The Death of Relationships: From Unlove to Mutuality

From trauma bonds to healthier relating. A history of unlove doesn't doom us - Love is possible!

(Part 1/2 of The Death of Relationships series. Read part 2: From Numbing to Loving)

All my life I’ve craved intimate relationship. More than any other factor, this has been my driving force.

hand reaches out to horizon - craving warmth

Photo by Alexander Lam on Unsplash

When I was a child I craved intimacy with my Mum (who most certainly did not want intimacy with me). I craved her touch and she pushed me away. I craved her kind words and she made fun of me. I craved her attention and she ignored me or raged at me out-of-the-blue. I craved her acceptance and she told me I was sinful at the core, that she had never wanted to have me, and that she ‘loved me with the love of the Lord because that’s what we all have to do’. My predominant emotion around her was craving-fear.

I also craved intimacy with my Dad. He was rarely home (he worked long hours), and when he was home late at night or on weekends, he was usually working. I craved his touch and he hugged me back (this felt so good). I craved his emotional support but he could only speak logical-Spock-language1. I craved his attention but he was working, although he did take me to basketball weekly which I looked forward to. I craved his acceptance and he did accept me (though he wanted me to  be more like him, and better at placating my Mum). He had wanted children very much, and he awkwardly told me he loved me.

In primary school I craved a best friend and found one. Then she found a ‘second best friend’. We were in a best friend triangle than I found terribly distressing. I hated the third party … secretly. I never showed my jealousy or longing, and we all stayed friends. We had a fourth friend in our inner circle who was nobody’s best friend. Now I wonder, what must it have been like to be her?

In high school I craved a best friend, and had many potential best friends for short periods before they mysteriously pulled away. The best friends I ended up with I secretly didn’t like much … but I wanted the safety of a best friend more than I cared about how I felt about them. Now I wonder if maybe they also didn’t like me …

When I was a teenager I craved a ‘soulmate friendship’ to rival that between tv characters, Xena: Warrior Princess and her sidekick, Gabrielle. When I discovered online that they had a huge lesbian fanbase who saw them as romantic partners, I discovered my lesbianism. I realised I craved intimate love with a woman. Unfortunately this was a massive sin in my fundamentalist Christian community leading straight to hellfire. So I struggled to build a concrete dam to block that raging torrent of desire.

When I was a committed fundamentalist Christian (by conversion at 19 – I was raised religious but turned my back on it in my mid-teens) I craved an intimate relationship with God - the most intimate a human had ever experienced, more than King David, who was called a ‘man after God’s heart’. I worked hard on my relationship with God, spending time each day in devotional prayer, bible reading, and singing worship songs. I spoke with him constantly and attempted to hear his voice in my heart. I lived my life based on what I thought his will was, chose a career that I believed was his calling (missionary to China), and suppressed my queer sexuality and non-binary gender identity for the sake of living by his rules. I remade myself in his image to earn his love.

During my years at bible college I craved one of my classmates. I fell deeply in love, for the first time: crazy heart-quaking, unrequited love. I was so ashamed of my uncontrollable feelings, and kept them under lock and key. I couldn’t seem to stop myself from seeking a friendship with this woman, longing for our relationship to be as close as it could be within the strictures of no-lesbianism-allowed. I was terrified if she ever found out she would reject me. So I never told her. When she left I fell apart. I remember falling to my knees, hard, like my hamstrings had been cut. I was quailing, weeping gut-sucking sobs that I couldn’t hold in. I remember feeling heartbroken for two years … and feeling terribly ashamed for my heartbreak over a not-relationship that was not-approved-by-God. It seemed so pathetic. I judged myself harshly. Yet I couldn’t flick the off-switch on my experience.

When I grew out of my religion (a world-shattering then world-expanding unfolding over several years) I craved an intimate sexual and romantic relationship with a woman. The cap was off my queerness and it was time to explore! I craved friendships with other queer people. I craved friendships with other ‘worldly’ people (a name for non-Christians, used by some Christians). I craved friendship with my own self, and knowing what my will might want to do in this world. If I didn’t have to do things God’s way according to his will, then what way might I choose? And did anything matter at all, if it wasn’t in service of God’s higher purpose?

"Sometimes when you're in a dark place you think you've been buried, but actually you've been planted." ~Christine Caine

woman arches backward emerged in water

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

When I was in my late 20s I started to explore intimate relationships, with gusto. I’d had a few relationships in my teens (with both men and women), and a short-lived attempt at becoming a pastor’s wife during my religious phase. But I hadn’t entered in fully, heart and all … or even genitals and all, opening myself to sexual intimacy. Now I did. I danced with a lot of women in clubs and made out. I tried my first drunken one-night-stand (and had an awful time. She had an amazing time and wanted to see me again. I said no and resented the hell out of her for how hard I found that). Eventually I dated a few women more seriously. I entered into love relationships.

In relationships I craved intimacy, especially emotional intimacy. The first woman I fell in love with plus actually dated was a fucking revelation. I still remember touching her body the first time we had sex, and how I felt fire under my skin, and like I was on fire, burning down forever. My passion for her was overwhelming and terrifying (to both of us). I fell hard, and logically speaking, it just didn’t make sense.

