It is so fucking comforting to have a story, a black and white way to understand things, especially if the story makes you right and the other person wrong.
Originally published on Medium.
I was attracted to Nina* (not her real name) the minute I saw her, and it was mutual. We tried to go slow, but we failed miserably. Within a couple of weeks we were making passionate love on the sheepskin rug in front of her fireplace. And a few days later, she told me, “We need to spend at least an hour on the phone every day, and I need to be able to feel you thinking about me, even when we’re not talking.”
The authoritative tone in her voice freaked me out. What if I didn’t always want to talk on the phone for an hour a day? And what did that mean, that she had to be able to feel me thinking about her? How could I ever measure up, and was that a standard to which I even wanted to measure up?
Honestly, I’m kind of psychic myself, so I don’t think Nina was crazy in her ability to feel whether or not I was thinking of her. I’ve had that kind of open channel with other girlfriends. One time, early on, I woke up in the very early morning and, without touching myself, started having an orgasm. It turned out that the woman I’d made out with earlier that week was touching herself right then, and thinking about me. So, I get it.
But what I know now, that I didn’t know then, was that Nina was playing out the classic “anxiously attached” side of the attachment polarity, which thrust me firmly into the “avoidantly attached” side. Or, maybe I was playing out the avoidant side, and that thrust her into the anxious side. It can become really hard to know where these things start. One minute, you’re super into each other, and the next minute, you’re locked in what feels like mortal combat. That’s how attachment stuff works.
The sad thing is, I really liked Nina. I wanted to be with her. But I knew nothing about attachment theory, so I literally felt like I didn’t know what had hit me when she started saying things like “In a healthy relationship, there should be no boundaries,” and “You just haven’t had healthy intimacy before, so you don’t know what it is.”
I felt like I was with someone crazy. And I was.
But I’ve been that same kind of crazy in other relationships. Attachment stuff makes us crazy.
The relationship with Nina lasted all of six weeks. Our last conversation was a walk in which she quoted Eckhart Tolle at me to prove that I was wrong. Somehow, she twisted the words of this nondual teacher into a frame that made her right, and me deluded. Sigh.
After I broke up with Nina, she called me many times and hung up every time I answered. She left empty messages on my voicemail. She brought back the little gifts I had given her and left them outside my door. (That was actually kind of a healthy thing to do, though maybe it would have been better if she had just dumped them, rather than triggering herself by coming to my house.)
A few months later, I was contacted by a friend of hers who told me he was psychic, and he could see that the reason why I had been so “afraid of intimacy” with her was because of my sexual abuse history, and he just wanted to let me know.
Sigh. I’ve done the same thing, I admit. We get so fucking intense in lesbian relationships — at least, I sometimes have, and some of my girlfriends have, too. I too have concocted stories that I “knew” were true, and one time even thought it was my job to contact one of my ex-girlfriend’s friends, who just happened to be a Buddhist nun, to share my concern. Honestly, that’s almost as bad as quoting Eckhart Tolle to make someone wrong.
I repent, and I do my best to redeem myself by teaching Conscious Girlfriend — conscious lesbian dating, love and sexuality classes for lesbians and queer women from all over the world. And I am constantly learning and teaching more about attachment, so I can understand why so many of us go so crazy when we fall in love — or, more accurately, when we get attached.
I don’t usually go so crazy, so quickly. It takes me a while to get that attached. But I have witnessed other women go there really fast, the way Nina did. Either way, it’s crazy-making.
I once met a woman for a coffee date at a time when I had no business dating at all. My GF and I had broken up a few days before. Then we got back together, and I let my coffee date know I couldn’t date her any more. She told me later that she spent the entire weekend crying. She had been so sure I was “the one.”
After. One. Coffee. Date.
I get it. I really fucking get it. I was probably a toxic person in her mind, too. We bring our scared little vulnerable needs to each other way too fast, and then we devastate each other (though really, when it happens this fast, we are devastating ourselves; the other person is just a bit player in our dramas.)
So how can you stop running into toxic people, and seeing the whole lesbian community as being full of dangerous narcissists? That is what I’m passionate about teaching in my Attachment Healing Intensive class. Rather than making each other our enemies for not meeting our needs (which are all about our wounds), can we slow things down, take more responsibility for our feelings and desires, learn to regulate our nervous systems, bring our cognitive brains online in love? I am doing soooo much better at that with my current GF, and I thank all the stars in the heavens for everything I have learned.
I so well understand the phenomenon of making the other person wrong for not meeting my needs. I’m smart, I’m articulate, and I can build a really good case against someone in my head, and amass lots of evidence, and get my friends on board. That’s exactly what Nina did to me.
