Relationships: Part two

relationship failure problem sad
Contracts: so last year?

So I am back in the women’s discussion group on ‘Are relationships changing?’ and the thread of conversation seems to have slipped from: “There are many more women choosing to be single …”  to: “… for obvious reasons.” I suddenly find myself both in and out of our club at the same time, by virtue of an imperceptible smile or nod. I am really well-trained to question my own pull towards being in a relationship with a man. Why? Partly because of the background anti-male sentiment that circulates around the actual collective oppressive and discriminatory practices of men – this makes it easy to imagine that being ‘independent’ of men is the wisest and safest standpoint a woman can take, personally. This doesn’t logically fit with being a girlfriend or wife – although casual dating seems superficially to be more compatible. The other, related reason, is the various pains that I’ve enjoyed first-hand – seen through the lens of break-ups and the retrospective analysis of what ‘extra work’ I was doing while the relationships were active (and afterwards). I am always alert for, and often anxious about, ways I may not have learned my lessons, ways my hidden needs and insecurities in relation to men may not be done with yet.

Nevertheless, here I am in ‘real life’ enjoying willfully being in a hetero relationship – shit we even talk about the future! And yet I almost fall into the camp where women tacitly agree that hetero relationships are so much hard work for a woman that being in one is an obviously crazy move. Remember those famous statistics about married men and married women? What gives?

If my belief is that the ‘benefits’ of my relationship somehow outweigh the ‘costs’, am I thereby deluding myself that somehow I or we are ‘not the norm’? Are we somehow better or cleverer or saner or more loving or enlightened or less sexist than the millions of other couples who constitute this statistical reality? Or, am I simply gambling with my life, telling myself, since the outcome of our relationship belongs in the future, that we are part of (unknown) future statistics and not past or current ones? You never know when divorce rates are going to suddenly slow down, right? Better still, let’s dodge all these pitfalls just by not getting married. Eureka!

Yet very time we hit a real pitfall, or a boulder or a pothole or even fall in a swamp, the horrible ’emotion work’ we drag ourselves through to work it all out does pay off. There’s work and there’s work. “Relationships are hard work” can mean different things, for example: “Only a woman with low self-esteem would willingly consent to being the lifelong unpaid caretaker for a manchild who may offer love but can never understand or empathise with her burdens.” Alternatively it can mean: “If you want a romantic partner who’s committed to a view of a shared future, then every so often you will have to confront unpredicted challenges, which is hard work. If you do not succeed in fully listening to and hearing each other and both making genuine compromises during those moments, what started as a healthy partnership will slide over time into a power imbalance.”

The shortcut to this is “Everything in life that’s really worth doing is hard work.” Show me someone who is really passionate about their job who didn’t have to struggle to study to qualify for it, or who finds it easy every day. Or find me a parent who will say that it’s easy raising a child, that they love them and they don’t encounter problems and experience excruciatingly hard work.

Our attempt to re-view hetero couple relationships as we reeled from the bleak realities of Thatcherism and absorbed the painful truths of the second wave has become increasingly individualistic. Relationships are ultimately part of the web of human commitments and community functioning that sustains not only family but all human social (and material) life. Make no mistake, individualism, as a stage in our development, has given us a lot of gifts. The idea that a woman is deserving of equal treatment by a male partner as well as in the workplace, in politics and so on, is an individualistic response to the idea that all women should just shut up and share womens’ work. Recognising individuals is a way to raise standards of care and dignity for all and the basis for understanding what equality means.

But we’re only vaguely, and only partially, individuals. In a relationship, we are never really half a person, but we are in certain ways half of a human unit, just as a kid is an integral part of its entire family, and that little family is often part of (one or two or more) bigger family networks. Our little personalities are composites of all our relatives, teachers and friends, with a strand of unique individuality hanging it all together and – crucially – enabling us to make decisions that don’t suit the community majority when we need to.

There are lots of threads here which still need untangling. How many men are still benefitting from being an individual while a woman does the team bit for them both as an unacknowledged domestic project-manager? Will they live happier lives than their wives? Are men learning to do emotion work? How are men learning how to do emotion work? And is the answer that women are doing even more emotion work to teach them? Is this always true? Is there anything wrong with the idea (or reality) of women ‘teaching’ a male partner how to communicate his needs and how to listen so he really hears? Is there anything wrong with a woman (or man) leaving a partner who is unable or unwilling to learn? Even if she/he has promised a lifelong commitment? Are there women who refuse to do emotion work despite pleas from a hetero male partner?

