Healing, “Couple-Dating,” And Tips For A Baby Queer
by Lindsay King-Miller
I really recently broke up with my partner of two+ years. I’m in college now and we’d been dating since senior year of high school, back when I thought I was a cishet girl. He’s an agender trans guy (who IDed as binary back then). We basically spent some really important and formative years together and it was awesome to grow with each other. I came out as bi about a year into our relationship after realizing that I was into girls too, and eventually both of us came to terms with being NB. So this was all well and good.
I’ve never talked to anyone about this besides therapists, but once when he and I were together (somewhere around a year in? the details are fuzzy) he sexually assaulted me. Or raped me? I don’t know but either way it hurts. I’m wary to label it harshly because it was one of those things where he stopped when I asked him to, but there was a period before I was able to vocalize where I just froze up and kind of went numb. He had been smoking weed but I was sober. I remember crying immediately after and feeling really bad. We talked about it, he was completely horrified and apologized. I guess he thought I would break up with him but I didn’t. We didn’t have sex for awhile until it felt ok for me again. He asked a lot about how I felt which was good but I still had a hard time saying how I felt or what I wanted. The whole issue didn’t really start bothering me until halfway through my first year at college. I started to get really upset and easily triggered by memories of it. Things were pretty hard and I started seeing a therapist. He and I kept communicating. Sex and intimacy were still a challenge for me though. We both continue to struggle with depression and anxiety, although mine has cropped up more recently.
Our breakup has come after kind of a long and painful few months. Back in April (?) he landed in the hospital after taking some kind of unholy cocktail of alcohol and pills while at my parent’s house. It was a really traumatizing event for both of us and it shocked me into the decision to put our relationship on a break. This was a difficult choice for me to make because I really cared about our relationship and was worried about leaving him in a vulnerable state, but the truth was that I was too vulnerable to continue it. I was thinking we could use the time apart to heal and come back together after he went through some rehab, which we talked about. However, the whole break thing didn’t go as I had planned. It was super hard on both of us not being together and at one point I told him I couldn’t be in contact any more. It didn’t last too long because he contacted me soon after because he was still confused about “what we were,” which is understandable. This type of weird communication went on for awhile and I feel like I struggled to “make a choice” to be with him. I was afraid for him, myself, what my parents thought, etc. I felt a lot of pressure during this time.
Even since before the break, we had been having intimacy issues (mismatched sex drives, me being uncomfortable, him worrying about me, his own self-consciousness and dysphoria) so this was something I worried about too. During our time apart, I briefly started hooking up with a lady acquaintance of mine, which was pretty nice but I didn’t consider it a big deal. When boy contacted me again and we were talking more seriously about how to make a relationship work, he asked me if I had seen anyone and I told him. He considered it cheating, and while I see now that I didn’t properly communicate the “rules of the break” I don’t agree with him. I still feel awful because I know it hurt him, but it really seemed like the right thing to do at the time. I was kind of longing for an experience with a woman and an experience removed from trauma. It wasn’t perfect, but it made me feel a bit more like a normal person.
SO after all that, we agreed to get back together and do our best. I was (and still am) very messed up over all these events so it didn’t take long for me to feel bad again. He was afraid I wasn’t attracted to him and I was afraid he was right. He was racked with guilt over what happened, but I was more concerned with my current needs. I told him this many times but I could see it was still bothering him. Now I have all these doubts and worries if I can ever have a “normal” relationship with sex and intimacy and even touch in general. A lot of the times I get sensory overload and don’t have the emotional energy it would take for me to have sex. He is very attracted to me and I feel bad not having the same feelings. I knew this wasn’t working but I surprised myself when we were together the other day by breaking up with him (after having a panic attack in which I fell onto the ground twice, and before having to spend two more days together). Another amazing decision by me! We’re not together now but he still talks to me a lot and I worry about him and myself. I feel wrong a lot. Like there’s something off about me. I’m thinking I may not be attracted to men at all, but I feel wrong associating him with men because he’s agender. I also worry about telling him that and “confirming” his suspicions of not being attractive. I think I might be gay but I’m really scared about it. More so than when I came out as bi, this feels like more of a big deal. I think I have some internalized things to work out, and I guess a lot of it has to do with my past relationship and with how I regard intimacy in general. I’m used to colloquially calling myself gay but now that I think I am Gay it’s scary. I feel kind of sad that this change might be related to my trauma, but there’s objectively nothing wrong with that. And I might be a lesbian but can I be an agender lesbian woman? This all seems like a lot, on top of my rapidly declining mental health/breakup situation.
