This was cross-posted at Feministe.

A reader recently sent me an email in which they said:

i know you have always had clear boundaries with yourself (at least how you have described yourself)


I guess I’ve had a pretty good sense of my boundaries, historically, but there have been times when I have not set them well. This is hard to write about, because it happened years ago, and the memories aren’t fun, and I don’t like writing negative things about people I know unless I think there’s a good reason for it. But there are few people in my life, now, who are likely to identify the person I’m discussing. And I’ve asserted before that we should be more willing to write about our screwups; I was writing about BDSM at the time, but I think it’s true of all kinds of relationships.

There was a gentleman in my life, lots of years ago, who I was extremely in love with. We had an on-again, off-again relationship that lasted a very long time. We had an extraordinary mental and emotional and creative connection. We understood each other very well. There is zero doubt in my head that he loved me too.

Our sex life was really terrible, though. (It was not a BDSM relationship. I hadn’t yet come into that part of my sexual identity.) And there were some emotional boundaries he simply wouldn’t respect. At first I was too inexperienced to really recognize how bad it was, though I knew some things were messed up — then, as I got older (and dated other people in the interstices of our relationship), the problems became clearer and clearer to me. Want some examples? Here’s a blatant one: he never went down on me, though I regularly went down on him; he never even offered to try and figure out something else I might enjoy equally. Oh, I knew that was messed up from the start, but I didn’t have the vocabulary or the self-esteem to negotiate something different.

I tried — believe me, I tried to discuss our sex life, in a hesitant and confused way — but he found ways to shut me down, every time. Sometimes the shut-downs were blatant and aggressive and involved shouting. Sometimes they were very subtle, like the time he told me sadly, “You know, occasionally I get worried that you don’t really like having sex with me, but I know that’s just insecurity on my part and I need to get over it.” What a masterful way to say: “Part of me knows you’re not getting what you need, but please don’t bring it up, because that would make me feel bad.”

Today, I would reply: “Sorry if it brings up insecurities. I’m here to talk about those if you like.  But it’s also true, and we need to address it.” Back then, I accepted what he’d said, and felt roiling confusion and pain, and stayed silent.

I’ve got sexual-emotional baggage from that relationship to this day. And yes, I do resent it. Still. Despite knowing that he loved me, and despite valuing many memories from that relationship — when I look back on my time with him, it feels clouded and toxic. I remember that one night, years after I broke up with him, I had one of the worst nightmares of my life: merely a dream that he and I were back together. I woke up shaking, almost in tears.

During an argument, he once said to me, in a voice both angry and wounded: “I just want to feel that you love me more than you love yourself.” And my reaction was not to walk away. My reaction was not to laugh incredulously. My reaction was not to dump him on the spot. My reaction was to cry, and tell him how hurt I was. Hurt: because how could he think I didn’t love him more than I loved myself? Of course I did. What did I have to do to prove it?

For the record — just in case it needs to be said — that is ridiculous. Anyone who demands that you love them more than you love yourself does not have your best interests at heart. My reaction was just as ridiculous. I should not have been looking for ways to prove that I loved him more than I loved myself. I should have been out the fucking door already.

Towards the end, we went through a period where we were living together, but we weren’t “officially dating” and we weren’t having sex. I’d finally put down a hard boundary: I had told him flatly that I couldn’t have sex with him anymore. This was partly because I had realized that I just had no idea how to make our sexual connection better, but it was also partly because I’d recently come into my BDSM identity, I was hurting badly, I had no idea how to deal with my sexuality. I didn’t even want to think about having sex. With anyone. So I didn’t.

One night we had a terrible fight. It was a complicated, wide-ranging fight, but a main theme was this: he couldn’t deal with us not having sex. He made this very clear. He said, “You think I’m okay with living together and not having sex with you?” I told him I could leave if it was really that bad. That I could give him my share of the rent, and leave. I think part of me was hoping that he’d say, “Fine, leave!” But he insisted that he would be crushed if I left, he insisted that I had to stay. He did nothing to alleviate the sexual pressure on me.

