I felt the power of the undertow as soon as he began to talk. That suffocating sinking pull to make it better was filling my chest, my lungs. I was drowning in it.
This time, though, I wasn’t going down. It took me 22 years of this relationship to get to this place, to become this honest, and I just couldn’t go back. I knew that going down this time may mean never coming back up.
I’ve written many personal stories about my life, my relationships. A few have been about me and my husband, the hard parts. Until a few days ago, I hadn’t let anyone read any of my stories because of how difficult it’s been for me to be honest. Facing that honesty on a daily basis is much scarier than just setting it free with a publish button and then walking away until I’m ready to come back. It’s been a way to maintain control over it, over my feelings, my fears.
It was time, though. I had been talking with my therapist for weeks about the dread I felt every time I thought of friends and family, especially my husband, reading my work. He hits closest to home because he IS home. If he rejects me, it feels like game over. I had to let my therapist read it if I was going to figure this out. So I held my breath and handed her my phone.
First, I let her read the story that was worrying me most, “When I say NO, I don’t mean asking until I say YES” (below). It was so nerve-racking, but her response was so positive, our talk was so inspiring, that on a whim… I let my husband read it too.
When I Say NO, I Don’t Mean Keep Asking Until I Say YES.
Unlearning a destructive pattern and reclaiming consent for sex.
It’s a story about our sexual relationship, about the years of negative patters we built from the ground up.
I sat there fidgeting like a grade-schooler, looking out the window, shifting my seat, wringing my hands. A couple paragraphs in he laughed. “French toast!” he said and continued reading. I tried not to watch him, but I had to look, I had to know what he was thinking. There was no more laughter, and I could see his facial expression morph and melt into his many emotions. And then he was done. And I was petrified.
What did I do? What did I do? My heart was pounding. Would he be angry that I wrote about our personal life, wrote about him? Would he be hurt and think I portrayed him in a negative light?
I took a deep breath. “So? …What do you think?”
He sat back in his chair, is brow curved and tight. “I don’t know.” The silence felt thick between us.
“You don’t know?”
“I don’t know…”
“Are you upset?”
“I don’t know… I mean… I feel, but it’s a lot.”
I could hear the blood rushing through my veins. What did I do? What did I do? …No, it’ll be okay… it’ll be okay… it just will… “Okay… well… is there anything you can tell me?” He had to say something!
The silence seemed to be stuck, and then, finally, he began to speak. He was hurt … but not for the reasons I thought he would be. He didn’t care that I wrote the story or published it or that our friends and family would potentially read it some day. He didn’t feel that I portrayed him unfairly or as a bad person.
He was hurt because he could see that his behavior over the years has hurt me. He said that none of it was really news, but he didn’t realize all of it. He said that when he looks at me, he gets aroused, and now he’s never going to do that without thinking that he might be causing me discomfort.
A lump formed in my throat, my stomach felt green. I didn’t mean for him to feel bad… I didn’t mean for him change anything.
Wait. Didn’t I?
These things I wrote, they’re what I’ve wanted to say to him, what I’ve been afraid to let him know all these years. Maybe this was good. Maybe this was the pain of growth.
But there was a fight raging in my head. I did want change, but the pull to fix it, to do anything, say anything, was still building. “I wrote that I get uncomfortable, yes, but I also wrote that part of me likes it and is flattered by it.”
My words didn’t comfort him. They didn’t comfort me either. I should’ve said these things sooner. If I had only been able to be honest for the past 22 years, we would’ve worked through this and created healthy patterns, healthy boundaries together. We’d be in a different, healthier, place now.
That’s not what happened though, and “should-ing” on myself wasn’t going to change the fact that we were now sitting in our dining room staring at my lap top with tears in our eyes.
The floor felt like it was dropping out from under me. I couldn’t help but feel responsible for the whole thing. My head traced everything back to me. And then I stopped. I just stopped.
That need to fix it, need to be responsible, is an old pattern worn deep into my heart, but I’ve since built a powerful network of healthy alternatives, including self-love and self-respect, and now they actually kicked in.
Life is a journey; we can only do what we can do when we can do it. I wasn’t capable of doing this, being this honest, having this much courage all those years ago. It took me 22 years to get to this point. That wasn’t me just being a jackass, that was me learning new skills and wrestling with all the old ones.
I’ve always been ready to take the blame if it kept the peace, another of my negative patterns. In this case, though, yes, much of it could be traced back to me and my dysfunction, but it could also be traced back to him. He’s in control of himself. I may not have been completely open and honest, but he wasn’t completely open to listening either.
Blame doesn’t matter, but knowing how we each contributed to this negative pattern will help us move forward and grow stronger, together.
We talked for hours. And in the days that followed, we talked more. He’s unsure of his movements. He said he doesn’t know how to read me, after all these years. He said that I can read him like a book; I know when something is on his mind even before he does, but he’s just realizing that he really doesn’t know how to interpret my body language, my expressions, the tone of my voice.
“I have a lot to learn,” he said, “and I just don’t know where to begin.”
“I know I can’t do this for you,” I said, even though every part of me wanted to. “All I can do is continue to be honest.”
I haven’t let him read anything else yet, but it’s coming. I have to let it all loose. Reality isn’t erased because I don’t say it. I have to love myself enough. I have to trust that he loves me enough, and that we’ll make it through these bumps like we’ve made it through all the others.
I’m grateful that I took this leap. It was time. For better or worse, as they say. We can take this pain and grow together, or we can take it and grow apart. We really do have that choice. We all do.