alternatively titled:How (not?) to Start a Relationship
A while ago, I wrote a post about how to tell a potential significant other about your experience. As I mentioned in the post, I didn't really have too much to say on the topic, because I sort of had to do it once but then it didn't work out and all that. However, now, I think I have a little more to add, so here's part 2.
When it became clear to me that I really wanted this thing with D* to work out, I did what comes automatically to me when I get anxious-- I went to the library and checked out a bunch of books on the subject. One of the lucky ducks I brought home with me was Mars and Venus on a Date: A Guide for Navigating the 5 Stages of Dating to Create a Loving and Lasting Relationship. (Yup, part of the gigantic series written by the guy who wrote the original Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.) I should probably feel embarrassed to be admitting to this in a public forum, but I will claim that it was all in the name of experimentation and research for this blog. (*shifty eyes*)
Anyway. I read about one-third of the book, and then I had to stop. Why? Because the moral of the book seems to be "Resist the urge to do what comes naturally to you, because following your instincts will just mess everything up." If I were to believe in the advice offered in the book, I totally messed up everything with D*. And I believed that for a little bit. Some unquantifiable amount of anxiety later, I talked with D* and thought about things, and ended up deciding that I wasn't such a screw-up after all and John Gray, Ph.D., can take his advice to other people who might actually care.
Let's take a step back and look at what I actually did with D* that was deemed so awful by the Book. I essentially followed my instincts: I was wary but eager, and I showed my desire to get to know and trust him through unflinching honesty. Basically, I took the first chance I got to spill my guts about everything and waited to see his reaction.
I know, it probably sounds silly and wholly ridiculous now, but it made sense at the time and still kind of does, to me. One of the most significant changes post-trauma was the way in which I saw myself. For the longest time, my traumatic experiences were everything to me. I thought about it a lot and talked about it all the time. I simply could not conceive of a self that did not revolve around my trauma, because I did not remember my "old self" and my new, current self was so preoccupied with what had happened that there was no room for anything else. I could not have described myself without talking about my experiences. I had a terribly hard time having a conversation with anyone in which I did not bring up something related to trauma. I could not see myself in any other light-- I did not have other hobbies or interests with which to define myself, and I had no concept of personality apart from my obsession with advocacy regarding assault.
Granted, that all got better by the time I returned to classes and a semblance of a normal life. I made the effort to rediscover interests and hobbies so that I could tenuously define myself like a Facebook profile, with at least some answers for the requisite fields like "activities" and "interests" and "favorites." I even managed to hold off for some time before blurting out my experiences to new friends I made. (Though the fact that I stressed over when to tell people and made such a big deal of it to myself led to fantastic amounts of awkwardness, as chronicled in this post that I wrote after one experience with telling a friend.) In any case, I was doing better with not defining myself wholly according to my trauma.
Then I started talking to D* online, and all my carefully conceived sense went out the door. Because this was something that I felt could be special, my instinct was to be completely honest. No facades or filters-- just complete and total honesty. I remembered all too well the meltdown that occurred when I told Boyfriend 3 a couple weeks into our relationship about how I lost my virginity with Boyfriend 2 (i.e. unwillingly). He acted furious with Boyfriend 2, but he also blamed me. He couldn't understand that I hadn't wanted it. He shamed me and made me cry for days. I guess I just subconsciously hoped that by telling D* about everything upfront, it would be all out in the open, and he could decide to run or stay before I became too emotionally attached.
What actually happened was massive amounts of awkwardness and bad judgment on my part. Things got a little out of control in my mind: I told him about what happened, but I also slipped into a state of numbness and detachment. I slid into a tough-girl mode that hid my actual uncertainty about my feelings regarding sex, nudity, and my fraternity. I basically adopted the facade of a shameless and sexually unreserved girl-- the profile I used to present to my fraternity before the event of my senior spring, when I was still repressing what had happened at Simon's Rock. It was as if I wanted to see how much D* could take, or what would make him run. I don't know why I did it. I don't know if I was just testing him, or if I was trying to prove something to myself, like the fact that no nice guy could ever want me or deal with me. I just don't know. But I basically dug such a hole for myself that I did almost push him away, and probably would have if one of my close friends hadn't stepped in and fixed things for me.
