As human beings, we are attracted to others on a number of levels. I have felt myself emotionally, romantically, sexually, intellectually, spiritually, physically, socially and otherwise attracted to a range of individuals.
For me to say I am “sexually” attracted to a woman does not mean what others might say it does. I have deep emotional connections to women. These connections are safe and desirable because they are connections with other women. They are based on a common sex. A connecting conversation with another woman is fantastic! It nourishes and nurtures us both in healing and beautiful ways. I think that is a gift from God. It doesn’t mean I need to have a romantic relationship.
Romantic attraction to women is not something I experience daily. However, I have experienced sexual arousal responses with other women. It was not accompanied by a desire for the act of sex, but to really understand, see, hear, and experience her presence, story, and being. This arousal was at first confusing to me, but I have since studied female connection. Apparently women seek deep emotionally intimate connection however they can get it. When healthy and safe loving connection is not available in her environment, she will grasp onto anything that even remotely resembles “love.” Women need to have that intimate connection in order to heal, feel OK, even function well day to day. We seek to build it, and if healthy building materials aren’t available, we take what we can get or shut off fully. For this reason I have had to learn to allow emotional connection. Deep emotional connection is critical to recovery and healing childhood attachment and trauma wounds. Being vulnerable in compassionate, safe relationships with other women has been scary, but absolutely necessary. I do not have the same level of emotional intimacy with men outside my marriage. Emotional affairs are just as problematic as physical affairs. Both start with emotional connection and attraction. Any type of attraction will work for the lonely or bored female heart.
Abuse victims often confuse emotional connection with sexual or romantic attraction. Female child sex abuse victims are especially vulnerable. We can’t separate intellectual and relationalattraction (i.e. “I like spending time with this person”) from romantic or sexual attraction (i.e. “I want to have sex with this person”). While I don’t have the brain imagery to prove it, I know my emotional attraction patterns are messed up. If I feel attraction at all, it is accompanied by waves of fear and shame. I fear I’ll love this person, just to have to lose them because they cannot possibly love me back. Or I fear they cannot, will not, love me without me prostituting myself for affection.
Prostitution in any form is no longer an option for me. Anytime I sell out emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and especially sexually, I have prostituted myself for a semblance of love. True, it feels better for a minute. The next day though, I feel more empty and lonely, which feeds the vicious cycle of self harm through cheap imitation of loving connection. Just because I don’t actually sell myself for sex doesn’t mean I’m not causing the same level of emotional damage to my heart. The insult to existing trauma and attachment wounds is just as real as actually selling my body. Any women who has been “in love” with a man or another woman in her head whom can never, or should never, actually have a real connection with, knows the pain fantasy causes. We struggle to live in reality because fantasy is safe, comfortable, and feels healing. Then the bubble bursts. Sometimes, fantasy is triggered and I find myself still having pretend “connected” conversations in my head days later. The biggest challenge here is when the conversations are not sexualized or romanticized. They are easy to justify when they are “clean.” However, I’m afraid to have emotionally honest conversation in person. It is easier in my head, where I won’t be misunderstood, rejected, or abandoned. I get to feel the comfort of “connection” without the risk of loss. It’s not real, but it keeps me going for a few more hours. But I hurt later when reality does not support what I feel, because the connection was not created in reality.
This might seem OK, or even desirable. The problem is, I have two relationships going with this person–one in my head and one in real life–and they are mismatched in connection, vulnerability and trust. It causes tension and confusion, even if the other person can’t figure out why. How could they possibly know? It is not in reality or truth, so no matter how comforting, it is a lie. I’m lying to and hurting myself with the fantasy and disconnection in reality.
When I am in sexual fantasy, I’m in an even bigger mess because I’ve also cheapened the relationship and turned the other person into a drug. Even if they can’t identify the cause of the shift, those we objectify feel something is off. And we are playing with emotional fire that will eventually harm us, even if “only” internally.