This is a classic pattern that an anxiously-attached person plays out against a more avoidantly-attached person. As I said, I have been on both sides.
But here’s the thing. These stories we spin about each other are a natural byproduct of being human. It is so fucking comforting to have a story, a black and white way to understand things, especially if the story makes you right and the other person wrong.
Sometimes, you might even be partly right. I probably was partly right in what I told my ex-GF’s Buddhist nun friend about what I saw. That GF had a pattern of pushing away everyone in her life. It was pretty fucking tragic.
I haven’t spoken with Nina in over 19 years, so I don’t know for sure whether she considers me toxic, or just tragically damaged and in denial about how my sexual abuse history kept me from having the healthy intimacy she wanted to share with me, or whether, by now, she has a more complex, nuanced view of what happened between us.
Here’s my nuanced view: Nina was partly right in what she said about me. I do have a sexual abuse history, and I do have a deep fear of enmeshed intimacy. For sure, I have a strong reaction against being commanded or forced or manipulated, and I also have a strong fear of being engulfed, consumed, by people who claim to “love” me but really just want to devour me.
Is this partly because my father broke down my door when I was 15, and forced me to go somewhere with him? Could be. Is it partly because my mother was so needy that I was terrified of being consumed by her? Yes, for sure. She called me her “best friend” when I was 10, and told me all kinds of stuff about her marriage to my father that a 10-year-old frankly shouldn’t know. So yeah, I’ve got stuff.
But I also really love closeness, when it’s not being forced on me, or demanded from me. I might have actually enjoyed talking with Nina for an hour a day — though probably, for me, it would have been a better rhythm to talk for two hours one day, then skip a day, then connect again. I probably would have thought about her all the damn time if we hadn’t gotten into that crazy attachment dynamic.
So how could Nina and I have done it differently, if we had understood attachment theory?
Here’s one possible healthy conversation that Nina and I could have had:
Nina: Wow, I noticed I’m getting really freaked out by being so close to you. It’s making me feel really scared, which makes me want to grab on really hard and make demands of you, to try to make myself feel less scared.
Me: Oh honey, thanks for telling me that. What can I do to help you feel more comfortable and safe?
Nina: Well, it might help if we talked on the phone every day, even if just for a little while.
Me: I could probably do that — but some days it might be just for a few minutes. Would that help?
Nina: I think it would, but I also need to get better at dealing with these fears on my own. Maybe I can do some healing work so I don’t have to just put them all on you.
Me: I would love to support you in that, honey. I know some people who do really powerful inner child work. I can get you some names.
Nina: That would be great! I so appreciate your loving compassion. I know it’s not your fault that these fears are coming up for me. It’s just a really vulnerable place I go into at the beginning of a relationship.
Me: Oh, I totally get it. I’ve been there, too.
Sound like a dream? Well, it is, but it’s an achievable dream, when you know about attachment styles and you’re willing to grow. I can’t say I’ve ever been able to have this exact conversation with any new girlfriend, whether I’ve been more on the anxious side or more on the avoidant side in the relationship. But I’ve gotten much closer to this than I used to be.
So if you want to spin off into the sunset with a story about all your toxic or crazy or narcissistic or borderline exes, you can certainly do that. Nina could call me toxic. Hell, she could even call me a narcissist, for all I know, and I could call her borderline. It’s certainly true that as our trigger-meter zoomed up, I wasn’t capable of empathizing with her, I just felt desperate to get back to safe ground, which made her feel more desperate to connect with me, which made me feel more desperate to get away, which made her feel… well, you get it.
So if you’re tired of those kinds of stories, and want to know what is really possible between you and another vulnerable, wounded, resilient woman — if you want to be able to bring this kind of conscious, self-responsible, compassionate curiosity to your own relationships — I recommend you take the Attachment Healing Intensive, which as far as I know is the world’s only in-depth attachment class for lesbians and queer women.
I also recommend that you go slower than Nina and I went, slower than lesbians often go. Why? Because the faster you go, the more intensely this attachment stuff is gonna hit, and the harder you’re going to have to work with it — and in a brand-new relationship that is totally flooded with core wounds, you may not have the wherewithal or stamina or investment to work that hard. If Nina and I had dated for several months before becoming sexual, the same attachment dynamics would have played out, but we might have had more trust, more of a foundation, to help us deal with them.
Please note: I am not saying that healthy relationships would be possible between any two people. You get to be choosy. You should be choosy. And you should (if you want healthy, happy love, that is) choose someone who is willing to do this kind of attachment work with you, because many of us have a lot of fears both about loving, and about losing, so stuff’s gonna come up, and as far as I can tell, the only way out is through.
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