Boundaries: I need them.
September 26, 2013 5:02 PM   Subscribe

How do I set up the right boundaries regarding intimacy when dating new people. Difficulty level: history of abuse, disassociation and social anxiety! (nsfw)

Background: I'm an early/mid 20s female, with a history of abuse both inside and outside the home. Grew up with less than great parenting, and my father was an alcoholic. Sexual abuse is also a thing, though not by relatives. My dating history is a bit different than most-started dating a close (female) friend in high school, and that relationship continued up until ~1 year ago.
I've started dating, which is scary enough on it's own, I'm at the age where I should totally know how this is done, but I don't because I've never done it before. Most of my dates are set up through OkCupid, and it's been moderately successful. I started around May. I've had a bunch of first/second dates, and one relationship that lasted around 2.5-3 months (Person A), before I broke it off.

Right Now: I've just recently started dating someone (B) else. We started talking before Person A and I started dating, and just kind of fell out of communication when my relationship with Person A happened. B was the one who initiated contact, and sent a rather long, thoughtful (though a bit desperate-y) letter about why he wants to get to know me. When I broke it off with A, and messaged B, he confessed he was ecstatic, really thrilled that I thought of him 3 months down the line. We've done a bunch of talking, and have been on two dates, and really hit it off. I like him, and he seems to be quite fond of me as well. We both seem to be in a grade-school-silly crush kind of mentality right now. Which, if it was one-sided, I'd probably be worried. But since it's reciprocated, for now I'm just enjoying being giddy and blushy when he sends me cute text messages.

The actual problem: Things have escalated quickly (by my standards), and I'm not sure how to handle it. When I dated A, it was a few dates before we kissed. (He was a stranger!), and didn't evolve past some really intense making out. B, however, we kissed on the first date. More importantly, I kissed him. Earlier in the evening he asked if he could hold my hand, put his arm around me, etc. And after I kissed him, he asked if it was ok if he kissed me. I didn't really give an answer (I know, I'm bad at talking).
So, last night, he came over for movies. There was lots of very PG cuddling which had been anticipated in the text messages following up to the evening. After the movie, we started making out, initiated by him. I at one point said I probably shouldn't, he asked if I wanted to stop- I told him 'want' is a strong word (I realize I should not be flirty, I should be direct in answering questions regarding boundaries, but I'm afraid of coming off as a cold bitch.) It was true, though. I didn't want to stop, but I knew I couldn't emotionally handle being too close with someone I just met. Anyway, he continued kissing me, and went to undo my belt-I said no, he asked if I wanted to stop or slow down, and I said wait, and he kissed me before I made up my mind. It escalated further, and I didn't give any more verbal cues (several times I did try to pull my head away, or put my hand on his chest to try and distance us, but it went unnoticed). We were both at this point shirtless, his pants off, and he again tried to undo my belt. At this point I realized I had slipped into a somewhat disassociated mental state, and started to panic because I get rather mute when that happens. I grabbed both of his hands and he looked up at me and I shook my head fervently. He said ok, and got up and handed me my clothes and helped me get dressed. He said "I'm sorry, I feel bad now" and I asked him why, and he said he didn't want to make do anything I didn't want to do. I apologized for giving him mixed signals, and he said I didn't need to apologize, it wasn't my fault. He apologized again, and said he was being too aggressive, probably because he hasn't had sex in a while.

We hung out for a bit longer, and when I was kissing him goodbye, it got intense and he pushed me (though gently) against a wall. Fast forward to today, and he hasn't texted me at all-which is really unusual. I want to talk to him about what happened, but don't know how. So, here's a bulleted list of things I need help with:


TL;DR

•In talking to him, do I say "Hey Ive got some personal stuff that makes it hard to set my own boundaries, so let's take things slow", or do I just straight up say "Hey you're hot and all but I don't want to have sex with you right now."

•I prefer a yes means yes approach. (Is is ok if I do this, what about this?) that happened on the first date. Is it reasonable to ask for that approach until we're more familiar?

•Do I just set boundaries or give a reason why? How much do I divulge? Do I say anything about my past? Do I let him know that talking is hard for me? That saying no is also hard? That sometimes for no reason I disassociate?

•If you've been through something like this, do you have any tips on how to navigate what you want vs what's good for your mental state? I do want to be intimate with him (I find him rather attractive, which is weird for me. Typically I don't find people physically attractive- I'm either attracted to their personality, or by a bond formed from shared experiences), but I think doing it down the road is probably the best option.

•Am I being reasonable, or should I just settle with being alone until I get all this worked out? Can I get it worked out? Does it ever go away (the fear, the anxiety, etc)?

•Are there any flags I'm missing?



Throwaway email: askthegreenanonymously@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're very articulate in describing what happened and your goals - I think it's going to be tricky for a while, but I very much believe that you're going to get to a place where you can set good boundaries.

It sounds like the movie night was your second date - is that the case? I think that one thing you should do is start thinking about setting boundaries much earlier than you are currently. Personally, I would not invite someone to my house for a second date. That seems to suggest a level of intimacy that I personally would not want on a second date. (I am *not* saying that he had reason to expect sex or anything like that - I'm just saying that boundaries aren't just what you say - you also have the ability to practice setting good boundaries by thinking about your environment, the wording of your text messages, etc). Just something to think about.