There are billions of us and we encounter such a tiny percentage (even if we have humungous social media networks), so we can never know in any detail what is behind divorce statistics, life expectancy figures, or what is occurring in the hearts and minds of women and men in hetero relationships, arguing about whether he is doing enough emotion work, washing up or childcare. We don’t even know how our own lives will work out.

To step outside the frame – someone once told me they were on a strict diet to reduce their cholesterol level, so that they wouldn’t be put on statins, which they don’t want. Their danger level was based on their lifestyle plus family history. They can’t do anything to change the effect of their family history on the software determining their danger level – presumably even if their relatives’ illnesses were rooted in ‘lifestyle’ factors – e.g. poor diet. This person was dieting to convince a computer of their health, but they were living an incredibly healthy lifestyle already.

How does this relate? Well to put it simply, we can’t live by statistics, and there is a danger that we may rely on them to stand in for truths about ‘men’ or ‘women’ which fit with personal experiences and make us feel better about them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware how easy it becomes as you get older to amalgamate concrete stories, first hand experiences and countless anecdotes into a truth. This kind of truth is not only helpful for our conversations with others, and to assist us in making sense of our lives, it’s also normally true! Nevertheless, we need to be sure we don’t let an amalgam of statistics and similar stories solidify into the idea that people aren’t changing, when in fact they might be. When it comes to men and emotion work, the chances are they’re changing faster now than ever before.

Whether the pace satisfies onlookers or not is another question, and to answer it we’d have to ask yet another: how can we possibly gain that kind of amalgamated overview for the here and now? Probably the answer is, we can’t, we have to move on with our lives in the same state of not-knowing that we were in when we were young and embarked on all the patriarchally-doomed relationships that those of us in the discussion group have in common. The difference is, when we were young we assumed we did know everything, and now we’re a bit wiser, we know we don’t.

 

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Cuddle regeneration

cubsIt feels like a long time since I wrote about the explicit reason for starting this blog: to talk about non-sexual adult bodily contact. I was inspired by a dream, some other writing work, and Moulin Rouge (don’t ask me why) to come back to it, and make a massive fuss.

I have said before that I feel like the way society is currently structured means a great many people, far too many, are hugely unlikely to get as much tactile physical affection as they ideally need. Yes I know that kind of sounds like I’m just saying: some people need more cuddles. At which point you might smile kindly and say: some people should eat more vegetables, or some more people should learn a second language, et cetera. So it’s time to make my argument a bit hotter than that. (Hey, I do feel very strongly about vegetables.)

Cuddling is not a forgotten art, or a nice practice which correlates to coupledom and intimate family life. Cuddling is a birthright.

We don’t live in a society where everyone grows up getting plenty of cuddles, and then as we mature and turn into adults, we are divided into subcategories such as:

  • naturally affectionate people who are happy to hug trusted friends and family
  • people whose cuddling input was significantly compromised during/by adolescence and either re-learn over time as they mix with cuddlier adults, or drift towards a fairly low average cuddle rate
  • people who do not get cuddled because they are not that friendly or likeable, are mean or cold, or are not often trusted
  • people who do not get cuddled because they are anxious about physical contact
  • people who do not get cuddled because they prefer to avoid the social complexities that might follow on from establishing cuddle-positive friendships
  • people who hug and get hugged because they have learned that it is valuable for positive mental health and are pro-active in giving and in spreading the practice
  • people who get cuddled all the time because they are in a long-term relationship and/or family household where it is taken for granted

We are, I repeat, not living in a society where these categories I just had fun making up  explain anything at all. We are living in a society where cuddling has become much harder than it should be. Yes, I am using the S word. Should, should should should should get cuddled – more. Not could, should.

The more I come to terms with the various developed insecurities which my current relationship (and friendships) both reveal and heal, the more this primal, fundamental need shows itself for what it really is: a primal fundamental need. We have not simply evolved socially to be more independent, to be go-getters who can run for days, weeks, months and years without cuddle input, to no ill effect. We are tactile animals whose natural requirements for social belonging and emotional security include a lot of sleep-time contact with other warm individuals of the same species. This makes it sound rather psychological but it is a lot more than that. Emotionality is deeply physical.

We have evolved socially, to be expected to develop compensatory mechanisms for any lack of night-time sleeping cuddle contact to which we have become accustomed. I have no peer-reviewed scientific proof of this as yet, so sue me lol.

I am not sure to what extent hot climates and cold climates inform differences in the degree of cuddling which would be ideal for humans to participate in. Surely there are many alternative forms of physical affection, as well as of emotional reassurance and affirmations of belonging.

We are living in a society where several forces collude to deprive many individuals of night cuddle-time, regardless of how affectionate and demonstrable they are as they potter about their day.

