A cautionary tale

I’ve spent most of my life making decisions because I wanted to please others, make life easier for other people, or be likable. It’s been a consistent theme for me that has shaped so much of who I am, including why I am an administrative assistant today. My job is all about making someone else’s job easier. In the nonprofit world, that can be a good thing because I’m working for worthy causes and helping others use their talents. But in most areas of my life, it isn’t serving me well and ultimately it really isn’t helping other people in the way that I think it is.

I spent my childhood trying to live up to the standards of a fundamentalist form of Christianity.  It had very gendered expectations about my role as someone who was supposed to grow up to be the patriarch, decision maker, sole bread winner, and father. I tried so hard to live up to those images and in my various attempts I fell prey to some aspects of toxic masculinity. By the time I was 18, I was a poster child of obedience and conformity. I went off to college able to debate with the best of them on the apologetics of Calvinism and prepared with a stack of books about creation “science” to argue with my “liberal” Christian professors.

But I came to the realization at 18 that even within my closed circle of Evangelical friends, I was a real asshole and unpleasant to be around. In attempting to please my church and my parents, I had turned into a judgmental person stuck in black-and-white thinking. Because I wanted everyone else to like me, I resolved to change… or at least to be less vocal about my judgments and take more time to listen.

Luckily for me, my choice of an Evangelical liberal arts university gave me the opportunity to grow and change in a non-threatening environment. Within 2 years I had transformed into a liberal pacifist and thrown my conservative history behind me. But I hadn’t stopped trying to please other people. When my best friend expressed romantic interest in me, I ignored the warning flags about her personality and dove head first into an all-consuming relationship which found me married before my junior year at only 21.

I spent the next 7 years doing everything within my power to please her, bending over backwards and almost completely losing myself in the process. She was controlling, manipulative, gaslighting, and emotionally abusive. She used my self-abasing tendencies to her benefit and had me convinced that her opinions were right on everything. My feelings were unimportant. Under the guise of wanting me to “fulfill my true potential,” she molded me into the type of person that gave her the status of a successful married professional that she wanted to be in her life.

We had the beginnings of a sexual relationship when we first started dating but that all but ended once we got officially engaged. We didn’t have intercourse until 5 years into the marriage and she used that as a dangling carrot, always something in the future to be working towards if I did the things she wanted. The only reason we ever even tried it (very unsatisfactorily) was because she knew she was losing me. As a sexual person I was deeply unfulfilled in our relationship but whenever I would voice that it would become all about her.

Slowly she trained me to basically be her servant, fetching anything she wanted and meeting her every need. She demanded massages which began as an exchange but eventually became something I would just do for her. Even when I was working 10 hour days she would still expect me to come home and do all the cooking and household chores. I passed this off as a positive thing because we didn’t have gendered roles in our relationship, but really it was just abusive.

When I would try to talk about my needs and desires they were pushed aside in favor of her needs. If I used emotional content in a conversation my feelings were dismissed because she only believed in logic (until her repressed feelings would inconveniently bubble to the surface in which case I had to sooth her). I was always set up to fail when we argued because she had training as a debater. In public I was the dutiful husband and we were the “power couple” at our church, but in actuality, I had no power.

Despite all that, I didn’t talk about my problems to anyone else because I didn’t want to burden anyone. In my attempts to make others’ lives easier, I allowed mine to become a living hell of consuming depression. I would pathologically avoid being alone with my feelings because they would lead to very dark places. There were times I think that the only thing that kept me alive was that I didn’t want to die a “virgin.”

I tried so hard to volunteer and do good things during that time but I was unable to really be effective because I hadn’t taken care of myself first. And because daily life took so much work, I put my own self-discovery on the back burner. All my gender feels turned into a festering anxiety in the background.

