How my life wasn’t always Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land

A reader recently sent me an email in which they said:

i know you have always had clear boundaries with yourself (at least how you have described yourself)

Well.

I guess I’ve had a pretty good sense of my boundaries, historically, but there have been times when I have not set them well. This is hard to write about, because it happened years ago, and the memories aren’t fun, and I don’t like writing negative things about people I know unless I think there’s a good reason for it. But there are few people in my life, now, who are likely to identify the person I’m discussing. And I’ve asserted before that we should be more willing to write about our screwups; I was writing about BDSM at the time, but I think it’s true of all kinds of relationships.

There was a gentleman in my life, lots of years ago, who I was extremely in love with. We had an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted a very long time. We had an extraordinary mental and emotional and creative connection. We understood each other very well. There is zero doubt in my head that he loved me too.

Our sex life was really terrible, though. (It was not a BDSM relationship. I hadn’t yet come into that part of my sexual identity.) And there were some emotional boundaries he simply wouldn’t respect. At first I was too inexperienced to really recognize how bad it was, though I knew some things were messed up — then, as I got older (and dated other people in the interstices of our relationship), the problems became clearer and clearer to me. Want some examples? Here’s a blatant one: he never went down on me, though I regularly went down on him; he never even offered to try and figure out something else I might enjoy equally. Oh, I knew that was messed up from the start, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the self-esteem to negotiate something different.

I tried — believe me, I tried to discuss our sex life, in a hesitant and confused way — but he found ways to shut me down, every time. Sometimes the shut-downs were blatant and aggressive and involved shouting. Sometimes they were very subtle, like the time he told me sadly, “You know, occasionally I get worried that you don’t really like having sex with me, but I know that’s just insecurity on my part and I need to get over it.” What a masterful way to say: “Part of me knows you’re not getting what you need, but please don’t bring it up, because that would make me feel bad.”

Today, I would reply: “Sorry if it brings up insecurities. I’m here to talk about those if you like.  But it’s also true, and we need to address it.” Back then, I accepted what he’d said, and felt roiling confusion and pain, and stayed silent.

I’ve got sexual-emotional baggage from that relationship to this day. And yes, I do resent it. Still. Despite knowing that he loved me, and despite valuing many memories from that relationship — when I look back on my time with him, it feels clouded and toxic. I remember that one night, years after I broke up with him, I had one of the worst nightmares of my life: merely a dream that he and I were back together. I woke up shaking, almost in tears.

During an argument, he once said to me, in a voice both angry and wounded: “I just want to feel that you love me more than you love yourself.” And my reaction was not to walk away. My reaction was not to laugh incredulously. My reaction was not to dump him on the spot. My reaction was to cry, and tell him how hurt I was. Hurt: because how could he think I didn’t love him more than I loved myself? Of course I did. What did I have to do to prove it?

For the record — just in case it needs to be said — that is ridiculous. Anyone who demands that you love them more than you love yourself does not have your best interests at heart. My reaction was just as ridiculous. I should not have been looking for ways to prove that I loved him more than I loved myself. I should have been out the fucking door already.

Towards the end, we went through a period where we were living together, but we weren’t “officially dating” and we weren’t having sex. I’d finally put down a hard boundary: I had told him flatly that I couldn’t have sex with him anymore. This was partly because I had realized that I just had no idea how to make our sexual connection better, but it was also partly because I’d recently come into my BDSM identity, I was hurting badly, I had no idea how to deal with my sexuality. I didn’t even want to think about having sex. With anyone. So I didn’t.

One night we had a terrible fight. It was a complicated, wide-ranging fight, but a main theme was this: he couldn’t deal with us not having sex. He made this very clear. He said, “You think I’m okay with living together and not having sex with you?” I told him I could leave if it was really that bad. That I could give him my share of the rent, and leave. I think part of me was hoping that he’d say, “Fine, leave!” But he insisted that he would be crushed if I left, he insisted that I had to stay. He did nothing to alleviate the sexual pressure on me.

So I had sex with him. Of course. It took me a few weeks, but I did it. I did it because I was in love with him. I did it because I felt guilty, as if having a strong emotional connection with a man is wrong if you don’t “pay” him with sex. (Hey, “everyone knows” chicks have sex in exchange for relationships, right?) I did it because I thought it was “worth it”, I thought it “wasn’t that bad”, even though I hated every minute of it.

When we started having sex again — I remember that it was dark, afterwards, and he said: “I’ve been wanting to do this for months,” and he kissed me. I kissed him back enough to convince him that I liked it, and then I turned my head away, and I cried. I kept my body still and I didn’t make a sound. I cried because I felt so trapped, because I felt so sick with myself, and I didn’t let him see it because somehow — somehow — I’d convinced myself that this, too, was just a cost I had to pay for this relationship. I can’t understand it now, but I guess I actually believed that I not only owed him sex, but that I owed him the illusion that I enjoyed it.

It’s hard for me to put myself back in my head, back then, but I think my BDSM identity was playing a role, too: I think part of me had concluded I could never have a “healthy” sex life. I craved BDSM — which meant I was a fucked-up pervert; sex I really liked with someone I loved was not for me. (Don’t believe their lies, kids! BDSM can be love sex too!)

(I have always related so strongly to this quotation from the submissive writer violetwhite: It’s ironic that the most perverse manipulations of power in my life occurred in a past vanilla [i.e. non-BDSM] relationship, where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.)

Luckily, luckily, I had another reason to move out later. And I had the privilege of being financially independent. So I moved out. And as I got into social networks that had nothing to do with him, as I had more and more time apart from him, it was like blinders came off. I walked away. I fell in love with someone else, which helped — I can’t deny that it helped, it gave me more strength — but I was already on my way out. By the time I broke up with him, I was so disgusted with him and with myself that I barely felt a twinge — even though there were so many ways we understood each other, cared about each other, and so many things we shared. It was too toxic. I was Done with a capital D, and I didn’t even care.

Understand me: I don’t think I was perfect in this relationship. I, too, did things I shouldn’t have done. This does not change the ways he manipulated me, and the ways I failed to set boundaries.

