Thursday, September 22, 2005

Why The Hell Am I Still Alone: Getting Serious About Serious Gay Relationships

by Max S. Gordon
Sapience Magazine
December 2005

“If he makes even one mistake,” Darren said, “I’m telling you right now, he’s out.”

Over brunch, Darren had just finished catching me up on the relationship he’d recently ended. We were now envisioning the prospect of any of his future lovers. He’d been hurt severely by Gary, his boyfriend of eight months who he found out had been having sex with other men. It wasn’t the first time a lover of Darren’s had cheated, or attempted to cheat on him.

“Even one mistake?” I asked.

For the look he gave me, I might have been the offender. “I’m tired of being taken advantage of, Max,” he continued. “And of ignoring the signs. Gary was constantly flirting, always letting his phone go to voicemail when we were out together. I gave him too many chances, as usual, but he’s the last, and I mean it this time. If a man needs to use our relationship to figure out how to be honest, then he can go learn somewhere else.”

I thought about my relationship with my partner, the mistakes I’d made even that morning, and the ones I would probably make by the end of the day. Sometimes, when I was in a particularly cynical mood, my long-term relationship of twelve years felt defined by the mistakes – with the occasional reprieve of companionship and sex thrown in.

I considered men in relationships with each other, and fathers who said the same thing to their sons, whether it was literal or implied: “One mistake, buddy, and you’re out.” The sadness of the withdrawal of love from a partner who was imperfect, as all partners are, and yet the very real dilemma of trying to sustain a relationship with a man you were in love with and who couldn’t be trusted.

I knew from my own experience as a lover and a friend that it is easier to have a rigid, angry jaw like Darren’s than to feel fully the grief of another relationship’s ending in frustration, of calling your friends about your new boyfriend, introducing him and then having to call them all back months later to announce you’ve just broken up with him. When the next “I’ve just met someone” call is made, you hear in their voices that the enthusiasm has waned, and without saying so, your friends have now developed a grace period for your lovers (groups of friends, like children, can have separation anxiety too). They congratulate you while refusing to meet or bond with the new boyfriend, waiting to see how long “this one will last.”

“I’m lonely,” Darren said. His voice was quiet, almost a whisper. I played with the edge of my napkin, and we sat in the silence for a few moments. We’d reached the part of the conversation that couldn’t be laughed away with snapped fingers or double entendre, having exhausted current events, pop-culture gossip, and mutual friends’ successes and failures. It was the tail end of our weekly meetings, right before we parted, that was usually reserved for our own painful embarrassments and heartbreak, deliberately planned to ensure a quick getaway.

“And I’m tired,” he sighed, finally. “Maybe I should just face the fact that I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life.”

I reassured him that he was wrong, and the conversation brightened as we paid the check and changed the subject. Later, I thought of Darren when I had almost exactly the same conversation with a new acquaintance, Carlos, about the frustration of dating, the exhaustion and constant pressure of trying to be impressive with each new encounter ("It's like preparing the same performance over and over again without an opening night. I'm sick of dress rehearsals!"); of negotiating on which date you sleep with him, and if you choose too early, risking that he may lose interest; of meeting him online and finding out he’s lied about everything including his age, his profession and his 10-year-old picture, and his pleading as you close the door on him that he had to lie about his age or you never would have agreed to meet him in the first place. The get-togethers with friends where you are the only single man there. The online dating services, the workshops, singles parties and paid gatherings where Carlos told me he felt like cattle at an auction as he stood up, held a number in front of him, and announced his whole life to the group in less than five minutes and why he was loveable (but couldn’t get a date on his own).

“Sometimes, I just want to give up on the whole fucking thing,” he said.

It crossed my mind for an instant to introduce Darren to Carlos –why not? they were both looking. But no matter how lonely they were, or how much they felt victimized by the dating scene and a desire to find a real person like themselves, knowing them both, I knew a relationship between them would probably never work.

Part of the reason why relationships, gay or straight, are so difficult, and why the failure to find one is so shame-inducing, is that there is a cultural assumption that we know how to have them. There aren’t any courses in our primary education that teach us how to have healthy relationships, and proper sex education, on the occasions when it’s offered, doesn’t get the job done. Knowing how male spermatozoa swim upstream in search of female ova doesn’t tell you how long to wait for someone to call after a first date or whether you should wait at all. It doesn’t suggest how many times to forgive a partner who cheats, what to do if your partner hits you or verbally abuses you, or when to move in together, and if possible, get married, and when, if necessary, to pack your bags and leave. You never hear a child say, “This semester I’m taking math, art history, and romantic relationships.” I’ve never been asked once since high school about the battle of 1812, but a course on co-dependency and love addiction might have come in handy when I entered my first relationship.