  1. Many people live (and sleep) in households which do not contain other warm adults (or children) of the same species to cuddle up to at night
  2. Many people live (and sleep) in households which contain adults and/or children with whom cuddling at night would constitute a breach of social norms, such that cuddling at night would never arise, or if it did would be limited or be considered taboo – if it happened it might lead to anxiety, secrecy or shame
  3. The rise of individualism means it has become a cultural norm to perceive people who appear to be more or less independent of others in meeting their emotional needs as admirable and more likely to succeed in certain areas of life
  4. Showing the simple emotional need for affection, reassurance and affirmation has been discouraged in boys, sometimes brutally, over many generations in many countries – directly asking for these things has been particularly taboo
  5. Many women and men have experienced abuse by people who have close physical contact with them during their childhoods (conservative estimate about 12% globally)

Cuddling is a birthright, but to give and receive it requires relationships of trust and mutual respect and affection. Everyone knows a fake hug when they get one, though awkward hugs are not inherently bad. Ideally, they are necessary and valuable steps towards less awkward ones. Mutual trust and respect take time to develop. If we remain surrounded by an extended family and community network we grew up in we may be surrounded by people with whom we can take mutual respect and trust for granted, though see point 5 above. Even if we do not, we can, in principle, develop bonds with other humans at any time in our lives, and these can deepen over time. We can also make strong connections that are mediated by other people we have known for longer.

Cuddling is a human birthright, just as pecking is the birthright of chickens, and suckling calves is the birthright of cows. No wonder we can so easily take these rights away when we are so deeply adjusted to managing without our own.

 

 

 

 

Feminism-ism, or something

hands
Be what you are

It seems to me that as feminism enjoys a necessary resurgence it is becoming slightly easier to formulate the critique we need to get beyond it. What do I mean by beyond feminism? Possibly not what I thought I used to mean.

For a long time now I have been sitting uneasily on the feminist sidelines, refusing to refuse the label of being a feminist. Not only am I genuinely disturbed by the thought of feminist friends or any other women I know thinking of me as a non-feminist, a woman who doesn’t think women’s problems (such as structural inequality), are real or serious or worth campaigning or complaining about, I also feel by turns passionate about discrimination against women in its many forms, vile, violent and mundane, and that’s a central feminist sentiment right there.

What’s the but? I often come back round to the term pro-feminism, especially with all the waves overlapping and with post-feminism being such a hopelessly compromised term. What does it mean to be pro-feminist? What could it mean? I wonder whether identifying as a pro-feminist marks me out as not-a-woman somehow.

What does it mean to be pro-feminist if that means not quite feminist, or not feminist? Are there well-developed strands of actual feminism which I am simply not doing enough reading or research to discover, which perfectly situate me and my feminist perceptions?

To me, being pro-feminist is an essential ethical position for a man in this political and cultural moment, and I think it’s great that many more men now identify or describe themselves as feminists per se, often with explicit reference to their wives, daughters, relatives and friends, and the struggles and treatment they witness them withstanding. Is one better than the other? Is being a pro-feminist ally different from being a feminist ally? If you are a man, perhaps not. If a man calling himself a feminist was ever considered to be stepping on the toes of a woman’s identity, that time seems to have well and truly passed.

If you are woman however, and you are uneasy about the degree to which the philosophical essence of feminism may (or may not) be self-defeating, perhaps being a pro-feminist is a more honest position. Or perhaps it is just cheating, evading an honest position. If I want to support feminist causes and campaigns, but fear that there is a self-limiting aspect to the wider project, the best thing would probably be to be braver and say that I don’t identify as a feminist (because I cannot get fully behind it philosophically). But that would leave me estranged from my feminist friends: women who might be working harder than I am to effect real cultural change, which I will benefit from… back to square one. As a woman, my very indulgence in philosophy is probably indebted to past feminists.

It seems time may be a key factor. My wishfulness may be another. My perspective on men and on humans in general is obviously heavily involved, but perhaps it is the self-perpetuating nature of -isms that is at the heart of the issue.

Looking into the future I want to see feminism become redundant; arguably any feminist who doesn’t want this is a weird kind of feminist (a career feminist?). It can’t be that I want this more than most, so that therefore I distance myself from the movement in an ultimately pointless gesture of comforting, delusional futurism, or something. It can’t be that I think gazing into a post-feminist future helps anyone win battles, and it doesn’t help me feel less angry or less vulnerable each time I witness or learn about new (or old) affronts to women.

