How to recover from ex-boyfriend who withheld sex?
March 11, 2013 2:53 PM   Subscribe

Most recent relationship did a number on my self-confidence. Help me figure out how to regain what was lost. Details inside.

I ended my relationship with my ex-boyfriend at the end of December after several months of our relationship souring. Our struggles really began back in September, and I think a lot of the problem was that he was unhappy with where his life was (or wasn't) going. I'll spare all of you the details, but his lack of direction but a big strain on our relationship. I did all I could to be supportive and encouraging, and would spend hours every week helping him with his job search. When we spent time together, I tried to be positive and upbeat and did my best to make sure he knew that I loved him and that things would get better eventually.

He started becoming verbally abusive and would mock me openly in front of our mutual friends. When I let him know that treating me that way was NOT ok, he'd try to turn it around on me as though I had provoked him into acting that way towards me. There were two instances when he was slightly physical with me (once when he was yelling at me he dug his pointer finger hard into my chest several times and another time he grabbed my arm too firmly when I was attempting to diffuse an argument by simply walking away). In addition to these things, he began withholding affection and sex from me. Our kisses were often simply pecks on the mouth, and sex dwindled from once every other day to once every three weeks or less.

So, of course, I know I got out of a bad situation that had the potential of becoming a LOT worse. I'm happy that I finally woke up and decided to do what was best for myself. That said, the lack of affection and sex has made me feel disgusting. The thought of being vulnerable enough to have another sexual encounter with someone new in the future makes me anxious and nervous, as though my ex stopped having sex with me because of something I did wrong (or didn't do right). I had never had a boyfriend deny me in that way before, so my confidence has really been shot to hell.

How do I build that confidence back up? I'm 28, fit, slender, and by all accounts an attractive woman. I get asked out on dates and it is clear that men are interested in me. I'd like to be able to have sex at some point in the future without worrying that the guy finds me repulsive.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

The only thing wrong with that relationship seems to be him. Everybody has made the mistake of falling for, befriending, or working with someone who isn't right or good for them, and it's no stain on you for doing so.

Good for you for getting out of this. The way he was abusive toward you has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with his own terrible personality.
posted by xingcat at 3:15 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

without worrying that the guy finds me repulsive.

Your ex withheld sex as a tactic. It was deliberate. Witholding is a whole category of abuse of it's own (witholding - sex, affection, praise, giving the silent treatment etc). I'm sorry, he did this to you, but please realize that he did it to control/make you feel bad about yourself NOT because you were 'repulsive'. Therapy is a good idea. It will help you sort out your feelings and keep clear what really happened to you so you can move on. I would also recommend journalling. Write it all down and get it out.

Good luck to you.
posted by marimeko at 3:34 PM on March 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

Yes, abusive asshole is abusive.

That's nothing to do with you.

It is bound to hurt. I wouldn't be surprised if most people who've been in your situation, felt exactly like you do; they may simply not be talking about it.

Try also not to feel bad about feeling bad. If he'd run over you with a truck, it would be no mystery as to why you were still in pain, and emotional injury is actually not that different. Culturally, we are supposed to Wash that guy right out of our hair! It's a new day! And those kinds of affirmations and self-coaching will help you, but be careful not to turn them against yourself and start blaming yourself for having that dreaded feminine character flaw, the lowselfesteem. (I think it's equivalent to accusing a man of having a small willy.)

You'll get over it in time. Just remember, the devil is a liar.
posted by tel3path at 3:37 PM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

p.s. I wouldn't be surprised if he'd been withholding sex as a kind of misdirection to cover up impotence. That's exactly the kind of thing they do.
posted by tel3path at 3:42 PM on March 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

I highly recommend a support group for survivors of domestic violence. You are a survivor, even though he never broke one of your bones - emotional abuse is abuse. Personally, I found (and continue to find) great solace in my group. Meeting other women has been a lifesaver for me.

You might also want to read Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft, which was helpful for me when I left my abuser.