To answer your question - it's perfectly fine to say "hey, you're hot, but I don't want to have sex with you yet." In fact, it's completely fine to say that early in the night, before it comes up, while you're just doing whatever you're doing. Set the expectation early, before you become stressed or feel pressured. I've done it many times - nobody has ever minded.

I would just like to draw your attention to one thing, which is that you are worried about your issues around physical boundaries...but I think you may also want to pay attention to emotional boundaries. For most people, it takes a while to open up to a new potential partner. Both in terms of having sex, but also in terms of becoming emotionally intimate and telling them very personal things. You're looking very analytically at setting better physical boundaries, but your questions ("How much do I divulge? Do I say anything about my past? Do I let him know that talking is hard for me? That saying no is also hard? That sometimes for no reason I disassociate?") suggest that you plan to tell him quite a bit about your background, very early. I would suggest that you practice setting both good physical boundaries and good emotional boundaries. Let yourself get to know him slowly. Do things together. Talk about parts of your life that are important - but save the discussions of sexual trauma and a difficult childhood for later. Many, many dates later - when you know each other better and you trust him.

Lastly, you are being entirely reasonable. If you ever set boundaries and someone makes you feel that those boundaries are unreasonable, that is a red flag.
posted by leitmotif at 5:38 PM on September 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


If you're curious about his state of mind, he probably feels rejected and embarrassed. Of course you didn't do anything wrong (quite the opposite) but I am fairly confident this is how he feels.
posted by irishcoffee at 5:52 PM on September 26, 2013


It sounds like you did awesome, and that he was very responsive to the verbal queues you did give him.

I'm assuming that, while he hasn't texted you, you also haven't texted him? In which case, I think it's valid to take what he said at face value, that he feels bad (i.e., probably embarrassed) and is trying to give you some space.

Given how responsive he's been to your queues, I think it might be worth risking it a bit and divulging at least a bit of your past. I actually very much like your phrasing of "Hey I've got some personal stuff that makes it hard to set my own boundaries, so let's take things slow." You might also add, "I sometimes get freaked out and need a few minutes to regroup; I can let you know when that's happening by ________." (Shaking your head is a great signal.)

If he's responsive to all that, then you can divulge more as you feel comfortable.

You are being reasonable, you can get this worked out, and it's paradoxically easier, in a lot cases, to work out feeling anxious around other people with other people, rather than on your own. I also do hope, however, that you have a therapist or very supportive friends or someone else with whom you can work some of this stuff out; your local rape crisis center can probably help with (low-cost) counseling if you need someone (just Google "rape crisis center" and your county and state).
posted by jaguar at 6:20 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


And in terms of flags, I loved this advice that I read recently about abuse. I think it's a great way of determining if there are any red flags going off:

One measure I use to help determine if it can be considered abuse is what I call “The Three Rs”. You’re likely NOT experiencing abuse if what is happening is:

Rare – happens rarely and without any repetitive constant or cyclical pattern or increasing frequency or intensity. It is NOT repeated in either a constant fashion, or in any repetitive cycle of phases.

Recognized – the person who said something hurtful in anger or a heated discussion, for instance, immediately (within 48 hours, say) recognizes it as being hurtful to the other person, apologizes and makes amends to repair the damage.

Resolved – Once amends have been made, BOTH people feel that the incident of hurtful behavior has been reconciled and put behind them. There is no residual hurt, anger, blame, or resentment surrounding it.


Since you've know him for such a short time, it's hard to rate "rare." But from what you've said, he recognized that what he did made you uncomfortable. He also worked toward resolving it by apologizing. So what I would say, is that the ball's in your court about whether you accept his apology and work toward resolving what happened (by talking to him about your boundaries); and then if he doesn't do it again, you know that his behavior was also rare.
posted by jaguar at 6:26 PM on September 26, 2013 [6 favorites]


I think whether or not you tell him about your last experiences is up to you- I could imagine things being easier on you and the guy if you tell him, without necessarily going into all the details. Just telling him "hey just so you know what's up, I have some history with sexual abuse and not a ton of relationship experience, so I want to take things pretty slow. I think you're great and really attractive, but..." and then go on to tell him that you'd prefer a yes means yes approach, etc. I don't think you absolutely need to tell him anything, but if you're comfortable just mentioning it, it might help him put things into context and understand where you're coming from. You absolutely can just state your boundaries and how you want things to progress and he should respect that, but it might save him and you some confusion and miscommunication if you let him in just a little.
posted by MadamM at 6:26 PM on September 26, 2013


•In talking to him, do I say "Hey Ive got some personal stuff that makes it hard to set my own boundaries, so let's take things slow", or do I just straight up say "Hey you're hot and all but I don't want to have sex with you right now."

Your method of talking to him depends on what you're most comfortable with. When I was younger, I would often opt for something vague like the former, but now I would straight up tell him where the line is like your latter statement. I would even say that the latter is a bit too vague as sex has kind of a wonky definition, so I would be likely to say "but pants stay on right now" or something of the sort.