Here is the strange part, for me, in remembering him: I don’t think he consciously wanted me to hurt myself like that. If he had been deliberately abusive, if he had really wanted to tear me apart, if he’d been physically abusive — I can’t imagine what he could have done to me. It could have been beyond terrible. Maybe then I would never have gotten involved? Maybe then I would have walked away sooner? But maybe not.

Can I teach other people to set boundaries in situations like that? I don’t know. The feminist ideas and gender analysis I was exposed to as a kid didn’t prevent that experience (although, again, maybe those things would have helped if the situation had been more obvious: if he’d been physically abusive, for example, or more overtly controlling). Maybe it was a lesson I had to learn, maybe I needed to be put in that situation, maybe it’s good for me to have that example in my past. Maybe everyone needs personal experiences like that and we can’t figure ourselves out without them. I don’t know.

I don’t know. But I walked away from that, and it was great. I had lots of sex I really liked and I set lots of boundaries and now here I am. Oh, yes, there have been other times I failed to adequately set boundaries — and in fact, I am less likely to set boundaries properly when I’m in situations that remind me of that relationship, even if it’s a very tangential reminder. Unfortunate. Still, compared to that relationship, other times I’ve failed to set boundaries were drops in a bucket — probably mostly because all the other relationships I’ve had have been dramatically more pressure-free.

I don’t know. I’m not sure I can write about him in a useful way. Is it helpful to know that Clarisse’s life has not always been Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land? You tell me.


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About Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn is a Chicago-based, feminist, sex-positive activist and educator. Personal blog at clarissethorn.com; follow her on Twitter @clarissethorn; you can also buy her awesome book about pickup artists or her awesome best-of collection, The S&M Feminist.
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49 Responses to How my life wasn’t always Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land

  1. Wow. This post brought up alot of my memories in regards to warped relationships. It’s so hard when you’re stuck in this normative idea of what a relationship is ‘supposed to be like’ that you can’t see what it IS. I think at least 75% of the time, the lines are simply too blurry. I had a similar feeling in high school dating someone coercive and manipulative; though I wasn’t being hit or physically hurt, I was being blackmailed into remaining with him. He held himself hostage, always threatening suicide when I talked about being unhappy.

    It was only recently that I was able to break the cycle of unhealthy partners and begin a relationship with someone who respected me as a human being, and saw me as a person in and of myself- not merely as I relate to him.

    I’m glad that you learned from this experience and I hope you sought help (whether it be psychological, spiritual, sexual, etc.) and it’s clear from your writing today that you are truly a stronger person because of the experience.

  2. poet says:

    With some slight modifications, this is my story. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  3. Kristen J. says:

    where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.

    That is a great quote. Thanks for shating it and your story.

  4. Susannah says:

    I just felt so strongly for you, because I’ve been there too. I’ve been in relationships where my boundaries weren’t even acknowledged. My ex’s thing was explaining to me why my feelings were mistaken. I especially got the crying after sex- heck, I used to cry during sex, and he never knew. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me; he was perfect on paper, and he really did care about me. He wanted me to be happy, but he also wanted to be able to do destructive things to me without consequences. He told me once that he wished I didn’t feel pain. Well, tough, you know? I felt so guilty when he said that, though!

    I empathize so deeply, especially with how your ex didn’t want to hurt you. It’s so hard to call someone who’s well-meaning on their bullshit. My ex loved me, deeply and truly; he wanted the best for me. He just didn’t want it as much as he wanted to be in control. I dated him for three years, and I’ve been broken up with him now for four, but it’s only been in the past two or three months that I’ve been able to call what he did abuse. I feel terribly guilty about using that word, but it’s a fact. I left him, knowing that I would never, never get into another relationship like that, being ultra-aware of my needs and my boundaries, but somehow still convincing myself that it was a fluke that I came out of it so fucked up and damaged, that it was some sort of cosmic accident that I had been having panic attacks and unbearable feelings of guilt and shame for years.

    I don’t mean to go on about this, or to put my interpretation on your life. I’m happy in my life and in my marriage now. But I came out of it with the firm belief that intention doesn’t matter; actions matter, and their effects matter. It doesn’t mean I believe that my ex was doing any of this deliberately, and he certainly isn’t and wasn’t a bad person. But denying that he did wrong by me and that that has had lasting effects on me would be untrue, and I need the truth. I do.

  5. groggette says:

    Thanks for this Clarisse. Tonight I’m having another “talk” with the very recent ex and this helps immensly with things that have been jumbled up in my head. I needed this.

  6. What jumped out at me about your post is that sometimes the most destructive relationships are full of subtle damage. His way of addressing his own inadequacies was clever, as you note, but also coyly manipulative.

    If I am to be as honest as you, I will force myself back into memories of a relationship with a woman who never totally committed to me. She wasn’t over a previous boyfriend and because she was several years older than me, she treated me like a naive child. However, our sex life was quite good, despite how condescendingly I was treated at times. In bed, I found myself putting in extra effort, trying to be the perfect lover, as a way of getting back at her for her smugly superior attitude. And, even more perversely, it worked.

    This forced me into a dynamic whereby I’d “use” sex as a way to equalize the relationship. She might act as though she knew more than me, both in life experience and in general knowledge, but when it came down to the bedroom, she had to acknowledge that I was the one in control. It’s a dynamic that I know now is incredibly unhealthy, but I embraced it at the time because for all the dysfunction, I did love her.

  7. Alix says:

    the last guy I dated…ugh, there was so much sexual dysfunction there. for about three months before we broke up, things between us were so awful that I just couldn’t have sex with him. I had resolved to break up with him but every time I tried, he convinced me that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do, and I would believe that for awhile and then resent him horribly later for “making” me stay. he whined and pleaded for sex, and I eventually told him that if he needed sex so much he was going to have to find it elsewhere because I had completely lost my desire to have sex. what I didn’t realize until after I finally dumped him was that I hadn’t lost my sex drive at all; I’d just lost my interest in having sex with him because he was manipulating me into staying with him so cruelly. God, I damn near have a panic attack every time I remember that relationship…

  8. CMM says:

    Your story really validated my story, and made me feel less alone. Thank you so much for posting it. From my late teens to mid-twenties I was with a guy who refused to have sex in ways that made me come (because they didn’t turn him on), and who once told me that “it was time for me to stop masterbating while we fuck.” (Because sex was the time when I should be focusing on him!) I responded to this by completely turning off. I figured out what would get him off as quickly as possible, and while we fucked and I felt nothing I would picture whatever I planned to do next – eating a snack, watching TV, or reading a book. Something that would make me FEEL something. Sex was what I had to do in exchange for a relationship with someone who loved me. And I clung to the notion that my disinterest in sex must be MY sexual dysfunction – because NO WAY would a sex-positive feminist like myself be in a relationship that was sexually and emotionally damaging!