Good on you for recognizing this early and for getting out before it got bad. That is something you should be really proud of - that takes a lot of strength. I know, because I did it, and it was incredibly difficult; the hardest thing I've ever done in my life.

So, that's something you should be proud of, and maybe that will help you build back your self esteem a bit? It's damn hard to leave someone who abuses you, and you did that. You did it!

I'm proud of you, and I know that other women all over who know what you went through would be proud, too.

One thing that has helped me with self-esteem is to write down all my good qualities and look at that list when I need it, when I'm feeling like I shouldn't exist anymore and that the world would be better without me - I look at that list and think "Yes, I do good things. I am a good person. I have these great qualities, and no one else in the world has this mix of good qualities that is like mine."

Finally, in my group we did this exercise that was really illuminating for me. I'll copy it here.

Finish the sentences below about yourself:
1. I am a strong person. An example of a time I was strong is _________
2. I am capable of being happy. A time when I was happy was _________
3. I am a good friend. A time when I was there for a friend was _________
4. I am capable of making good decisions. A time when I made a good decision was _________
5. I am loveable. People who love me without abusing me are _______
6. I am talented. One thing I am good at is _______
7. Write your own.

How did it feel to do this exercise? Were there moments of discomfort or stress? Any surprises? Any you had trouble completing?

Make a list of your 10 greatest achievements. For example, I survived. I raised a child. I learned to read.

Make a list of ten ways you can treat yourself that doesn't include food or alcohol and that don't cost anything. Examples: Take a walk. Window shop. Watch children. Chat with a friend. Go to church.

It says that you should share the answers with a friend when you're done; if you want to memail me, I will share mine and we can talk about it, if you like.

Good luck; it improves over time, which sounds trite but it's true.
posted by sockermom at 3:50 PM on March 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

(I almost want to ask his name because this sounds exactly like my ex boyfriend *shudder*)

Well done for being able to extract yourself so early from this before he got even more violent and verbally/emotionally abusive. I know it's hard to be treated like this by the person you're most nakedly vulnerable with, when you're supposed to be their most special person. Not just at the time when they're being horrible and humiliating and hurting you intentionally and acting with callous disgust, but for a very long time afterwards.

You should know it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with him. My ex did a lot of fat shaming and name calling (FWIW my weight is completely average, I'd even say I have a nice hourglassy figure, I am pretty attractive and well-dressed) because he had erection problems and weight problems of his own. But he couldn't take ownership of those issues, so decided it was all my fault for not being a 17 yr old supermodel. (I was only in my late twenties at the time!) It really did lead to godawful, bottomcrawling behaviour, including regular public humiliation and the same kind of beginnings of domestic violence you've described. I had to take it until I could afford to move, which was way too long.

After we split I slept with quite a few men who were over the moon! to be in bed with me and wanted to do nothing BUT stay in bed 24/7, but I've only recently been able to see his behaviour for the awful, lying, abusive crap it was and not something that may've had some sneaking legitimacy somewhere, so I could let it go. I suggest you see a therapist specialising in DV, and in the meantime be kind to yourself and know all the stuff he did and the witholding wasn't a reflection on your attractiveness or your worthiness of love. You sound perfectly lovely and I'm sure will go on to inspire both love and lust in plenty of other people. That loser wanted to make you feel responsible for his own shortcomings, but your best revenge (when you've expelled that toxic shit!) will shortly be a life of not giving a fuck about that sad mess and loving your body and yourself like you deserve.

Feel free to memail if you need a chat. I know how appalling it is. Hugs to you.
posted by everydayanewday at 4:16 PM on March 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

A few clarifying points:

I think it's not fair that I said that you left before it got bad; that's not entirely true. It was bad enough. You left before it escalated further, which is different.

Also, if you're not proud of yourself for leaving, that's OK. I hope that one day you are, because in my view it is something to be proud of, but I do not want to tell you how to feel.

