Startled by a tender moment - how much to give in?
May 18, 2014 7:35 AM   Subscribe

For the past two years, I've developed an very stable and satisfying dating style that suits me for the time being - I maintain a certain emotional distance and all of my sexual relations fall very easily in the platonic category - I've thus far avoided any complications. However, I was completely startled when a friend I had expected to sleep with ended up being intensely sweet and now my system is a bit shaken up. I'm not sure how much to give in to this feeling I'm having for him. In a way, I can't remember what's normal to be feeling in these situations.

Me: late twenties cis-female, self-employed. Very comfortable with polyamory and non-standard relationships. Some history of anxiety over romance that has been resolved for many years, but still rears its head in the form of hesitation or confusion when these situations come up.

Him: We'll call him Tom. early thirties cis-male in very similar circumstances. Don't know too much about his romantic history, but I know that people in our circles would both regard us as emotionally extremely independent - neither of us would be seen as likely to have a formally declared boy- or girlfriend, though its not out of the question.

So, Tom and I have been emailing a few times a month since last June after the first time we met while I was traveling. I found him attractive and we flirted a bit when we met but the emails we've exchanged have been pretty dry back and forths about our shared interest. I ended up traveling again a few weeks ago and Tom offered to set up an event for me in his city. I was excited to hang out with him in person and get to know him better - it seemed possible that we might sleep together but I wasn't positive and I didn't put too much thought into it.

When I arrived in Tom's city, he made a point of meeting me right away even though I'd come a bit early. We really hit it off right away - joking and flirting a whole lot. I was happy about this - yay, new friend. I don't relax in this way so quickly around most people. We went home together and went straight to his room and had sex. Then we had sex again. Then we had sex in the morning. Then we had coffee, cuddled, saw a movie and had sex again. Then I stayed an extra night, and in the morning we had sex. I had to get to my next destination and he had work that morning so we parted ways.

We've been texting a few times a day since I left. When we parted we didn't say anything like "When can I see you again?" or "I'm going to miss you", but again that isn't really my style to pursue that kind of thing.

So, all this sounds pretty normal so far telling it that way. But the first major complication for me involves a drastic change from the nature of the hook-ups I've had for the past 2 years. I actually haven't even kissed anyone or shared any kind of "sweet" affection in about 8 months. (I enjoy bdsm so there is plenty for me to do that isn't kissy) I do this semi-deliberately - I'm not opposed to it, but I've just found that it simplifies things when I want to make sure a casual sex partner stays platonic. Its a habit that I've become so comfortable with that when I sort of did want to kiss someone recently, it seemed so extreme and confusing that I decided to abstain. Tom and I kissed a lot. It felt really normal, and really easy. We cuddled and joked around physically, and we looked into each other's eyes when we had sex. I know that this sounds normal...but its not for me. I haven't let anyone treat me like that in a long time, and it felt so right that I didn't even stop to question it for a minute.

I feel so confused by this presence of affection and romance. In fact, I'm downright upset - when I think about it I start crying. I don't understand why its so confusing to me. Am I just emotionally unprepared to face something like this? Does this mean that I should try to "chill out" and keep my distance or will resisting just up the tension? Am I supposed to say something to him?

When I write out what happened and the aspects that are confusing to me and imagine someone who is used to more conventional dating patterns is reading it, it seems so obvious that we are just two people who like each other. I should be happy, he was really sweet to me and its nice to connect with someone.

One theory I have involves the high level of self awareness and self control I've developed over the course of figuring out how to have multiple partners without driving myself crazy. I almost feel like I don't know what to do with this feeling of being "swept away". It interrupts the lifestyle that I'm leading. I don't know how to evaluate if it is going to cause me problems. I have a hunch that I'm overthinking it, but I don't know how to not overthink it.

I'm not concerned about this being a semi-long distance relationship (we live a couple hours away from each other and both of us travel very regularly) and I'm also not worried whether he reciprocates my feelings. Insecurity isn't really an issue with me at this point. I just feel confused? How do I straighten this out in my head?

