I am not a good communicator when it comes to feelings and emotions. I have always been someone who plays her cards close to her chest. My mother once said of me, “she doesn’t like to show her feelings, but she feels very deeply”. I was about 20 years old at the time, and my mother, aunt and myself were standing in the kitchen of my aunt and uncle’s holiday home. I don’t remember how the conversation had led to the topic of my emotional distance, but I recall being struck at how clearly my mother had identified this part of my personality; a part that I hadn’t as yet recognised for myself. I came to realise how right she was; I’ve been called “cold”, or an “Ice Queen” more than once.
I don’t know precisely when I shut off my emotional expression, or what it is that keeps me from communicating how I feel. In the course of working with a therapist last year, I identified a defining moment in which I expressed how I felt and was shot down and felt utterly rejected, but given that this event happened about a year after my mother’s canny observation, I suspect that my emotional distance and uncommunicative behaviour must have started much earlier.
That defining moment, then. I was about to turn 22, and I was enjoying a summer holiday fling with a former flame (I’ll refer to him as “P”). We now lived in different parts of the country, and hadn’t seen each other since we’d broken up three years previous. (Well, I say broke up, but in keeping with my apathetic approach to communicating it was more like a drifting apart; not having sex, not seeing each other regularly, not calling each other on the phone, until suddenly one day we just weren’t anymore. It didn’t really bother me too much at the time.)
We’d since rekindled a bit through the old fashioned art of letter-writing. Snail-mail style; that’s right kids, Windows 95 had only just been released, and emails/texts were not as ubiquitous as they are these days. We made plans to see each other, he to visit me in my neck of the woods when he was visiting some relatives, and me to catch up with him when I was down his way visiting my best friend.
The first evening we saw each other again, we went to dinner, then parked on a hillside and fooled around in his rental car (I was starting university soon and was living with my parents, so my place wasn’t an option) . The second night, we drove an hour and a half to his hotel on the coast, fucked, then he drove me back home.
We saw each other every day of that week, then he flew home in one direction, and I flew off for a couple of days with friends before heading to my bestie’s place and back into P’s bed. A lot of sex happened during the next couple of weeks, and it was better than I’d remembered it being the first time around. The first full night we spent together, we snuggled together after a mind-blowing fuck that I still remember fondly today, and he kissed me and told me that he’d missed me and missed us holding each other like this. Sweet, no? My heart fluttered, and I felt the possible hint of an impending fall into the crazy little thing called love.
Then, one afternoon we had sex on his single bed, then went out into the garden for me to enjoy a post-coital cigarette. He wasn’t a smoker, but he sat and held my hand, stroked my hair – y’know, the classic afterglow kind of stuff. And then I made the huge mistake of opening my big fat mouth and letting feelings come out.
I don’t remember what I said, but he rejected any idea of my (re)burgeoning feelings being returned. He wasn’t rude or nasty about it, but I started to cry. He said it was probably a good idea for us to “cool it” for the rest of my visit. I felt completely shut down. I couldn’t really do anything but nod; I had opened up, communicated my feelings, and now I was hurting. And I’d fucked everything up. Why did I have to go and make everything weird?
We hugged each other, and I remember clinging to him and saying, “I don’t want to let go of you.” I don’t remember what he said, or how we parted that day. I just remember feeling like an observer, trapped behind my own eyes and looking out onto an alien world.
However I managed it, though, I processed the hurt over the next day or so. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that I bottled it up and pushed it way, way down. It wouldn’t have worked anyway, I told myself. We live in different parts of the country, he’s got his job here, and I’m about to start my first semester at a new university back home. This was always just going to be a summer thing. I resolved to enjoy the rest of my holiday without him.
Nice idea, JG, but it didn’t work like that. P came around to tell me that his mate, M, and M’s girlfriend had been given the keys to a family member’s beach shack, and did we want to come along? I wasn’t quite clear what this meant or why he was inviting me. I thought we were “cooling it”? But I didn’t ask, and I don’t know whether that was because I just wanted to keep fucking him, or that I hoped he had changed (or that I could change) his mind about something more. Or perhaps I just fancied a couple of days by the seaside? I don’t remember now.