In short, what do I do, QC? Am I wrong? How do I get support? How do I heal from all this?
You heal by healing. It’s not a process you can speed up or skip over. When you have an injury, you just keep treating it gently until it begins to feel better. Then you start using the injured part again, a little at a time, not pushing yourself too hard or too fast. That’s what you need to do. While you can’t exactly point to a body part and say “this is where it hurts,” I think it’s fair to say that the injury was sustained by your emotions and your ability to trust, so take it easy on them for a while. Don’t rush into another relationship. Don’t throw yourself into intimacy, physical or emotional, because you feel like you owe it to the person you’re with. If casual, no-big-deal lady hookups are your speed right now, that’s great. If no sex at all seems like the best way to recuperate, go for it. Do whatever you need to in order to take the pressure off your injury, so time can work its magic.
But as you’re working on that (make no mistake, going easy on yourself can be hard work), remember: A wound won’t heal right if you don’t remove whatever did the damage. Skin might eventually close around a piece of broken glass, but the pain will never go away until you dig that shit out of there. In your case, what hurt you was your ex, and I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to move on from this trauma until you move on from him. You’ve tried to heal while staying together. You’ve tried to do it while staying friends. It’s not working. The two of you have too much painful history, too many layers of complication and distrust, to ever get back whatever might once have been simple and good between you.
I believe you will find your way back to a healthy relationship with sex and intimacy — whatever that might look like to you — but I don’t think you can do that with your ex hanging around, making you rehash every painful moment of your relationship and second-guess every choice that you’ve made. I think the two of you need to take a break — maybe a permanent one — from being in touch with each other. Work on figuring out what you want and need without trying to navigate his needs as well. Your mental health is your responsibility; his is not.
Go to therapy. Spend time alone. Mourn the relationship you lost, if you need to, but don’t try to get it back — the moment for that is gone. When you feel like you might be ready, give dating (or hooking up or whatever sounds best to you) another shot. Don’t expect it to be easy at first; putting yourself in intimate situations again may be triggering, and you may feel that panic rising up again. Don’t push yourself into anything that makes you uncomfortable, but keep checking in with yourself to make sure that your past trauma isn’t preventing you from pursuing what you want.
And more than anything else, I want you to know and repeat and believe that there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing “off” about you. It’s okay to not be attracted to someone who hurt you. It’s okay for your orientation to change over time, either as a result of or independent from trauma. It’s okay to identify as an agender lesbian (my partner the genderqueer dyke gives you permission). It’s okay to prioritize your own needs. It’s okay to heal. Trust yourself. You’re going to be fine.
I have been with my girlfriend for 10 years (we met in college-we’re in our 30s) and we’re getting married this winter. We’ve been through a lot together and I can’t imagine growing old and gray with anyone else. We have never had fellow queer women friends, only acquaintances, and a few queer male friends- which is to say that we sometimes feel a little out of the loop, community-wise.
However, in the last year, we’ve become fast friends with another couple (both women) who have also been in an LTR and also plan on getting married some day. They are really spectacular people we’d be friends with no matter what and a bonus is having people to discuss being gay with (without needing to break out a whole primer on LGBT basics). It has been super liberating and refreshing, and we’ve been having long conversations about life, who we are, where we’ve been…We’ve gotten really close really quickly, feeling equally close to both of them (what are the odds?!) They’ve come to my girlfriend’s family’s functions, we text all day about how we feel lucky to have found them, hang out with them at least twice a week until the wee hours of the night (to the detriment of my waking up for work), and we half-joke, half-not about having a house together later in life. All of which makes it feels like we’re in those first heady months of dating new people, but in couple form. It’s so strange, but great.
I guess I’m not even sure what my question is — except for: what is this? One of the things on my mind is: can this last? Are there people out there who can maintain such close couple friendships long-term? I’m trying not to overthink it. But I worry what if we get too close and things get weird? How close is too close? Or what if this closeness were new and great? (I know these are questions I should know for myself but I don’t…) I’m basically the worst at intimacy in any relationship so I feel really out of my element here.
Do you have any tips or pointers for this type of thing? How to keep the balance? Any additional random thoughts you have would be amazing! I really need an impartial human’s advice.
Oh my gosh, you’re totally couple-dating them! I love couple-dating! It’s basically all the fun of dating — getting to know new people, doing fun activities together, swooning over how cool they are — without the stress of trying to figure out how to get their pants off. (I mean, unless that’s part of your friendship too, in which case no judgment but you are WAY less likely to stay friends in the long term.)