Those of us fortunate enough to come from homes where our parents communicated, and who modeled for us how two partners can have a disagreement without being abusive to one another, might have some basic relationship tools. But for far too many of us, in our parents’ marriages we saw a range from bitter indifference to physical and emotional violence. We have a cultural data bank filled with images from films, television, magazines and our families of a woman sitting by the phone waiting for a man to call, of a man breaking down a door in a jealous rage or stalking his girlfriend as she drives home from work, of two women fighting each other over a man, or two men “stepping outside” over a woman, of articles about “how to keep him satisfied” and couples who “can’t stand each other” one minute and then are so enmeshed they call each other every half hour and suddenly “can’t stand to be apart.” We’ve all had the close friend, who is completely present and loving when he is single, but the minute he’s is in a new relationship, he disappears - neglects friends and family, never returns phone calls and is missing in action - until the relationship ends and he needs a shoulder to cry on. He is apologetic, and begs for forgiveness, and the friendship is wonderful again – until his next lover comes along.

Who can blame him? Most relationships are wonderful at first; like that new shirt or CD we’ll die if we can’t have. Months later, the shirt’s at the back of the closet, the songs on the CD are played out, and there is something new to be desired. Part of the problem of any relationship is that eventually the honeymoon period comes to an end. Until then, our relationship is a shiny new toy. Things are perfect at this stage; mistakes are avoided or ignored, and love can thrive because forgiveness isn’t yet required. When a relationship is new we wear our best outfits, we make sure to arrive on time, we avoid the alienating, controversial topics during dinner, and we make sure not ever to fart, or belch aloud. We excuse ourselves in the restaurant to check for spinach between our teeth. Fast forward a couple of years and, amazingly, we’re now comfortable enough with this person to take a shit with the door open, wear their clothes without asking, and eat the last piece of pie without finding out first if they were saving it. During the honeymoon phase, however, we are on our best behavior and we definitely aren’t in touch with any of the psychological pain that usually comes up for us in intimate relationships. Our personal horror stories are locked safely in the crypt where we feel they belong. Thank God, by the way, for this honeymoon period, or there might not be any relationships in the world at all!

It’s between the sixth month and the end of the first year when the relationship enters the second stage: things get “real”, he keeps leaving his socks on the floor, and the crypt begins to open. Our childhood pain rears its head. All the abandonment issues, all the early abuse and incest issues come up in order to be confronted and healed. If we anticipate this, and we’ve done some work beforehand, the relationship may have a chance. Some of us can work through these problems with the tools we have. For the rest of us, as I have seen in my own life, we are bewildered by a relationship that is suddenly, inexplicably different, in which we are sharing a bed with someone who has “changed”. We are shocked to discover our partner feels the same way about us.

Our romantic relationships often bring up a series of experiences that trigger “flashbacks” to our original abuse and trauma, the first time we trusted and loved unconditionally and what we got in return. Part of our healing work is knowing when we are in flashback mode, when the overwhelming feeling we are experiencing during an argument with our partner is not completely of the moment we are in, but based on our own unresolved or unexplored history. That doesn’t let our partner off the hook if he or she is behaving like an asshole, it just means we take responsibility for the dysfunction that we bring to the relationship.

I should probably take a moment here to acknowledge anyone who expected to read an article on relationships encouraging the reader to pick four-leaf clovers or write love poems to the relationship fairy during a full moon. I apologize if you feel misled – relationships are much harder, and harder won, than magic potions and wishing on stars. I definitely advocate prayer during the relationship, lots of it, in fact. And magic and self-help slogans (believe me, I’ve read and tried them all) may get you a first date. But since most serious dating will eventually turn into a serious relationship, we need more than a magic wand to integrate a person into the sacred parts of our lives, and more than wishful thinking to sustain the intimacy required for them to want to stay there.

The truth is that more relationships would have a fighting chance if they weren’t submerged by the weight of our romantic fantasies. A healthy relationship simply can’t withstand the pressure that comes from our expectation that someone is going to save our lives or make us feel valued, safe or vital, especially if we’ve never felt these things from the people who cared for us as children, and if we never learned how to give them to ourselves. We are responsible for meeting our own emotional needs. Everyone loves to join a party that is thriving, and guests will often bring a bottle of wine, or chocolates, but if you invite someone to dinner and you’re starving when she gets there because you expected her to bring the main course, then you aren’t looking for a relationship, you’re holding people hostage.