    Four years after we broke up (and I came out as queer) I am still really struggling with feeling detached from my body during sex. I get so mad at myself for it because it’s not as if I was abused – I just felt trapped in a relationship with a well-meaning but very emotionally immature and insecure person. I did this damage to myself by staying in the relationship and being completely unable to create healthy boundaries. So, thank you, thank you for your story. I even shared it with my current gf (who is awesome, and giving, and willing to do whatever it takes to get me off) so that she could have some insight into why I completely space out or turn off while we’re fucking.

    Susannah – your quote, “I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me; he was perfect on paper, and he really did care about me,” was so perfect. That’s how I felt too, and that narrative made it SO hard.

  9. Rainface says:

    Thank you. Thank you for putting this out there. I had a very similar relationship. And, like you, I really and truly loved him, and I believe that he loved me, but I think that he was so insecure about my love, and so controlling in a manipulative, subtle way that it took me years to fully pull myself out of existing in his world where there was something wrong with me. If it had been overt, I would have recognized it in a heartbeat.

  10. ozymandias says:

    I tend to sleep with virgins (not deliberately, but as a side effect of my youth and affection for nerdy socially awkward guys). I am always worried that one of them has a boundary that they feel bad about enforcing, and that I’m violating without even knowing it. But I’m not sure how to make sure without being annoying about “do you want this? Are you sure you want this? You can say no, you know. Are you absolutely sure that you want to do this?”

    I’ve had sex that violates my boundaries: sex in public multiple times despite my squick for nonconsenting people possibly seeing me naked; sex when my vagina is numb or actually hurts because it’s lasted so long and the guy needs “just a little while longer” for fifteen or twenty or thirty minutes, and then is happy that he “lasted so long” and “gave me so much pleasure.” And that guy was really nice, otherwise…

  11. Emilu says:

    What a powerful piece. My marriage is/was a lot like that, though the core problems are not really about sex. But all the manipulation, subtle control, insecurity, near complete failure on my part to set appropriate boundaries are the same.

    I am separated from my husband and divorce seems very likely…I am noticing a pattern here, and that’s that everyone who has spoken ended the relationship. In your (everyone’s) experience, am I deluding myself hoping that he will change?

  12. Nine says:

    I, too, relate to this SO GODDAMN MUCH. (And also to Susannah’s comment of “My ex’s thing was explaining to me why my feelings were mistaken.” You know what else? Sleep deprivation. That was a frequent one: force me to stay awake forever while explaining to me why my take on things is wrong, until I’ll agree with anything if it will just end the conversation.)

    I still struggle at times to come to terms with the abusive relationship I was in, and in particular the horrible feelings I still experience when I think back to having sex (and having to pretend I was into it) when I didn’t want to. I wonder why it had to go on for two and a half years: if there was a lesson to be learnt, couldn’t it have been learnt quicker? But there it is, and it’s a part of me and my experience. All I can do is talk about my experience with others – because this shit is more widespread than is commonly acknowledged – and acknowledge that every day since that relationship ended, no matter what kind of other shit I might be dealing with, is an improvement.

  13. Valarissa says:

    Thank you. Honestly and truly, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for sharing that. And thank you to all the other commenters who have shared brief glimpses into their lives as well. I am JUST beginning the process of dealing with a past situation that I didn’t realize how virulently toxic it was until I had left.

    During the relationship, I wanted to get out, I wanted it to end, but she loved me, and I loved her. I knew she was hurting me, but I didn’t have the strength to tell her my issues. I blanked out during sex, I was coerced into having sex with her to prevent fights and foul moods. It was three years later when I woke up crying that I realized that it was rape of sorts. It constituted a removal of my ability to decide for myself because of a perception that I was trapped in the situation. I do not mean to diminish the experiences of other survivors when I say that. There is no other word for it however. To make matters worse, not once in our six year relationship did she make me orgasm. I always needed to do so afterwards. She was my first relationship, and this profoundly impacted my sexuality. I believed myself to be asexual or dysfunctional in some way, and am still dealing with my inability to really enjoy sex with another person.

    There were situations when I would fuck up, I was not perfect, no one is. When I would apologize, she would tell me that if I really meant it, I wouldn’t do it again. She would invalidate my feelings of remorse and take even those away from me in a way that was incredibly damaging. I spiraled into a depression fueled by other factors in my life, supporting her and helping her to succeed, all at the expense of my own needs and desires. It was beyond toxic, and I realized this while I was in the relationship, but I did nothing because I did not want to hurt her. She loved me after all…

    The saddest part is, I was happiest in those years when I was alone and she was busy with something. Those times meant I could do whatever I wanted. I still get panic attacks when my current partner and I want to do separate things. I expect her to blow up at me too, to tear down my own feelings and ideas and heap on guilt and shame. I have immense difficulty deciding on doing anything when a partner of mine is with me. I can feel my own thoughts being drowned out by memories of past experiences and it still tortures and haunts me in a very real way.

    I wanted to thank you all for sharing your stories. I wanted to thank you for letting me know that I’m not alone, and that my feelings about the situation aren’t grounded in delusion or my own inadequacy. So again, thank you all.

  14. Anonymus for this post says:

    You’ve described almost perfectly my relationship w my last boyfriend. Although he wasn’t a good guy – he was a manipulative, controlling, soul-crushing loser who wanted nothing but a fuckable mommy.

    I’m still angry with myself for staying with him for so long, for falling for his button-pushing manipulation, for allowing him to use me like a fuck sock and never getting a single organism from sex with him. And I tried EVERYTHING. Books, videos, talking to him about what I wanted, trying to teach him how I liked to be touched – everything. He’d listen, whine about how he was trying (while never actually trying) and go back to jackrabbiting and demanding blowjobs.

