RUNNING IN CIRCLES
That’s all it is really.
Women and men terrified,
Of openness and honesty.
Seemingly necessary games.
The grand illusion being,
If you play the right game,
You won’t get hurt,
Or you’ll avoid hurting.
Frightened children in adult guise,
Playing out lessons
Picked up in childhood from the (apparently) wise.
Mother teaches daughter;
“Don’t make it too easy, you’ll give the wrong impression”.
Father teaches son;
“Treat em all rough, they love it really”.
“But I thought you were ‘walking’ this way?!”
“Well actually I was ‘running’ in circles”
The sad thing is,
We’re all, in the end, harmless.
And we all want the same thing,
To reach into the rich pools of someone’s eyes
And scoop up a handful of their soul.
To stand and gaze in awe,
At their precious vulnerability.
And to tenderly caress and cherish,
The frightened new born babe,
They’ve never really left behind.
Raised in a working class family in the fifties and early sixties, sex or even any reference to intimacy between people was a taboo subject. In particular it was a taboo subject around children and young people, usually only hinted at in whispered conversations. I was left very much to my own devices trying to make sense of adult relationships.
My mid teens were particularly difficult. I didn’t seem to fit in with my own peer group. I had very little in common with young men of my own age and disliked their attitude and behaviour towards the opposite sex. Young women I found frightening and more often than not unbelievably cruel and hard. Like many young people I tended to mix (if I mixed at all) with people older than myself. I think I simply felt safer with them than with people of my own age.
I became very much an observer of human behaviour rather than a participant. At social gatherings I would watch and listen to everything that went on between people in the group. Much of the time I was appalled at the behaviour of the men in the group, particularly towards the women. What surprised me though was that generally the women appeared to respond to their behaviour in favourable ways. I was witnessing men successfully establishing intimate relationships with women, using methods that I deemed to be totally lacking in respect for the woman. I later learned that this behaviour was often referred to as “Game playing” (flirting?) and that many people simply saw it as part of the process of establishing contact with someone. I simply couldn’t come to terms with this and decided to try and relate to women in a much more open and honest way. The result was that I became very successful in establishing friendships with women. Now while this in many ways was a very rewarding and satisfying position to be in, it seemed to have the drawback that it then became even more difficult to establish anything of a more intimate relationship with anyone that I felt attracted to. Looking back I think I was in a similar position to many Gay men who have a wide circle of women friends simply because they are seen as a safe man to have as a friend. The relationship is seen as unlikely to develop into anything more emotionally complicated.
Twenty years on, society seemed to be in the same position. I would watch adults in their late thirties behaving in the same way as the teenagers I’d watched all those years ago, apparently still being successful in establishing some form of sexual or other intimate contact. Occasionally I would talk to women who I viewed as being quite clear thinking and very strong on feminist issues who would express their despair at men’s behaviour and attitudes towards women, only at some point later to witness the same women responding favourably to the very behaviour in a man that they had condemned in their conversation with me.
I became increasingly confused over the whole issue. It appeared to me that I was simply becoming increasingly isolated and lonely because of my refusal to relate to people in ways that I simply saw as dishonest. Everyone around me appeared to be getting on with the business of enjoying life using social skills that I had long ago rejected as being highly questionable.
It took one of my fellow counsellors, a woman I hadn’t seen for many years but whose thinking I had a great deal of respect for, to throw some sort of light onto the whole picture. In her view, while my thinking and behaviour over the years may well have been correct, I was expecting women to respond to that positively when their own life experience had taught them to expect particular behaviour from men which they had learned to respond to in specific ways that they had learned would be successful. My behaviour was simply throwing them off balance.
This fitted in with some of the information I’d had from other women. My first long term partner who had initially refused my advances later told me that it wasn’t because she hadn’t found me attractive but because (in her view) I had been far too blunt and cold in my approach. It seemed that she liked the process of seduction, complete with all the game playing even though she knew that it wasn’t a terribly straight- forward way of going about things.
Other insights began to help me form a picture as to the difficulties that people had in breaking out of the socially accepted norms. One of my major frustrations with women stemmed from the fact that very few of them ever, it appeared to me, took the initiative in establishing contact with men. It seemed to me that it was nearly always men who took the risk of rejection in this respect.
I could never be sure whether a woman was simply looking for a sexual encounter without any other commitment or whether she was looking for something more long term. I later learned that even if a woman simply wanted sex, she couldn’t admit to that for fear of being labelled promiscuous.
I was confronted with a minefield that I had simply avoided for many years and now felt that the only way I was going to change was by working my way through it step by hesitant step. I decided to take the view that sex was as much a need and desire for women as it was for men since if that wasn’t the case we probably would have died out as a species long ago. This may seem blatantly obvious logic, but because of my sexually cloudy upbringing and my equating of sex with sexism in later life I was pretty confused about this. I also decided that if I felt sexually attracted to someone but unsure as to whether or not there might be any other elements to the relationship I would act on that attraction instead of censuring it as simply being sexist.
