Equipping guys to be better platonic friends: a note on some new research

Today’s Genderal Interest column at Jezebel looks at the latest research about why platonic friendships between men and women remain so difficult.


The problem isn’t just, as the Bleske-Rechek study shows, that men wildly overestimate their female buddies’ sexual interest. It’s that they also undervalue their own worth as friends. In a world where we still cling to the belief that women are naturally more intuitive and verbally adept than men, many guys assume that if a woman wants a non-sexual friendship, she’ll naturally choose from the ranks of those who “do” friendship well: other women. The idea that a straight woman might want to be close to them without wanting to fuck or marry strikes them as utterly implausible. As a result, men do two things at once: they overrate their own sexual irresistibility and depreciate everything else they might have to offer. Little wonder, then, that so many dudes wrongly assume that their lady friends are crushing on them.

So what can we do to better equip guys to be “just friends” with the women in their lives? For starters, we can debunk once and for all the myth that sexual desire makes friendship impossible. The traditional reasoning is that male-female platonic relationships only work when neither friend is ever attracted to the other. Given how fluid and surprising desire can be, those friendships where lust never appears for even an instant are going to be relatively rare. But this reasoning overstates the power of sexual attraction to drown out everything else. As this new study makes clear, it’s not that women are never attracted to their male buddies. It’s that women are probably better acculturated to put lust aside for the sake of a friendship.

Read the whole thing here.

The witness v. the rescuer

One of the questions I get frequently from young people who have started to think differently about their bodies and their lives is “How can I help my friend (sibling, parent, lover, etc.) who is still really hurting?” High school and college-aged students all have friends who are in unhealthy relationships, struggling with depression or addictions, fighting a dreadful eating disorder. When these young people get inspired by a class or a book, when they begin their own journey of transformation, they want to be evangelicals for the cause. Many have missionary hearts, longing to spread the good news of self-acceptance and empowerment far and wide. I encourage this in my classes, often using the term “Great Commission” to refer not to winning the world for Christ, but to living out one’s egalitarian and inclusive values in a way that inspires others.

But as we all find sooner or later (usually sooner), there are friends and loved ones who don’t want to hear what we have to say. Or perhaps they do want to hear it, but they lack the courage (or more likely, the resources) to extricate themselves from the painful circumstances that they’re in. Preaching at someone who’s “stuck” doesn’t do a lot of good — indeed, it tends to be counterproductive. Rather, we help best through two things: being a role model for the kind of change we want to see, and by accepting a role as a witness rather than a rescuer. The first of these is fairly universal advice, though it bears repeating. The second point is equally important, however.

Most of us have a hard time figuring out who we are and who we aren’t capable of helping. We raise our daughters to be veritable Florence Nightingales, caring for their dollies and, later, their pets. Less overtly, we raise many of our sons to be “knights in shining armor” who can rescue damsels in distress. This has some stereotypical manifestations: the fourteen year-old girl who becomes involved in the animal rights movement and her twin brother who plays “Call of Duty” all day long are both following a very old and gendered script that plays on this tremendous desire to rescue, to save, to be a hero. (I can’t get over the title “Call of Duty” for a video game. Don’t video games call people away from their duties? Isn’t it delightful to have recreation recast as responsibility?)

It’s true that the animals of the world need our help, as do many others. But when faced with the sheer overwhelm of seemingly intractable social problems, a lot of young people — especially but not exclusively women — start to shift that desire to rescue towards something, or someone, more immediate. Trying to change a friend or a boyfriend seems to have a greater chance of success, they imagine. (The reverse is actually true. It’s easier to get legislation passed than it is to solve another adult’s problems for them.) This isn’t just the root of the “bad boy” or “manic pixie girl” syndromes so well known in our culture — it’s the source of tremendous frustration and pain in a wide variety of relationships.

You can’t be an advocate for real change if you have a messiah complex. Too often, the rescuer rescues less out of altruism and more out of a frantic desire to feel worthy. The person you’re trying to save almost always catches on to this, and becomes resentful. The rescuer then charges ingratitude, and either moves on to a more promising target or chooses to suffer in wasted and tiresome martyrdom. This is not activism — this is parasitism masquerading as love.