My thoughts are pushed forward by the inevitable question of what will result from our actions, or inactions. There are plenty of examples of things getting worse because of inaction and plenty of successes achieved. But where each of these are amalgamated to promote an overarching movement or philosophy, we must draw on huge generalisations – like men, and women. These are always dangerous. The million dollar question is: do they obscure far more than they reveal? I suspect they do.

My pro-feminism is about wanting to support a just cause without becoming an -ist. I have long felt happy to abstractly denounce ‘isms’ in their own right, and so this remains the simplest thread in my memory of doubt in adopting the feminist label, as my daily life and other struggles (related to my structural position as a woman and a mother), push and pull me so very far from this place where my intellect gets the luxury of forming opinions at all. I like to give isms a wide berth and I’m not afraid to say so, so why can’t I refuse (femin)ism? Because saying I am not a feminist aligns me with anti-feminists? This is the danger with isms, they are world-views, and thus by their very nature they encompass everything, and that includes everyone. If you’re not a feminist you’re part of the problem.

As a way of analysing gender relations in order to redress social inequality and improve the cultural attitudes towards women which have crushed them, feminist movements are superb and vital. Analysts still regularly provide new conceptual tools with which to assess common behavioural patterns which are covertly or demonstrably gendered power-plays, leading to real-life improvements for many people. How many of these particular gains could be achieved, or not, without the rubric of feminism? That’s not a rhetorical question. I know I don’t know.

Meanwhile, what if holding our image of ‘men’ firm, so that our project retains coherence, could prevent us from witnessing, and maybe even conceiving, the future we want where all individuals are held equally responsible for their own behaviour towards others (and, crucially, deserve the assistance of all others if they are not taught well in the first instance)? Maybe the categories of man and woman underpin a feminism-ism, an ideological layer which perpetuates the adversarial thread within gender relations. We know not all gender relations are adversarial, hell we love each other don’t we? And boy are there some noxious women about. Sure, some women’s noxiousness is rooted in their patriarchal subjection and identification. That’s exactly the same place men’s is rooted. They are still women, suffering the loss of a more enjoyable life, in the same way horrid men do.

Women aren’t responsible for teaching men how to treat women mind you; well yes in a way, but not any more than anyone else. We are all responsible for each other, because we are never really individuals in more than name. Are women responsible for their own abuse because they allowed it to happen? No. Maybe every woman who has been abused by a man because she trusted him had a father she could trust. Maybe every woman who has entertained a dangerous man even though she did not trust him had a father she loved but could not trust. Is it therefore every father’s fault if and when his daughter is abused? If not, can it be the fault of mothers that their sons abuse women and girls? How? Maybe every man who has been abused by a woman inhabits a special minority category, which we should research and give a label to? Maybe, maybe not.

To go beyond feminism used to mean to me: envisioning a post-feminist world, in the sense that major feminist goals were realised and the discourse around it fell away, and became a matter of historical interest and reflection, a celebration in fact. But it won’t be that simple. I am certain that there are fundamental obstacles to a true re-visioning of gender relations which the feminist framework holds in place. I still believe we need thousands of concerted ‘feminist’ actions and campaigns to keep bringing a better future closer, and to prevent the conditions of life for women from getting worse. I also believe we can make massive contributions to social change using feminist networks and women’s networks. Going beyond feminism means finding something which does all the work we need feminism to do, even better. It’s a sexy challenge, no?

I suspect that class now underpins virtually all social and cultural sexism and gendered abuse. (I believe that there are some evolutionary psychological reasons why it served societies to demean and devalue women. But it does not serve women, and the costs to societies of this strategy is now painfully obvious.) If ever there were a time when male and female persons were treated with a fundamental asymmetry of justice, within coercive social structures, and class was not a relevant factor, that time is literally prehistoric. The fact that men are a bit bigger is pretty interesting, but a strong person bullying a weak person isn’t sexism, it’s simply violence, it’s human immaturity. It’s also really easy to imagine through hypotheses about the work males have done while women nurtured babies, which they simply did a lot.

My basic understanding of humanity is that a civilisation or tribe or society which does not condemn almost all internal violence is more or less unheard of, and yet, yes, in every case still it erupts. I am categorically not an expert in evolution or anthropology, but I think the class roots of most contemporary sexism and oppression are sitting there waiting to be found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love letter to an infatuation (in two parts)

tattooPart 1. 3rd November 2016
This is the blog post I am too much of a coward even to publish anonymously to an audience of three people [until now]. By the way I love you you three people you are THE BEST.

This is the post about the man I’m currently infatuated with, written because, out of all the many people there are existing in the world, I know I shouldn’t tell him, for goodness’ sake. He won’t see it, because no-one I know sees it, because I hardly tell anyone where it is, and when I do it’s people who are almost certainly too busy to read it just as an exercise in letting me know whether my style is terrible.