    I ended up crying multiple times because I felt like I couldn’t assert myself about our horrible sex life because I didn’t want to make him feel like I was pressuring him to do things he didn’t want to do – just as HE was constantly pressuring me to do things I didn’t want to do, I realized later.

    It screwed me up so much, I still haven’t bothered trying to meet anyone else for the last TWO YEARS. I’m inwardly terrified of ending up in that situation again -with a dude who didn’t work, but expected me to pay all the bills and do all the housework and give him all the orgasms because he was disabled (he wasn’t, he just liked to pretend so he could keep getting workers’ comp to pay for him to sit on his ass all day long surfing for porn) and had serious family issues.

    I still don’t even make eye contact with men on the street now. I can’t go through that again.

  15. Emilu says:

    [Mod Note: this comment was in response to a comment that has been deleted at the author’s request]

    Veronique, I am sure you mean well, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to tell someone who was or is in an abusive relationship that their partner didn’t love them. As you said, you weren’t there, and it’s not right for you to tell Clarissa that her perception of her relationship is wrong. Her partner’s actions may not have been loving, in your opinion, but please do not tell others that their own perception of their own lives is wrong because it doesn’t match up with yours. When I have been told that, I felt lonely and unsupported, which is the opposite of what people in that situation need.

  16. Emilu says:

    Just realized I got Clarisse’s name wrong. My apologies.

  17. Kyra says:

    In your (everyone’s) experience, am I deluding myself hoping that he will change? Emilu

    It is very unlikely that he will change. But hoping he will change is a natural reaction, an expression of your capacity to love, and I don’t think any less of you for wishing it. I wouldn’t call it delusion, precisely. It is natural and normal to wish things were better, to dream of him being what you want him to be.

    He has a situation that has worked very well for him, when it worked, and he has priorities that suit it—his comfort > you. He likely isn’t even used to noticing your experiences. For him to change would involve, on his part, accepting blame (and guilt), significant changes in both ingrained behavior and ingrained thought, and a to-his-perception drop in his status compared to you and in his day-to-day comfort, all for a fix to a relationship he didn’t notice was broken and a restoration of your happiness that he didn’t care enough about to take even baseline effort to sustain, or avoid eroding.

    Additionally, the person who would be teaching him how to have healthy interactions, and correcting him when he acts incorrectly, and enforcing boundaries while he learns them, and keeping him convinced that this is a worthwhile goal and he shouldn’t abandon it and go back to treating you like before, is you. And that would be a significant emotional burden on you and place demands on your time and energy; it would at times inspire him to resent you, thus undermining his acceptance of the concept that you are worth going to the effort of treating you fairly; it might at other times push you into dispensing affection as a reward or a carrot-on-a-stick, and his claiming the identity (different from the reality) of someone who wants to change and make the relationship work might give him a new way to manipulate you into staying and putting up with whatever crap he can put on you in the context of that relationship dynamic.

    I understand your hope. But most likely, all it is is a very expensive long shot. Some people, no matter how much you love them or they love you, are not safe to love from anything but a safe distance. Or farther.

    (I’m sorry, this may not have quite answered your question the way you meant it. I have a philosopher’s mindset when defining “hope.”)

  18. Azalea says:

    ***Generally Speaking***

    Nobody should be forced, coerced, manipulated or pressured to enage in any form of sexual activity they do not like or want to perform/engage in. Sexual incompatibility exists but when you deny you’re not sexually compatible with someone just because you get pleasure from it when you KNOW they don’t it’s manipulative. He was being manipulative. Not because he wouldn’t do something she wanted him to do but because he treated it like she should go without it in order to be with him and please him, as if pleasing him meant more than pleasing her. Very unhealthy stuff.
    *********

    I wish you well and I’m so glad that while there are many who could relate everyone learned from it and is recovering/healing from these past manipulative/abusive/damaging relationships.

  19. Chally says:

    Véronique’s comment has been deleted at her own request.

  20. Selu says:

    Something a lot like this happened to me too. Thanks for sharing; your story (and everyone else’s!) really resonated with me. Knowing that I’m not the only one feeling like this helps so much.

  21. Susannah says:

    Nine, oh my God, it’s like you were there. “No, we need to sort this out now!”

    The two shittiest leftovers in my life are:

    1. Dealing with my kind, loving, privileged husband, who doesn’t understand: “Why didn’t you yell at him for peeing in you? Why didn’t you leave him? I thought you were different!” I thought I was different, too, sweetie. Heh. Also, being unable to come up with stories of the terribleness; because that’s how it worked. Talking about these things makes me sound so petty, because it’s all so little… on the surface. “He made me pick out his clothes.” With the caveat that if anyone made fun of him, he would hate me forever…

    2. I had the best consistent sex of my life with this guy, interspersed with the worst, most painful, most degrading sexual experiences. Why, Jesus??? WHY?? I continue to be terrified of sex and refuse to admit it. I didn’t just say that.

  22. Athenia says:

    I just broke up with my boyfriend. He was great; he thought I was the “best girlfriend” ever. But he couldn’t get over my pubic hair.

    How can someone feel if you are the best girlfriend ever if you don’t like your body? How can someone be so great if he can’t understand that your body isn’t his personal toy?

  23. tirzah says:

    Yes. It helps.

    I had similar experiences, not nearly as bad. Sex when I hid my tears during or after, sex to try to dig my way out of the black hole that is his unhappiness, sex when it wasn’t working out and I was humiliated because it was my fault for not being good enough.

    I like knowing now that there are things that I will never, ever do again. I wish I could have learned that without going through ten years of codependence though.

  24. Lyn says:

    Thanks Clarisse – I too had a very similar experience that I’m still dealing with now. I’m in a new relationship that is absolutely freaking perfect but I’m still keeping him at a distance on and off due to fears created or affirmed by that old relationship.