Needless to say, halfway into the drive to the beach house, he reached for my hand and was stroking my skin and interweaving his fingers with mine (“this is why I’m glad I’m driving an automatic these days”, he’d said). Okay, confusing mixed messages, but I didn’t know how to ask him what he was doing, so I went along with it. That night, we fucked for hours, and it was as though the whole weepy breakdown of a few days previous had never happened. I really couldn’t figure out where I was and how to navigate this confusing situation.
One thing was different now, though. He became rather cruel and cutting in his remarks during those days at the beach house. Most memorably, he compared my figure unfavourably with M’s girlfriend’s; “How come you don’t look like that in a bikini?” he’d smirked. I felt hurt and humiliated, but I just took it, and kept my mouth shut, while he kissed the back of my neck and ran his hands over my body. The body he’d just insulted….
I didn’t understand what was happening during those days at the beach house and, in retrospect I’m so angry at my younger self for not standing up for herself and for not being assertive enough to simply ask, “Listen, can we talk about what we’re doing here? Can we negotiate the ground rules so we’re both clear and nobody has to risk being hurt?”
But instead I did my usual trick of clamming up and avoiding an awkward conversation and, in the process, I made myself a doormat. He didn’t want anything more, he’d made that plain, and yet I’d come away with him only days later, and I was letting him fuck me again. And, it seemed that to avoid any doubt about where things stood “feelings-wise”, he used put-downs, keeping me in place and, perhaps, trying to prevent me from falling in love with him (again?). He needn’t have bothered, really: though I never told him, he’d hurt me irreparably. We kept on shagging up until the day I flew back home, but that was the last time.
We saw each other again a few years later when my best friend was getting married (and, I guess I should tell you in the interest of full disclosure, my best friend was his little sister.) The first night I arrived, I waited up almost all night hoping he’d come to my room and fuck me. Just sex, not anything else, as by that time I’d established that I wasn’t really cut out for long-term relationships and /or monogamy. When he never turned up that night, or the next, I decided it was probably for the best. When, on the night of the wedding, he drunkenly pressed himself up against me, grabbed my breasts and pushed me up against the wall, I firmly said “no, I don’t want to anymore.”
He was clearly angry and frustrated, and although I don’t think he would have forced himself on me, I do count myself lucky that his very tall, male cousin, a kind and decent guy I’d known for years, walked into the room and calmly helped to diffuse the awkward moment. P stormed off home and we’ve never spoke since. I was informed later that he’d been telling people that I’d begged him to “get back with” me that night after the wedding, but that he’d told me that it wouldn’t be a good idea, and besides, he didn’t want me anymore. Well, bollocks to him. I was past caring at that point.
Frankly, I can’t really blame P for losing respect for me. To be honest, I lost all respect for myself. And it wasn’t until the whole saga came up in therapy that I realised how instrumental that experience was in cementing my reluctance to communicate my feelings. Telling someone how you feel, I decided, just gives them ammunition with which to hurt you. Better to keep your mouth shut, go with the flow, and never let yourself get attached. If you don’t care so much, then you won’t feel so bereaved when things end. But, inevitably, one of the big contributing factors to these endings was my inability to engage in conscious communication with another human being.
My current poly-lover, let’s call him “H”, is a far nicer man than P ever was, and he “gets” me. When I clam up (and I do clam up, often), he prods me; never aggressively, but always insisting I respond. He knows me well enough to know the various reasons why I do occasionally shut-down; I may be tired, stressed, sliding into a depressive episode, or afraid to speak my mind because I don’t want to risk fucking “us” up. Whatever the reason, he always assures me that he wants to know, and that I should feel able to tell him anything. I’m trying, I am, but I am still entirely reliant on his cues. When it comes to instigating a serious conversation about feelings and emotions, I’m just not there yet, and I’m still a bit of an Ice Queen.
But I’m working on thawing out.