The Violence Wheel might be helpful for you; I know it was for me. I was shocked when I realized that my (now) ex had done things that showed up in every one of those little slices. That was an eye-opener. The Equality Wheel was equally helpful, because now I know what to look for in a mutually supportive, equal relationship.
posted by sockermom at 4:19 PM on March 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I would highly recommend a therapist if at all possible. This type of manipulative, hurtful behavior sounds so similar to a relationship I had a few years ago. I felt so ashamed and stupid for being the "type" of person who would be in an abusive relationship (which, wow, how wrong of a way to think that is). I especially remember that physical feeling of disgust at myself and the idea that I never, ever wanted to be vulnerable to that again. You will get past this.

It was my mom who finally got me to call my insurance and find a nearby therapist. Family and friend support was helpful during that time, but I think what really helped me think through and move past these paralyzing feelings was getting to talk to my therapist, someone completely emotionally uninvested from the entire situation. I was able to bring in emails and messages that the guy had sent me, and we went through them - she helped me realize just how completely wrong the whole situation was, and got me past the feeling that I had done something wrong or deserved this somehow. She was able to ask me questions and get me to dig into my thoughts in a way that finally made me go "OH WAIT, this dude was horrible and none of this is my fault". Family support and friend networks were important too, but none of those people had the expertise to really help me change my thought processes the way a therapist could.

And it really does take time - I think for me, being patient with myself was the hardest part. Take care of yourself in small ways even if you don't have the energy to do bigger things. I especially like the sentences sockermom has above - it might seem cheesy but the small things add up.
posted by augustimagination at 4:26 PM on March 11, 2013 [5 favorites]

i've heard that shame is taking on the blame that is someone else's. it sounds like you are feeling ashamed that your ex no longer wanted much sex. the blame here is all his from what you've written. do not take it on and it's okay to feel angry about how he treated you. this was not your fault.

the fact that the more you tried to help him and be understanding led to worsening behavior from him doesn't say much for the guy. a good guy would have been very appreciative of your help and understanding even if he was in distress. i do think you dodged a bullet so good on you for getting out when you did.
posted by wildflower at 5:12 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

just wanted to add that his withholding sex was not about your attractiveness or value as a person but control on his part. this is his issue not yours.

i'm really sorry this guy did a number on you like this. he sounds like a turd.
posted by wildflower at 5:25 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

While I can understand how your pride was affected by the way your relationship ended, I disagree with many of the people suggesting that he was doing it to manipulate you. He simply fell out of love with you, and so his lack of affection was an expression of that and his decisiveness not to betray himself. How would you like that to be expressed? If you wanted him to break up with you sooner, why didn't you break up with him when you saw that he was not affectionate? If you wanted a conversation, why didn't you start one? A situation like this has two victims and two culprits because everyone has control.

Falling out of love and not wanting to kiss someone is not abuse.

How do you build your confidence up? You do what you makes you happy. Spend time with your friends, go to the gym, eat and sleep well, buy a new piece of clothing that reminds you of your awesomeness.

When you feel sexy on your own, you won't be so vulnerable to how you're perceived by others. Someone above wrote "withholding sex is not about your value as a person" — neither is having sex. Your value as person is ultimately personal.
posted by esprit de l'escalier at 8:01 PM on March 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Falling out of love isn't abuse, but name calling, withholding affection, and physical assault are all abusive tactics designed to control and manipulate. Not allowing someone to leave an argument by grabbing them is not ok. When you take all of these things together, and you add in the fact that the OP feels shame about her body because of what this man did, it's hard to see this as anything but abusive.

If you try talking to an abuser about what is wrong in a relationship, it will end up being a conversation about your faults and what you could do to be better. She says that this happened in her post, in fact.