Any resources on accepting love/affection/feelings would be welcome.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

I feel so confused by this presence of affection and romance. In fact, I'm downright upset - when I think about it I start crying. I don't understand why its so confusing to me. Am I just emotionally unprepared to face something like this?

Yes. By being so focused on being "comfortable with polyamory and non-standard relationships," you seem to have overlooked the basics, hence your need for "resources on accepting love/affection/feelings."

When I write out what happened and the aspects that are confusing to me and imagine someone who is used to more conventional dating patterns is reading it, it seems so obvious that we are just two people who like each other. I should be happy, he was really sweet to me and its nice to connect with someone.


Any resources on accepting love/affection/feelings would be welcome.

One to One: Understanding Personal Relationships by Theodore Isaac Rubin, MD.
posted by John Cohen at 7:49 AM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

You know, nowhere in this whole thing did you say, "I'm scared." You spent a fair amount of time telling us that you're not insecure, you're not worried, you're not anxious, you're just confused and startled and concerned. But I think that you are scared? Opening yourself up emotionally to another person is scary, because you're not in control of what happens. It sounds like you've spent a lot of time over the past bunch of years trying to arrange your environment so you are never not in control.

I think you straighten this out in your head by looking directly at the worst-case scenarios: you fall hard for this guy and he rejects you, or cheats on you, or you both try really hard but it doesn't work out. And then you decide you're either okay with taking that risk, or you're not. There are no tricks for protecting yourself from the fear of potential suffering, not really. You just have to decide that it's worth it.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:52 AM on May 18, 2014 [46 favorites]

in my mid 20s i had my love life set up in a very similar way to yours - a revolving door of partners who were friends or friendly, but rarely romantic. i actively worked to keep romance out of that arena. i leaned on bdsm interests because it helped to compartmentalize things. there were some things i didn't do because they made my brain think mushy gooey thoughts no matter who was on top of me. i did all of these things because it's what i wanted to do and as soon as i didn't want to do them, i changed tracks.

that's what strikes me about your question - going back before this guy, you say:
"Its a habit that I've become so comfortable with that when I sort of did want to kiss someone recently, it seemed so extreme and confusing that I decided to abstain."

i wonder if your brain is telling you that you're ready to try something new, to open yourself up a little more. this doesn't mean settle down and buy a house and have 2.5 kids with mr. passion kissy guy if that's not what you're wanting - but rather, relax your rules a little bit and see what happens. when you want to kiss someone, don't abstain. when i was in your shoes, i actually didn't try to get all girlfriendy with the first person who turned my crank in that way, i waited for the next person who i wanted to really look at and i didn't turn away (while still having fun times with the crank turner).

this all honestly sounds so familiar and i don't know much else to say than - yeah, that can happen. feel free to memail me if you just want to chat about it.
posted by nadawi at 8:16 AM on May 18, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think you would benefit from seeing a professional therapist. I suspect there's a huge back-story about why you originally set up these emotional boundaries, and it'll take some real work to dismantle them.
posted by Houstonian at 9:23 AM on May 18, 2014 [5 favorites]

Seconding that you sound scared. You had a nice, comfortable rut all set up, but now your brain and emotions and hormones are ready for something else and this is how they're telling you. I guess you could shove it all away if you want, but why not try something else?
posted by rtha at 9:47 AM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

You told yourself this fiction that you didn't want this, maybe that you didn't need it...and when you found someone with whom it felt right, it felt good, it scares you. I get that. It shakes the very idea of who you are to its core and you're left wondering "What now?"

Explore it. Maybe it works out, maybe it doesn't. But there can exist a world perhaps where you do what you did before with others and have room for what you do with him. It all sounds rather nice, honestly.