Let’s get back to attraction. Being attracted to another person in any way is not bad. What comes after that initial surge of emotion is what we have to learn to work through. I’m in school. There are many attractive men and women in college. Okay, they are everywhere, let’s be honest. Spending time, energy, and focus with another person increases proximity. Proximity is the number one predictor of attraction. Oddly enough, it is impossible to be attracted to someone we don’t know exists. Also, people become more or less attractive the more we learn about them.
My area of study encourages interpersonal skills development and relational experimentation or exploration. We are supposed to be learning to connect with the hearts of others. That’s the whole point. Sometimes conversations and class discussions get personal. All of this adds to potential attraction. That attraction, however, does not mean romance or sexual desire, or at least it doesn’t need to. We know we are here to learn, study, and pass classes. Then there’s me. I confuse intellectual or social attraction with romantic attraction, especially with men available for connection.
One colleague in particular has been a challenge. He’s physically attractive, my age (which is rare), and highly empathic. He is compassionate, and the text book “Knight in Shining Armor.” He is also somewhat of an authority, at least in my mind (fantasy?). Thankfully, he also has solid (albeit slightly confusing) boundaries. It’s the burgeoning therapist in him as he figures himself out. Our time together needs to be structured, professional and within appropriate boundaries. Sometimes that is more difficult. I’ve realized those are days I am feeling especially vulnerable and fearful. Those are also the days I need to be honest about any interaction.
If a past trauma or rejection is triggered, it is easy to want him to save me from my painful emotions. Why do I need him to validate my worth, my value, and my existence? That’s simple: I don’t trust my opinion of myself. That’s pretty common, too. Many of us learned early on that we couldn’t trust our needs, because those needs brought hurtful responses from caregivers or the environment. So when a need comes up, we sometimes seek to squash it through distraction or numbing. An attractive individual is the perfect escape. Our brain almost believes the need was met, and it calms down for a short time. We start to attach to the drug, in this case, a person.
As children, when attachments have been traumatic with parents or caregivers, wounds form, then turn into scars. These scars have tendrils that choke out rational hope and feelings of self-worth. Real connection and relationship become too risky. We stop trying to get our needs met, and become hopeless. Then something shiny comes along promising to save us, and we think we will be fine, whole even, if only he or she will love us. We don’t realize the type of love we are longing for in these relationships is tainted with inequality and fear. It will eventually canker, and resentments will build. In the heat of an irrational attraction, only bliss seems possible. Salvation is in the arms of the next target–we just know it. And then it’s not. It never ends. Trust me, it never ends. Salvation cannot come from anything other than God. Move on.
So, how do we move on? How do we move on when every cell in our bodies tells that if we don’t have this drug, this person, this habit, we will die? If you think I’m kidding that it feels like you will die, you haven’t gotten enough space from your target. The ache that arises feels catastrophic. It’s not, but it certainly feels like it. Then it subsides. Easy enough.
But it’s not that easy. Withdrawals from these relationships hit hard. Every fear I’ve ever had, every insecurity, every unmet need, hits like a torrential desert rain storm. If I’m not aware, it takes a few days to recover. Getting out of the mess takes ridiculous amounts of honesty, which inside the mess, I am incapable of. That’s why I have a sponsor, a therapist on the back burner, and multiple other female friends in recovery I can call on. It’s also why I am transparent with my husband. If I feel uncomfortable telling him about a conversation or interaction, I know I’m up against the line.
So always remember: attraction is natural. It feels good, especially when it is reciprocated. It is going to happen, and you can learn to manage it. Along the way though, we must protect what matters most: our integrity, our families, and our hearts. We are the only ones who will. Protecting what matters looks different for everyone at different times. I had to take a break from any heterosexual friendships for years. Now I have to be very careful how friendly these relationships get. It’s not easy, nor is it always fun. It’s important though. Honesty and personal responsibility are critical to true recovery. You can do this. It will not be easy, but the feelings of self-worth and personal growth will be well worth it on the other side. Keep going. You are not alone.