•I prefer a yes means yes approach. (Is is ok if I do this, what about this?) that happened on the first date. Is it reasonable to ask for that approach until we're more familiar?

Yes it's reasonable to ask for that approach. Full stop. No matter how familiar you are.

•Do I just set boundaries or give a reason why? How much do I divulge? Do I say anything about my past? Do I let him know that talking is hard for me? That saying no is also hard? That sometimes for no reason I disassociate?

This is entirely up to you. I also go quiet and disassociate, though I have a different history, and I find that the pace of my disclosure depends entirely on the individual relationship. Sometimes I'm much more comfortable telling a prospective partner that I have a history of disassociation so I need to go slowly and be prompted, other times I just say that I like to take things slowly (and I elabourate once the emotional intimacy and security is there).

•If you've been through something like this, do you have any tips on how to navigate what you want vs what's good for your mental state? I do want to be intimate with him (I find him rather attractive, which is weird for me. Typically I don't find people physically attractive- I'm either attracted to their personality, or by a bond formed from shared experiences), but I think doing it down the road is probably the best option.

You're allowed to want to be intimate with him and you're allowed to want to do it at whatever pace feels best for you. You're allowed to do one thing one time and then not do that thing the next time. The right partner, for you, at this moment, is someone who is going to respect that self-determination and boundary fluidity. If this guy is not OK with this kind of arrangement, then he's probably not the best choice for right now, and it's up to you whether you're OK with that.

•Am I being reasonable, or should I just settle with being alone until I get all this worked out? Can I get it worked out? Does it ever go away (the fear, the anxiety, etc)?

You're being entirely reasonable. Nobody is perfect and waiting to be perfect is an inherently flawed perspective. You're worthy of love and affection as you are. And, unfortunately, some of this shit can't be worked out alone - you actually need to go through the motions and fuck up and rearrange boundaries and be awkward. I've had some really positive experiences with people where the fear and anxiety were manageable, though not completely gone. Your own process may vary.

•Are there any flags I'm missing?

I'm a little concerned that he didn't notice your very clear physical signals and then he pushed you up against the wall, but I'm not sure how much of that is typical straight dude entitlement and how much is actually a concerning lack of responsiveness. Either way, I'd make sure to tell this guy very clearly what is OK and what isn't as he doesn't seem to get the type of hints that you've been giving.

Remember that if this guy balks at your boundary requests, that doesn't mean that you are at fault. You are asking him to respect you in the way you want to be respected. If he says no or seems grumpy about it, then he's telling you he doesn't want to respect you. You don't need that shit in your life and I hope you'll feel free to cut him loose.

Feel free to memail me if you want to talk about this more
posted by buteo at 7:38 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]


A lot of mid 20's people don't know how to date, either. Don't worry there.

It may be helpful for you to write down the boundaries you want, so you have a clear idea what they are. Then, before things get hot and heavy, it may be a good idea to state them.

Also, I suggest slowing down the physical intimacy. As horny 20somethings, if you have problems with things escalating too quickly, be very proactive in throwing some water on the pantsfire. Inviting someone home is more intimate than a secluded restaurant/movie theater, which is more intimate than a mcD. Kissing and making out is great fun, but not if doing so causes you issues then or down the line. Taking it slow is perfectly acceptable (and I recommend it in general)
posted by Jacen at 8:58 PM on September 26, 2013


Fast forward to today, and he hasn't texted me at all-which is really unusual.

Have you texted him?

I realize I should not be flirty, I should be direct in answering questions regarding boundaries, but I'm afraid of coming off as a cold bitch.

But if the answer is No, the answer is No and he explicitly asked and needs to know that. If that makes you a bitch (which it does not), it makes zero difference because the answer is still No. There is no way to convey No as clearly as saying No.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:27 AM on September 27, 2013


I have been in a similar place and handled it less well, so good job!

I don't have much to add on top of the great answers you've already gotten, however, I will say that something that works well for me is staying in control of the situation. If you can get him to agree to let you set the escalation pace, it can be really helpful in maintaining a present state of mind. Especially if you are physically attracted to him, it can be fun to really feel that and see where it takes you.

Also, depending on your level of trust, letting him know that you dissociate is a really good idea. You don't need to get into the whole story, but it's a really helpful thing to communicate what's going on in your present state of mind. The truth is that you need to be with someone who can handle your needs. In my experience, sex with people I couldn't maintain any type of communication about dissociation with was bad sex in unhealthy relationships. I only started getting better when I started to be able to talk about it.

Given my history, there are a few things that will end sex for me. If you have anything like that, let him know right away. Any discomfort you might feel in telling him that up front will be way less than if he accidentally finds one later.

Finally, as to your question of whether it ever goes away. Yes. Yes. Yes. It takes a lot of hard work, a good therapist, and a good partner, but it can be done. Don't rush it, and don't beat yourself up if it's going slowly. About five years ago, I was convinced I would never ever have a good sex life and resigned myself to being alone/unhappy forever. That was ridiculous and I have a great sex life right now. Seriously, after reading how self-aware you are at this point, you got this one.
posted by ohisee at 12:00 AM on September 28, 2013


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