Good luck!
posted by inturnaround at 9:58 AM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not really clear to me what you want. If you want a relationship, sounds like this could be it. You can't have a relationship without having tender feelings. If you don't want a relationship, then don't see this guy again. But if all you want is to avoid "tender feelings," while still wanting a relationship -- then yes, you need some therapy
posted by yarly at 12:41 PM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

You don't mention what else is happening in your life; do you have good, satisfying non-sexual relationships with anyone? Most people find that they do need some kind of connection with other human beings, some actual emotional intimacy, in order not to feel cut off and alone.

In other words, if you're not connecting emotionally with anyone, then it's not surprising that when someone in your otherwise detached sexual life comes along who does feel easy to connect with, that it happens and is confusing.

It may also mean, as others have said, that you might need to reconsider your sex-with-emotional-distance policy, despite the risks. Because never allowing yourself to feel vulnerable or connected to another human being comes with risks of its own.

Being a human is annoyingly complicated sometimes.
posted by emjaybee at 1:29 PM on May 18, 2014

It seems you have spent much of your life planning for "unconventional love" and it seems to me a bit of your identity is wrapped up in that.

Now, a chance at "conventional love" has fallen in your lap. I get the feeling your biggest trepidation here is that it is incompatible with your identity as one who doesn't participate in conventional relationships.

You may also be fearing the possibility of heartbreak. I wonder a bit if your life of unconventional relationships is reactionary to past heartache? Trying to build structures to protect yourself?

In a chance for love, throw yourself in. These moments of real connection come by so rarely in life. You'll learn so much, and likely reinvent yourself. Call him today. Better yet go there tonight. Surround yourself with sweet monogamous heterosexual love. It's actually pretty sweet, it's worth trying in for size.
posted by littlewater at 1:45 PM on May 18, 2014 [7 favorites]

Sometimes, people have a hard time finding others that are sufficiently "like" themselves in some way. Other people are different enough, it is fairly easy to keep people at bay. And then, once in a while, someone like that happens to trip across "one of their kind." And suddenly, the rules are all different. They feel all squishy. This might be love or something.

It doesn't have to be a big, huge deal. You could keep a journal or write poetry or find some other way to analyze and/or express these squishy feelings on your own. Or you could try talking to Tom and letting him know you have Feels for him. And this is different for you. And you are curious and nervous and not sure where this goes.

Tom might be perfectly okay with all of that. He might know exactly where it goes for him and it might not be at all where you thought he might think it should go. Or Tom might be a huge ass about it, and thereby kill some of these sweet feelings for you. And that isn't necessarily a terrible thing. It can let you know where you stand and that can take the nervous edge off. And it can be food for thought for what you might want in the future from a guy.

In the mean time, let me recommend you listen to the song (or watch the linked video) Sweet Emotion by Aerosmith. And let me recommend you watch the movie "Six Days, Seven Nights" where the guy decides he would like to "complicate the hell out of things" after years of keeping it "simple." Also, Exit to Eden by Anne Rampling (aka Anne Rice) might be a good read. It is essentially the story of a bdsm woman who falls in love and has some trouble accepting that.

You could also look for other songs and movies that might help you process some of this and rethink it. We all sometimes fall and it doesn't have to be drama. It can be lovely and life giving. How nice that when we think we have all the answers and there are no more worlds to conquer, sometimes life surprises us.
posted by Michele in California at 2:47 PM on May 18, 2014 [1 favorite]

all of my sexual relations fall very easily in the platonic category

"Platonic" means "non-sexual". It is not possible to have platonic sexual relationships.

Assuming you mean "non-emotional"... It's okay to become more involved in a relationship if you like the person. Sure, it can be different and emotional and take up all your time (at least during the honeymoon period). But it's also something that could be potentially wonderful and life-changing. Beyond books and therapy and all the rational stuff you can do, I think at some point, you just have to let yourself be vulnerable and fall in love, and see where that takes you.

"Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
posted by ethidda at 5:31 PM on May 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hi. First of all, I really don’t know what I’m doing when it comes to sex and romance and I basically change my mind every week, so take all of my advice with a grain of salt, okay? I have also never really been part of the “scene” but several of my good friends have been into poly and kink so I’ve been on the periphery.