He cut her down verbally and physically abused her. Ok, he didn't hit her, but he poked her and grabbed her. Physical abuse usually starts small, like this. It's no guarantee, but he likely would have escalated these behaviors into breaking objects, hair pulling, and hitting if she had stayed. That is how it works. He was abusive. That is not her fault. No amount of feeling sexy on your own protects you from abuse, unfortunately. It might help you get out faster, but abusers are abusive. They don't treat their "loved ones" with respect and dignity: they argue, they are mean, they are manipulative, and they are downright cruel, no matter what the victim does.

Here's the thing: I was once in a relationship with a nice guy who did not abuse me. He fell out of love with me and didn't want to have sex with me anymore. It made me sad, but I understood. No hard feelings, no real loss of esteem. I loved him and wanted him to be happy, and the relationship just didnt work out. It was sad, but I was OK. A few relationships later, I dated an abuser. He withheld sex and affection, too, and did all sorts of other stuff to me that was controlling and horrible. Now I feel awful about my body, even though by objective standards I know that I am not really ugly, and I am not what anyone would call fat (my BMI is 20.2). But that man made me feel horrible about my body in a way that no one else ever did, because he was abusive. I'm working on feeling good in my skin and sexy, but that man cut me down in a way that I did not even know was possible. Abuse does this to survivors. A normal relationship where the sex peters out because of a lack of love is not the same, and it does not sound like that is what happened here when you read the post and think about all the things he did to the OP.

Now, I can see why the OP might not want to cast her ex as abusive. That is fine. But she might benefit from understanding how abusive situations work, because this kind of behavior is absolutely typical of abusers, and there are many methods for healing from abuse once it has happened to you. Number one lesson? Abuse is not the fault of the survivor. It is the fault of the abuser.
posted by sockermom at 8:48 PM on March 11, 2013 [9 favorites]

Anonymous, let me make it crystal clear that you are not 'to blame', you have not 'allowed' anything to happen and your partner is not a 'victim' because no one has been victimising him. Anyone bigger and stronger than him been driving their fingers into his chest? Clawing and grabbing at his arm stopping him from leaving conversations? Viciously humiliating him in groups of his closest friends? Refusing to have any physical contact with him and overacting about it as if that would be gross? No....? Ok then, let's put that to bed.

You took the best possible course of action, which was to leave. YAY for your confidence and refusal to put up with his bullshit.

So now, your problem - worrying about sexytimes with potential partners - is what is left. I know it won't happen overnight, but now you can start towards dating all those nicer men and once you do you will probably find that he was the anomoly. You'll have a much, much better time in bed (and out of it) and can screen as many as you're comfortable with while you get back on your feet. I repeat the suggestion to see a counsellor specialising in DV.
posted by everydayanewday at 2:43 AM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, direct answers towards the OP and make them constructive and helpful. Thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:56 AM on March 12, 2013

I've found that this problem resolved itself when I met someone with whom I felt safe and sexual. Not that I was immediately the world's most confident person, but my desire to have that physical interaction was very resilient and bloomed again when conditions were healthy again.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:07 AM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I went through something almost identical (minus the abusive-sounding parts) a few years ago and would say that I've recovered pretty well by now, although it was rough for a while. Me-mail me, if you want to compare notes or whatnot.

But to summarize, what was most effective for me was time, supportive friends, and most of all, new sex-positive partners (casual or otherwise) who were unambiguous in their attraction.
posted by randomnity at 11:47 AM on March 12, 2013

and to add, since I missed the angle of being insecure around new partners: just try not to overthink it - nobody is going to fake attraction in a normal dating environment. They might fake interest in a relationship if they just want to sleep with you, but they won't want to sleep with you if they're not attracted to you.

Since you're a straight(?) woman, you have the option of waiting for the men to make the first move if that makes you more comfortable for now. Anyone who pursues you very much is going to be attracted to you, that's just how it works!

Of course that's easier said than done, and easier to think objectively than to really feel. Really, it will take time, and more experiences, before you'll be comfortable again, but you'll get there! December was pretty recent, it's not surprising that you'd still be affected, especially if you haven't been dating anyone new yet.
posted by randomnity at 11:59 AM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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