One of my counsellors took the view that it was the responsibility of women to put men clearly in the picture as to the nature of the attraction for them and that I could trust myself to respond appropriately to that feedback. She believed that in order to break my old patterns of behaviour it would be necessary to go contrary to them in nearly every aspect of my life. Instead of sitting on the edge watching and wondering why people behaved in the way they did, I needed to join in and engage in the flirting, the bawdy conversation and the risque’ comments, quite simply because it was a sad fact of life that the majority of people in society needed that behaviour because it was what they were used to and comfortable with. Anything outside of that was simply either off-putting or downright threatening. It would probably feel extremely uncomfortable and clumsy initially, trying to change my behaviour, but with practice it would eventually become second nature. I could carry on waiting for people to change to suit my way of thinking, but I’d probably be waiting an awfully long time. If I found myself sexually attracted to someone then I could let them know that and be bold and audacious in the way I went about it. They would pretty soon let me know it if they weren’t going in the same direction. Thus my journey began.
I’d been a regular at this place for some years. Most days I would take my lunchbreaks there. A light, airy cafe, comfortable and cheerful, frequented by students and the staff of the offices and shops in the area. The owner of the cafe also displayed the work of local artists and craftspeople, so it was a popular meeting place for them too. This was where I saw Susan for the first time. One of the smaller boutique type studio shops in the vicinity, that had been empty for some time, was being re-opened as an arts and crafts shop and Susan was the new tenant. She began to wander into the cafe for her own lunchbreaks.
Initially I didn’t pay much attention to her. She was roughly my age, slim, petite, attractive and very feminine but I wasn’t aware of any form of attraction apart from something vaguely physical, and I had learned to censor that as just being sexist. I had an interest in art and craftwork myself, so I began to wander into her shop to see whatever was new on the shelves and occasionally exchange a few words with Susan about some of the work on display.
A whole year passed before I got to the point of wondering if I could move things beyond the purely platonic. By this time I was aware of a whole set of other feelings that were beginning to surface in relation to Susan. A combination of fear and attraction that I wrote of in my notes:
“Terrified of yet drawn to seemingly strong, intelligent,
independent women. Feel out of my depth, inferior, (classism?)
seem to be mindful of my language, minding my Ps and Qs, see her
as middle class. I ache to get close, sex doesn’t seem important,
but desperate to make love. School seems to be one clue.
I always saw girls as being more confident than myself. I actually
feel about sixteen again with all the negative vibes.
Find it difficult to distinguish between present situation and past
pain ie, do I really feel anything for this person or am I just reaching
for the unreachable and just feeling the inevitable frustration?
All I know is it hurts, who does she remind me of? I feel clumsy, stupid,
inadequate, like a little boy. So tired of being lonely. So desperate
to get it right!”
I took these notes into counselling with me and in the middle of talking about my schooldays I burst into tears as I blurted out the phrase, “They were so cruel to me!” I suffered terribly at the hands of the girls of my own age. A few days later I wrote again:
“Feeling small compared to Susan , like sixteen or even
smaller. Frightened of yet drawn to her. Is it that I see she
has power to crush me as well as uplift me (destroying angel?)”
On the same page I started to sketch in red crayon. I had no image in mind but simply started to scribble. The finished doodle put me in mind of a tornado, so in pencil I drew a drab little house next to it. I studied it for awhile amused by the imagery. I then wrote alongside it:
“She’s a tornado of passion to my safe little house. How
do you survive a tornado? Apparently you have to open all the
doors and windows to minimise the damage! (I feel sick with fear)
Why have I drawn the house without doors and windows, or any
openings at all for that matter. Guaranteed to be flattened!
I don’t want to give up my vulnerability but it feels if I don’t I’ll be
destroyed. (does this go back to babyhood?)”
The evening I wrote this I met up with Susan for a night out. I had managed to push through my fear enough to ask her out on a couple of previous occasions and felt that I had got to the point where, if I was going to at all, I needed to take things further in order to keep pushing through my fear.