But I hear you when you say that you have buried anxiety over romance. You ask about “giving into your feelings” and “what’s normal.”

Tom sounds like he attracts you because he’s who you want to be, only in masculine form- he understands you to some extent, he has the same drive towards independence. It can be very hard to find people who really “get” you if you’re at all out of the ordinary, and that feeling is really nice. Also, it’s easy to be the independent one when everyone else is slightly more needy than you are, until you meet your match- to some extent being independent is a way of protecting yourself, and when you find someone you know is out of your league/more independent than you/whatever, there is an urge to be yourself, to let it all out and be honest because it feels safe. People who are very independent aren’t going to use your weaknesses against you because they don’t care- they won’t stalk you or try to blackmail you into loving them, etc. Maybe that explains what you’re feeling. Two people who are true equals and really loving will both let each other go, and that feeling is a very safe and good and a nice feeling, especially if you’re used to possessive lovers or emotionally abusive or controlling lovers and you developed a hard shell to protect yourself. I do find that it is almost never a good idea to date people you admire/look up to/want to be, though. It gets weirdly unbalanced on your end of things most of the time.

I am worried for you because I think you might be getting pretty attached to him. Not that worried, because you sound like in the end, you would be able to pull away with relative ease- but you do sound like you like him. You are excited to meet him, you arrive early, you text him, etc. – I do think perhaps you’re the only a bit more invested here. That’s fine, but it might help to have a conversation about things with him. Be really, really honest and ask him what he wants. How long this will go on, what happens if you get attached, etc. If he is a good person he’ll be honest with you and won’t avoid your questions. If at that point he says he wants to keep things casual, I might try to establish some boundaries- no more slow and gentle lovemaking, kissing, or whatever pushes your romance buttons.
Keep in mind that some people (some men) don’t just like sex for the sake of sex (which is great and honest and fine and healthy) but actually get off on making people fall in love with them. They could take or leave the sex- it’s the control they like. The more independent the woman that falls, the better. It’s more about ego and power and comes ultimately from a place of insecurity. I very much hope he is not one of them, for your sake. That would be cruel for you.

But listen to me- if there is a feeling you must give into, if there is one feeling you should listen to- it’s the feeling you have when you cry, when you’re confused. That’s yourself, that’s your true self talking straight to you and no one else, and you’d better listen. The butterflies with him- that’s one thing, that’s biology. But the crying when you’re alone? That emotion is you trying to reach and trust you. You are going to be with you for life. When all else is gone, your relationship with yourself is the most important one there is.

I think it’s good that you’re starting to feel romantic and loving again. I think the very first recipient of that sort of gentle, caring love should be you. Treat yourself the way the most loving boyfriend in the world would- date yourself- hell buy yourself flowers when you’re sad. And listen to you.
posted by quincunx at 8:26 PM on May 18, 2014 [3 favorites]

Maybe I'm too cold-fishy and logical, but it sounds to me as if you don't usually kiss and romance and cuddle people because it makes things too complicated in your head, but this time you did, and now it's all complicated in your head. Foreseen outcome is foreseen. So why, and now what?

You have agency in this, and you know yourself better than anyone else - for whatever reason, you broke with your own traditions. What your motives are, I don't know - other people seem to have some ideas - but in the wake of it, you seem beyond just "confused" and into "unsettled" and maybe even "dismayed" or "unhappy". Maybe the "why" is just "because it's time" or "because I was curious" or "because I really like him" or "it was just the once." Whatever, you don't have to sort your "why?" out completely to get your head around "what next".

Having breached your own rules, because whatever, you have to decide whether you want to repeat the foray into romantic territory, with or without this person, and whether you want to try to maintain the current structure of your sociosexual life (a multiple-partners model you've determined depends, for you, on a relatively low intensity of emotional intimacy with any one partner, even if the sexual or power exchange scene with that person is high-intensity.)