The alternative, of course, is to embrace the role of the witness. The witness gives information; the witness offers support, but the witness doesn’t try to do for another what that other must do for herself or himself. The witness doesn’t lead the proverbial horse to water, but notes that if the horse is feeling thirsty, a nearby trough is available. The witness may even amble over to the trough alongside the horse, but won’t beg the horse to dip its head into the water. A witness owns his or her own decision to stay and participate in another person’s life. A witness doesn’t buy the flattering line that he or she is all that stands between a loved one and oblivion. But he or she is there, watching, ready to talk — or to point the way when asked.

I challenge my students to ask themselves: am I a rescuer or a witness? Am I modeling in my own life what I want for others, or am I distracting myself from my own pain by focusing on someone who seems even worse off than me? To be part of the solution, rather than just a different manifestation of the problem, requires that we ask and answer these questions.

The magic of trust: of consent, power, BDSM and professor-student sex

Not quite ready to let go of the professor-student sexual relationship discussion. Below yesterday’s post, Clarisse writes:

I’m curious to know if you see any connections between the argument you’re making now, and the arguments against BDSM/kink.

Clarisse, who writes a great deal about BDSM at her own blog, asks if I can make a case against teacher-student relationships that doesn’t privilege a disapproving majority against the desires of a minority. She’s concerned — as others such as the famous Jane Gallop were concerned — that policies which ban sexual relationships between consenting adults do a kind of violence to individual freedom. Given the history of these sorts of power-imbalanced campus relationships, I’m more sympathetic to hearing this argument made by women than by men. (I fisked Barry Dank, a leading defender of teacher-student sex, here.)

It’s worth noting that other professions ban sexual relationships between practitioners and those who seek their help. Attorneys are not allowed to have sex with their clients; psychologists and doctors aren’t permitted to have sexual relationships with their current — and in some cases, their former — patients. Few would argue that it abrogates human freedom to suggest that therapists should lose their licenses if they fuck their patients, even if those patients are well above the age of consent. Of course, we recognize the special vulnerability of someone who seeks therapy, or someone who turns to an attorney. It’s not clear that we see college students as equally vulnerable. I think a good case can be made that in terms of their professors, they generally are.

(A parenthetical aside. As someone who has made teaching his life’s calling, I bristle at the idea that my profession ought to be seen as less influential than that of medicine or law. By permitting professors and students to engage in consensual amorous relations, while disbarring barristers and solicitors who do the same with their clients, we send the signal that we who teach have less significance than those who litigate, or negotiate contracts. No offense to my lawyer friends, but I find that implication offensive!)

To get to the specifics of Clarisse’s question. At the very heart of BDSM, at the core of “kink”, is one thing: trust. One of the things I’ve heard, over and over again, from men and women who practice BDSM in one form or another, is that it is within that particular subculture that they finally found safe and reliable boundaries. Even people who don’t practice kink know the phrase “safe word”, a term that has made its way into our shared lexicon. Because BDSM deals openly with issues of power, domination, submission, and control, the reliance on clear and unmistakable boundaries is at the very heart of that world’s practices. There’s no question that many folks who come out of backgrounds of abuse — and some who never endured violation — have found redemption, healing, and catharsis in practicing BDSM. And to a woman and a man, they all seem to agree that trust is the sine qua non of the lifestyle.

I’ve long maintained that there’s a great deal we in the “vanilla” (non-fetish) world can learn from our brothers and sisters who practice BDSM responsibly. I honor the commitment of the kinky folk to developing rules and rituals that protect each participant’s dignity and sense of self. And I honor there sense that trust is something that needs to be made explicit in our words as well as something that needs to be lived out in our most intimate actions.

And of course, the common thread between the teacher-student relationship, BDSM, and psychotherapy is the preciousness of trust. In the classroom, in a psychiatrist’s office, and in a bedroom filled with the tools of kink, we see asymmetrical power relationships at their healthiest. Students need to be able to trust their professors, particularly in fields like my own (gender studies). Patients need to be able to trust their therapists. And a submissive needs to be able to trust a dominant partner — and vice versa. Violations of trust in any of these arenas can be devastating. Continue reading

Not putting the skeleton back in the closet: a quick note and some links on professor-student sexual relationships

Richard Jeffrey Newman (whose poetry I recommend to all) has been blogging at Alas for a while now, and last week offered this piece on student-professor sexual relationships. It’s not much of Newman and a lot of extended excerpts from this a Tony Judt post at the New York Review’s blog site. The comments are interesting. (True confession: I only found the post when I checked the stats on my own blog, and found a number of hits to this post of mine, linked by Amp in the thread. Let me offer this post as well for the discussion, as well as the entire “student crushes” category archive here.