    One main difference between my toxic relationship and those of the other commenters here that I thought might be worth mentioning for anyone else who has experienced a different sexual dynamic, is that my sex drive outstripped my abuser’s by a LOT which became something he used to manipulate me (alongside a series of other things like slowly isolating me from my family and friends and insisting that my every waking thought be about him – he excelled in creating ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situations, e.g. made commets about the weight I was putting on and then complained that I had gone to the gym four times in a week, including one time when I left and got back before he woke up). Anyway, the disparate sex drive, as a teenage girl who has heard about how men are supposed to want it ALL THE TIME was difficult to understand, and I admit I put pressure on him to have sex with me because this gendered dynamic just didn’t gel with what I’d been told by every TV show I’d ever watched. But, and it took me a long time to realise this, he manipulated me throughout our whole 5 year relationship, using the difference in our sex drives to make me feel like shit (like I was unattractive and no-one else would ever want to be with me), and to get me to accept whatever crumbs he threw my way. I was so desperate for sex (I’m a 3-4 times a week minimum girl and was getting it once a month, sometimes less!) I did absolutely anything he asked, played to his fantasies and never mine, avoided masturbating during sex because it made him uncomfortable and I always wanted the sex to be mindblowing for him so that he would perhaps want me more often. His boundaries were sacrosanct and mine were non-existent.

    He also made it completely impossible to negotiate our disparate sex drives. Once I realised that I was putting pressure on him for sex, I was horrified and immediately started trying to talk more in order to acertain whether or not he was into it. He told me this kindof talk was offputting, unromantic (and I tried this in many different ways, blunt talk, sexy talk etc.). Ok, so the next step was to never initiate sex because rape is not ok and I never wanted to make him feel violated. But then he complained that he had to do all the work and wasn’t feeling like I desired him. Basically, I was supposed to read his mind about when he wanted sex, and only try to initiate it in those circumstances. You’ll notice (as I did after 5 years) that MY moods, MY desires were completely irrelevant to this.

    I certainly don’t think he intended to hurt me, I think he did love me a lot, but he had been a victim of abuse and wanted very contradictory things that he was not self-aware enough to realise WERE contradictory (and when I tried to spell these out I was accused of telling him how he was feeling) – so instead he blamed me for not making him happy.

  25. Nine says:

    Seriously! Susannah, I am relating like whoa. And those little things, they build up. (And then they start to make you doubt yourself, and you can’t tell friends that things are kind of fucked up, because that would seem disloyal to your partner, and maybe it’s just better to stop going out so often, because when you come back he’s always pissed off … or maybe that was just my experience.)

    And the sex! Yeah, I could say similar, but it’s after 2am here, I’m on my second glass of wine and it would take way too long to figure out what I’m comfortable saying about it right now. But, y’know. Hi.

  26. Nora says:

    Clarisse–thank you so much for sharing this story, painful as it must have been. My jaw actually dropped after I read how your ex would handle your disengagement during sex; my ex-girlfriend used to say the same thing, almost down to the same wording.

    [I should probably put a trigger warning for the next paragraph]

    Looking back, it’s pretty clear that my ex raped and abused me–though it’s absolutely not my place to tell you how to think of your own experience or make an equivalence between it and my own. I *so* relate to how you felt about lack of language, though. I wanted to bring it up with her soso many times, but part of the problem was that any concern I raised would eventually have boiled down to “I’m having sex with you because you make me scared that refusing would suck worse that just lying still and watching the clock.”

    I know it can be brutal to acknowledge that you went through something as shitty as what you describe. And it sounds like it’s been very helpful for you to remind yourself of how much you’ve been able to grow since getting yourself out of that toxicity. That is 100% a result of your strength as a person, and it’s really admirable.

    That relationship was absolutely not your fault, though. We live in a culture that normalizes so much of what you went through (your boyfriend called the shots sexually, you felt like you ‘owed’ him for agreeing to be in a relationship with him? That’s pretty much exactly what the patriarchy dictates). What makes this post soso brave and radical is that by speaking out, you’re giving the rest of us a reminder that this behavior isn’t okay or healthy. It feels hugely validating, but these kinds of stories also function as “permission” for other women to leave relationships like ours before they get as bad as they otherwise could. Thank you so much for that.

  27. Dae says:

    I still have baggage from a relationship that was very much like that, except a bit more overtly abusive toward the end. (Your post really started resonating when you talked about living with him, but not technically dating, and the pressure for sex.) It was good for me just to read your post and be able to relate. I’m mostly over that situation, but sometimes I still get just utterly disgusted with myself for putting up with it as long as I did, even two years after the fact.

    I, too, had quite a bit of feminist theory and self-empowerment ideals that “should” have kept me out of that situation, but I think what it came down to in the end was I thought I could control it. I knew I couldn’t, eventually, but he was very good at making me feel like if I could just be a little “better” and a little more understanding, I could make everything work. I think this would have been very helpful to me if I’d read it during that time of my life.

    Glad to hear it’s in the past for you, as well.

  28. Susannah says:

    Nine, oh, yes. Yes, yes. I know. I never went out without him, thank goodness, because OH THE SILENT TREATMENT. Interspersed with short, sulky, incredibly strike-you-dead comments. I was making 90% of my day-to-day decisions with his potential for sulkiness as a determining factor. (Why yes I WILL have extra onions on that! Wait… no… no onions thanks.)

  29. Susannah says:

    I’m a trigger warning waiting to happen :(

    Here! A row of truly sincere hearts to share my love for all y’all!
    <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

    This is the first time I've been able to talk about any of this, except to my husband. When I left my ex, I had hidden it so well that my older brother sat me down and chewed me out for my "flightiness". Flight! Ho, ho! I am still a little bitter about this!

  30. Thank you all for this awesome comment thread.

    @Emilu — I am separated from my husband and divorce seems very likely…I am noticing a pattern here, and that’s that everyone who has spoken ended the relationship. In your (everyone’s) experience, am I deluding myself hoping that he will change?

    This is such a hard question, and it is one that I’ve thought about a lot. As a writer and teacher on sexuality and consent and communication, I have often thought about trying to give advice on how to improve a relationship that’s currently problematic and damaging and silencing.

    I have had a number of long-term and short-term relationships, but I have to say that in the few where I think there were toxic dynamics at work, it is true that I wasn’t able to work out those dynamics and stay with the same person. I think there must be ways to talk through these things with a partner when you have difficult history between you, but I have simply not been in that place myself, and that makes the issue of advice on the subject … very difficult.

    It sounds cliché, but I think the bottom line is that both people have to really, really want to re-create, re-start, re-evaluate. If one or both isn’t totally committed to the process, it just won’t work and it’s probably best to move on. How to gauge a partner’s degree of commitment to change can admittedly be hard, but I suspect that’s where the process would have to start.

