How do I stop feeling so mercenary and unconsenting in my relationships?
May 18, 2010 5:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I stop feeling so mercenary and unconsenting in my relationships? Right now my issue is primarily in romantic situations. I think that I know why I'm like this and have figured it all out mentally, but I need some practical strategies for avoiding situations that trigger my weirdness.

If it helps, here are the reasons I am like this, as far as I can tell. They are pretty depressing and involve abuse so maybe skip them if that will bother you. It's a pretty long sob story but I don't know, maybe it will help you think of how I can talk to other people about it. Feel free to skip and just go to the bolded questions below.


Let me preface this by saying that my parents are rich.

Until I was 6, my father took care of all my physical needs (food, hygiene). When I was 6, he and my mother split up and that went out the window. My mother remarried when I was 8. After a few years where I really bonded with him, my stepfather got creepy. Stealing my underwear, walking in on me changing and staring, and more. If my mother found out, she would freak out at me, scream at me, and hit me a lot. So a lot of the time I would just put up with it.

Food.* My mother never fed me any meal but dinner. So no breakfast or lunch on weekends. In 3rd and 4th grades I had a male teacher who would give me snacks. Similarly, in 6th grade my male homeroom teacher (for 6-8th grade) gave me a soda and a snack one time. From then on I would work very hard to be his "favorite" for attention and food. I had crushes on those teachers and fantasies about them coercing me into sexual acts and then being protective.

I had a high school teacher who pressured me for sex. When I rejected him he would be cruel and angry so I spent a lot of time trying to please him. At the same time, I fantasized about him for years. The fantasies were about having sex with him or having him touch me sexually while feeling numb. In these he would be "in love" with me. These fantasies were unpleasant but also comforting to imagine being loved.

In high school I got lunch money once a month or less. It was random. Asking for money would get screaming/crying and physical violence. I would hide during lunch so that no one knew I didn't have money, or pretend like I wasn't hungry. Eventually friends started to buy me food pretty much every day, especially my best friend who came from a really poor family. She would split her $2 for lunch so that we could both eat which made me nervous because I felt like I was at her mercy and didn't know if she would do it from day to day (she always would).

On weekends and during the summer I started to basically live at friends' houses, coming home just to get clothes. Their parents fed me and were polite to me so I of course had weird crushes on them. I had fantasies about my friends' parents, that I was their completely submissive sexual partner so they would have no reason not to like me. I acted inappropriately towards them, in one case touching my friends' mother sexually, but none of them took advantage of me. As for my friends I liked them but was always desperate to keep them. So I could be very bossy and manipulative and controlling but also constantly trying to please them.


So, here are my questions.

When I am interested in someone and date them, things are different. Sometimes I see them as a mark who I'm just manipulating for money. Sometimes when they initiate sex, even if I want to have sex, I feel like I have to have sex with them in order to survive. Which is a weird and gross feeling. Sometimes dating and romantic stuff feels awesome. But certain things trigger the weird stuff.

So. Strategies.**

I have actually told people not to buy me things or spend money on me. Is there any way I could explain what makes me feel like I am using them (not guilt, just coldness, feeling mercenary, ick) and yet have them still spend a little money on me? Someone feeding me when I'm hungry or buying me small trinkets makes me feel cherished and safe but too much and I start to feel weird. I don't want to explain because it makes me sound creepy and like a user. I don't know.

As far as sex, I guess I could ask people not to initiate sex ever. Is this a reasonable thing to ask? Or should I maybe just practice saying no to sex and seeing if they still like me? The annoying part is that I generally do want to have lots of sex and am mostly a confident, happy, and non-neurotic person, so I feel like it is a bait and switch to come out with all this stuff. So it seems like saying no and just not explaining might be best. Will saying no to sex make someone think that I will be a bad partner? Is it too manipulative?

These questions might be obvious but, I look at relationships from a strange perspective.

I have relatively stable relationships. I know I can feel like I am loving and being loved. I know I can value myself beyond what I can get from sex. It happens a lot. I just want to get better at it.

Thank you very much for your help.

*I had some issues with binge eating at one point but now I have a healthy relationship with food. Yay! Just thought I'd throw in some happy stuff.

**One-on-one therapy is a minefield--I have tried multiple therapists, male and female, I have found that it re-traumatizes me to share with them and I end up feeling molested and maybe it would be productive in the long term if I worked through that but dammit, I just want to live my life for a little while without intensely reliving my painful childhood relationships and I've done a lot better out of therapy. I think I will try some group skills therapy though.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

The shitty things that happened to you weren't your fault and it's normal for stuff like that to warp you a bit. The good news is you don't have to stay warped -- you can recover and have a happy life and healthy relationships.