It was an unconventional beginning, to say the least. Mars and Venus on a Date says you shouldn't present anything negative about your real self until Stage 4 of the whole process. For perspective, the 5 stages of dating are attraction, uncertainty, exclusivity, intimacy, and engagement; the Book basically says that you need to wait until you have your partner completely hooked and trusting before you even hint at a negative side. For goodness's sake, the first stage in which that is permissible is the one right before getting engaged! You're supposed to present only your good side until then, and repress all urges to be natural and honest. Let's see the multitude of ways in which the author tells the reader this (all quotes taken from the beginning of Chapter 3, which is about stage 1, attraction):
Although feelings of attraction are automatic, in order to sustain attraction in a personal relationship we must also be skillful in presenting ourselves in ways that are not just appealing to the other sex but supportive as well. It is not enough to say, "Here I am; take me as I am."
My reaction to that was "why not?" What's wrong with presenting myself as I am? It just seems disingenuous to act like something I am not. Isn't the romantic ideal finding someone who accepts you exactly for who you are?
Then he says some things that make sense:
On Venus, when two friends get together they enjoy the opportunity to share freely the mishaps, frustrations, disappointments, and complaints of the week. A woman's willingness to "share all" is actually a compliment to the other woman. It is a sign of trust, goodwill, and friendship.
While this gesture on Venus may be "putting your best foot forward," on Mars it is not. A man can easily get the wrong impression. When a woman dwells on negative feelings or problems in her life, instead of valuing her willingness to share openly, a man mistakenly assumes that she is difficult to please. Just as a woman is attracted to a man who shows interest in her, a man is attracted to a woman who can clearly be pleased. When she appears to be difficult to please, he may easily become turned off.
I made the mistake of doing that early on in my conversations with D*. One night, I was getting upset because of a series of frustrating email exchanges. D* was already starting to become more to me than just a friend, and so I felt the urge to tell him I was upset. I wasn't expecting, or even wanting, him to solve my problems, because he couldn't. He didn't know enough about the situation to even have a chance. I just wanted some kind of commiseration or support. But after I told him I was upset, he did try and solve my problems, and it just succeeded in frustrating us both. So I learned that talking about problems was not a good bonding experience.
And then the author goes on to say:
To create the ideal opportunity to experience the best a man has to offer and for a man to experience her best, a woman needs to be careful to share the positive side of her life and avoid dwelling on negative experiences. Conversation should be light, not heavy, focused on current events in the world and in their lives, but discussed in a positive manner.
My response to reading this the first time: PG version- "Oops." (Actual response- more like "oh sh*t.") I basically did the exact opposite of what it was telling me I needed to do.
This does not imply in any way that she should be fake. Authenticity is what makes anyone most attractive. Everyone has a positive side and a negative side, everyone has ups and downs, and everyone has a needy side and an autonomous side. Putting her best foot forward means sharing her most positive side, her up side, and her autonomous side. Later on she can share the other part. It is just a matter of timing.
To make the best impression and to get to know someone most effectively, it is important that we first get a chance to know the positive side. In the first three stages of dating-- attraction, uncertainty, and exclusivity-- it is best to focus on putting forth our best self. After getting to know our best sides, then in stage four, intimacy, we are ready to deal with the less positive sides of who we are.
The first time I read this, I was oscillating between feeling awful because I had messed everything up with D* and then feeling indignant because it all seemed so misogynistic and fake. Even if I had read this before talking to D* for the first time, I'm not sure I could have stuck to those rules. It would have seemed way too fake after a few conversations. For someone who considers her experiences to be such an important part of her life when they happened and who still sees them as significant in her drive and motivation in life now, for me not to mention anything about them would have required conscious planning and thought, which seems so forced and fake.
Could I have found some other way to tell him? Probably. I approached it a different way with the guy I considered dating before I met D*. The first time I mentioned anything was probably the second time we met, when he asked me what my ideal job would be. Without thinking much, I answered "rape crisis counselor." He was pretty shocked and taken aback at the specificity and promptness of my response, and then he recovered. I explained briefly that sexual assault was an important issue to me, and that was that. It didn't stick in his mind too much, because he made a rape joke to me a few weeks later on our first "date," but when I actually told him about what had happened my senior spring, he said he'd already guessed. Then we decided not to date, for various reasons, so I just never bothered to reflect on how that went.
When I talked to D* a while later about what the Book had said and how I felt awful for messing up, he told me that the book was written for "normal people," and that I had a perfectly good reason or explanation for going about things the way I did. Did I? I guess I had an explanation for it, albeit a subconscious one, but is it justifiable? I don't know. Unlike the Book, I have no moral or conclusion to this post, no dating advice for trauma survivors. I can't really say what's best because my relationship with D* is the only one I've had in which I've had to find some way to share my experience. The only advice I can give is to do what feels comfortable, and if he's a good guy, he'll understand.