First of all, I’m so sorry this happened to you and how difficult dealing with this issue can be.
This is a tough one UMW, because there are no easy answers, and it’s difficult to talk about without… well, without folks having that exact knee-jerk reaction you talk about.
In fact, let’s talk about that reaction for a second, because it’s honestly part of the problem and a lot of folks don’t get why. You know all of this this already, UMW – as evidenced by the reactions you’ve gotten from the guys you’ve opened up to – but a lot of men still have a Law And Order: SVU view of rape and sexual assault: the stranger-leaping-out-of-the-bushes view or the idea that it’s something that could be avoided with sufficient preparation or situational awareness or whatever.
Part of why this view is still tenacious is because of how well it lines up with a lot of restrictive and reductionist views of masculinity; in this case, the EDC/I’m-prepared-for-everything/this-bad-thing-will-never-happen-to-me-because-I’m-ready-for-all-contingencies idea of Batman-esque hypercompetence and toughness. It reduces the idea of rape and rape culture to something you can punch instead of recognizing that it’s a systematic issue. It’s much easier to treat this as a “bad dudes are bad, good dudes will stop them” scenario than recognizing just how much society doesn’t even want to acknowledge most forms of sexual assault as assault or reckoning with how much stuff men were raised to see as normal if not good.
It’s very much in line with how many men will talk about how they’d do anything to keep their family safe… as long as “anything” means violence instead of things like “doing laundry and cooking to make sure everyone stays healthy, “drinking less alcohol and not keeping a gun in the house” or even “wearing a mask and get vaccinated so you don’t bring deadly viruses home with you”. It allows the illusion of toughness and protection without having to actually reckon with things that might require acknowledging unpleasant truths or require actually grappling with issues about how men are taught to view sex and relationships.
By that same token, there’re guys who are aware of the systematic issues… but they want to believe that they, personally, don’t have to wrestle with those issues. They want to believe that they’re one of The Good Ones and if you’re One Of The Good Ones, then you can’t possibly have been a a part of the system we’re all swimming in. But to a certain extent they know that they aren’t exempt from the system – none of us are, that’s why it’s literally systematic – so they want acknowledgement and validation of their inherent Good One membership. And to be fair, it’s kind of understandable; nobody likes thinking about how they were part of the Matrix after all and it’s deeply, deeply uncomfortable to face shit like that. So it tends to be a stage that many, many guys go through as they learn.
Of course, that same tendency to want to affirm their One Of The Good Ones status also means they end up centering themselves in that conversation instead of empathizing and listening and believing. Again: this, sadly, is something that we all have to unlearn, and the unlearning process can be deeply uncomfortable. And as we’ve seen: a lot of folks would rather pretend the problem doesn’t exist than have a moment of dealing with complex, discomforting and unpleasant cultural issues.
Then there’s the fact that… well, frankly, guys have a hard time dealing with emotions and vulnerability. This is, again, part and parcel of those toxic and reductive systems of masculinity; we’re taught that expressing emotions are bad and we tend to be deeply uncomfortable with other people’s emotional displays because we don’t know how to handle them. So while we may feel empathy for someone, we often don’t have the vocabulary or even the basic knowledge of how to express it or what to do in order to comfort or support someone. Especially when most of how we’re socialized is to be a “solver” or a “doer”; if we’re needed to do something then we have value. But since listening and believing isn’t something we’re taught as “doing”, that’s rarely the first thing we think of.
And to tie it back to the first part, because a lot of guys have the SVU idea of sexual assault, it’s easy to not realize how prevalent assault can be or how different people will process it. So not only do we not realize how many folks in our lives (including men) have experienced some form of sexual assault, someone not fitting into the mental image of “this is what a victim of sexual assault” looks like tends to create that framework that makes it so easy for dudes to demand that you “justify” your trauma response.
To be clear: none of this is to say “and this is why men are blameless for not knowing how to respond”, nor is it “ugh, men suck”. It’s to say that this is a systematic, even endemic issue that makes everything more complicated and even folks who don’t want to make things worse will often trip over their own good intentions. Some folks, like the ones who want you to “justify” your trauma, are assholes. Others are under-educated, and all of it fucking sucks and makes it harder for you and others in similar situations.
But that’s the “why” of it all; let’s talk about disclosure and talking about potential triggers and so on. Which is, again, where things get tough.
I brought up all of that stuff beforehand, UMW, because it’s also why there’re few easy answers. Now, to be clear: my not having better answers doesn’t mean that there aren’t better ones out there, and I want to invite folks – especially people who have experience in navigating these discussions successfully – to share their experienced and advice in the comments.
So here’s my view: unfortunately, I don’t think there’re many answers that don’t involve your having to do a certain amount of work.
As I said: men in general tend to not be raised with the emotional toolbags that women are. While this is improving, for a lot of us, it’s something we learn later in life. So the odds are good that, even when you’re dating men who want to support you in the ways you need, they don’t know what you need or even how to ask how best to support you. So I think that one of the things that may help is to tell them what you need up front. And I mean this literally; tell them precisely what you want from them and what is most helpful, before disclosing this information about yourself. Giving them the template from the start – “OK, I need to tell you about something important and these are the things I need from you…” – can be helpful, even welcomed.
