You Make Me A Better Person

A common sentiment about what one wants in a romantic relationship is that they want their partner to make them a better person. They want to be challenged and supported, and in some way asked to step up and be the best version of themselves that they can be.

I’ve always wanted this in my life, but “a better person” is a fairly vague phrase. It’s only recently that I’ve started to concretely see what this means simply by having someone who does it for me (not like that you perverts). The typical image of this is that your partner pushes you. They hear your hopes and dreams and they tell you to pursue them. They take care of you when you’re having a bad day and keep you positive when you’re down.

This is not what I mean when I say that I want my partner to make me a better person.

Until a couple of months ago I hadn’t written anything creative for years. I’d been fairly focused on blogs and essays, and hadn’t made time for short stories or longer fiction. Oddly, for most of my life previous to that I had always written creatively. From the time I was ten, I wanted to be an author and write fantasy novels. The drive to create is deeply important to me, and somewhere along the line I had forgotten that excitement and joy.

Until I met my current partner, who without knowing or intending, got me writing again simply by being excited about his own projects and interests. When I first met him, he started telling me about an audio theater project he was working on, and within a week I was writing again, inspired by his ideas. I become a better person when I’m around others who are engaged and excited about life, because they remind me of the things that I love and want to do with my life.  I’m happier when I’m with others who are doing what they love and when their loves remind me of mine.

For most of my life I haven’t been the best at communicating. I try to tell people what I’m thinking or feeling, but I second guess myself a lot and I’m a people pleaser, so I end up doing what I think other people want. My current partner doesn’t demand that I communicate with him or ask me to tell him what’s going on in my head when it seems like things are happening in there. He just communicates with me, and lets me know what he wants and needs. He clearly prioritizes a variety of relationships, not just ours, and lets me know that he cares about that. He models being a healthy human being.

And every time I see him communicating clearly or letting me know that he needs to spend time with his friends or doing something else that is emotionally healthy, I become more likely to do it myself. When I say that I want my partner to make me a better person, what I mean is that I want to surround myself with amazing people who remind me what it looks like to be awesome in all the ways that I want to be awesome. Of course I also want them to support me and challenge my ideas and talk to me about interesting things, but you don’t make your partner better by telling them what to do or simply saying words to them: you do it by being better yourself and challenging them to step up to your awesomeness.

And while some people love having a partner that exposes them to new things and gets them out of their comfort zone (and to some extent this is healthy for everyone), it’s also wonderful to have someone who reminds you of the things you love and why you love them. They make you more yourself by reminding you of those essential parts of yourself that you can’t live without: your loves and passions.

When I’m engaged creatively with the world, I’m simply a happier, more functional person, and it took my partner being his creative self to remind me of that. In all my relationships, I want people who remind me who I am in essential, lasting ways. This is what it means to me to make your partner better.

This Is A Rant: My Clothes Are A Lie

Every evening when I get home from work the first thing I do is shed my office clothes and pull on a pair of shorts. It feels amazing. Of course I only do this if I’m home alone, or if I’m not planning on leaving the apartment again. If I’m going to wear shorts out of the house, I make sure to throw on leggings under them. A few weeks ago I went out in a romper without anything underneath and I’m still feeling anxiety over it.

It’s not like I’m a particularly modest person. I wear backless dresses and low cut tops and tight clothes. But my legs have self-harm scars on them, and when people see those they give me a special disgusted face that I don’t feel any particular need to see on a regular basis. Every time I leave the house I have to think about whether there is something that people will learn about me from my body that I don’t want them to learn.

Not only is this a pain in the ass, but it’s also emotionally taxing. I feel like I’m lying to everyone around me simply by wearing clothes that cover things I would rather they don’t see.

Who would want me if I didn’t falsify what my body is really like? I portray an image of youth, of athleticism, of health, and yet the moment you raise my hemline you’d find that my body is really marked by violence, self hatred, death, and ill health. I have found myself frustrated in the past about people giving off an image of being stable, having friends, being well adjusted, only to find out after becoming enmeshed with them that in fact they are deeply screwed up people.