So I had sex with him. Of course. It took me a few weeks, but I did it. I did it because I was in love with him. I did it because I felt guilty, as if having a strong emotional connection with a man is wrong if you don’t “pay” him with sex. (Hey, “everyone knows” chicks have sex in exchange for relationships, right?) I did it because I thought it was “worth it”, I thought it “wasn’t that bad”, even though I hated every minute of it.

When we started having sex again — I remember that it was dark, afterwards, and he said: “I’ve been wanting to do this for months,” and he kissed me. I kissed him back enough to convince him that I liked it, and then I turned my head away, and I cried. I kept my body still and I didn’t make a sound. I cried because I felt so trapped, because I felt so sick with myself, and I didn’t let him see it because somehow — somehow — I’d convinced myself that this, too, was just a cost I had to pay for this relationship. I can’t understand it now, but I guess I actually believed that I not only owed him sex, but that I owed him the illusion that I enjoyed it.

It’s hard for me to put myself back in my head, back then, but I think my BDSM identity was playing a role, too: I think part of me had concluded I could never have a “healthy” sex life. I craved BDSM — which meant I was a fucked-up pervert; sex I really liked with someone I loved was not for me. (Don’t believe their lies, kids! BDSM can be love sex too!)

(I have always related so strongly to this quotation from the submissive writer violetwhite: It’s ironic that the most perverse manipulations of power in my life occurred in a past vanilla [i.e. non-BDSM] relationship, where I tolerated tyranny because the normative structure of our relationship obscured the fact that that is what it was.)

Luckily, luckily, I had another reason to move out later. And I had the privilege of being financially independent. So I moved out. And as I got into social networks that had nothing to do with him, as I had more and more time apart from him, it was like blinders came off. I walked away. I fell in love with someone else, which helped — I can’t deny that it helped, it gave me more strength — but I was already on my way out. By the time I broke up with him, I was so disgusted with him and with myself that I barely felt a twinge — even though there were so many ways we understood each other, cared about each other, and so many things we shared. It was too toxic. I was Done with a capital D, and I didn’t even care.

Understand me: I don’t think I was perfect in this relationship. I, too, did things I shouldn’t have done. This does not change the ways he manipulated me, and the ways I failed to set boundaries.

Here is the strange part, for me, in remembering him: I don’t think he consciously wanted me to hurt myself like that. If he had been deliberately abusive, if he had really wanted to tear me apart, if he’d been physically abusive — I can’t imagine what he could have done to me. It could have been beyond terrible. Maybe then I would never have gotten involved? Maybe then I would have walked away sooner? But maybe not.

Can I teach other people to set boundaries in situations like that? I don’t know. The feminist ideas and gender analysis I was exposed to as a kid didn’t prevent that experience (although, again, maybe those things would have helped if the situation had been more obvious: if he’d been physically abusive, for example, or more overtly controlling). Maybe it was a lesson I had to learn, maybe I needed to be put in that situation, maybe it’s good for me to have that example in my past. Maybe everyone needs personal experiences like that and we can’t figure ourselves out without them. I don’t know.

I don’t know. But I walked away from that, and it was great. I had lots of sex I really liked and I set lots of boundaries and now here I am. Oh, yes, there have been other times I failed to adequately set boundaries — and in fact, I am less likely to set boundaries properly when I’m in situations that remind me of that relationship, even if it’s a very tangential reminder. Too bad. Still, compared to that relationship, other times I’ve failed to set boundaries were drops in a bucket — probably mostly because all the other relationships I’ve had have been dramatically more pressure-free.

I don’t know. I’m not sure I can write about him in a useful way. Is it helpful to know that Clarisse’s life has not always been Happy Fun Boundaries Are Perfect Land? You tell me.