He won’t see it, and so I can say that even though I am recently dumped (okay mutually separated), and have formally agreed with everyone who tells me I don’t need and shouldn’t have a boyfriend, I can’t stop thinking about him. He won’t see it, and so I can say that my memories of him have taken on a completely new direction in my mind and body and frankly, a life of their own. I can say that although I don’t know whether he finds me sexually attractive, he’ll certainly have to give it some serious thought if I get him cornered. I can say that one of the things that compels me is the way he can combine seeming to be really into me with being totally unbothered by the fact that now I am in a relationship, or that now I am single. I can say it is intoxicating to remember seeing him and feeling totally respected and cared for, without the slightest hint of enticement or aversion. I can say that his image in my mind is incredibly much like a really close, intimately trusted friend, even though from a textbook perspective we hardly know one another. I can say that I’m getting the most outrageous shots of energy through my body whenever I think about him. I can say that I am working double time to make sure that I take the steps I need to take to go forward with our friendship, knowing that it is one I want and need, without fucking it up by prejudicing its emergence so that it gets channelled by my behaviour to become either something sexual or nothing at all.

Because he won’t see this I can say that when I think about how he is, and what he’s told me, it forces me to rethink my fears and doubts about good connected platonic relationships between men and women being possible, and that in a blatant irony this is a huge turn on. I can say that the way he holds himself in his body makes me think he is fit and well and a good catch, that I want to fuck him. I can say that the way he engages me in conversations about things that I can’t stop talking about, and that strictly speaking I almost never get to talk to anyone else about, makes me think he is either really skilled at manipulating me to open up and jabber jabber jabber because he likes the sound of my voice, or my company, or that he finds my opinions interesting and shares them (or both), both of which are ridiculously attractive features for a human to have. I can say that if his interest in the things I am interested in, that I have barely begun to have decent conversations about, in spite of craving them for many years, is half as strong as mine, then if we did feel sexually attracted to one another, and we were able to act on it, that we would have something to explore that I have never had the chance to explore. I can say that that would potentially blow my mind. Good job he won’t see this because you know, no pressure.

Because he won’t see this I can say that the fact I don’t know where he lives or who with or how he spends his evenings or whether he can cook or whether he is damaged beyond repair or whether his anger management problem is under control or whether he is a recovering alcoholic or someone who just has to treat alcohol with respect or whether he hates all the music and films that I love, doesn’t matter to me, because I know how to find him, he can take care of himself, he has high standards and good taste, he has learnt when and how to protect himself, maybe even in ways that I haven’t, and he knows what is important in life, and he has laboured to heal himself, and he already knows how to be direct and touch my heart without sentimentality.

Even though I am getting tired and cold I have made another hot drink because I still want to say that I don’t want this moment of my mind to be wasted if we don’t become friends or if we do become only friends or if we almost become lovers and then fall out. I want him to know that all these things are true right now, and that most of them are always going to be true. I want him to know that even if I turn out to fuck this up totally it is not because I plan to barge headlong into his life and make assumptions about him being interested in me because he is a man and I am a woman and we are a similar age and we are, possibly, both single at the same time and because he has shown interest in my thoughts and smiled a lot and been there for me. I want him to know moreover that thinking about being truly, holistically, irresistably attractive to him makes me feel more certain than ever that I need to improve myself, in the sense that the abstract idea that one of the reasons that not being in a relationship is a good thing is that it gives me time to create greater trust in myself, to forge a deep sense of emotional independence, of self-love, to improve my physical fitness and explore my sexual body better, so that I can be a better lover in the future, better for myself and for a lover, less complacent sexually and more self-aware emotionally.

But I also want him to know that when I started to become infatuated with him I had to question these goals which I realised are really quite negative. I do want to become fitter, healthier, more productive; not like a pig in a cage; more agentic, more adventurous, more alive, more assertive, more in tune with my need to realise my dreams and my ability to make things happen. But I don’t want to use the idea that I’m not there yet as a screen behind which to hide myself from potential lovers. I don’t want to look for casual lovers so I can have sex and play with connection whilst maturely accepting that I am not really ready to be loved or worth loving by anyone with high enough standards for me to want them. I don’t want to play around with polyamory just so that I can tell myself it is okay however many times I get dumped for being not quite fit enough, a bit too passive, a bit lazy, a bit depressed, a bit smelly, a bit too poor, a bit self-deluded, a bit slow. I don’t want to look for lovers who I can be sure won’t want me for too long, so that they won’t be there to remember years later that the first time we made love I wasn’t as fit and strong and agentic as I aspire to be. When did it become okay to expect myself to be different in order to be loveable and able to love?

