when our childhood wounds get triggered or we feel scared or we feel unloved. How often have you suppressed the desire to ask someone to just drop everything and give you a hug because you’re feeling lonely or insecure?
We live in a culture that values independence. We scorn those who appear clingy or dependent. It’s a John Wayne/Marlboro man culture, but the truth is, sometimes we just want to curl up on someone’s lap, have them run their fingers through our hair, and get rocked to sleep. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
So it leaves me back with my original question. It’s good to be vulnerable. As Brené teaches in her TEDx talk The Power of Vulnerability, vulnerability is the gateway to intimacy. When we express a need and the person we’re vulnerable with chooses to meet that need (hopefully because it doesn’t conflict with their own needs, otherwise, they may be at risk of overgiving), we get marbles in the jar. Trust and intimacy grows, and we feel seen, heard, loved, nurtured.
But in order to gain the intimacy we desire, we need to risk having our needs not met, and we need to learn to soothe ourselves so we’re not making our happiness dependent upon someone else…
So it’s a fine line. Be vulnerable. Make your wants and needs known with those you can trust. But be willing to sit in that place of excruciating vulnerability when your wants and needs can’t be met, at least not at that moment. Learn to soothe yourself in those moments. Go for a hike in nature. Pray or meditate and let the Universe give you a hug. Do something you love – like dance or paint or read or take a hot bath. Let yourself just feel what you feel, and in time, you will find your own sunshine.
If someone perpetually chooses not to meet your wants and needs, you’ll lose marbles in the jar. I was fortunate with my friend because we had so much trust that one incident didn’t threaten the marbles in our jar. But I have another friend with whom I made myself vulnerable, and every time, my wants and needs were not met. This eroded the trust, and now, the friendship is only a superficial one.
I offer stability and dependability and rootedness and growth and support and encouragement and love and laughter and silliness and enthusiasm and playfulness and sexual expression. I offer a metric ton of affection, both physical and verbal; it is so important to me to let the people that matter to me know that they matter and why. Oh, and food. I offer a lot of food. I less reliably succeed but try to offer compassion, understanding, and empathy. I offer the ability to build a home. I try to offer the opportunity to embark on an adventure of togetherness. I try to at all times embody an offer to extend myself for the betterment of the people most significantly in my life. I try to offer myself fully in all of my emotionally close relationships; I don’t like to hold back and try to discourage that from my friends and partner.
These are the things I have offered to JJ. I do not know what that leaves for others outside of him. When I have gone on dates with others or been talking to potential romantic/sexual interests during our relationship, I have often been stumped when said potential interests ask me what I’m looking for. I’m not looking to have multiple relationships; I don’t know what to take from the table I’ve built for JJ to give to someone else. The most honest answer would have likely been that I’m looking for someone to spend time with when I want to spend time with JJ but cannot due to one of his other relationships, and that isn’t much to offer. I usually end up saying that I’m looking for connections and am open to whatever happens, but I’ve never been sure exactly how true that is. I would like to exist in a relationship that does not need bolstering by outside reinforcements.
I want a relationship that has all of the elements listed above, and is always progressing towards having more of those things rather than less. I don’t want to regress from one level of life-entwinement to less entwinement. I would like to be as entwined as possible, not to the point where we have to do everything together, but such that we are the people that we spend the most time with, such that we come home to the same place and sleep in the same bed on a daily basis. I don’t want to have to schedule time to spend together or wonder when we’ll next see one another. I struggled with the idea of existing as a periphery relationship ad infinitum at the beginning of my relationship with JJ — I don’t think I would enter into an arrangement like that again. I don’t want to be years into a relationship with a partner and still only seeing them a couple of times a week. I am looking for a partnership that feels like it could last for the foreseeable future, a relationship that isn’t riddled with doubts about its own validity or longevity or health constantly. I want to feel like I am organizing my life around someone and they are doing the same around me; I don’t want to be accessory or supplementary in my partner’s life.
(I’m answering this from the perspective of a romantic relationship.) Love. Respect. Acceptance. Support. Emotional Intimacy. Physical Intimacy, including both sensual/sexual and non-sexual touch. An enthusiastic and mutually satisfying sex life. A desire to spend time together, and for that time to increase over the course of the relationship. Enjoyment in spending time together, regardless of activity. The intangible mushy fuzzy goofy silly lovey-dovey mildly obsessive feeling that makes something Romantic for me. The potential for life-entwinement, specifically including the ability to build a home together. The ability to spend nights together, to travel together, to spend holidays together, to appear in public together. A sense of stability or predictability, the ability to envision a future together.
This is my first legitimately romantic relationship. I get out of romantic relationships a lot of things that I also get from friendships, but also some things that are exclusive to romantic relationships, and some things that are exclusive to a certain kind of romantic relationship. I’ve told JJ in the past that I think of my romantic relationships as friendship+. By that I mean that in my close friendships I get emotional support, people to do activities with, feelings of acceptance and support, people to help me with problems or issues, people to celebrate and have fun with, and a feeling of love and like my presence and who I am as a person is appreciated or cherished by this person. Many of my closest friendships also involve a degree of easy physical (but non-sensual/sexual) touch, both currently and historically. I am a very touchy-feely person and I crave physical touch — in my previous lives on campus or in high school, my days were full of small touches in the middle of conversation, resting my head on other people’s shoulders, massages, people playing with my hair, etc. So, all of those things exist both within the realm of friendship and the realm of romantic relationship.