The subject of my past came up again recently. Two of my students were in my office on Monday. One of them, a regular reader of this blog, remarked that based on what she heard from her classmates, I still had a reputation as a professor who had slept with his students. The other student remarked that he had heard much the same thing. Both were quick to say that their classmates generally seemed to know that this behavior was in the past, but that some had their “suspicions” that I might still be up to no good, as it were. We all laughed together, and I gently assured the students that what I had once been I was no longer.

I certainly don’t advertise that I was wont to sleep with my students, but I don’t hide it from it either, for the reasons I’ve made clear time and time again. Sexual and romantic relationships between professors and students currently under their supervision are invariably unethical, regardless of the age of either the student or the professor. Relationships between professors and their former students need to be entered into with caution, particularly if the student involved is likely to be in need of a letter of recommendation or is still on the campus. And my general caution about age-disparate love affairs applies here as well. As I have said and will continue to say, for a three-year period in the mid-to-late 1990s, until I got sober in the summer of 1998, I had a series of unethical relationships with students. I deeply regret my behavior. As part of my amends to those whom I hurt, I helped write the campus consensual relations policy . And I have continued to speak out on this issue.

It has been a dozen years since I last crossed that line I ought not to have crossed. In that time, I’ve worked damn hard on good boundaries. And I’ve been a public and forceful (and, unfortunately, insufficiently humble) advocate for safe, non-sexual mentoring. I have little sympathy for those who continue to defend the indefensible exploitation of the teacher-student relationship. I was wrong, deeply so, when I slept with my students. And though it might seem wise to not mention these Clinton-era transgressions of mine again, I think there is value in pointing out the deeply problematic nature of these relationships to new generations of faculty and students, even at the risk of my own mild embarrassment.

One more link to a post I’ve written: A follow-up on student crushes — what not to do

“I worry for both of them that they aren’t tempted”: some thoughts on dorms, gender, and the myth that proximity creates desire

One of the things about blogging for a few years is that one regularly has the opportunity to reflect upon — and revise — old posts. Mind you, I don’t dip into my archives and surreptitiously rewrite old pieces. Rather, I sometimes find that the passage of time has given me a different perspective. It is so with an issue freshly in the news once more: mixed-sex dorm rooms.

I wrote about the subject of colleges assigning different-sex students to the same dorm room in 2006 in this post. What troubled me then was not that folks would seek out roommates of the opposite sex. What I wanted was to encourage bonding with one’s own gender. Boys who find it difficult to relate to other males; girls who’ve found relationships with other females to be characterized by competition and judgment — these were, I argued, the sort of young people who could benefit from confronting their own discomfort with living with the same sex. Rereading that post three and a half years after I wrote it, I wince at my willingness to be so prescriptive of what young people need. And while I stand by my conviction that we do need to do more to encourage some young folks to fight through their fears of bonding with those who share their biology, I’m much less willing to insist upon it.

I’m thinking about this because the Los Angeles Times, a few years late to the party, ran a front-page article yesterday on what is no longer as much of a novelty as some might imagine: Mixed-gender dorm rooms are gaining acceptance.

The number of colleges offering the option increases each year, though the total number of schools at which it is possible to room with someone of the other sex is still only about fifty. The Times profiles the situation at nearby Pitzer College (an institution to which I have seen a number of my best and brightest transfer over the years), and interviews students there and at my alma mater, Cal. (In the 1980s, the innovation at Berkeley was bathrooms shared by both sexes. After the first week, having women walk past men standing at urinals became old hat.)

What heartened me was the willingness of so many young people to separate the idea of close physical proximity from sexual intimacy. The assumption of an older generation, of course, is that the power of desire is so overwhelming that it makes uncomplicated friendship (or, simply, roommate-ship) impossible between two heterosexual young people of different genders. Read the comments after the Times story; lots of predictions of rape and distraction. The myth of male weakness raises its head in the thread over and over again.

The comment that caught my attention was this one from someone called “cmfreedom”: I guess “gender-neutral housing” means asexual. I worry for both of them that they aren’t tempted! Bold is mine.