  31. LC says:

    I know I’m behind the curve time-wise, but this also spoke to me far too much. I’m still scarred from a relationship where I may have been in the role of the person getting sex because she feels it’s the price she needed to pay to have me stick around. (It wasn’t, but she never wanted to talk about what was going on.)

    But I’ve also been in that situation where I slowly realize that all my decisions have become about preventing her freakout or sulkiness.

    I’m at work and am not sure how much I can get into this here, but thank you so much for writing this.

    It sounds cliché, but I think the bottom line is that both people have to really, really want to re-create, re-start, re-evaluate.

    That’s been my experience, too. Also, that it is very rare, because the person who the current power dynamic favoured doesn’t want to give that up, just for you to stop complaining about it.

  32. bonniesgirl says:

    I read the post, including all the comments, and I am sooooo overwhelmed. I feel this warmth in my heart that I am not alone. Yet, I also feel a frustration and sadness that this type of thing is so damned common.

    I am deeply steeped in feminist theory and yet I find myself in a relationship that clamors with alarm bells and sirens and flashing red lights.

    For all our education in feminism, for all our knowledge, there is just not enough education in matters of the heart. I KNOW what physical and emotional abuse is but for all my learning I never understood how complex a monster is emotional abuse.

    My husband changed abruptly after we married (6 months ago). He went from being a sexual dynamo to suddenly not wanting sex very often. This is a man who told me CONSTANTLY that he wouldn’t marry a woman whose sexual appetite didn’t match his own. Then, after the wedding, he suddenly went from wanting sex 3-4 times per week to only wanting it once a month! He also used to complain that he didn’t like women who couldn’t take the sexual initiative. Now all I hear is that I want sex too much and it’s a turn-off to be pressured for sex all the time. WHO IS THIS MAN???

    On top of all that, he has become a genius at making little cutting remarks to me about my weight, my appearance, my goals, my beliefs, and he has become incredibly disparaging of feminism.

    What creeps me out the most is that, although we don’t have much sex anymore, he objectifies the hell out of me. When I tell him that his groping, grabbing, ogling, etc are over the top (or ask him to respect my boundaries), he says he has a PIECE OF PAPER now that says he’s ALLOWED to touch me, look at me, that this piece of paper forbids me to have boundaries. Oh, the fights we have had over that remark . . .

    He has been unemployed off and on for the past two years and we have four children to support (one of mine and three of his own from previous marriages). He finally got a steady job last week and now he’s freaking out because he can’t be with me constantly, and in his mind that is WRONG. He never had a problem with me working (and using my money to pay all our bills, including child support for his daughters), but now he feels that he should get to stay home and I should work. Last night I listened to a lecture from him on how feminism is all fucked up because we women WANT to work and WANT to earn as much as a man and men WANT us to take their jobs because men are FED UP with doing all the work but men get stuck working because they earn more than women. WTF!!!! He got me fired from my job about two weeks ago but now makes it sound like I got myself fired. He gripes that he has to support this family now and I’ve burdened us with my unemployment (even though I have “other” income that doubles his). He insists I get another job STAT because he believes I’m too smart to sit at home all day and I’ll go crazy . . . or worse yet, I’ll get bored and CHEAT on him.

    After supporting our family for most of 3 years I am ready for a break. I have that “other” income I mentioned previously, and I feel no guilt in staying home, catching up on reading and research, and taking care of our children (whom I feel I have neglected for the past couple of years due to having to work so much). I WILL go back to work sooner than later, but I will do it because I WANT to, not because he guilts me into it.

    Every time I have tried to leave him he threatens to kill himself, or to abandon his job and move 6 hours away (near his mother). If it weren’t for his children I wouldn’t give a damn. But I think that’s his trick- he convinces me to keep TRYING to make this relationship work out of guilt for his children, whom I love and care deeply for.

    I sooooo want out of this relationship. I have learned a valuable lesson: abuse is not always blatant and it’s not always obvious. Sometimes it’s insidious and sneaky and seeps in through cracks you didn’t even know you had. You can be a hardcore feminist and still get hoodwinked. I am still reeling over the fact that I am in this position. HOW DID I GET HERE??? Subtle abuse is like a virus, it can hide itself quietly within your body and you have no idea that anything is wrong until it finally presents its fatal symptom, by which time it’s too late.

    While he works I spend my time re-building my confidence and re-affirming my strength and courage. I’m a smart cookie, I’m a strong and mighty woman, I CAN overcome this, and I’ll be the best me I have ever been and ever will be. I’m a fighter, not a quitter.

    So here’s to fighting the good fight.

  33. bonniesgirl says:

    Oh, and to LC, who said,
    “But I’ve also been in that situation where I slowly realize that all my decisions have become about preventing her freakout or sulkiness.”

    THAT is a very accurate description of what my life has become. It’s a great tool on the manipulator’s part to keep you from approaching them with the problems in the relationship. It’s a great way to keep you from expressing and your feelings. It negates emotional validation. It’s a soul-killer.

  34. mzrad says:

    With a slight shrug of the shoulders, I refer to my selfish ex-husband as “EH” or “eh.” My own low self esteem lured me into a 6 year relationship with this person. Still, I can’t view it as a waste of time because, when the end came, I had kicked my low self esteem to the curb (although its always threatening to come back) and would never be with such a taker again.

    I saved my own life by leaving. : )

  35. groggette says:

    tirzah: I like knowing now that there are things that I will never, ever do again. I wish I could have learned that without going through ten years of codependence though.

    Replace “ten years of codependence” with my own multiple years of pain and bad experiences and I’m right there with you. I am getting better about not having to learn everything the hard way so there is that ;)

  36. Florence says:

    bonniesgirl: My husband changed abruptly after we married (6 months ago). He went from being a sexual dynamo to suddenly not wanting sex very often. This is a man who told me CONSTANTLY that he wouldn’t marry a woman whose sexual appetite didn’t match his own. Then, after the wedding, he suddenly went from wanting sex 3-4 times per week to only wanting it once a month! He also used to complain that he didn’t like women who couldn’t take the sexual initiative. Now all I hear is that I want sex too much and it’s a turn-off to be pressured for sex all the time. WHO IS THIS MAN???