I am thankful that around the time I began my current partnership, still reeling from the personal failures in my last, I read books and listened to tapes which helped me see my relationships as spiritual “assignments.” I began to understand that not only would my insanity come up in the relationship, it was expected as part of my growth. I could move past the shame of being “crazy” in the relationship and learn how to work through my issues with my partner and to ask for help. Depending on the degree of damage we’ve sustained, we may require anything from a weekend refresher-course on intimacy, to couples-counseling, to a padded cell and a shot of thorazine. The support is out there if we are open to it. The real breakthrough is often not the help itself, but getting past the shame of needing it.

If we are willing to understand that we aren’t wrong or bad for being terrified of relationships, and that it’s okay for intimacy to be scary sometimes, we can be patient with ourselves when our insanity comes up, and know that it is a sign that the relationship could be working, not failing - as long as we are taking responsibility for our own behavior and healing process. We can choose to love ourselves for having the courage to attempt intimate relationships at all, and can honor and respect ourselves when a relationship matures or when we intuitively know that one has to come to an end.

In the conversations about relationships that I’ve overheard amongst my gay friends, it’s sometimes like a war, full of mutual envy and contempt. There is the single man who feels outraged at the “married” man who is dissatisfied with his long-term relationship. He listens to him complain for only so long before he finally says, “Hey, at least you’ve got someone.” The conversation may end there as the man in the relationship holds his tongue out of guilt, fearing he may be ungrateful, and before anyone stops to ask what kind of someone he’s got; his lover could be cruel and duplicitous, but the point seems to be just to “get a man.” Deep down he knows that the conversation has ignored one basic fact: that being in an intimate relationship with someone brings up unexpected challenges and anxieties that you never have to deal with when you are alone, and that a suffocating, addictive relationship with another human being, filled with recriminations, jealousy and rage can be pure hell for everyone involved, including family and friends. At some point, this man has also had to face the fact that it is possible to feel lonely within a relationship - a devistating realization, as he can no longer even maintain the romantic fantasy that finding a partner one day will make him feel complete. So it’s not just “any” relationship that should be envied. The perpetual fantasy of people who are “so happy”, simply because they are in a relationship, is just as sinister as those who do have a mate and who project onto single people the “freedom” that comes from the imagined one-night stands every night of the week and the luxury of not having to share the bathroom - who forget and romanticize what it means to want a relationship and to be single and alone.

Part of getting serious about gay relationships begins with having compassion for ourselves whether we are in a romantic relationship or not, and understanding the barriers that sometimes get in the way of intimacy once a new relationship begins. Too often, just when we start to get close to one another, our pornography intrudes. The problem with the pornographic gaze (and I’m not talking about erotic videos of people running around naked, I'm talking about most of the images that pervade our culture, from downloaded internet porn to GQ and Vogue), is that some of us are looking for people in the world who don’t even exist. If you’re used to looking at images in magazines or on a television all day, then you may only be used to seeing airbrushed, digitally altered people who spend three to five hours a day on their bodies, who have personal chefs, trainers and weekly spa visits, and who are paid millions to be a size six or have washboard abs. They may be anorexic or bulimic and only able to keep their weight off with cocaine and amphetamines. After indulging in this orgy of synthesized glamour, we find ourselves extremely disappointed when our date takes off his or her clothes and we discover a human being. People in magazines don’t have liver spots, don’t lose their hair, or have cellulite. They rarely have hair on their backs, or breasts that sag, or wrinkles on their faces and necks, or love-handles, uncapped teeth, or adult acne. If the person we fall in love with doesn’t have a monster cock or a bubble butt, then what? What if our potential partner has chosen to avoid breast implants, liposuction, face-lifts or botox injections and she prefers just to age naturally?

As a recovering sex-addict, I understand from my many experiences in the bathhouses and cruising how easy it is to objectify someone until they are reduced to something functional that exists only for our pleasure, like an air-conditioner or a toaster-oven. Some of our outrage and despair in relationships comes from the fact that we discard people (and are discarded) because they have the audacity to expect to be loved despite their imperfections. If we only consider other people who share our shallow standards of beauty, then we know we are in serious trouble in the relationship if, due to an unexpected depression, we gain twenty pounds and feel our partner wants to break up because they refuse to be with anyone who “looks like that.” Insisting on physical perfection from everyone we’re in a relationship with eventually backfires. In the end, we are the ones who end up running to the bathroom to examine ourselves every fifteen minutes and find out if we are any less attractive than the last time we checked; we mutilate our bodies with excessive plastic surgery, addictive tanning or compulsive exercise, in order to feel worthy enough to live.