What impressed me about the young people in the article is the same thing that depressed me about cmfreedom’s remark. Our dominant cultural narrative is the discourse of uncontrollable male sexual desire. We believe that men — particularly those of college-age — are so in thrall to raging hormones that they are constitutionally incapable of seeing women as anything other than sex objects. The peddlers of the discourse sneer contemptuously at those who insist that men are, in fact, are both quite capable of self-regulation and frequently not as sex-crazed as their elders believe. To claim for men the capacity to exercise control, to insist that young men do not all think about sex every seven (or sixteen, or thirty-five) seconds is to invite derision. Continue reading

Rebounds and transition figures: doing it right after a divorce

Another email, from Mallory. She writes:

I was married at 27 to my college sweetheart. This man checked all of the boxes dreamed of on the surface – doctor, boy scout-esque from a nice family – all of the family, etc. were thrilled when we were married. However, quite quickly after the wedding things fell apart and he told me essentially that he was not ready to grow-up and had to go find himself. I picked up the pieces, moved to another country with a business opportunity, and started over.

I started dating a man that is very fun, we have a great time together; he’s one year younger, we are very attracted to each other, he stimulates me intellectually and I care about him a great deal. However, I do not see it going towards a serious relationship and/or marriage. This is primarily for a mis-match in ambition levels, he is not willing to move countries, and I am not convinced he is fully ready to take on the responsibilities of a relationship on that level (needless to say a big sticking point after the last relationship).

Currently I do not want to be married, but I am ready to care for someone deeply again.
Being in my 30s, divorced, but not interested in dating lots of men, I feel like it should be okay to have a lighthearted relationship – but I cannot quite shake this feeling of maybe looking like the overweight, middle aged comb-over guy in the red Porsche when dating someone I have no intention of being serious about.

When does it become counter productive to engage in flippant relationships? Am I listening to society too much, or not enough to my gut?

Though I am fond of marriage (I’ve done it four times), I don’t think lifelong monogamous commitments are the only sort of relationships worth pursuing. I’ve come to believe, instead, that at different seasons of our life we may need different sorts of relationships to help us grow. And one of the most important kinds of relationships we can have after a divorce is with a “transition figure” who can help us process the lingering wounds and doubts that almost always remain in the aftermath of the end of a marriage.

I’m not talking about using people. I’m not talking about relying on one’s own pain as an excuse to deal cavalierly and recklessly with another human being. One basic dating maxim for grown-ups: our past history of suffering doesn’t vitiate our responsibility to avoid hurting others. It’s not enough to simply say “I’m on the rebound, watch out!” and then, having broken the heart of the person with whom we rebounded, to exclaim “What did you expect? I was on the rebound!” Nothing we’ve endured gives us the right to disregard our responsibility to consider how a sexual relationship we’re having may affect the other person emotionally. Misleading another person into believing that what is temporary might turn out to be permanent is bad form indeed, particularly for those old enough to know better.

That said, I think there’s a distinction between a “rebound” and a “transition relationship”. The difference lies in three things: our willingness to assume complete responsibility for our own actions, our honesty — in both word and deed — with the other person about what we can and can’t offer, and our own internal clarity about what purpose this relationship plays in our life. If we’re scrupulous about these things, “transitional relationships” which are time-limited but intense can be enormously healing for those who have them. Continue reading

Parents, children, candor, and embarrassment: a note from a blogging father

Several times in the past year, friends both in cyberspace and in “real” life have asked me the same question: Do I ever pause to consider the impact that this blog will have on Heloise, and any other children with whom we may be blessed, when they are older? Though it’s been a quarter century and more since I was a teen, I’ve been working around them continually almost since I stopped being one. And though there are some surprising exceptions, the general rule continues to be true: most teens, particularly at the onset of puberty, go through a stage where they are acutely embarrassed by their parents. Call it the “please drop me off a block from school” phenomenon — it’s a rare fourteen year-old who wants his or her friends to know much detail about his or her parents’ lives.

I write and speak openly about my past and my present. Compared to the degree of disclosure now common among teens on social networking sites (both in terms of words and images), what I’ve shared here is pretty tame. Of course, I write as an adult — and though I have plenty of youthful indiscretions in my past, I cannot claim the excuse of youth when it comes to explaining my reasons for choosing to be so candid about certain aspects of my life on this blog.

