I don't feel safe with him: how can I change my feelings?
Heather Corinna replies:I'm in my late teens and have been dating my first boyfriend for one and a half years. Early on in the relationship he broke my trust and later on has done a few things that have made me really uncomfortable: touching me where I've told him not to before, being very rough, and the worst, making a negative comment about my body. I've talked to him about all of this and it hasn't happened since but it's destroyed my trust in him, and my libido has disappeared. I now dread having sex with him because I'm always thinking about how he must hate my body and not respect me. Is there anything I can do to get me to believe he actually likes my body (like he claims to) or to learn to trust him again (and to be okay with him treating me rougher than I like?). I really love him but I can't stand the thought of him touching me at the moment because I just feel used.
It's absolutely normal to feel unsafe with someone who has demonstrated that you are not safe with them. After all, if I told you I didn't feel safe having someone over for dinner who mugged me last week, you'd hardly be surprised. It's also absolutely normal not to feel sexual with someone who hasn't been respectful of your body and sexuality, and absolutely normal to dread being sexual with someone like that. One common reason people have a decreased sex drive is because of relationship problems or because they are in unhealthy or unhappy relationships.
I would strongly advise anyone who has been abused, maltreated or had their boundaries strongly and consistently breached by someone to do everything they could to distance themselves from that person. I would never advise remaining emotionally close with that person or continuing any kind of sexual relationship with them. Making or keeping ourselves so vulnerable to someone who has exploited our vulnerability in the past isn't emotionally healthy or safe. Not only are you unlikely to have a healthy, happy and beneficial sexual relationship with a person you have that kind of history with, the hard truth is that you and I both have every reason to believe that history will probably repeat itself and that person will prove again to be unsafe for you. In reality, if a person has abused us before, it is much more likely they will do so again than it is that they will never do it again.
I think your mind and body have been trying to send you those same messages, and have been sending them quite clearly. You express feeling dread when having sex with him, sex you're having even though you feel no desire to be sexual with him. You make clear you have no trust left for this person (and I'd hardly expect you would). You say you feel used, and express trying very hard to convince yourself that he feels one way about you when he's actually shown you something very different. Those feelings are important, and feelings to pay close attention to, rather than to discount, dismiss or to try and push out of your head and heart.
I wouldn't say any of this is about his liking your body or hating your body. I don't think that you believing he "likes your body" is going to resolve this, either. This isn't just about how he has treated your body, after all, but about how he has treated your whole person, which includes your body. Someone can think another person's body is the best body they have ever seen, felt or met, but that doesn't assure they are going to treat the person who inhabits that body with care and respect.
You're describing some things here which either have been abusive or which are on the path to becoming abuse: not respecting your personal boundaries, doing whatever it was he did to initially break your trust, being rougher than is okay with you, verbally insulting you. I can't speak to how this person feels about your body, but I would concur that it does not sound like he respects you or the body you inhabit. These things are just not things we do to someone we respect, something you can probably figure out on your own, since I don't imagine it's how you'd treat someone you respected, right?
Why don't you take a look at a checklist that can be used to help people assess if abuse is what's going on, like this one: http://www.abuse-against-women.com/abuse_checklist.html.
I don't know about the other areas of your relationship, but based just on this brief post, I see a few things on that checklist: Pressures you to perform sexual acts that make you uncomfortable or hurt you; Directs physical injury toward sexual areas of your body; Disregards your sexual needs and feelings about sex; Makes remarks about your sexual abilities (or your sexual body) in private or in front of others.
I don't think it is in the interest of your well-being or in alignment with caring for yourself to try and convince yourself that he likes your body, that he respects you, or to try and be okay with him being rough with you.
I understand you say some of his behavior has changed, but when you ask if you should get used to his being too rough, that tells me some of it also has not. If we tell a partner who cares for us that they are being too rough, the way they respond is to immediately make great and consistent efforts to be more gentle. They'll check in verbally, and ask from there on out if something is still too rough, or if what they're doing is better now. After all, we can all control the way we touch someone, and these are conscious choices.
To give you an example, I'm a touchy-feely hugger by nature. I don't tend to shake hands, but to hug, and it's something I don't even think about but just do innately. Some years back, I went to meet someone with Aspergers Syndrome who told me in advance she didn't like being hugged. So, while I did mentally remind myself right before seeing her not to hug her, despite the fact that hugging is something I do with nearly everyone else, making that adjustment was a no-brainer and really, really easy. Your boyfriend could do the same with how he's being sexually with you just as easily. If you've told him he's being too rough and he remains rough, that's not because he can't be more gentle. It's because he either isn't listening to you at all (and that's never something safe in sexual relationships) or because he just doesn't care about your needs very much.