It’s one thing to be with someone and slowly develop these fucked up scars after you’ve already trapped them. It’s another thing entirely to ask someone to fall in love with you when the moment they look at your body, your real body, your unhidden body, they see clear evidence of instability, violence, and self hatred. Who can love someone like that? Perhaps that is why I marked my body in the first place, to illustrate to people what it is that I actually am when they think they’re falling in love with something else.

But now that I’ve made it clear just who and what I am, made it clear for an indefinite period of time (because who knows when these angry red worms inching their way over my skin will disappear), I don’t know if I am capable of accepting the rejection, the disgust, the confusion, the fear, the pity, the anger. No one simply reacts by saying “yes. That’s you. That’s ok”. No one reacts like they would just seeing a pair of legs. There is no such thing as simply existing when your body is the site of damage.

There is an intensely broken feeling to all of this. Even though I have no desire right now to date or even be desired sexually, it’s really fucked up to feel like the only way someone could want me is if I hide myself. I know that I will always be wanted “in spite of” not because of. How can I feel like any sort of relationship (even a friendly type relationship) is based on openness and honesty and all the values that I care about when every day of my life I consider and carefully cover up certain facts about myself?

What kind of a human being am I if I feel that I have to bury things about myself to everyone I know (except a select few that I feel brave around)? What is wrong with me?

Intellectually I understand that what is fucked up is not me but is in fact a society that says we need to hide every ounce of evidence that we might have mental illness, a society that indicates that someone who self harms is unstable, possibly violent towards others, immature, attention seeking, and completely different from everyone else the world except others who self harm (because seriously who does that it’s so fucked up), a society that polices bodies.

But emotionally, I cannot stop feeling as if I need to expose myself just to see if anyone I know would still treat me the same. I can’t stop feeling this desire to scream to everyone that I have scars, that I’m fucked up, that I hurt myself. My body is not what you think it is. My body is not appropriate. My body is not healthy. My body, simply by existing, fucks with your norms and I don’t know if I’m ok with that because someday, maybe, I might want someone to just look at me and not have questions or fears or emotions, but just see me.

I don’t know that there’s a point to this post, just a fear. A fear of my body and what my body has become, of the permanence of scars. A fear of what people see when they look at me. A fear of the fact that I’m hiding because if there is one thing I hate in this world it is hiding the reality of my self. And somehow, I don’t think it matters how many people do see, how many people I am brave to. Because every time I put on a pair of pants and meet someone new, I’ve hidden something. I’ve chosen not to let them see a truth about me.

I suppose we all do this every time we meet people, but the physical act of covering something brings it home in a way unlike any other, and it’s a way that is intensely guilt inducing. It isn’t simply “not sharing”. It is actively hiding. It’s a choice, every single morning, every single time I change my clothes and I am so sick of weighing myself down with guilt over it.

Asexuality and Norms

Warning: this will be a bit ranty.

There’s a story that goes around in asexual communities, often when someone tries to explain asexuality for the first time. It goes like this:

I never really understood the fuss about dating. I’ve always had good friends, but sometimes they make jokes about sex and I never get them. The idea of taking off my clothes and rubbing my body against someone else’s is just weird. I can’t imagine getting married. I’ve never had a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner, although I wouldn’t mind having a really close friend that is my roommate. Everyone said I was a late bloomer or that I would like sex if I tried it, but it just doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m completely oblivious to come ons and flirtation, I don’t like to dress sexy, and I prefer to be fairly agender. I’ve never had sex, haven’t dated, don’t kiss, and probably never will. I’m asexual, and everything about sex is foreign to me, which means I’m socially awkward.