Yeah, it sucks that you have to do a certain amount of teaching, even if it’s “if you want to support me, here’s how to do it”. As you say: it’s exhausting and it’s constant, and the tension between the emotional labor of it all and wanting to avoid triggers and have a pleasurable experience is very very real. But laying out the “here’s what I need from you, here’s what will be helpful, here’s what’s NOT helpful” will, at least, give you more insight into the people you want to date. The folks who respond well, who listen to what you tell them you need and apply it, are folks who are more likely to be caring and mindful of you and your needs. The guys who don’t, who respond demanding to know how you brought this on yourself… those are guys who are telling you that you don’t want to date them.
And to be sure, the ones who respond well aren’t a guarantee. There’re plenty of folks who say the right things and seem to do the right things and end up being shitheads anyway. But giving that initial heads up and saying “This is what I need from you”, at the very least, makes it a little easier for your future partners to support you in the ways that you need from them.
Like I said: it sucks, and honestly, I wish I had better advice for you than this. Again: I invite folks who’ve had experience in navigating these conversations to share their experiences and what’s worked for them.
In the meantime, I hope you have more success finding the right partners, UMW, the ones who can and do support you in the way you need.
That’s a frustrating experience, LaL. It can be difficult when it seems like a friendship has started to drift away and you have no idea why. It’s the sort of question that can really haunt you, especially when you have that lingering feeling that it’s your fault somehow and you’ve done something wrong but you don’t know what.
Now, without being a fly on the wall or observing everything like a relationship-focused Richard Attenborough documentary, it’s hard to say precisely what went wrong. However, having been where you are and having had similar experiences, I can at least make an educated guess.
I suspect that what happened is that you wanted more from her than she could give. You had a crush on her from the jump, and honestly, I suspect she knew this. Most people don’t have the poker face they think they do and give off “I’ve got a crush on you” vibes like Cupid blew up in Pripyat. So while you were doing your best to respect that she was in a relationship, I suspect your relationship with her was hitting levels of intimacy that started feeling a little more intense than she necessarily wanted or was comfortable with. One of the things you mention – that you noticed your mood was dependent on whether you heard from her or not – was probably pretty self-evident. Even under the best of circumstances, if someone starts feeling like a friend’s mood is entirely dependent on them? That can be pretty intense and off-putting, especially for a friendship that’s only a couple months old.
Now, I think that it’s significant that things started tapering off around the time she got engaged. I suspect that… well, to be blunt, but I suspect that the tone of your interactions changed, even if you didn’t realize it or intend for it to happen. One thing I’ve seen over and over again – and, again, been there, done that myself – is that when someone has a crush on a person in a relationship, there’s a certain amount of hope. Yes, they’re dating, but y’know, there’s relationships and then there’s relationships. When the person being crushed on gets serious with a partner, such as by getting engaged, the hope that they might still break up and be available dies. Yeah, engagements and marriage aren’t always forever, but there’s still an emotional difference between someone having a boyfriend and someone having a fiancé.
Often when this happens, there’s a shift in behavior from the person with the crush. They tend to be moodier or more easily upset and it doesn’t really take Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or Charles Xavier to figure out why. And once that happens… well, it gets much harder to want to maintain that friendship because it starts to feel a lot less like a friend with a (manageable) crush and more like someone who was hoping that they still had their shot and now they don’t. And for the person with the crush? Well, that’s when the intensity of things can change and there’s a desire to try to hold onto that hope or rekindle it somehow.
I mean, beyond your moods – something that she’d probably notice at work, at the very least – there’s the fact that you made her a comic for Christmas. Having made comics myself I can say that this is NOT something that one does on a whim; even mini-comics are pretty labor intensive. The fact that she got the comic and a card when your other friends and even family only got cards… well, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest detective to catch the vibe.
And then… well, then you kinda had a bit of a snit over not having more of her attention. That, I suspect, was the final straw. The combination of the not-hidden crush, and, bluntly, wanting more from her than your friendship warranted at that point and making a fuss about not getting it is what likely made her decide that it was time to start letting this relationship go. Giving the reasons why she didn’t respond as quickly as she used to was a way of giving socially plausible reasons that you could accept without her calling out your crush – a confrontation she almost certainly didn’t want to have. So, instead, she chose the fade-away. Is this the best way of handling the situation? No. Is it understandable why she chose it? Yeah, unfortunately. Like I said: I’ve been there and done that and the “look, I know you’re into me and it’s never going to happen” convo very rarely goes well for anyone. So rather than deal with the possible fallout – especially seeing as you two are co-workers – she chose the less-confrontational path in hopes that things would just fade into the past.
Unfortunately, it leaves you in a shitty place, emotionally. And I empathize; I’ve felt that way more times than I care to think about. It always hurts, and it always leaves you feeling like shit because it feels like it should have been avoidable. But there’s a reason why hindsight is 20/20: it’s a lot easier to see how the dominoes fell after you got the end result. When you’re neck-deep in the moment and you’ve never dealt with a situation like that before… well, you’re usually too close to see it and don’t always know what to look for in the first place.
My suggestion? You need to let this go. There’s not really much you can do here that isn’t going to just make things more complicated and certainly nothing in your current state that’s not going to just make things worse for you. The best thing you can do here is to treat this as something to learn from so that you don’t make the same mistakes in the future – something, I might add, it took me a few more failures and heartbreaks-in-miniature to learn.
But the other thing you need to do is forgive yourself. Yes, you could’ve handled things better, but you were making the best decisions you could at the time. Now that you know better, you will make different decisions going forward. The past you – the one who made these mistakes – should be seen as someone who, as the sage says, loved not wisely but too well. Forgive yourself for that, resolve to learn from it and move forward, a little sadder but wiser for it.
There will be others. You’ll be ok.
All will be well.