Romantic relationships have elements all their own as well. In a romantic relationship, touch becomes the norm, and sensual/sexual touch is on the table at pretty much any moment. Romantic relationships have a level of entwinement that doesn’t exist in close friendships — I structure my life around them on a daily basis. I have romantic relationships when my feeling of wanting to be around someone goes beyond the way I feel about friends and into a space that wants to be sensual/sexual and life-entwined, when the pleasure I feel from spending time with someone feels like a thing I want to have as much of in my life as possible, a thing to be prioritized over others. Romance goes beyond friendship to say that I want to exist with this person as some sort of a unit, a we. It adds dimensions to the love I experience in close friendships, growing past a love for me as a person and my presence to include a love for my body and a love for the life we are building together. Entwinement brings love and touch and appreciation and companionship and the pleasure of experiencing life with this person into my everyday life, especially when the relationship progresses to cohabitation, which feels like the natural direction a healthy relationship flows towards to me.
I don’t know what would happen if I were to develop a connection that feels romantic with someone else. It feels sort of impossible. I don’t know how I could develop that sort of connection while being in a relationship with JJ. To do so feels like it would be or have required giving up on some aspect of our relationship. I don’t feel romantic connection…easily or frequently or lightly. It’s not something that just happens for me. Sometimes I think about why I didn’t feel a romantic connection with HB — he fit so many of the boxes that I think I would like in a partner; I was fond of him as a person, we were affectionate and cared about each other as humans, we had amazing and frequent and adventurous sex, but when the time to end it came, I experienced some sadness at the loss of these things in my life but it didn’t feel like a breakup. It hadn’t felt like a Relationship. I didn’t want to pair-bond with him, and he didn’t want that with me; I didn’t think of us as a unit; I didn’t feel goofy and silly and happy when I thought about him or he messaged me — just turned on. I think that my connection with Jerome eclipses the opportunity for that to happen elsewhere.
I don’t walk through life experiencing crushes on a regular basis. I have had exactly one crush in the three and a half years since I graduated college, and one real-life connection that led to an expression of romantic interest by someone else whom I felt interested in as a person enough to go on a date with. Both of these happened prior to my connection with JJ blossoming; not sure if that’s coincidental or correlational. I had more crushes in college, but they were always sort of like I wanted to spend more time around this person and maybe touch them and try to figure out if they liked me, not necessarily with dreamy visions of us dating or being in a relationship or even hooking up; I had no experience with any of those things and could not imagine them, really. Coming to college with almost no experience being desired by someone made holding hands or leaning on someone’s shoulder while we watched a movie a Big Deal to me in a way it definitely is no longer. It should also probably be stated that I pretty much exclusively date/have felt romantic interest in Black folk (with coworker crush from my first year of DC life being the major exception), and I don’t exist in predominantly Black spaces with any sort of regularity any longer, so maybe my lack of interest is in part due to a lack of access. But then again, I felt nothing romantic towards HB, and I don’t think SG existed in my life long enough (or physically/sexually enough) for me to determine whether my interest in spending time with her was platonic or romantic.
I don’t think so. Multiple romantic connections don’t feel like a thing that could develop organically in my life. Nothing about what my life looks like with JJ feels forced to me; this wasn’t what I expected us to become when we got together, but this feels like the right level for us to find for me. More than Two advises letting relationships seek and find their own levels without trying to prescribe a direction they should go/grow in, but what happens when the involved parties find different levels natural? Trying to prune our relationship back into something smaller or less entwined would feel much less organic to me. Whenever I ask, he says he doesn’t want me/us to be smaller, but I don’t see a way around that; if he has other partners, I have to fall back and give space and disappear. The things about our daily life that we currently share exclusively will be chipped away at, cut up and divided and distributed among others — I don’t know how to not feel neglected at the very thought of that, let alone the execution.
Him going on dating sites and seeking out new partners makes it feel inorganic on his part as well; he’s working to create this, rather than meeting someone by chance and wanting to explore a connection with them. But I understand that it is important to him on a fundamental level, that it feels like a part of his identity, so it makes sense that waiting for things to happen organically with someone wouldn’t be what he wants, especially when you consider how organic connections in the real world happen and the fact that he is a person with social anxiety.
When I’ve pushed myself to form sexual connections with others, even under the guise of romance, I was unable to develop any sort of romantic feeling for the others, even if I genuinely liked them as people, enjoyed spending time with them, and felt able to be fully myself and vulnerable with them — again, these things are not associated with romance to me in any way. Sexual connection and romantic feeling are not linked for me in any way; the overwhelming majority of my experience with the former has been in the absolute absence of the latter. I recall JJ once telling me that he can’t really have physical intimacy without emotional intimacy; for me it’s more like, emotional intimacy raises the experience of physical intimacy to new heights, but physical intimacy can exist on its own and still be enjoyable.
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