Unfortunately, this is not the nice, clean, clearcut story that I experienced, and it does a large disservice to many aces who are capable of functioning in allosexual society without any feelings of difference. One of the first ways that asexuality gets defined is by lack: you’re lacking attraction. Many people who openly identify as asexual and who write about their experiences seem to identify at least something like lack: they didn’t date. They didn’t kiss. They didn’t have crushes. All of these are things that others wanted or had, but which they didn’t want.

I started dating when I was 14. Compulsory sexuality is an extremely strong force, and especially for someone like me who really enjoys close relationships and tends to prioritize one relationship over all others, the romantic model works well for me (probably too well, but that’s a story for another day). I’ve been in a romantic relationship nearly constantly since then. I’ve had sex with multiple partners, and at the time I was perfectly happy with that. I was never particularly confused by my orientation, always clearly straight. I’ve had crushes since I was 13 or 14. I’ve talked about boys with my friends and hit all the dating, sexual, and romantic milestones that most people do: first date, first kiss, first boyfriend, first breakup. I’m not confused by the pain and hurt and confusion that often comes along with romantic relationships.

I have always wanted romantic relationships. I feel attraction, although not sexual attraction. I don’t fit the typical script of asexuality. It took me until this year (and I am 23) to figure out that I might be ace. Why? Because I’m adaptable. I’m good at making my experience fit into scripts and narratives. I’m really good at doing what I’m supposed to do and think that it’s what I want to do. I have strong romantic feelings, and for aces who aren’t also aro, it can be easy to meld your romantic tendencies into the dominant patterns of sexuality in order to survive.

I’ve felt uneasy with the accepted norms of the ace community for a while now. I’ve wondered if I can really be ace if I didn’t have these experiences. But right now I’m asking a different question: does it help us to have these “tells”, these inside jokes among the community of always being the third wheel, of not understanding “that’s what she said”, or of never wanting to date?

The major benefit that I can see in these tropes is that they help us build community and they remind us that asexual experiences are different from allosexual experiences. But I also see numerous problems. First, there are tons of aces out there who don’t have these experiences, and positing them as litmus tests for aceyness actually divides the community. But more than that, it focuses more on what we’re lacking, how we diverge from the allosexual norm, instead of looking at the things we actually DO want. Once again, asexuality is NOT having all of these things, lacking the empathy and understanding to connect with other people, being on the fringe because we can’t do what others do.

When the story that is asexuality is about sticking out like a sore thumb, about being flabbergasted by your peers, or about knowing early on that you’re different, we erase the very real ability of many aces to blend in and adapt, to fit their needs into the scripts that are available to them, and we make aces look awkward and bizarre. It makes it look as if we’re incapable of empathy (hey guess what, I can actually empathize with feelings I’ve never had).

Perhaps worse, it helps to erase the ways that compulsory sexuality can interact with asexuality. One of the reasons I have been so good at melding my experiences into the dominant narrative is because we are awash in sexuality from such a young age. I learned how to make sex jokes because everyone made sex jokes all the time. I started dating because I knew early on that you dated someone you felt drawn to, all attraction is sexual attraction, dating is normal. That is what society tells us. Being asexual does not make you immune to societal influence, and it’s important to recognize that.

Yes, ace experiences are different from other people’s experiences. Yes, I have spent some time being a bit flabbergasted that people could be so motivated by sex. But that doesn’t mean that I’m incapable of functioning in a society designed for allosexual people. It doesn’t mean I can’t adapt or learn. It seems a bit condescending to imply that someone can’t understand sexual humor unless they’re motivated by sex, or that they wouldn’t understand why a relationship was important to another person unless they wanted sex and romance. We’re inundated with sex from the moment we’re born. Just as women learn to understand men’s experiences, so ace people learn early on to understand allosexual experiences early on.

Perhaps there are some aces that remain fairly oblivious their whole lives. But I can’t be the only ace out there who learned how to act allo in a society that prioritizes allo experiences. I suspect that if we started talking about some of those narratives, there might be a whole lot of people out there who come out of the woodwork and say “that’s me”.