While every relationship has its challenges, gay relationships are tested in unique ways. You might have had my experience of running into people I haven’t seen in a while, and being asked, “Are you still with your boyfriend?” It is not customary for me to go up to my heterosexual friends, specifically those who are in long-term relationships or married and ask, “Are you still with your husband?” I’ve also known siblings, one gay, one straight, who were going through crises in their long-term relationships at the same time. When “Suzy and Jim” were thinking about separating and getting divorced, the family galvanized itself around the couple and began a campaign to keep their marriage together. But when “Paul and Michael” were thinking of breaking up after almost the same number of years together, disappointment was expressed, and Paul was told he’d find someone else one day. The unspoken assumption was that it was amazing the relationship had lasted as long as it had, as we all know how “gay men are.” An interracial gay relationship may have the added pressure of being more visible on the street and thus more vulnerable to racist and homophobic remarks or violence (I once read that given the social divide in America, if a white and black man of a certain age are seen walking together and they aren’t co-workers, they’re assumed to be homosexuals); a partnership between two women may not be taken seriously as family refuse to see them as anything more than “girlfriends” or “roommates” who are just keeping each other company until the right man comes along. Our own internalized homophobia can even rear its head in unconscious ways as we sabotage our gay relationships just when they are starting to take off. Cheating or having an affair, financially debting to a partner, working constantly so that there is never any time to spend together, can all be ways of affirming what we knew all along, having been told it all our lives by a homophobic society: gay relationships are inherent failures, and morally wrong, and love between two people of the same sex can’t possibly work.

We have to guard our gay relationships like found treasures, protecting them from homophobic family members, society’s low expectations, or even from our own corrupted thinking. Fighting for our relationships often means challenging our assumptions about the same sex. Gay women in relationships may have to overcome the social conditioning that tells women not to trust each other, to keep a man at the center of a relationship and let him take the lead, putting themselves last. Gay men who’ve been taught a paradigm of macho brutality for solving problems, may have to change their ideas about male competitiveness, communication and anger, for a partnership to survive at all.

I went on my first official date with a man months after I arrived at college. Justin was a graduate student a few years older than I who was also coming out of the closet; we’d met in our gay support group. Our evening was an adventure, to say the least, at times both humorous and terrifying. If Justin had been a woman, I would have had some cultural expectation of what to do, about who should pick up whom, pay for the meal and initiate our first kiss. Gay people aren’t the only ones who face this dilemma, by the way - there are heterosexual men and women challenging the cultural assumptions when they date, defying the rules. But for gay people the rules just aren’t there. A gay or lesbian rarely hears from his or her parents, “Now when your father and I had our first homosexual date….” It is important for us as gays to be patient with ourselves and with the dating process, especially when we have come out of the closet late in life. We need to forgive ourselves at 35 for having the awkwardness of a fifteen-year-old. For some of us, our grief in relationships comes from the fact that we weren’t allowed as adolescents in relationships to have the same trial and error as most heterosexuals have had.

Years ago, I got the best advice I ever had about relationships, which I’ve tried to apply ever since: I was told never to grab, and that if I wanted a relationship it was good practice to love everything I could – puppies, homemade lasagna, a favorite book, roller-skating, fresh flowers - and that the outpouring of love would eventually attract even more love in my life. The enchanted life was about letting things come to me that were mine; the “grabby” life was about manipulating everyone so I wouldn’t feel alone (and ending up alone because no one likes being manipulated). I was told to drop anything that might get in the way of my enjoying other people, like prejudice of any kind, racism, sexism, or even my own internalized homophobia and judgment of gays. I was told that there might be years in my life when I would be building something other than a long-term relationship, and that a partnership would come at exactly the right time for me. I also had to face the fact that the constant pursuit of a new romantic relationship was sometimes a subterfuge to keep from focusing on myself. Sometimes a relationship ends and we are immediately searching for the next one, while our close friends are thinking, “What Miss Thing needs to be looking for is a rehab so she can get her ass off crystal.”