You don't want to go to therapy and I respect that (I also found it useless), but would you consider reading some self-help books? If so, I recommend looking for books on complex PTSD and/or borderline personality disorder. I don't want to play amateur psychiatrist and try to diagnose you over the internet, but the crappy childhood you described could certainly cause someone to develop either or both.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:47 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hi. You might well be right about the reasons, but IMO it's best not to try and use the mind to figure out the mind. If you need strategies to manage fair enough but Body psychotherapy is very good as it just works with whatever's present, and you could explore the things you describe and maybe release them a bit. Silke Ziehl's approach is good for me.
posted by Not Supplied at 5:49 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

These terrible experiences have deeply colored the way you relate to people. There's no pithy answer here. You have to get back on the therapy horse, and you have to keep trying, until you find something that works for you. If group therapy is where to start, that's where to start, but honestly, you need a very good therapist who is willing to work intensively with you. Someone who is sensitive to how hard it is for you and will wade in the water with you instead of throwing you into the deep end.

Of course you want to live your life without reliving your painful childhood memories, but there is no way to do that. You have traumatic stuff in your past that you are worried will happen again. You feel powerless to stop it from happening again and so you become a control freak. It is not normal to have had your experiences, but your reaction to them is normal. You're not broken. You live with them every day, regardless of whether or not you face them head on or you just push them down and live unhappily because of that.

In fact, I deeply believe that what appears as 'brokenness' to others is just a person allowing themselves to stay in a place where they behave poorly out of a sense of survival, or harm themselves because they believe it is the only way to survive.

I will tell you that there is no magic door that you will someday chance upon, break through and then feel sunny, forever, on the other side. With therapy, with support, and with hard work and LOTS of self-love (of the emotional kind, of course!) you isolate the painful parts, you find ways to cope, and you live happier and healthier. You take pride in the obstacles you overcame. You take responsibility for making your own happiness wherever you can because you believe in yourself.

Your family did not give you the tools to do that easily, but you CAN do it yourself. An objective, good therapist could probably help you. A lot more than mefi can!

Good luck to you, though, you are on the right track. You do not need to relive the painful memories. You need to go toward the light. Find what feels healthy and warm. Keep doing that. You are in control, you really are!
posted by pazazygeek at 5:53 PM on May 18, 2010

Therapy certainly sometimes can feel a lot more scary-painful-intense than it feels helpful, but there is also merit in the practice of working with a therapist who understands trauma and how to work with it, whenever it feels like something you're ready for. When trauma is involved, the right therapy/ist is often a great tool to gaining insight, skills, and direction. I just say this to encourage you, because traumatic experiences sometimes gain so much undeserved power in being A Thing That Is Too Hard To Talk About.

A lot of the questions you ask seem really to be things that relate very directly to the traumatic experiences you've had, and are colored the way they are likely because of the things that have happened to you. In relationships with others, it's not wrong to ask for the things you need. It's never wrong to want a relationship to progress at a pace that is comfortable to you, and does not encroach on your boundaries or sense of safety. Communication with partners who are open to that communication is the fundamental way to support these needs and wants being met. This is true of any relationship, but particularly relationships affected by a trauma history.

Skill-building is an EXCELLENT idea. I wonder if you might enjoy a DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills group, since you mentioned it: this modality of therapy is all about gaining skills for dealing with feelings and the ways that they play out in our lives on the individual and interpersonal levels. Mindfulness (and becoming more aware of one's internal experience), distress tolerance (coping with intense bad feelings), emotional regulation (learning how to de-escalate the intense bad feelings), and interpersonal effectiveness (making choices in your interactions and relationships that reflect and encourage healthier interactions/relationships) are the major points of DBT skills.
posted by so_gracefully at 5:54 PM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

behavior therapy would be good. It's not about dredging up the past, it's about not associating your current behaviors with bad past experiences (or with behaviors associated with past experiences). It looks that that's exactly what you're looking for in this question. How to dis-associate current behaviors with past bad experiences.
posted by Neekee at 6:02 PM on May 18, 2010

Oh yeah, big ups to behavioral therapy. It is not about examining the reasons for why you do the things you do (you seem pretty clear on that point). It is all about coping.