Don’t waste another second stressing whether this relationship is okay. It is totally normal and cool and awesome. It’s less normal than having a solo BFF, but only because it’s considerably harder to find — in order to couple-date successfully, you and your partner have to both like both of the other people approximately equally, and they have to feel the same about you. If you’re tight with person A and your lady is tight with person B, you find your double dates splitting into two concurrent but separate friend hangouts. If you both like person A better, person B ends up feeling like a fourth wheel (but an unnecessary fourth wheel, like on a tricycle). The chemistry for true couple love is a rare thing indeed, but you’ve found it, so cherish it.
To keep your relationship alive, do the same things you would do for an individual with whom you were enjoying a new and exciting friendship, just squared. Spend time together, but give each other space too. Enjoy the new things you learn about each other. Don’t put too much pressure on having crazy adventures all the time — it’s great to just chill out with beers and board games too. And while moving in with friends you love can be awesome, cohabitation can also fuck up a friendship beyond repair, so don’t rush into buying that house.
All too often, our culture reinforces the idea that romantic love is the only kind on which you can build a stable lifelong relationship. It’s not true. Friends are just as important as romantic partners, and with work and communication there’s no reason the awesomeness you’re experiencing can’t last the rest of your lives.
The essentials: I am a cisgender bisexual woman living alone and tentatively yet optimistically venturing into dating, kinda sorta for the first time. I have been a serial monogamist, constant flirt, and intermittent cheat since my sophomore year of high school. I recognized that I was bi/queer in college with the help of my to-this-day-still-best-friend, came out to my mom (to which she responded, “I think you just like kissing girls, honey”), and proceeded to get into codependent relationships with men who were either children of alcoholics and/or alcoholics for years. So, relationships didn’t equal good times to me — they recreated the abusive circumstances me n’ my low self-esteem thought I deserved.
These days, I stick with therapy, meditate, practice yoga, keep to my budget…I’m adulting well. And to affirm, test, destroy, and rebuild that, I decided that I would like start dating people. As in doing activities other than sex with a person I’m interested in. I’m practicing with boundaries, asking for the phone numbers I actually want, and hanging out with fun and fierce feminists who celebrate femme visibility. I’m practicing different techniques of loving myself/smashing the patriarchy like not shaving, leaving behind the hormonal birth control, and loving the softness of weight gain as I approach 30.
Basically, I feel like I am going through a second, far more profound and self-aware, puberty. I’m attracted to new kinds of people, my body is changing, and I have lady boners all day long over Samira Wiley and other “smart + sensitive = sexy” women whom I daydream about being my girlfriend.
As a person at these intersections of identity and hormones, I could use the guidance of a super gay guru. I could use hints from a bisexual bodhisattva. Pretend I’m baby queer just starting high school. Pretend I’m you when you first saw Eliza Dushku. Pretend you have a time machine and you can tell your young self whatever would have made the coming out years simpler, more authentic, or just slightly less awkward. This could fall on a spectrum from reading lists of LGBTQIA+ literature, poetry, and history to “Which haircut clearly signals that I’d like queer folk to flirt with me?”
OMG BISEXUAL BODHISATTVA, I am so mad that I didn’t think of that and use it as the title for this column and my book and possibly my firstborn child.
Okay, the first thing I want myself to have known earlier, and that I want you to know now, is that it’s fine to be bisexual. It is fine! It’s awesome! Liking people of more than one gender is completely legitimate, and you have absolutely no responsibility to coddle, educate, or even put up with anyone who tells you differently. You are not anyone’s learning opportunity. If someone tells you that you should pick a side, or that you’re just a straight girl who wants attention, or that you’re just slutty, or that you’ll grow out of it, or whatever, don’t date that person. You’re not going to open their mind, you’re just going to feel more and more demeaned by them until you can’t stand it anymore. You don’t even have to be friends with bi-erasing jerks, although if they’re in your workplace or your immediate family it might be worthwhile to spend a few minutes trying to bring them into the light.
Dating casually after a long time as a serial monogamist is challenging, but it sounds like you’re doing a great job of taking care of yourself and figuring out what you’re looking for. On that note, pretty much just keep on keeping on. Bear in mind, of course, that what you’re looking for might change. Someone who seems ideal for you at the start might not turn out to be a great fit. Always walk away from a situation that doesn’t feel right, and especially walk away from anyone who doesn’t respect your boundaries. Listen for telltale clues like trying to persuade you to do something you’ve made it clear you don’t want to do, even if it’s as simple as insisting you order dessert when you already said you’re full. People who ignore “no” in trivial situations don’t suddenly become big on boundaries when it matters.