I also knew that for whatever mysterious reason, some people struggled in the area of relationships more than others, as some did with financial security. I have friends who just say the word “money” and then practically find it on the street moments later, who go from promotions at work to pay raises, and who owned their own homes by thirty; while others like me find it a chore to balance a checkbook. On the other hand, these same people can walk into a party and complain that “no-one interesting” is there, sitting bored and alone, while other friends will know most of the names in the room within an hour, and have already exchanged a few phone numbers. I finally realized that the experience of finding a partner isn’t the same for everyone, and that for whatever reason I thought I wanted a relationship, there might be a deeper, more compelling psychological reason why I didn’t want one, a reason as simple as a four-year-old inside me who avoided relationships because he didn’t want to fight all the time like Mom and Dad did.

Recently, on an impulse, I saw the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Surrounded by parents and children, I found myself moved to tears by Freddie Highmore’s performance. When Charlie’s grandfather reminds him that there is no way that he will find one of the golden tickets to Willie Wonka’s factory because he is not privileged like the other children who’ve already won, his grandmother says, “Charlie, everyone has a chance.” Charlie later finds a ticket and offers to sell it to buy food for his hungry family; the same grandfather reminds him that money will always be there, but that he shouldn’t miss the opportunity to experience his dream. I felt foolish sitting there crying, but something in the story reminded me that our most valued commodity, what we need most to make our relationships work or even to pursue them at all, is not stocks or bonds, but innocence. The work of recovery is having the courage to search for the child who is waiting for us underneath the crushed and broken house of our past. Underneath all the addictions, underneath the sarcasm and cynicism that fueled the addiction, underneath the grief which led to the sarcasm, is a child who once trusted, loved and dreamed, and craved intimacy with others, a child who said, “Can I play with you guys?” before the “No’s” were heard; or who searched for a place to sit in the cafeteria and asked, “Is anyone sitting here?” before the reply came, “Sorry, that seat’s saved”; who drew pictures for Mom without being asked, just to make her happy. Somewhere in that open, vulnerable place, away from the cruelties of the world, there exists the possibility of true friendship, kindness and honesty, which is always at the core of any lasting love affair. It is easy to forget that the thing we are so often begging others to return to us, or give us in the first place, isn’t lost at all, just hidden, buried underneath jaws locked tight in anger, and heartbroken cries of, “If he makes even one mistake, he’s out.”

As there are billions of people on the planet meeting each other every day, the problem isn’t a lack of people, or even meeting each other, it’s staying together once we’ve met. Being serious about serious gay relationships means appreciating the ways we’ve been hurt as people, specifically as gay people. It means facing the fact that trying to have intimacy with another person when our psychological barriers are considerable, when we’re too fucked up and damaged to let anyone close to us, is like trying to reach the top of the Empire State Building using a stepladder. (We'd never question getting professional help if we had a broken leg, why should it be any different with a broken heart?) It’s about getting the support we need, and fully participating in our lives, not when the lover knocks at the door, but before she appears. It’s knowing when it’s okay to negotiate and make compromises in a relationship (choosing a restaurant for dinner, deciding what color to paint the kitchen, planning a vacation) and when it’s not (violence of any kind, untreated addiction, broken sexual agreements). It’s having the dignity to walk away from a destructive relationship and trusting that there is something better out there for us, while also knowing that if we end a relationship just because it’s “uncomfortable” (i.e. because it forces us to look at our pain and grow up) then we will keep leaving partners and having the same experience over and over again. As Marianne Williamson has said in her many lectures on relationships, each new relationship always picks up where the last one left off. It has been said that we really have only one relationship in our entire lives, no matter how many people we date or fall in love with, and that each partnership will always mirror back the love that we have for ourselves.

And finally, the most important key to any successful romantic relationship is this: make sure the two of you are never “insane” at the same time. There has to be one of you that doesn’t go into flashback mode during a fight, who avoids the door-slams, broken plates and silent treatment, and who can look at the other and say with clarity, “I’m sorry. I know we both made mistakes here and we’re both feeling angry and hurt. Can we please sit down and just talk about this?” Then one of you puts on the coffee and the other gets the cups and you each talk for fifteen minutes, uninterrupted, about what you are feeling in the moment. In my own relationship, I’m definitely a sulker who never forgets anything; fortunately, I also have a good eye for why things went wrong. My partner, who admits he’s sometimes too internal about his process, is good at forgiveness, apologizing first, and not holding grudges. It’s not a perfect recipe, but that, along with the help of two amazing therapists and a dog who barks whenever we start fighting, has gotten us through the last twelve years.

copyright Max Gordon

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