These “tells” give us one picture of what it’s like to not feel sexual attraction. But what about the tell that says “I had sex because it’s what you’re supposed to do and it felt nice, but I preferred my relationships without it”? Or the one that says “I always thought I was monogamous because more sex sounded horrible to me, but now I think I’m in love with two people at once” or the one that said “I love this person and so I think I should have sex with them, but there are so many other things I’d rather do more”.

Not all of the tells are glaring social deviations. You can’t peg someone who’s asexual by looking for the socially awkward one with no partner and no sense of humor. Especially for those who are in the gray asexual category, or those who have romantic attractions, their behaviors can look a lot like those of allosexuals, but just different enough that they feel incredibly broken.

This is part of the tendency for people to point towards sexual trauma or medical dysfunction or gender confusion or disease as the reasons for asexuality: for some bizarre reason the people who manage to muddle through in a fairly mundane way don’t get the label asexual. We complain a lot about the oppression model of queerness, but in many ways we practice it in the asexual community too: if you weren’t weird/awkward/uncomfortable enough in your teen years, you’re probably not ace.

It seems to be accepted wisdom within the ace community that romantics get more air time. I haven’t seen this. I haven’t seen romantic whos blog, or who talk about what it’s like to try to find a romantic relationship in which the partner will accept you without sex. I haven’t seen romantics who talk about assuming their whole lives that when people talked about being “attracted” they were referring to what I felt: romantic attraction. Flutters in the chest, anxiety, excitement, tongue-tied moments, the need to see the beloved. Nobody talks about the moment that shatters your whole world when you realize that feeling that doesn’t mean you want sex.

I never felt a lack of anything. I never felt like I was missing out. I felt like things were being forced on me, like there were scripts and I knew them, but I didn’t like them. I don’t want to be defined by lack. I don’t want asexual scripts to replace allosexual scripts.

Perhaps part of this is bitterness at not being the gold star ace. But hopefully if we tell more varied stories, we won’t have to compare ourselves to that false ideal.

I Am Not A Puzzle to Be Solved

Note: I do not mean this post to be a criticism of my parents or any of the other people in my life. I know that everyone is doing the best they can in the relationships that they have.

One of the things that I have come to value most in relationships is honesty and vulnerability, particularly the ability to be straightforward and ask questions. I have learned to appreciate this because in many cases, arguments or disagreements can be solved simply by finding out what the other person is actually thinking or feeling. More often than not, brainstorming solutions together will solve the problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the way that we’re taught to interact with people. From the time we’re little, we’re treated as little puzzles that need to be solved, as if there’s some code that can crack the behavior of a small child and get them to do what you want. I think that my parents did a fantastic job raising me, but even they bought into this mentality in some ways. When I’ve spoken to my parents about their techniques, my mother has told me things like “If you keep a kid on a schedule, they’ll be much less cranky” or “If you ignore a kid who’s throwing a tantrum they’ll stop”. Now these are effective techniques, and for new parents they can be a godsend, but unfortunately they don’t do much to validate the actual feelings of the child involved or teach the child what to do when they’re feeling overwhelmed or upset.

In contrast, I’ve been reading Libby Anne’s blog lately and there has been a surprising amount of content about treating your child as a real human being with legitimate needs and wants and the amazing returns that she’s gotten as a parent by adopting this technique. This involves validating a child’s emotions, trying to communicate and compromise where possible, and explaining why the answer is “no” when the answer has to be “no”. Instead of coming up with a series of tricks that will have a certain effect, Libby Anne prefers to work with her children to identify their emotions and brainstorm solutions so that in the long term they will learn how to manage those emotions themselves.

Unfortunately, most parents work by trying to devise methods to get their children to a certain behavior, rather than working with their children to create healthy behaviors and tools to live well. The most obvious and harmful example of this is corporal punishment: if you beat the child then they’ll do what you want and learn to do what you want them to do. But we all do this to some extent or another. Think of the magazines that boast “this quiz will tell you if he likes you” or “10 ways to tell if your relationship will last”. Every teenage girl has engaged in this behavior: trying to discern what the text means, trying to “unlock” the secrets. And media is even worse when it comes to portraying women (they’re a mystery!  A complete mystery! Buy her things to unlock the secrets!).