Be aware that there’s lots of sex in the world, and you don’t need to get horizontal with anyone you feel lukewarm about just because you’re afraid you might not get a better offer. You’ll get lots of better offers. One of the greatest nights of my life was when I had the shining epiphany: I wish I were at home masturbating, and then made that dream a reality. It may sound obvious, but that realization changed my whole approach to sex and dating. Never put yourself through a sexual encounter that’s not as much fun as what you can manage by yourself.
If you haven’t had a lot of queer friends or spent a lot of time in queer communities before, you might be unprepared for the reality that a whole lot of gay and bi ladies will at one time or another sleep with their friends. It’s okay to get down with someone you like even if you don’t want to be girlfriends, but make sure to communicate your expectations before the orgasms commence, especially if it’s a friendship that’s important to you. If she wants to be more than friends and you don’t, or vice versa, keep your pants on.
Read all the queer books you can get your hands on. You won’t love all of them. Some of them will, in fact, annoy the bejesus out of you and make you wonder why they’re so popular in the first place (I’m looking at you, The Price of Salt). But they’ll still help you get a sense of your own place in the context of LGBTQ history and culture. As you make more queer friends, be sure to raid their bookshelves, raid their movie collections, follow their Spotify playlists, and use that as a jumping-off point to find art you relate to and love. Oh, and definitely read James Baldwin. Read every single thing James Baldwin ever wrote.
And finally, be bold. Go after what you want. I don’t regret any of the times I made a move on someone and was rebuffed, even though sometimes it was painful and embarrassing. I do regret experiences I missed out on because I was afraid to pursue them. You’d be amazed at how many people will respond positively to a polite “I’d really like to kiss you, does that sound good?” But always take no for an answer, be gracious, and move on. There are other mouths in the sea.
I’ve known for a while now that I’m asexual, and I’m cool with it as a private self-identifier. My romantic drive is pretty low (I’ve teetered on calling myself aromantic, but it doesn’t fit), but since I’m mildly attracted to both guys and gals in a talking-and-sometimes-cuddling way, I tend to call myself bi and leave it at that.
For about a year after finding my orientation, I felt this intense pressure to tell my conservative, homophobic, completely bigoted parents I’m bi. It was like this all-consuming, can’t-think-of-anything-else flood in my mind that was completely foreign, because I’ve never in my life wanted to talk to them about romantic or sexual stuff — I’ve always wanted to keep my social life and my family life separate, and that felt completely comfortable. So I told my mom, and it went (surprisingly, almost scarily) well; the only thing she asked was that I tell my dad. This was almost a year ago, I still haven’t told him, and I’m back in the headspace of not wanting to or feeling the need. My mom hasn’t brought it up since. I know that, when I do tell him, things will be nothing but tense, and I’ll end up resenting him for the views that will fully apply to me when he knows; unlike my mom, his opinions are consistent, vocal, and very hateful. I almost feel like there’s no need to bring it up, since my mom’s never mentioned it again, and I have problems with thudding guilt when they disagree with my beliefs/the way I live my life (thanks to a childhood of being my father’s twin, in attitude and mindset, until I began thinking and acting for myself).
Do I let this go, and just see if my mom brings it up again? Do I wait until I have a girlfriend (though I have no desire to date anyone right now, and feel like that approach is personally cowardly)? How do I not feel like a weak person for not making my sexuality public, even though I don’t want to tell him in the first place? Do I just suppress what is honestly only occasional anxiety and wait for time to make a decision for me?
There is no right or wrong time to come out. You should do it if you want to, and not do it if you don’t want to. It really is that simple. If you’re afraid that discussing your bisexuality with your dad will hurt your relationship more than it will take a weight off your emotions, it’s absolutely fine to keep it to yourself. If, on the other hand, holding the truth inside is more than you can stand, it’s not your responsibility to protect his feelings; you don’t need to feel guilty because he’s a hateful juicebox. Coming out should be about you and your needs.
Above all, you don’t have to come out because your mom wants you to. Your life is yours, not hers. You know when you feel safe and when you feel like sharing. You’re not weak for waiting until the time is right. Making your own decisions, even when someone is putting pressure on you, is the very definition of strength. If you’re worried that she’ll out you to your dad before you’re ready, it’s probably a good idea to make sure she understands that you would consider that a breach of your trust. If, on the other hand, you have confidence in her ability to keep it to herself, it’s fine to continue on as you have been, until and unless you decide it’s time to disclose.