After 5 years of a very unhappy marriage and couples therapy, it was so clear that things weren’t working that we were having serious conversations about divorce. But I was still so stuck in the model of meeting everyone else’s needs before my own, including not disappointing my parents who didn’t approve of divorce, that I agreed to stay. I did finally prioritize one thing though. It was important to me that I have a sexually fulfilling life which was never going to happen with my wife. She wanted any outside relationships to be a sex only arrangement but that’s not what fulfills me. So we compromised and I was “allowed” to pursue polyamorous relationships under some very strict rules and in secrecy.

Through reading resources on polyamory that focused on the importance of knowing your boundaries and finally seeing models for healthy relationships, I slowly began to come into my own and prioritize myself little by little. This resulted in a backlash at home as my wife could see her perfect arrangement slipping away.  But I was able to see the world outside the bubble I’d been isolated in for the first time and find people more like myself who were comfortable in their gender and sexuality.

When I finally came out as genderqueer and pansexual, she wanted me to keep it secret from all but a few confidants because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about my gender or her feelings about my sexuality. That was what finally started to break down my mental block around divorce and got me thinking about what it might look like to truly love my life and myself. Still, I was so afraid of being unloveable that I stayed in a marriage where love was conditional on my continued silence and suppression of my identity.

Polyamory isn’t easy, especially when you are starting out and have a lot of restrictions placed on you. My wife would yell at me if I was 3 minutes late coming home from a date and she wanted me to tell her everything that was wrong with the people I was dating and why she was better than them. But after a lot of dating attempts that never made it past the third date, I began dating a wonderful woman who encouraged me to voice my needs and set boundaries. It started out as a casual relationship with no expectations but within a couple months it was clear that I was in love.

That brought things to a breaking point in my marriage. I was starting to be happy and learning to say no to unreasonable requests and my wife couldn’t stand that. After 4 months in that relationship she changed tactics and was suddenly interested in sex. But it came with strings attached. She wanted me to choose between her (and a straight monogamous life) and polyamory.

Luckily by that point I had done enough self-work that I was able to connect with my feelings and consider what I actually wanted. My therapist asked me to focus on the sensations in my body as I imagined my future in both scenarios and immerse myself fully in the feelings of both options. It took an agonizing few weeks as I wrestled with that decision, getting pressure from my wife the whole time. I will forever be grateful to my girlfriend who stuck with me in a fairly new relationship through that uncertainty and allowed me to make that choice for myself.

In the end it was clear what I needed to do. As uncertain as my future was if I left, I knew that I would be forever unhappy if I continued to give so much of myself up to be in that marriage. Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also the best decision I ever made. I moved in with my girlfriend, temporarily at first, but I took steps to make sure that I didn’t fall into old patterns of pleasing others at my own expense. 18 months later it still takes a lot of work to undo those old patterns, but with the memory of those experiences still fresh in my head, I keep at it.

My life now is radically different, not just because of my lifestyle, but because of how I am treated by my partners and how I treat myself. No longer do I accept relationships where there is an unsustainable imbalance of emotional energy or physical labor. All three of my long term romantic relationships require investment, commitment, and a good deal of energy. But because I know what my limits are, where my boundaries are, and how to say no, I have the ability to do far more for others than I ever was before. That means seeking out relationships with people who also value consent and prioritize their own self awareness. It also helps that none of us rely solely on one person to meet all of our needs. We each have other relationships, both romantic and platonic, that support our emotional and physical needs. We have all structured our lives together in supportive community where vulnerability is valued and intimacy is not feared.

Now my life is my own. No one owns me no matter what happens, no one can tell me what I feel or who I am. And that is why it is so important to me that my gender isn’t about who I’m in relationship with (and how they define their sexuality). I won’t let it be simplified or hidden to make things easier for other people to understand or be more comfortable with. My gender is complicated and it can feel like it makes things “difficult” for others (and for me) but not living as my fullest self causes far more harm to myself and ultimately to my ability to actually help others. The airline announcements are true – you do need to put on your own oxygen before helping the person next to you.

12 thoughts on “A cautionary tale

  1. This is such a beautiful and inspiring post! Thank you for sharing and being vulnerable. I love your writing voice; it’s so kind and direct. Yay for healing, growth, and love!

    Liked by 1 person

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