Please understand that statistically, we know that most abusers do not change. What we also know is that those who do almost always do only through a lot of hard work, which usually includes in-depth and continued treatment for abusive behavior. In the process of that therapy, abusive people are usually advised NOT to be in intimate relationships, especially with people they have any history of being abusive with. Is your boyfriend getting any of that kind of help and advice? If he's not, I would simply be honest with yourself, in the interest of your safety, in knowing that until he does it's more likely you are unsafe with this person than safe with him, and that the changes in his behavior are probably temporary, not permanent.
From the sounds of things, I personally think the very best thing for you to do would be to leave this relationship.
That's not something we say a lot here, and not because it's the wrong thing to say. I think it's the right thing to say when someone is expressing that they are in an abusive, unhealthy or dysfunctional relationship, or even just one they are not comfortable or happy in. However, it's also a statement that often is not received well, especially by anyone who loves the person abusing or maltreating them, who hasn't experienced what a healthy relationship is to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy and/or who has been in abuse in their life so long or is so entrenched in an unhealthy relationship that it feels inevitable or inescapable. Like other organizations or individuals who have helped people in abuse, we know that "Just get out," while often the best advice, just isn't what everyone is ready to do or hear just yet.
If you're not ready right now to do that, at the very least I'd suggest you take sex totally off the table. In other words, at a minimum -- for your safety and your own mental health -- stop the sexual part of your relationship, ASAP. You make very clear it's not something you want right now, and not something that feels emotionally good to you.
You can tell him that you need to do that because a) you are not feeling a desire to be sexual with him anymore because of how things have been in the past and up until now, b) you need time and space away from a sexual relationship with him so you can figure out if having one is what you even want and is what's best for you and c) you need to know that he will give you that kind of space away from sex as part of assessing if he truly is respectful of you in your shared sex life, and not just seeking to get his own sexual wants and needs met. If he really can hear and respect that, maybe there is some hope. If he can't, you really need to consider that there probably isn't and that staying in this means keeping yourself wide open to more abuse and maltreatment, abuse and maltreatment which may also get worse than it has been in the past. Abuse tends to escalate over time, not decrease.
After you do that, I think it'd be great if you spoke with other people you can trust, who you know without a doubt DO respect and care for you, and see what they think. If you're not ready yet to tell friends or family, then find yourself a counselor or therapist to talk to. If you have been keeping any or all of this a secret, do your darndest to make yourself stop. Start being very honest about the reality of your relationship and its history, even if it's uncomfortable. I know it's not easy to be honest about something so personal, or to disclose we've allowed ourselves to be mistreated, but keeping those secrets isn't going to help you out or help you to have healthy relationships.
Another question I often pose to people in these kinds of situations is this: pick someone you really, deeply love and care about, like your sister, your mother, a best friend. Make it someone you aren't sexual or romantic with, and someone you'd defend to the teeth, no matter what, because you love them so very much. If they came to you with this situation, how would you feel about it? What would you want for them? Is this the kind of relationship you'd envision as something that's best for them, that would make you feel very happy for them? What would you suggest they do if they were asking your advice?
There's a handbook for women who have been abused I really like by Ginny NiCarthy and Sue Davidson called You Can Be Free. The authors have a chapter where they invite the reader to think about, assess and list what you owe yourself. I feel very strongly that there are some very basic things we all owe ourselves that come into play in relationships. We owe ourselves safety. We owe ourselves respectful treatment of our hearts, minds and our bodies, in words and in actions. We owe ourselves environments and relationships we feel fully and completely comfortable in; in which what we want and need is put first just as much as anyone else's wants and needs are. Is a relationship like this really in alignment with some of those basic things? It doesn't sound to me like it is. You're entitled to those things: every person is.
You don't feel safe. You don't feel comfortable. You don't feel like you want to be sexual with this person any more and don't feel the desire to be sexual with this person anymore. You are having constant feelings of dread at the thought of being intimately close to this person. When you are sexual with this person, you have unpleasant feelings. None of that is part of a healthy sexual or otherwise intimate relationship, nor is any of that emotionally healthy for anyone, or likely to make anyone happy. If your boyfriend felt that way with you, he would not likely stay or try and talk himself into any of that being okay.
None of that, nor some of his actions you've described, are about love. Love doesn't feel that way. Attachment can, addiction can, and abuse sure can, but love does not. This being your first relationship, please know that this is not how healthy relationship are or feel.
I personally don't feel this is what you owe yourself: I think you deserve better, be that in another relationship or in your life on your own without a romantic or sexual relationship for a while. I hope you can really hear and earnestly feel all of that as deep in your bones as it gets. I hope from here on out you are only with someone sexually with whom you feel safe, respected and loved and who you also are only sexual with when you strongly want to be sexual, and feel nothing but joy and happiness at the thought of being sexual with them.
If you want to talk more about this, we'd be happy to talk more with you at our message boards. I'll also leave you with a few other links at the site here I think might help.