I cannot protect my daughter entirely from future embarrassment. No doubt there will come a time when how I dress, or walk, or even breathe will be a source of intense annoyance to her; I know adolescents well enough to know that that those moments of deep disgust with her parents (perhaps particularly her father) will be brief albeit (probably) intense. And no doubt she’ll wince when and if (realistically, just when) she reads what I’ve written and continue to write about my life and my past.

I remember vividly a conversation I had with my father not long after I had lost my virginity. I was seventeen, and he was fifty. He was in Carmel visiting us for the weekend (when my parents divorced, my mother took my brother and me to the Monterey Peninsula while Dad stayed in Santa Barbara, where he remained until his death.) Papa and I took one of our long walks and talked about many things, mostly about my new girlfriend. Dad remarked, as we strolled on San Carlos Avenue, that I was younger than he had been when he lost his virginity; “I was nineteen and in the RAF”, he said. It was the first time he had ever mentioned his own sexual life to me, and I felt that familiar mix of revulsion and curiosity so common to adolescents when a parent begins to offer what my cousin Dinah calls an “over-share”. He told me a little about the “girl from the village”, how they had met and so forth, and I listened with eagerness and trepidation, not knowing how much I wanted to know, afraid of hearing more than I wanted but fascinated by my father’s sudden burst of almost uncharacteristic candor.

We walked on for a few more moments in silence, and then Dad asked “Were the lights on or off?” I said something like “Jesus, Dad, what a question!” I told him that the lights had been off but the television had been on (videos on MTV). My father seemed puzzled and asserted that he preferred the lights on. And that was the last we said of the subject; indeed, in the remaining 21 years of his life, we never had a similar conversation again. But what I’ve noticed, as I play through my memories of my father in my head, is that the embarrassment I felt discussing sex with my father has faded completely. What remains is the recollection of a precious glimpse into his youth, of what life in England in the early 1950s might have been like for this bookish, gentle, funny young man doing his national service before heading off to university. What remains after the awkwardness is the memory of intergenerational intimacy, tinged as it was with the mutual incomprehension that comes with an age gap and a different cultural vocabulary.

To put it simply, what made me cringe when I was seventeen is now a fond and precious recollection. And it is in that light that I think about my daughter’s future reaction to my own writing, so full as it is of stories about my past. There will be a time, I am sure of it, when Heloise will wish very much that her father had not been quite so forthright, so inclined to what my generation often calls “TMI” (too much information). But I also suspect, based upon my memories of my father, that when she is older still, what once seemed so embarrassing will become considerably less so. Though our culture does do its damndest to turn adolescence into a quarter-century process (at least for men, and not an insignificant number of women), psychic puberty does end. And as far as I’m concerned, psychic puberty ends when we cease to blame our parents for our own adult mistakes, when we absolve them of responsibility for the outcome of our lives, and when we no longer cringe when we contemplate them in all their lovely, flawed, perfect humanness.

What humiliates and infuriates at fifteen becomes the happy recollection at forty; the story I shared above is hardly the only such instance. And it is a good reminder to parents and children alike about the need to balance both candor and respect for boundaries, and to forgive generously when that balance becomes skewed, as it inevitably will.

Princesses, princes, daughters and dads: against emotional incest

Our daughter Heloise Cerys Raquel (often abbreviated as HCRS) is almost nine months old, and continues to amaze and delight her parents. She’s standing and crawling now, and making ever more comprehensible noises. She’s a happy baby, prone to shrieks of delight and an enthusiastic wind-milling of arms when she sees a returning parent or other beloved care-giver. We have a nanny to help out some of the time, but most of the care is done in carefully orchestrated shifts shared among my wife, her mother, and me. (My mother-in-law moved in with us after we moved from Pasadena to West Los Angeles at the beginning of summer, and that has been a special blessing for all.)

In August, I posted “She’s got you wrapped around her finger”: fathers, daughters, and a variation on the myth of male weakness in which I noted the extraordinary number of folks who expressed to me their certainty that I would treat Heloise as a princess whose whims I could not help but indulge. I’d like to touch on another aspect of the father-daughter relationship I’ve noted.