She was mean to me. She was cold-hearted in general, bitching and judging others and me at every opportunity. She kept me at arm’s length without giving me much if any encouragement. She put up strict controls around our relationship, and didn’t share many details about herself with me. We never took a photo together. She didn’t want me to be her facebook friend. She wanted to see other people simultaneously (I found this appalling), and I agreed to that to keep her in my life. There were long lapses between our times together when she was out of contact until it suited her.

Years later, I realised that dating her was like dating a younger, more beautiful version of my Mum. I realised what my Dad saw in my Mum, because that kind of scornful disinterest was a potent aphrodisiac to me. My ex seemed like a dark goddess and I loved and hated her uncontrollably. That was exactly how I had felt about my mother. My childhood set me up to find those qualities irresistible, and I was merely acting out my conditioning (just like us all).

The second serious relationship I had was with a much younger woman who pursued me. I LOVED being pursued by someone. I felt wanted, and special, and like I was in control of the power dynamic finally (which felt much safer). I had some reservations about our age difference of about 10 years, and her youth. I felt guilty for being with someone that much younger, and like it said that something was wrong with me. I feared society’s judgment.

She was conventionally stunningly beautiful, and my ego LOVED what it said that said about me. Somehow I felt more desirable because I had a desirable woman on my arm. I hated that men would come up to her out of the blue and ask her out, like I wasn’t even a factor (no doubt assuming that we were friends rather than partners). I also liked how it validated me – they wanted what I had, and that gave me mysterious status.

I also felt inferior to her, and jealous of her attractiveness. She was the one that men (and women) desired … not me. In contrast to her I felt ugly, much more so than ever before. I felt insecure. And I also saw up close and personal that being so beautiful was no picnic for her. She felt the pain of being desired only for her face and body (which was one of the reasons she chose me I suspect. She felt desired for more). She felt like she didn’t have worth except for her appearance and longed to be seen for her mind and personality. She felt the pain of other women assessing her to be a threat, and treating her with hostility from the get-go. She also used her beauty to get what she wanted, flirting to get freebies, or easy entry. It was a double-edged sword.

After having sex a few times I realised her beauty didn’t mean a thing. I stopped seeing it. Her gorgeous eyes, and nymphlike body couldn’t make the sex good. When things got difficult between us and we entered frosty conflict, her beauty didn’t warm us up. Her beauty didn’t say anything about the quality of our love. It merely showed up my ego’s insecurities which helped me see that I was treating her like an object. I wanted to learn to love her as a fellow subject. I wanted to see through her beauty to the soul beneath, and celebrate that soul. I didn’t know how to yet, but I wanted to learn.

She came from a traumatic background that made mine look like the Brady Bunch2 (rejection, adoption, parent death while young, murder, incest, many foster families). When natural conflict arose between us she went into chaotic whirlwind meltdown. In response I froze up. My body became rigid, and closed. My heart slammed a line of prison doors. I found her emotional miasma terrifying, but all I was aware of was a kind of ‘going away’ inside of me. I became distant, numb. I shut down. My logic turned on and up, and I calmly told her how she should be instead-of-how-she-was, and what she should do, looking down my nose at her with cold merciless eyes. I internally judged her as pathetic, and told her she should get a grip. I didn’t want to be around her or spend time with her, and I especially didn’t want anything to do with her crazy emotions - they were too much like my mothers’. I insisted on space and time apart. In response to my coldness her meltdown went nuclear, and she broke up with me.

I never saw it coming; I thought her great need for me meant that I was ‘safe’ with her. When I realised it was real, that yes, she had indeed broken up with me and it was final … I went into meltdown. Suddenly I craved her like water in a desert. My crazy emotions spilled out of me. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. I couldn’t turn off the agony. I found myself sniffing a pair of shorts she’d left behind and then lying down on them as my pillow, trying to get to sleep. Weeping like a child, I mourned that I’d never feel her naked body wrapped up with mine again. At the same time I judged myself harshly as a pathetic loser. Sniffing an ex’s clothing? Could I stoop lower?!

I was humbled off my judgmental high-horse. I realise that if my ex had felt half the pain I was feeling when she was craving me (and chances are she felt even more) than my shutdown response must have been like opening fire on her unprotected heart. No wonder she broke up with me. It was self-preservation.

And no wonder I went into shutdown on her. It was self-preservation. This heart-breaking into nuclear meltdown felt too overwhelming to live through on the inside, let alone on the outside reflected in another person. The difference was when it was inside me, I didn’t have a choice. I had to go through it and feel its pain.

Seated man rests head in hands in despair - grayscale

Photo by Khagen Gogoi on Unsplash

I started to realise that the depth of pain in this heartbreak just didn’t make sense. There was too much and it was too intense to match the relatively short relationship with a relative stranger. With the help of self-development books3, websites4, and eventually a compassionate counsellor5 I started to unwrap my projections6. I started to grieve the past and let it go, so I could create a new present. I started to admit to the pain suppressed inside, and slowly find ways to re-feel and release it. I burst my belief that my family had been happy and that my parents had a good marriage (I believed this because my Mum said it repetitively while warning us to never speak about what went on behind closed doors).