And if I’m loveable, if I am still however not supposed to get another boyfriend too soon, what are the criteria for being capable of taking care of myself in a relationship sufficiently, and who will decide when I am that? Am I an object of suspicion because no-one approved of my choices last time: because they understood my lover better than I did, or because they never understood him at all? Or is it a simple maths game: that I have been too long in relationships and too brief between them, and that the energy I have expended trying to sustain and protect those relatiosnhips has not only cost me dear, but has demanded energy from those around me, who I love and who love me enough to have to stay and participate? Or is it more important that I am ‘brilliant in my own company’ and therefore must not do or say anything that could create a situation where my gradually growing independence is reversed by a co-dependent relationship where my time is once again not really my own but a constant subject of negotiation, spoken and unspoken, between me and another who needs more than I am able to give or is present less than I need? Am I really at risk of being subsumed as a result of choosing to give myself over to a person who would not support me totally in doing what I need to do to become as fully alive and engaged with my passions as I can be? Can I hope to fully engage with and explore my passions while holding an arbitrary boundary around myself against passionate love?

And if I am friends with someone who I find attractive, I want to ask him, does that mean that one day I will suddenly know I am there, at the right time, because the boundary will fall away leaving desire clearly visible between us? Or does it mean that I will always fret about whether he is equally interested in me or not, and about whether while I am looking the other way, being brilliant in my own company and working on my goals and my intentions and my independence, he could be falling in love with somebody else?

Part 2. 11th November 2016
He can cook.

Fantasy without desire?

Desire is always for the other, I have been told. I felt like I ought to know this from the amount of interest I have shown in psychoanalysis and Freud, over a time, but I had never noticed it. Now a few years on it suddenly seems to matter a lot.

I separated from my partner of nine years and naturally, for me, I am now passing through phases in my attitude to sex. For a long run up towards the end I thought: ‘No, we can’t possibly break up, the sex is good, worth fighting for, we deserve better and we can achieve better, including in our sex.’ When we broke up: ‘Oh my god, now no sex. It doesn’t matter though, everything else in life added together is surely more important!’ Concurrently with this phase: ‘Hooray! Now I can have sex with anyone in the entire world (ish) whenever I like, including non-serious, casual, once only, even anonymously.’ Still not interested in animals though, sorry.

There was also briefly: ‘I’ll never have sex that good again.’ But now there is more a sense of: ‘When I began to feel more and more the frustrations with our sex why did I still hang on to dreams of our developing together for so long, instead of adding that to the mounting evidence that we were flaking away?’ Recently the fantasy of unlimited fun sex has made way for: ‘What if I never find anyone I am particularly sexually attracted to again?’ But the worst, the real terror, maybe it’s one you know: ‘What happens if I slowly fall head over heels in love with someone and they tick all my boxes (developing checklist for another blog), but then, in the sack, we just don’t do it for each other?’ Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaarghhhhhhh.

I have started remembering previous casual encounters more clearly. One night stands can be fun but I can’t remember many where I had an orgasm. Am I therefore too old for that now? I don’t want to spend ages cruising for hot men, in order to satisfy the idea that I can express free agency, only to find all I have is freedom to choose to be vaguely disappointed. Am I being pessimistic? Probably. I can imagine hooking up and having good sex because I can’t possibly imagine getting into bed with anyone that I don’t really, really like, and that narrows things down a lot. And, if I do remember my one night stands clearly, it’s what makes sex incredibly satisfying whether you come or not: giving pleasure in the hope of simply exchanging it. Giving pleasure to someone you really like is good. It’s obvious that what you share or get back is unknown.

Suddenly a terrible thought occurs: ‘What if I have sex with someone who is critical, or disappointed?’ Oh dear, better go into hibernation for good.

I know what you’re thinking. ‘Christ why doesn’t she just buy some toys and have a wank?’ Well, of course that’s a good option. One I was far too distracted by to have been able to write this blog first; although I have resisted making rash purchases. But guess what? I even managed to let my theorising get in the way of that.

I am aware of plenty of times I have enjoyed sex alone without a fully fledged fantasy in my head, in fact it’s rare that I fully fledge a fantasy, being really too lazy for that sort of thing, a bit of visualisation is normally enough. But it got stuck in my head that I would always need to rely on an image of someone real, and someone I desire, to get off. During the last few phases I have drawn in and spat out lots of potential fantasy material, leaving me with the unhappy question: What if every time I masturbate my head fills with images of people I don’t want to masturbate about? What if I betray myself? What if I get off thinking about my ex; will that compromise me in my recovery? What if I get off thinking about that guy who … (this, that or the other)? Will it mean I develop stronger daytime feelings that aren’t any good to me?