    On top of all that, he has become a genius at making little cutting remarks to me about my weight, my appearance, my goals, my beliefs, and he has become incredibly disparaging of feminism.

    Bonnie, this sounds incredibly like my ex, and it was the mindfuck of being treated differently when alone and with an audience that was one of the things that damaged me most. The only thing that saved me after the fact was a wonderful, wonderful therapist who helped me tease out what was real and what was the fucker gaslighting me. But you’re right, your politics don’t protect you from people who intend to do you harm, or manipulate, or use you. And it isn’t your fault, it’s the abuser’s fault.

    Every time I have tried to leave him he threatens to kill himself, or to abandon his job and move 6 hours away (near his mother).

    This too. This is abuse. When my ex did this to me, I called his bluff, told him I would be sorry if it were true, but that ultimately his bad decisions weren’t going to be my problem anymore, and then I made it so. The asshole is still alive and kicking, and poking me on occasion to make sure I can never forget about him.

    Yes, here’s to fighting the good fight. And fight, girl. I left him ten years ago and he’s still around, still trying to make my life hell when the mood strikes him. And my life is imperfect, but my child and I are happy. That’s what matters.

  37. Anonymus for this post says:

    bonniesgirl – Hugs upon hugs upon hugs, if you accept them. I wasn’t married to my bastard ex, but save for that, I totally get where you’re coming from.

    Don’t let the his threat of suicide trap you. In my experience (YMMV), that’s the sign that the abuser is getting more desperate to hold onto you – so the claims and drama get bigger and bigger. My ex threatened something very similar when I left. He’s still around, probably ruining someone else’s life.

    And, even if he did, it is 100% not you’re doing. From what little we know about all this, it sounds like he has serious issues that have little to do with you, but you’re the convenient target.

    Does the mother of his kids know about this?

  38. @LC — That’s been my experience, too. Also, that it is very rare, because the person who the current power dynamic favoured doesn’t want to give that up, just for you to stop complaining about it.

    Yeah, they’re much more motivated to just say whatever will keep you quiet in the moment, and then “forget” or slide backwards or “try”-without-really-trying. I think it’s useful to try to find concrete things to do, which you can measure. For example, if both of you feel comfortable in therapy, you could schedule couples therapy appointments. Or if you don’t like therapy, maybe try certain types of relationship books and chapter assignments. Or support groups in various fields (sexuality communities have these in major cities). It almost sounds kind of silly to me when I write it, but I think it’s important to specify that a partner who genuinely wants to keep the relationship going will take it seriously and talk about what to do with you, they won’t shut you down.

    I’ve been thinking about the deleted comment in which someone said that I need to recognize my former relationship experiences as abuse. I have zero interest in telling anyone else how they should think about their experiences, and if “abuse” is a good word for some people, which helps them find ways to avoid future problematic situations, then they should certainly feel free to use that word. For myself, while I acknowledge that I was treated in messed up ways in some former relationships (especially the one I discussed in this post), I don’t find “abuse” to be a useful framework because I think it could make it too easy for me to avoid taking accountability for some of the things I did in those relationships that were messed up. This is my personal feeling, about my relationships, based on my experiences, and I am not trying to disempower or attack anyone else’s perspective on abusive exes. That having been said, I have found many feminist frameworks for discussing abuse to be helpful for understanding the things exes did that were messed up, like the Power and Control Wheel:
    http://www.google.com/images?hl=en&rlz=&q=power+and+control+wheel&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=og&sa=N&tab=wi&biw=1281&bih=684

  39. bonniesgirl says:

    @ Anonymous:

    No, the mother of his children knows nothing of this. The more I know about the two of them (her and my husband) the more I get creeped out. This woman LOVED him and cried her heart out when they divorced (she told me this herself- and so did he, on a separate occasion). I KNOW I’m not so special that I’m the only one he’s treated this way, so I believe he treated her the same way he treats me.

    When we got married she called me on the phone and cried and cried. She was in turns happy for us, sad for herself, angry for their lost relationship. It was bizarre.

    So I spend a leetle of my time trying to figure out what she saw in him, what she misses, and how the hell she tolerated it. The rest of my time is spent on trying to get the hell out of this relationship.

  40. Lyn says:

    @bonniesgirl

    I totally did exactly what your husband’s ex did – I called the new gf and was all happy for her and sad for myself. I had been dependent on my ex for a long time and wasn’t able to articulate or even really understand the harm he had been done at the time. I cried sooo much after we broke up. I still feel bad about making out to her like my ex was the best thing ever, but now we’re out of touch (plus, I’m the hated crazy ex now so any contact wouldn’t go down very well…though I actually think my ex’s anxiety about this is to do with what I could tell his now wife). I don’t know about your husband’s ex and her situation, and it sounds like she does have friendly contact with you – but I think it takes a while for some of us to figure out that that we’re being manipulated by someone we love and it is perhaps difficult for her to talk about the bad stuff with you? I mean, when abuse isn’t violent or obvious lots of people don’t know how to talk about it, or even admit to it (to themselves or others).

  41. bonniesgirl says:

    My husband and I broke up two years ago (whilst still dating) because I couldn’t stand his controlling nature, his clinginess, his insecurity. He begged me to take him back and I did. But only after I called his ex-wife and talked to her. I thought (stupidly) that I was doing the right thing. I thought she’d be honest with me. I described his behavior to her and asked her if he’d ever been like that with her. She said no. She was shocked. She insisted that he loved me and that we were good together and I should give him a second chance.

    So I suppose, if and when I do leave him she will label ME the “crazy ex” who threw away what she so desperately wanted.

    Really, this emotional abuse is a SICKNESS. I wish more people would get the word out so that we (men and women alike) could empower ourselves against it. This is what I hate about Lifetime movies: the abuse they highlight in their shows is always blatantly obvious. Emotional abuse is NOT.

    A kudos again to Clarisse. I know we’ve gone off on a tangent about emotional abuse and I respect the definitions you’ve set regarding your experience. I think it’s also important to emphasize that regardless of emotional abuse there are times when people become encumbered in relationships where they are not being fed spiritually and/or wholly; where no matter how much each of you try to make the relationship work there is an emptiness that cannot be filled. It’s important that we live our lives true to ourselves. Anything less is a waste.