This Book is a great primer.
posted by pazazygeek at 6:04 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I will just try to answer your specific questions. It is always ok to ask for what you need in a relationship. It is also ok to say no to anything you don't want, including sex and expensive gifts. Your partners should likewise be able to communicate their own needs to you, and have the option of saying no to you sometimes. In a good relationship, you should feel close to your partner, safe with your partner, and happier because you are with your partner. However, in a close, loving relationship, when you tell your partner something that you want them to do or not to do, you should be prepared to answer honestly if they ask why. You don't necessarily have to give them your life story if that feels uncomfortable, but you could at least say something like, "There was some bad stuff in my childhood, and now when someone does X it makes me feel Y. However, doing Z is still ok and I like it!" The more open you can be, the more your partner will be able to support you, and able to understand that you're not making the request because of something your partner has done wrong, or because you don't find them attractive enough, or whatever. While declining sex at any particular time is just fine, saying "I don't feel like it now, but maybe later/tomorrow/whatever? I love messing around with you, but I'm too down/tired/whatever to enjoy it right now" can lead to a happier partner than just plain "No, get your hands off of me." The person you're with should want to understand you and please you, and the more you tell them about how you feel and why, the better they are able to do that. They will appreciate you opening up more! (Unless your partner is an asshole. In that case some of the above might not apply, and you should consider finding a new partner).

The answer to the "can I ask my partner to never initiate sex" question is a little more complicated. Yes, if that is what you need, you can and should ask. And some partners might be completely cool with that arrangement. However, for some people that might be a difficult and unpleasant request to honor, as lots of people really enjoy being sexually aggressive with their hot, beloved partner. It might even be a deal-breaker. And that wouldn't mean that either of you were wrong, just that you aren't sexually compatible with each other. So you might start out by seeing if you feel better just saying no sometimes (but not always) when they initiate sex, or trying to find out if there are different ways that your partner can initiate sex that feel better than others (asking verbally vs. touching you etc.) so you can explain to them the best ways to go about it.

When these questions come up in the future, one strategy might be to think about how you would feel if your partner was the one saying or doing the thing to you. Do you still love your partner if they say no to sex occasionally? Is it ok for your partner to give you input on what kinds of gifts they do and don't enjoy receiving? Etc. If the answer is that it would be ok for your partner to do it, then it's ok for you too! If the answer is "maybe," then probably that's something to bring up tactfully and carefully, but is still something you can have a useful conversation about. If the answer is "no, it would ruin our relationship," then you might try talking to someone else (friend or therapist) about it first, to work through what you really need and how you can get it in a way that honors your partner's needs too.
posted by unsub at 6:35 PM on May 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

It is definitely okay to say no to sex, even in the context of a relationship. Practicing saying no is actually a great idea! As an extra perk, it'll make your partner feel more comfortable saying no to you when they're not in the mood, too.

Saying no to sex is not manipulative, nor does it make you a bad partner. Saying no sometimes is a normal part of being in a relationship.

Your other suggestion, asking that people you date simply never initiate sex, actually really bothers me. Some people might go for it, and it doesn't hurt to ask, but it can be very painful and disempowering for a person to feel like they have absolutely no control over their own sex life, and can't even ask for what they want. I'd pretty strongly advise against that tactic.
posted by Eshkol at 8:02 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

> I have actually told people not to buy me things or spend money on me.

Actually, this is a commonplace and perfectly natural request; your experiences have made it a charged one for you, but, again, it's perfectly ordinarily, and it would not be a terrible thing to allow yourself to feel completely comfortable making it.

> Someone feeding me when I'm hungry or buying me small trinkets makes me feel cherished and safe but too much and I start to feel weird.

Saying exactly this would be perfectly fine; and be sure to leave out words and phrases like mercenary and using you for money.

Put it in a more positive frame: "Yay! Little gifts are great! Just no big gifts-- that's too much for me to handle."

> I feel like it is a bait and switch to come out with all this stuff.

Nah. Revealing yourself and the reasons for your feelings isn't a bait and switch-- it's the actual reward.

As you know, your conditioning has linked survival and sex, and in conjunction with this, it seems like you've acquired a Crafty Underdog self-image: vulnerable child--> cunning manipulator--> guilty recipient--> vulnerable child.

>> As far as sex, I guess I could ask people not to initiate sex ever. Is this a reasonable thing to ask? So it seems like saying no and just not explaining might be best. Will saying no to sex make someone think that I will be a bad partner? Is it too manipulative?

You should say no as often as you'd like. The harder thing is reckoning with what seems to be your underlying sense that sex is a transaction, and that, one way or another, for the sake of your survival, you have to be a party in the transaction-- whether by having sex, or "manipulating" and Not Having Sex, or what have you.

Too bad about your experiences with therapists-- bluntly, if they're causing you to re-imagine the old stuff in a way that is painful-- if they're not training you to think of that stuff in a distanced, muted, visible-but-so-far-away-it-all-seems-small-and-easily-to-let-go-of-and-just-put-it-behind-you-now way-- they're doing it wrong.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:39 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a very interesting story (I like lurid stories, I'm sorry); if you were in a relationship with someone, and they seem to like you except for your occasional weirdness, tell them the story so they can understand how you think. Do it early in the relationship; the only thing you have to lose is someone you wouldn't get along with.
posted by fuq at 8:37 AM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

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