Marvelling at my own ability to make things that should be simple, wholesome and fun (and potentially healing and stress-reducing), into things complicated, stressful and serious, I have kept falling asleep unwantedly. Then yesterday, out walking, the penny finally dropped.

My anxiety, with apologies from the heart to all the people in the world with actual problems (I am ashamed), has been that fantasising about people I don’t really fancy will affect me in life, or reveal to me that I do fancy them, and this stems from my belief that fantasising strengthens feeling, and that I will inevitably fantasise, confronting me with things about my desire which I am denying. So I asked myself whether there was actually anything or anyone so important that it would really matter? This involved a run through of potential fantasy objects, and guess what … it turns out that none of them I fancy.

Does it matter? Yes, it’s a total breakthrough for me. In my parallel questioning about future romantic entanglements, I tell myself (if I can get a word in with all the other people telling me, and reminding me), that I need to take a long break from relationships. I believe us all. I worry only slightly that I might slip. These thoughts frequently lead me back to casual sex, but also to its perils.

But my masturbation anxieties, that I need a real object to get off (so to speak!), and that I am probably hiding something from myself, have shown me that for possibly the first time in my life, I don’t care that I’m not attracted to anyone. It’s a total mindblower. I didn’t even realise how essential it has been for so long, to have that mental sexual object. Still eyeing (or lining) people up is the fading reminder of my long term obsession with having another person to be in love with and to desire. And I’m not the only one.

When is too much sex not enough?

Pile of threaded metal countersunk screws with a Philips head screwdriver on a white background for DIY and carpentry

Okay, so when is not enough sex for me too much for you? When I forget about quality and focus on quantity? Or when we have fundamentally different levels of libido? And what is the truth underlying the apparent universality that men want sex more than women?

Person A is pained when their partner says he thinks they have sex less than they used to, or that she doesn’t initiate enough. Painstaking discussion reveals that they are in a vicious cycle where he has been making it harder for her to initiate sex (by going straight to sleep) to protect himself emotionally from her not initiating. Is her not having been more insistent, say, waking him up to complain, or chasing him faster to bed at night, evidence that he is right? Or is it just a lot of disappointed person A?

Person P says: my partner wants sex more than I do. It has always been that way. Is this an unsolvable function of their libidos, or a long term chain reaction, triggered by a seed thought that goes unnoticed, like Person A’s ‘not enough initiation’? Is it a gendered problem which happens to loads of couples?

Maybe there is a problem of quality versus quantity. I don’t mean that they have crap sex, or not enough quality sex; I have no idea and don’t want any clairvoyant comments filling me in on that either, kindly thank you. I mean that if they have never completed a conversation about how much sex would be enough, not enough, and too much, by working out a perfect compromise on quantity and frequency of sex, to make them both feel as close to satisfied and as far from put upon as humanly possible, then maybe it’s because without realising it they have settled on a shared idea of what sex is that is just quantitative.

Let’s indulge stereotypes and call Person P ‘she’ and assume they are hetero. Maybe she doesn’t want sex as much as he does because she doesn’t enjoy it as much as he does. Maybe she has not-enoyed it more times than he has. Maybe he doesn’t even know she has not-enjoyed it as much as she has.

I don’t know about you but I think sex is fucking brilliant and I can’t think why anyone would not want to have sex all day long, every day, unless there were some pressing reason not to do so. Some of the reasons I don’t actually do this in my own life are: having to eat, cook, clean, look after others, go out to work, buy or grow food, pay bills, mend stuff, answer the phone, menstruate, socialise in public places and/or with people who are no good for having sex with. I would probably stop having sex to vote. I won’t count laundry because if I did have sex all day every day I wouldn’t bother to get dressed.

There are other reasons I don’t have sex this much, including: movies, books, conversation, Scrabble, my kids and other relatives and all my friends, sport, art, learning, live music and being outdoors in nature. Taken as a bundle these duties and non-sex pleasures take a really big chunk out of my sex time pie chart. There also seem to be times when my mate doesn’t want to have sex (and my solutions to this don’t include urgently finding someone else to have sex with). And finally, if we had sex all the time, surely we would pretty soon be doing the same thing over and over again, since how would we get a chance to even think of anything different?

Esther Perel tells us that many couples identify the times when they are stretched away from their mate, socially or geographically, as the times they are most likely to notice the rekindling of desire. These desiring moments presumably generate new energy and initiative for sex, whether any newness in bed is thought through or not.