  42. Quentin says:

    And I thought there was something so weak, so perverse, so contemptible about me to have found myself, a highly educated feminist, in this very boat.

    I had the best relationship of anyone I knew – great sex, shared interests, unmatched communication (in that he’s never had a thought he doesn’t verbalize, & we always argued every conflict until he found my jugular & ripped it out). After a couple of years of living together, I went to bed by myself every night while he smoked pot & played video games.

    And yet I married him. We had a baby. He was so freaked out by what he saw in the delivery room he wasn’t sure about ever having sex with me again (that thought was a great candidate for keeping to yourself). When his sex drive did come back, it was with a vengeance & well in advance of mine. I’d spend my days nursing & rocking & playing peek-a-boo (& doing all the housework. And working on my degree) – physically & emotionally tapped out by the end of the day. He’d come home every evening & drop his needs at my feet & get so angry that I wasn’t equally hot for him.

    Didn’t I find him attractive any more? I never could articulate why his wanting to hate-fuck me didn’t turn me on. He’d threaten to get his needs met elsewhere, & I’d wish that he would. I thought to get him off my back, but in the back of my brain, I felt that if he did, then I could leave. I wonder sometimes, too, if it would’ve been better if he’d beat me. I would’ve seen that, wouldn’t I? My main strategy survival was to screw him just before the big blow-up came (I remember at the time recognizing that cycle from my training to volunteer at the womens’ shelter – like in the textbook, that never worked). He was always asking me to tell him how to fix my problem – regular date nights? more oral? And I’d dutifully try to provide him a roadmap for how to turn me on that excluded his having any respect for my needs and boundaries.

    I thought if I prove to him that I loved him enough – we could go back to being who we were. And eventually things got better. I was sure we were the picture of domestic bliss. And it’s normal to cry all the time and have fantasies about leaving or him dying. That’s what people do when their partner leaves his dirty underwear on the floor next to the hamper. Right? One day, years later, he was finally satisfied by the amount of sex he was getting (yet we kept having the same fight). How come I don’t feel any different?

    What cracked me wide open was having a genuine feeling – a brief flirtation narrowly averted by a panic attack. My therapist described my marriage with the word “rape,” which I simultaneously thought, “well, duh,” while the entire construct of my life, the wall between my real feelings & the feelings he required me to have, came crashing down. Can a relationship like that be fixed? I tried, for years without, then months with, therapy. It was the moment my therapist wouldn’t let me say “I can’t” stay in the marriage, I had to say whether I wanted to that the horror of what I’d subjected myself to came untangled.

    I still don’t have a boundary my ex feels obligated to respect. But now I get to shut the door in his face.

  43. Elizabeth says:

    Like so many others here, this post is… Wow.

    I did all this as a brand new adult at 17-18. I learned those lessons good and hard. I was convinced my head was on backwards, and if only I could be a little bit better, a little bit more, if only I could stop fucking it all up, my boyfriend could be happy, he could stop yelling at me, we could stop fighting. It took me what felt like an eternity to learn this lesson.

    What do I do? Six years later, after doing a great job dating around and maintaining my own identity and standing up for myself when stuff gets fucked up, I go and get in my first lesbian relationship – and somehow think the rules don’t apply, that these are all things that men do to women, that a woman couldn’t possibly pressure me into sex or be manipulative about how she wanted me to behave.

    And here I am, once again afraid my head is on backwards, this time in therapy to figure out what’s wrong with ME, wondering why I feel no response to her sexual advances when every time we have sex it’s followed by a friendly-sounding comparison of all her other sex partners, innocent commentary of how little time I want to spend making love compared to everyone else, constant comment of the ‘straight’ ways I have lesbian sex.

    What might make me want to have sex with her? What is she doing wrong? Do we need to go on more dates? Do I need to have sex with her more often, so as not to threaten her sense of sexual power? Do I need to desire her more, so as to make her feel more potent?

    We broke up six weeks ago, I’m moving out in two days, and somehow wondering where I went wrong… Thank you, everyone, for sharing. This has been so helpful. Thank you, thank you.

  44. sevenhelz says:

    Wonderfully useful post, it creates hope… I won’t read all the comments but yes, shared experiences.
    “His boundaries were sacrosanct and mine were non-existent.”
    seems to be a common theme? Certainly resonates with me.
    x

  45. me says:

    thank you for posting this. just thank you.

  46. onewoman says:

    Thank you so much.

    Although some of you have suffered so much more, it resonates amazingly. So very important not to feel like I am the only one. The bottom line is I think it does make you feel like you’re endangering your mental health and that should be some kind of warning sign.

    After my most manipulative relationship (about 3 years), I concluded that my part in the problem was that I was naive and too-willing-to-please-at-my-own-expense; I was also completely incredulous and took a long time to understand what was happening as my previous relationship was the most loving and respectful thing ever. The experience has certainly made me a stronger person now (mostly through a lot of pain). I find facing up to it by writing an honest diary to yourself among the better ways of crystallizing the problem.

    I thought the invisible crying during and after was just my personal trait. One that would take place a few times each week. Invisible emotional manipulation and abuse really needs to be talked about to young people. How can we empower future generations of women to treat themselves as the number one priority?

    A note on well-meaning guys: my partner after 3 1/2 years keeps trying to make me come during sex by prolonging intercourse. Hello? And apologises if it (the intercourse) doesn’t last longer than, say 7 minutes. Hello? When I bring up the fact two-thirds of women will not climax in this way, it falls on deaf ears. His previous girlfriends who ‘climaxed at the drop of a hat’ get quoted at me.

    Could we have some honest and useful relationship advice magazines instead of COSMO?

  47. RJ says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. Amazing, truthful, helpful AND healing to hear other people have gone through similar things. I’m still recovering from a relationship like the one you described, and it’s so hard to articulate the lasting challenges, pressures, and frustrations that can arise from it. Thank you for being brave enough to share.

  48. natalie says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I want to problematize two things because I think it’s super important to notice. Intentionally wanting to abuse someone is not a necessary quality of being abusive. Also, in some situations it may be part of the nature of the abuse for it to be less overt/more manipulative and slight. I guess we all define these things ourselves, but since this is a resource for many and may aid in people’s discovery of their own past problems/trauma. I thought it should be said.
    But really, thank you.

  49. @natalie, those are fair points.

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