On the Rebound

Friday, March 17, 2006

Question

I am 30-something straight woman recovering from a disempowering relationship that recently ended in a very bloody break-up: he left me for my best friend. I've got tools to deal with the blow to my self-esteem by moving my professional life forward. But I'm petrified of dating. The more I push myself, the more I realize the extent to which the rejection has killed my sexual self-confidence. It's not just that he left me. The dysfunction in our relationship expressed itself sexually: it always had to be how and when he wanted it. How to I regain my sexual self-confidence? Any advice in terms of self-help books or web sites, etc.?

Answer

What a skunk! I'm so sorry that this happened to you. Let's not under-estimate the extent to which his choice of partners did you in. This is a double betrayal, by a spouse as well as a best friend, and I think that may account for the depth of your pain. I'm not sure that moving your professional life forward will completely answer your need to grieve the loss of the two of them and get any sense of closure or hope for the future. I hope you are seeing a counselor, because this has to bring up such deep issues about relationships that I think you need the support of a face-to-face discussion and exploration your situation. Rather than a self-help book or a Website, I think building and enjoying a relationship within the boundaries of therapy would be helpful to you.

Having a controlling partner is indeed like having your spirit killed a little at a time. Someone who is critical and controlling during sex usually expresses these personality traits in other areas as well. I wonder if your husband didn't express his disapproval and his exclusion of you in virtually every interaction you had with him. This really is emotionally abusive. And I don't like throwing that term around lightly. During sex, a woman is especially vulnerable to a male partner. She has to open up to him, psychically as well as physically. It's so important to treat one another gently. When we enter the realm of another person's soul, it's vital to respect that space and, if we leave anything behind, to make sure it is something beautiful. On a spiritual level, your husband was behaving badly, so I would also encourage you to use whatever spiritual tools you are comfortable with to cleanse your bed, your living space, your body, and your internal reality.

Love is real. I believe we were created out of an immortal and eternal, loving power, and we can access that love any time we open our hearts and minds to divinity. Even if you don't share my belief, I think it's important for you to once more experience the reality of love and the truth that you are and can be beloved. Let yourself be loved by your dog, your friends, your therapist, your spiritual counselor—whoever is close to you. Take the time to slow down, pay attention to their love, and really absorb it and take it to your wounded heart. If you meditate, visualize this wound healing and making you stronger.

Dating will sound overwhelming as long as you identify it with a dysfunctional relationship and traumatic breakup. Remember that you are not risking everything when you go out with someone. Limit your sense of what you are risking to the reality of the situation. Let's take the example of a man who seems nice (he'd better!) who says, "Would you like to go out to brunch sometime?" You don't have to conduct a security check on him to determine whether or not he's going to make a good life partner. You don't have to decide the huge issue of whether or not any romantic or sexual relationship is possible for you. All you are risking is whether the food will be good or not and whether or not you will enjoy his conversation. Maybe that will sound more manageable. Remind yourself, as often as necessary, that you have the power to say no. You can be in control. You do not have to put up with anything you don't like or engage in any behavior that you aren't ready to take a chance on.

Holding yourself back from life is almost as bad as engaging in a mindless whirl of unsafe sex with as many men as possible. You may be waiting for the perfect date before you imagine you'd be willing to say yes to a social opportunity. But I can almost guarantee you that the first date you go on will be awkward. And that's okay. That's all it is—awkwardness, not some judgment from the Fates that your life is doomed to be depressing. You'll be out of practice. He might be nervous. So what? Even if you had a terrible first date, it would still break you out of the pattern of holding back and just observing life. Make sure you've got cab fare so you can get yourself home, and have the phone number of a friend you can call to dish the fact that his tie didn't match his shoes.

A thorough and skilled therapist can help you to understand what patterns from your past made you susceptible to a controlling and untrustworthy man. Doing that work ought to help you to feel more confident in your ability to make different choices this time around.

The fact is that we don't get to know other people until we let ourselves spend time with them. If you go out with somebody who turns out to bore you or piss you off, that's no fault of yours. This time around, the difference is that you won't put up with behavior that demeans you. You know you can survive as a single person. And you also know that being single is not as bad as living with somebody who is tearing down your self-worth.

Have at it, girl. Do the same thing with dating that your mamma told you to do with a strange new vegetable: just try a little. But since you are an adult now, if you taste anything you don't like, you have my permission and support and even applause if you just spit it out.

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