True to form I managed to leave this step to the last minute. The wine finished, the coffee drunk, the conversation almost dried and Joni Mitchel by now suffering from laryngitis! I decided that it was time to leave. I was sat on her sofa while she occupied an armchair a few feet away. We both stood up in one movement, she slightly turned away from me and starting to straighten out her dress. I felt I couldn’t just walk out of there yet again, so feeling every bit the clumsy teenager I had always felt I stepped across the room, praying that I was still sober enough not to trip over anything on the way. Reaching out and touching her arm was enough, we fell into a clinch. I don’t know who was the more surprised at that point. One or two things still stick in my mind about that moment. The tremendous sense of relief for one thing, and yes I’ll admit it, a sense of achievement, as if I had broken through some sort of barrier. I said the first thing that came into my head. With a sigh I said that I had wanted to do that for such a long time. I was surprised at how small and vulnerable she felt. I had seen her as quite strong and confident, and every inch the business woman. She appeared to me to be quite tall and personality-wise a little larger than life. Yet now her face was buried in my chest (I’m less than six foot) and she felt quite frail. It was her turn to speak, and her first words felt like a warning, “Oh David we’re going in different directions”. I never thought to question exactly what she meant by that and found myself saying, “Oh well,we can have some fun”. At this she took my hand and led me back to the sofa, flopping down onto it she pulled me towards her and just as we were about to kiss she sighed, “I’ll never let you into my head David”. I thought this was a rather strange thing to say in the middle of a romantic clinch and, mischievously, the thought went through my mind, “But that’s not where I’m going Susan”. I have to say though that sex wasn’t on my mind at that point. I felt such a sense of relief at having at last taken a step forward through my fear, that that felt like enough for one day and I said something to the effect of there being no hurry. Susan had other ideas however, saying, “Why put off the inevitable?” While taking my hand and leading me towards her bedroom. The following day I turned to my notebook and wrote:
“Absolute joy! I took the risk I needed to overcome my
fear and the tornado turned out to be a warm gentle sigh and
every bit as vulnerable as myself. I hope I treated her with the
respect she deserves”.
My joy was to be short lived however. In fact it was to very rapidly turn to sorrow and in the space of a few weeks the closest thing to hell that I ever want to experience.
A few days later I called on her again, to be greeted this time by a very different Susan. Cold, detached and almost hostile. This threw me completely, having fought through my own inner barrier in order to get close to someone, I felt like I was back on the wrong side of it and faced with the same struggle yet again. Later that evening though, she melted and invited me to stay again. This pattern of behaviour was something I was to see more of over the coming weeks.
Much about Susan’s behaviour began to disconcert me. There followed a series of dates, all of which seemed to have the same pattern about them. She would start off friendly enough but would rapidly become quite cold and distant. In public she showed no affection towards me at all and frowned on any attempt by me to express my affection. Occasionally she would become quite panicky and insist that she didn’t want commitment. I couldn’t understand her panic, since I thought that this was understood and that the situation suited me because I had already decided, initially, that I was there to be totally selfish about my own needs. Or at least what I perceived to be my needs at the time.
I began to discover however, through a combination of the relationship and the counselling that was running parallel to it, that a whole hidden agenda was beginning to surface, for me at least.
I became increasingly agitated and uncomfortable at what appeared to me to be contradictory messages in Susan’s behaviour. Much about her use of the English language I also found difficult to fathom. It wasn’t that I was uneducated so much as naive and inexperienced in the ways of the world. Particularly in relation to women. Her opening statements in our first clinch to the effect that we were going in different directions and that she wouldn’t let me into her head, threw me initially. Later references she made about part of her that nobody ever got to, and, holding herself in, didn’t serve to ease my confused and increasingly frustrated frame of mind.
It was a measure of my naivety at the time that Susan fired several warning shots across my bows that I simply didn’t pick up on. Given her considerable angst about commitment I once asked her what she meant by it in order to see if it jigsawed with my own thinking. I received such a convoluted and highly intellectual definition that I remained confused.
She mentioned the fact that there were other men that she knew were coming for her. On another occasion she was quite affronted when, as a bit of a joke but also because she didn’t have any in her flat and in the age of AIDS I was quite concerned that everyone who was sexually active should carry them, I presented her with a gift wrapped pack of condoms which she angrily threw back at me thinking that I was suggesting that she was promiscuous, which simply wasn’t the case. I tried to get the measure of how she wanted to relate to men. Her response was that I wouldn’t understand. When I insisted that that was an insult to my intelligence, she simply dismissed this.
Susan seemed to have difficulty giving a direct yes or no, particularly in relation to intimacy of any form. Attempting to get close felt like a walk through a minefield. I never knew whether I would be accepted or side stepped in some way. One evening sticks in my mind. Chatting over coffee at my place, Susan sighed and then said that she really ought to go. At this I said that I’d rather hoped that she would stay. Back came the response, in the usual panicky tone, that she didn’t want commitment. I didn’t view staying overnight as a demonstration of lifelong obligation so I said that that wasn’t what I was talking about and that I would just like her to stay the night. The silence that followed irritated me; I was tired of her blowing hot and cold, I wanted a decision from her one way or another. I insisted that she could stay or go, the choice was her’s. Again hesitancy and silence. I warned her that if she didn’t make the decision I would make it for her, that the door was there and she could walk through it if she wished. Again no response. For what seemed like an age I sat waiting for something to happen. In the end I got up, walked round the room switching everything off, then took her hand and walked upstairs.