Becoming a parent for the first time in one’s forties has myriad advantages, not least that one has had the opportunity to watch a great many of one’s peers “do it all first.” (I have two high school friends of mine who are already grandparents, mirabile dictu.) And I’ve seen, a time or nine, an unhealthy triangulation occur with dads, moms, and their daughters. While the dangers of physical incest and abuse are real, there’s a kind of emotionally incestuous dynamic I’ve witnessed between fathers and daughters, one in which dads seek from their daughters the validation and affirmation that they feel they are entitled to, but are not receiving from their wives.

Little children adore their parents. Really, it’s a lovely thing to come home each day and be welcomed, as I invariably am, with gales of excited laughter and delight. (I’m the primary care giver for much of the weekend and most late afternoons and evenings; my wife handles the mornings, my mother-in-law and the nanny work splendidly in the gaps.) My daughter’s love is an impressive thing to feel, especially as she’s gotten better recently at wrapping herself around my neck and squeezing me tight. No matter what has transpired during the day, no matter what I’ve said or done (or failed to say or do), Heloise seems to adore me. It’s a wonderful thing, and I eat it up with wonder and gratitude and delight. I’m told that her devotion will only grow more intense; many little girls begin to bond more intensely with their fathers in their second and third years of life, presuming that a dad is around. One looks forward to this.

Of course, spouses aren’t the same as children. My wife loves me, a fact of which I blessedly have no doubt. But she most certainly doesn’t have me a on pedestal, doesn’t think I’m flawless, and doesn’t greet me with shrieks of joy everytime I walk into the house. Eira engages with me as a partner, and she challenges me and pushes me and asks me for things; I do the same for her. In a good marriage, iron sharpens iron, and the more friction in the sharpening process, the greater and more enduring the heat. Anyone who’s met my wife knows that she’s a tall, strong force of nature. (This is a woman who can dress down Israeli soldiers on patrol and make them blush apologetically. If you know the men and women of the IDF, you’ll know how astounding that is.) She loves me and she encourages me as I do her, but she doesn’t conceal her displeasure when she’s unhappy, and she doesn’t come rushing to me like something out of a Marabel Morgan book when I enter the house. Continue reading

Look at me and tell me what you see: a note on youth, Robert Burns, and the longing to be mirrored

I was emailing back and forth with a mentee of mine recently. “Lucy”, at twenty, sees herself as bright and talented, but also as insecure and filled with self-doubt. She doesn’t think of herself as particularly attractive or popular; she remembers her adolescent awkwardness vividly. On the other hand, she wrote, her friends of both sexes see her as aloof and mysterious. Her peers (of both sexes) have what she sees as an exasperating tendency to get crushes on her, either coming on to her and forcing her to reject them — or pulling away from her for the sake of self-protection. Lucy frequently feels isolated, and she longs to have more more friends. Her frustration with her inability to form and sustain good relationships with her peers have led her to grow closer to people much older than herself, and she’s struggled with the feeling, not uncommon in women in her situation, to see substantially older men and women as more suitable romantic partners. “Older people aren’t as scared of me”, Lucy says; “they don’t misread me as often.”

I’m not going to revisit the older man/younger woman in this post. Rather, I’m interested in looking at the disconnect so many of us have between the way we are perceived by others and the way we perceive ourselves. This is a problem hardly unique to women, or college students; it’s a nigh-on universal problem for human beings. Recall the famous Robert Burns line: Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, to see oursel’s as others see us! For the great Scottish poet, and for a great many others, the ability to see in ourselves what others see is a gift, perhaps divinely given, and certainly not given to most. Many of us spend a great deal of time developing strategies and techniques for getting others to mirror us, showing us ourselves as we truly are. We want, of course, our friends and family to be both honest and filled with praise, even though we suspect that if we get too much (or perhaps even just a little) of the latter, then the former has probably gone missing. Continue reading

“Think it through”: a note on a tool for dealing with unwanted thoughts and fantasies

I mentor — and in 12 Step parlance, sponsor — a number of folks working to overcome various addictions. Part of any program of recovery is sharing what you’ve learned with those newer to the transformation than you. I’ve written often of the rule of three, which I see as central in my own progress. I make sure that every work (or almost every week) I connect with someone with more wisdom and experience and “time” than I have; a second person who is a peer both chronologically and experientially, and a third person, almost always much younger, who is just beginning recovery or a spiritual journey. Even for introverts, the rule of three can work (I’ve seen it).