My brain says the sex person P doesn’t want so much of must, almost by definition, be less fun for her that it is for him. Does he notice this when they have sex? Does he care? Does she notice this, or suspect it, or does she enjoy sex a great deal, but simply feel incredibly satisfied thereafter and find the idea of doing it again quite bizarre? Duty kills libido; does she have more duties, or not? I have heard of a hetero couple for whom him doing the ironing is a consistent initiation process.

Maybe their shared seed thought was that men enjoy sex more than women do. Maybe their vicious cycle is that he enjoys the sex more than she does every single time and neither of them has realised that they are both missing out. Maybe believing he naturally enjoys sex more than her means he doesn’t fully realise the value of showing her sexual affection even when she clearly does not want sex, and maybe she doesn’t show him sexual affection in case he wants sex more.

Why doesn’t he just fucking forget about the number of sexes he’s not getting for a while, and try to find out what is less great in her memories of their sex than in his? I do understand that some people have low libido. I agree that everyone has the absolute right to say no to sex, including within a relationship, heaven forbid that this should need saying. I also have a conviction that a large majority of sexually mature adults have the physical and hormonal apparatus to have and enjoy good sex and that good sex creates libido. I most want more sex when I have had good sex recently.

As if this post wasn’t long enough already, I will add: (menstruating age) women are definitely cyclic. If it seems that a conversation about what will make sex better will happen before how to have more of it, start by checking when you are/she is most likely to be hot. The second week after menstruation is a good place to start. And if that’s just passed, so much the better. Discussing what you are going to do to each other for a whole month is going to give that low libido some serious trouble.

 

 

 

Matriarch strikes again: critics fire away

There are few things more disconcerting than being accurately and kindly informed about your weaknesses, only to discover that it’s not better than when your critics are aggressive and wildly wrong. Being pulled up on well dodgy behaviour is an essential ingredient in having ‘a commitment to continuous self-development’, as every job description puts it nowadays. It hurts though, of course. I like to claim that when criticism provokes defensiveness and hyper emotionality, that’s because it is poorly worded, loaded with projection or simply insensitive. When it isn’t any of these things, well then it must be true, right? So it hurts more, and you have to analyse it closely and carefully.

I have variously been accused of overanalysing everything, micromanaging my kids, infantilising my younger child, letting the same offspring territorialise my home, dominating him, thinking I am better than others, putting myself down, being my own worst enemy, having too many clothes, books, films and ornaments but not enough cutlery, making everything negative (aka having free-floating anxiety) and of course from the divorce/separation process: being a shockingly, hopelessly thoughtless and boundlessly selfish homewrecker. All hail the critics for their contribution to my self-development.

What do I say to my critics? Analysis can go too far, but then, it is essential; sometimes I am better than some people at some things (and vice versa? No shit); whatever parenting behaviours you adopt will appear wrong to somebody. Sometimes I feel as if criticism can only help you with your relationship to the critic themselves. I’m sure this can’t be true, because I long to tell some people some things about themselves that plenty of others besides me can see, things which make them almost unbearable to be with; and because I feel certain that there are plenty of observations my friends have given to me that have improved me. But how can we assess these things when one man’s meat is another man’s murder?

For example – being told I talk too much or ‘go round the houses’, has led me to develop a consciously succinct way of expressing myself. I can assure you (and probably don’t need to), that this slips sometimes, but I often feel it happening when it does. The flip side of this one would be: being told I am talking too much as a way to avoid listening to me properly; interrupting me on the assumption that there is nothing of interest to be seen round these houses; not having the skill to ask a helpful question when I am confused. Infantilising my son sounds unhealthy, and it surely is, but what if the charge comes from someone who competes for my attention? What if I coddle him because he suffers from weak attachment? What if my critic wants nothing more from me than to be coddled himself? Oh if I were a silent, forgiving, patient, coddling listener, who only speaks in short sentences, hits the perfect balance between self-esteem and modesty, and knows when the replacement parental constancy has suddenly tipped over into ‘suffocating’ and promptly fucks off, allowing space and freedom for a menagerie of developmental weaknesses to bumble along uncriticised. That sounds pretty good, I could do with one of those myself.

I will admit though, that yes I have caught myself infantilising my youngest, but the concrete moments (where you are really, actually doing it right now and catch yourself), have tended to be about buying him things that are suitable for younger children. He is notorious for liking kids’ stuff and girly stuff, and it can be hard to separate being loving and kind from a counterproductive indulgence. The critique helped a lot here I think, not least because buying stuff is a shit way to show love and it inadvertently revealed that habit. But interestingly, all the kids’ stuff I didn’t get him was also girly stuff. Maybe a different critic would have picked up on that.