Friends do this to each other as well. There are “rules” to friendship (e.g. it’s against the rules to date your best friend’s sibling). Dating relationships are potentially the worst culprits. While many people say that they value communication, it is still all too common for people to try to figure out how to get their partner to act differently while not actually talking to their partner about what’s bothering them. “Nice guys” are a prime example, but I’ve been known to do this as well, thinking things like “If I just don’t speak up ever about what’s bothering me then they’ll think I’m nice and want to be with me forever” or “I’ve already texted x times and they haven’t texted back. Is it against the rules to text again? What are they trying to tell me? Do they hate me?” It’s a process of both mind-reading and personalization, in which every action must mean something about you and in order to crack the code you need to behave just so.

Unfortunately, human beings are not puzzles. There is no secret combination of words and presents that you can present to someone in order to unlock their love or kindness or good behavior. When we approach children in this fashion, we teach them to approach all relationships like this. And when we do this, we set them up for all kinds of problems. If relationships are about getting the other person to behave in the way that you want them to (whether that’s them being happy or that’s them doing whatever you want), and the way to do that is to find the “correct input”, then you end up with problems like people thinking they’re owed sex, or people believing that they’re allowed to do whatever it takes to get the result they want.

It can also lead to the flip side: people assuming that if others aren’t ok then it’s their fault, people thinking they have to manage the emotions of others, or people who have never been taught appropriate ways to deal with their own emotions because they themselves have always been “managed”.

For me personally, I have found that thinking there are things you should be able to do that will make feelings or bad situations stop has led to really bad behavior. It didn’t teach me that sometimes things had to feel bad and that I would get through it. Even worse, it let me stay in relationships that were abusive and painful because I felt that if I simply found the right combination of actions, the other person would stop behaving the way they did.

More than anything, I wish that I hadn’t been convinced that there was a right way to behave towards others when I was first forming my identity. I can no longer tell whether I became sexual because I wanted to, or simply because I thought it was what you did with someone you loved and it would make them happy. I followed the scripts that others told me would work, the scripts that not only were supposed to make the other person happy but were supposed to make my emotions work in a certain way. I never felt that I could openly speak about what I wanted or didn’t want, and when I did say no to things there were reasons that had to be stated (because otherwise it will be rejection and that makes the other person sad: you didn’t input correctly). I wish that I hadn’t been spending my time trying to suss out how to get others to act, but rather taking the time to think about what I actually wanted and what I care about.

When I was asked recently about how I would be in a relationship without feeling that I needed to manage the other person, I replied that I can’t even imagine what I’m like just being myself in a relationship. This is a good part of why I’m finding the question of identity and orientation very confusing. I feel like every relationship I’ve been in, I’ve acted the way I felt would make the other person happy, repressed the parts of myself that wouldn’t have the right reaction, and said things I didn’t wholly mean becuase it was what you were supposed to say in order to make another person smile. I went through grandiose gestures of romance because that was what it meant to “be in a relationship” that was how you were supposed to show your love and if you did that then your relationship would be good.

All of these ways of approaching relationships are about looking at outward signifiers (what action did I take and what action did I get in response) instead of actually trying to get information from each person about what’s happening internally. I want to be honest in my actions instead of spending my life trying to manage exactly the right stimulus to garner the right response in people I care about. If I have children, I don’t want to try to come up with tricks to get them to behave well. With myself, I don’t want to bypass what my emotions are telling me by coming up with some action that shuts off the bad feelings. I am not a code to be cracked. I don’t need anyone else trying to figure out how to fix my feelings, nor do I need to fix myself. I need honest communication that asks how I can recognize my emotions, understand why they’re happening, and deal with the source of the problem.