I still wasn’t happy with the situation however and suggested that we just curled up under the quilt fully clothed. She was quite indignant at this suggestion and insisted that she wasn’t getting into bed with her clothes on. I explained that my motive was that if she still felt uncertain about staying the night after thirty minutes, then she could still get up and leave. She decided to disrobe. While initially I had wanted to make love, it had been such a difficult journey just getting to this position that I still felt uncertain as to whether or not she actually wanted to be there. I decided that the safest course of action was to simply go to sleep. We lay in silence for a few minutes until Susan turned and asked me if I wanted to make love to her.
As I write I’m aware that much of my behaviour could be construed as callous and calculated. It has to be remembered that I was attempting to break down much of the conditioning of my entire life. As part of the counselling process it was necessary to set goals in my life outside of the counselling environment and to continue working towards those goals. I’d had a tendency in the past to rationalize my way out of any goals that I set for myself particularly in relation to women, sexuality and my own needs. Much of this rationalizing was based on guilt and a considerable amount of confused thinking rising out of the moral framework of the working class community I was brought up in.
I decided that in order to break through this I needed to set goals and then be quite single minded in pursuing them, deliberately disregarding any feelings of guilt and confusion along the way. I also decided that this time, instead of timidly groping my way across a plain, that I had to choose the most inaccessible peak I could find, and in Susan I had found a woman who was more than equal to the task.
I gradually began to realize, through the combination of the counselling and the actual relationship, that it was pretty nigh impossible for me to relate to any human being in an un-emotional sense. I also began to realise that despite Susan’s statements about ‘part of her that nobody got to’ and ‘not letting me into her head’ that the reality for her was precisely the opposite of this. Only a matter of two weeks into the relationship I wrote:
“Having said hello! I now have to say goodbye? Just feel
sad and hopeless. Want her so much, haven’t felt like this for a
long time. She still feels distant and elusive. I feel I have
to let go and say goodbye to something, but I don’t know what.
The sooner I say goodbye the sooner I can leave whatever
it is behind and move on. It’s just hard to let go of so much
that is good! I really think this could work if I can just get
rid of this shit!”
It was becoming obvious that the relationship as it stood was drawing to a close, but by this time I didn’t want it to and I was blaming myself for sabotaging it. I was struggling to hold everything together as if I was the only player in the whole thing.
I decided that I wanted one last pleasure. It had been some time since I had spent a weekend in an hotel with anyone. A relaxed, lazy, lecherous few days in the country away from all the pressures of workaday existence. I put the idea to Susan and, surprisingly, she agreed to it.
Everything about the weekend went smoothly except for one thing. Something about myself was beginning to bother me. Something I hadn’t been aware of previously. Susan was her usual distant self. I felt I should be used to this by now but instead of exasperating me as usual, it was beginning to disturb me in a different way. I was starting to feel incredibly insecure. If we were out round town and became separated even by a short distance, I felt anxious and pulled to look for her or follow her. There were many other things for me to do, sights to see, shops to look into that were of no interest to her but of much interest to me but for some reason she seemed to be the sole focus of my attention. Several times over that weekend I caught myself out and made a deliberate effort to focus on other things. We were both booked into the same Hotel and the layout of the town certainly wasn’t complex so there was no chance that either of us could get lost. So why couldn’t I just leave her to it?
I tried examining my feelings to see if I could frame them in some sort of mental picture. I didn’t like the image that came up. It was of a small boy, anxious, frightened, vulnerable desperately trying to hang on to an adult figure who simply didn’t appear to be there. I felt a certain amount of shame at this realisation. Here was I an adult male of forty years of age, who could be self sufficient in situations that many other adults would feel faint-hearted about, suddenly felt I couldn’t function without Mummy!
I knew these feelings had nothing to do with the present situation. That their roots were firmly in the past somewhere. I didn’t want to inflict these feelings of desperation or any resultant behaviour on anybody, let alone Susan. She simply didn’t have the knowledge or the skills to deal with them even if she chose to take on that responsibility. And given her attitude towards me that was never going to be an option.
At this point I knew that I needed to take the decision to walk away from Susan. Given the nature of the particular feelings that I had attached to her, I later described this act as being equivalent to a baby walking away from its’ mother and not looking back.
Leaving Susan at the end of that weekend I knew I would not be seeing her again. It was crucial that I chose to walk away from her rather than waiting for the inevitable rejection. The effect of this action on my psyche was devastating. I plummeted into a deep depression within forty eight hours. So deep a depression that pretty well every other aspect of my life was affected by it.