Eventually I entered my third serious relationship. This time I chose a partner who worshipped me (which felt delicious to my fragile ego which liked to play hero). We enjoyed mutual chemistry, sexual compatibility, and playfulness (all new to me). At the same time she periodically broke up with me, unexpectedly, when nothing seemed wrong. At those times she seemed to be a different person, filled with self-loathing, shame, and fear. Hurt, shocked and scared, I went into fixit mode (successfully), talking her into staying with me.

Eventually the truth emerged: She had a terrible secret that she feared I would leave her for when I found out. An impending prison sentence hung over her head. The outcome was unknown but it seemed likely she would spend at least a few years in prison, possibly a decade (although there was a slim possibility she’d be let off).

I never saw it coming. I never suspected her of lying by omission. I never suspected I would be attracted to a ‘criminal’, or that a crime could be so understandable to me, when I was love with the person and saw the extenuating circumstances. I felt how if I was in her shoes (with her context and background conditioning), I might well have done the same. I didn’t know much about the state of the prison system, and when I researched it I was filled with fear for her and what it might do to her.

The heroic martyr in my personality wanted to somehow go to prison in her place. Another part of me screamed for self-preservation, and to breakup with her, stat. I envisioned years of visiting her in prison with none of the perks of relationship, stuck in an emotional support role. I didn’t want to do it; I hadn’t signed up for it - she’d lied to me from the get-go. My mind tormented me that this meant that I didn’t truly love her. Surely if I loved her I would be there for her through thick and thin … was I an unloving person? (With my identity knitted so tightly around being ‘loving’, this possibility seemed horrific.)

I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. I cried frustrated tears in our bed while she slept next to me, zonked out on sleep medication. I didn’t know what to do or how to be ‘the good partner’ my conditioning insisted I be (like my Dad, a far preferable relational model to my Mum). I chose to go to a counsellor with the intention of saving our relationship. I’ll never forget the counsellor saying to me, “What if you were to come to therapy for your own sake? Not for your relationship?”

She was speaking a foreign language. Say what?! Counselling for me? For what? I didn’t trust her. I didn’t trust people in authority, in general. I didn’t have any issues / I’d done plenty of self-help work and was mature / I just wanted to save my doomed relationship. Was that too much to ask?!

That grandmotherly counsellor was a boon to my life. She was my first ‘secure attachment’7 figure, the first person who stayed with me through big emotional pain, and kept loving me with positive regard (and yes, I paid her to do it. Also, it was sincere, and I felt her heart-warmth). Slowly I developed trust (and realised just how untrusting I was). Slowly I looked deeper within into my most painful and prickly places. I grew, with the support of her skilful attuned listening.

Oh, how I craved to be listened to. I was so hungry to be listened to, and seen, and understood, especially in my inner pain. From early life I developed listening skills to earn a few minutes of my Mum’s time, a few scraps of her ‘love’. I deliberately polished these skills to earn acceptance from friends, and love from partners. I was angry at all of them for not listening to me in return with similar skill-level, holding space for me. Yet I rarely gave them opportunity to do so, keeping myself contained and my inner world protected and private. I felt much safer being in the listening role than the sharing one (and I didn’t know that about myself). Getting details out of me about me was like pulling teeth, and took jumping through a series of hoops. Hardly anyone kept jumping.

When I started opening to being-listened-to I was ultra picky about how people listened to me. I would tell them off if they ‘did it wrong’ or retreat into stony silence. I didn’t realise I had to learn how to be listened to, and how to make space for people’s differences in capacity, interest, resources, and willingness. I didn’t realise I was prickly about listening because I was in so much pain from my Mum’s disinterest. I was on a hair-trigger, and that was understandable, and a part of my healing path.

I broke up with my partner and shortly afterward she went to prison. I let my mind accuse me of being a horrible person and accuse my partner of being a horrible person. I let the accusations go, and my inner prisoners go free. It was the first time I initiated a breakup: I realised I was incapable of that before. I agonised over hurting my partners. The truth was I felt so much pain and guilt in response to their pain, that I didn’t want the burden of it. I would rather they broke up with me, and I dealt with my own hurt privately (I had a pattern of cutting exes completely out of my life in an attempt to heal as fast as possible, and to avoid more pain).

To choose to breakup with someone, and to do it in-person with gentle directness, to the best of my ability, was HUGE progress. I was becoming a person who was capable of relationship mutuality. Someone who could say yes and no. Capable of boundaries. Of facing reality. Of choosing partners who were not thinly-disguised simulacrums of my Mum and childhood (or at least less so).

I was becoming capable of experiencing something new … and learning from it. Life’s prison-cell opened, and I was standing in the reception, contemplating daring to risk the outside.

"Not until we are Lost do we begin to understand ourselves." ~Henry David Thoreau

Read more in Part 2: From Numbing to Loving