Whatever happens, there's no "wrong" thing to do here. They're your rules, and you are your own boss. Even if your "why" turns out to be "because sometimes I make a mistake about someone or something", which is the worst reason I can come up with for this, it's really not a bad one at all. We all make mistakes. If your reason turns out to be "eh, I wanted to see" or "he's got potential for a different kind of relationship for me" or "oh, crud, I'm in unlikely monogamous love I didn't foresee" or "I need some affection sometimes" or "I need some affection all the time" - those are perfectly valid things to find out about yourself and to take into account going forward.
posted by gingerest at 11:20 PM on May 18, 2014 [6 favorites]

You're feeling sweet, romantic feelings, and it's making you so upset you're crying? That kinda makes me wonder if there's some major past trauma that you're not dealing with. It sounds to me like the prospect of actually getting close to somebody and caring about them is terrifying you, and that suggests that you were hurt badly in the past.

Maybe you can't think of an awful trauma, or something bad did happen and you think you dealt with it and it's no big deal now. But I walked around for about 15 years telling people this funny story about this thing that happened to me when I was a kid, and it was just gross and funny and I laughed about it because I was a badass bitch and it was just some silly childhood thing, whatever. And then one day I was writing a funny blog post about it and suddenly I had this horrific, sobbing meltdown. I had NO IDEA how much hurt I'd been carrying around for so long.

Maybe I'm way off-base. But getting shmoopy with a guy shouldn't be making you so upset you cry. That's alarming, and makes me worry you are sitting on a some sort of major, unresolved hurt.

I do think it would be a good idea to talk to a therapist, or at the very least take a hard look at your past. Try to figure out why just expressing mutual, not-just-friends affection scares you so much. Good luck.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:40 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

Two shots in the dark:
a. Love is Vulnerability. Opening yourself up to be hurt, showing your squishy places, and feeling everything MORE. It's not that you're wanting to get hurt, but, it's a possible side effect of letting down those defences.

b. I notice people break down when they get, or are close to getting, something they'd lost/longed for. Think of parents breaking down in hysterics when they get their children back - they were semi-holding it together til then. You haven't quite been in the stable situation you thought you were in, because you've been (increasingly?) deficient in things this interaction was giving you. You do want that affection, basically, and you're crying because you'd been a long time without it, and you still don't know if/when you can have that need met again.

Or at least, that's what I'd think my brain was pulling, if I had same situation.
posted by Elysum at 6:08 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I write out what happened and the aspects that are confusing to me and imagine someone who is used to more conventional dating patterns is reading it, it seems so obvious that we are just two people who like each other. I should be happy, he was really sweet to me and its nice to connect with someone.

Wrong, this is someone who is having sex with you and kissing you. Kissing and cuddling doesn't mean he wants to be in a relationship. You are making yourself vulnerable to attachment by doing this stuff, and you haven't yet figured out if this person wants an attachment. In fact, the probability is no, just because the probability is usually no (statistically speaking).

If you kiss and cuddle and get attached with someone who just wants sex, it'll hurt a lot. I would avoid that.

If you are thinking this guy wants more because he's being cuddly, that's not the case at all. Many unfaithful and uncommitted people have kissed their sex partners. In fact, it's the norm.

I'd back off and figure out what this relationship is about before you get attached and hurt.

Basically, what gingerest said above. You broke your own rules, and now you have an emotional mess. Extreme analogy: you usually don't use heroin because it messes up your life. You broke your rule and used it, and when you're high it "feels so right."
This doesn't have to be heroin, but I wouldn't put much/any credence in the feeling that it "feels so right." That's what cuddly attachment feels like. It doesn't mean it's safe. It can be, and it can be good, but the feelings can also lead to dangerous and hurtful situations. If you are crying, step back and negotiate the relationship. I might go back to your colder attachment style if the closeness is too much for you to handle.
posted by htid at 8:42 AM on May 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

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