One of the issues that came up a lot for me when I was getting sober from my various addictions (alcohol, drugs, sex, food, and so forth), was dealing with the intrusive thoughts about relapse. I struggled enormously with the compulsion to “act out”, and at times in my early recovery it seemed as if virtually every situation in which I found myself presented a fresh set of “triggers” designed to get me back into old and destructive behavior. I had plenty of relapses along the way. (I went to my first AA meeting in 1987, but didn’t get sober “for good” until 1998 — eleven years of walking in and out of a revolving door.) I made countless promises to stop drinking and using, and countless promises to be faithful to wives or girlfriends. I would cobble together weeks or months of recovery until I encountered a seemingly irresistible temptation of one sort or another (the “accidental” discovery of a large cache of benzodiazepines in a family medicine cabinet; a surprise encounter with an old flame or a fellow newbie in a recovery program), and I would “fall” again. And even as I put together large periods of abstinence from destructive and dishonest behaviors, I was tormented by dreams about using and intense fantasies about hooking up with unfamiliar, as yet unexplored skin.

My sponsor gave me a tool that is the point of this post, one that I share with those whom I mentor. When it comes to intrusive thoughts or seemingly irresistible fantasies about doing something that is almost certainly a bad idea, there’s no point in fighting the thought. Saying to oneself “don’t think about that” doesn’t work well. If one is told in a firm voice, “Don’t think about elephants!”, the first thing that pops into one’s mind is probably a pachyderm. Rather than fighting a futile, shame-filled battle against one’s fantasies, it makes more sense, my sponsor said, to give oneself permission to have the fantasy. But — and here’s the key — one doesn’t have permission not to think the fantasy all the way through. I was told that if I wanted to drink again, I could imagine the heat of the liquor in my throat, the soothing warmth in my belly, the delicious sense of calm suffusing my whole body. But, I wasn’t allowed to stop there. I had to continue the fantasy. I had to envision the nausea, the stumbling, the peeing on my self once I passed out. (Yes, I was a wet-the-bed drunk. I know, TMI.) I needed to continue the fantasy into the next day — the hangover, the guilt, the fear of seeing people again, the worry about the harm I had done, that awful sourness in my stomach and soul.

With thoughts about acting out sexually, I was told to do the same thing. I couldn’t just do the pleasant parts of imagining taking someone new in my arms for the first time, the taste of her mouth and the thrill of slipping the clothes from our bodies as we tumbled into beds, backseats, or bushes. I needed to think through the awkwardness to come, the fear of being discovered, the shame of knowing I had crossed a line (for the umpteenth time) I had sworn not to cross. I had to imagine not just the erotic aspects of a desired encounter, but all of the possible harsh, inescapable consequences. I couldn’t stop the fantasies half-way through, in other words; I was allowed to daydream all I liked, but only if I carried the reveries to their inevitable conclusions.

By the time I was given this tool, I’d had enough deceit-ridden hook-ups and binges that I couldn’t possibly have any serious illusions that the next time — if there were to be a next time — would be different than all the times before. I knew what was so sweet going down would be so vile coming back up; I knew what seemed so transcendentally ecstatic at 1:00 in the morning would leave me feeling empty and shame-filled twelve hours later. It was a great tool my sponsor gave me; it liberated me from the seemingly hopeless responsibility for policing my mind, but it forced me to introduce the reality of consequences into my fantasies. There was an element of psychological aikido to the idea; rather than resisting what seems so irresistible, I was told to flow with the thoughts as they came, and using the sheer force of their flow to carry them past the point where I would normally stop. I was liberated to want what I wanted — but only if I went past the point where I had initially wanted to go.

The tool worked for me. It helped diminish the urges by connecting cause and effect more clearly in my mind. The sort of temptations I struggled with a decade a more or ago rarely come to me now, but come they occasionally do. I don’t fight the thoughts that come, or shame myself for having them; I calmly let them wash over me, and I ride them like a wave that rolls all the way to the shore. I know that I can’t stop the fantasy before taking it all the way, to the ecstasy — and past it, to the devastating consequences beyond. I recommend this “think it through” tool to the young (and not so young) whom I mentor, whether they call themselves addicts or not. From what I hear, it often works nicely for them as well, and I thought I’d share it today on the blog.