Thoughts on a dying relationship

In the gorgeous final pages of Virginia Woolf’s “Night and Day” a long-awaited romance reaches its climax during a midnight walk. Katharine stutters to Ralph, at which point Ralph understands a bit more of her, “making him feel that he had stepped over the threshold into the faintly lit vastness of another mind, stirring with shapes, so large, so dim, unveiling themselves only in flashes, and moving away again into the darkness, engulfed by it.”

I feel similarly — if not nearly as eloquent — as I sit down to reflect on a relationship that I’ve developed. Writing about a relationship is like scooping up sand underwater: it slips between your fingers, changing shape as you observe it fall back into murkiness. It’s a snake that slithers away as you study it. Were it that the goal of a relationship was to fully map the depths of another person? Instead, one must additionally direct the gaze inwards as well as upwards towards the emergent thing that is a relationship between two people.

I’ll start this story off with an inwards gaze for framing: September 2018 was an emotionally strenuous month. Work-wise, I had just exited from the first summer of my Ph.D. career. Classes had rolled right into research, which rolled right back into classes and preparation for my preliminary exams. Socially, things were odd as well. I was getting adjusted by temporary necessity to Cloyne Court, U.C. Berkeley’s largest undergraduate co-op house. At Cloyne’s worst, it felt like a dystopian “Lord of Flies”-esque simulation, where undergrads lorded over others, policing their language and interactions. I felt anxious each time I entered my “home”.

As a result of these two factors, I escaped when I could to San Francisco. It was not uncommon for me to sleep multiple nights away from Berkeley, sleeping mostly on a couch or floor of a faerie collective for which I had a key. Without my realizing, my life grew to deeply lack structure, reliability, and safety.

This was the backdrop on which, unexpectedly, I started to really look forward to sleeping at Tre Allen’s house.

I had met Tre at a queer rally for climate change. He was carrying a rainbow flag without his shirt on, and we struck up a flirty conversation. We left soon after to spend the rest of the afternoon together. I found him interesting, sexy, and fun, but we agreed clearly that dating was not on the table. I was 9 years his junior and he felt I was too young. That was fine; honestly, I shrugged it off as mental inflexibility and was prepared to forget the interaction.

Through sheer chance (literally), Tre and I hung out more and then I slept over a couple more times. Suddenly, something changed. Being at Tre’s house gave me the structure I sorely needed. Tre projected his personality onto a house that he kept immaculately; there seemed a vision, a purpose. Everything had a place. Tre also involved me in his upkeep and various chores when I was around, which made me feel like I could meaningfully contribute to an order that was maintained. Additionally, his upbeat, warm personality and comforting cuddling gave me a sense of safety that drew me in while Berkeley pushed me away.

Within this context, it’s easy for me to see why I felt so drawn to being with him. It was exciting, a rush; but also a sense of comfort and stability when I was with him. The reward was intermittent, too: I couldn’t predict exactly when I would be invited. I was hooked — my feelings swiftly grew beyond friendship, and I brought up dating again; Tre rejected the proposal and was put on guard.

Looking back, my actions strike me as indirectly addressing my true desires: I didn’t necessarily needed Tre as a boyfriend; instead I craved security. I to know that our interactions would continue. I wanted some sign that he was reciprocating the wild emotions I was feeling; moreso, I wanted to know, truly, that what I thought was “love” was really love. Could it be that I was so inexperienced that I was misinterpreting lust, infatuation, limerence, etc.?

I think that it was inherently uncomfortable for Tre to know that he held another’s heart in his hands; that a single jiggle could have a negative impact. It’s power that begets responsibility, and it was a responsibility that Tre explicitly asked to avoid. It’s also an emotion and circumstances that I didn’t necessarily choose. Things just happened. Society hands us a normative script: with infatuation comes dating, love, and courtship. It’s easy to fall into it; however, rejection was hard. Gosh, it hurt! For the first time in my life, I dearly wished I were older; I cursed that I didn’t live in SF, and I dreamed of all the many ways that the relationship could have taken off differently.

A month went by, and distance and time softened the rejection. As I started to date other people, Tre and I started seeing each other again. He taught me massage. I cooked breakfast for us in the morning. We played video games together, worked together, and started to develop the inside jokes and secret languages of anyone who spend a lot of time together. There wasn’t that much sex, but it felt like the most intimate relationship I had yet experienced. We grew to hang out multiple times a week.

On a Thursday in December, in Tre’s hot tub, I suggested we consider ourselves brothers. He’d be “ob” for “older brother” and I’d be “yb” for “younger brother.” I still remember the look he gave me: intense, with a wide smile, repeating “yb” as though he were trying out the shape of the word. It worked for us. “Ob/yb” allowed me security; we had built something special and unique without the “bf” label. It gave Tre an outlet to develop our relationship in a way that accommodated my age without the normative expectations of dating, but allowed for love nonetheless.

The rollercoaster continued for the next few months. As we fleshed out further what exactly “ob/yb” meant to two gay men with a natural sexual chemistry, we entered a period of difficult boundary negotiation. Tre pushed for a stricter concept of biological brother-ship whereas I slipped periodically into pretending that we were simply boyfriends under another title. The form in we could have sex was extremely sensitive: I remained deeply sexually attracted to Tre, whereas he pushed for limiting our sexual interaction. Neither of us spent much time hearing the other and appreciating the honest, genuine desire to be together on both sides. It was hard. There were times when I would hang my head alone at home and cry from the emotional exhaustion of it all. And despite plenty of progress, it’s an ongoing negotiation.

Truth be told, there’s so much to love about Tre. His radiant smile and laugh are universally uplifting; people describe him as “a light”. His voice has a gorgeous tenor, wrapping around words that are happy and positive. The entirety of his conversing radiates a warm glow. Indeed, he loves people, and he loves being loved: he summons baffling amounts of energy to pour into hosting potlucks and guests. He’s handy and thrifty. His eyes are emotive, expressive, and brilliantly kind. He has a gorgeous physicality that seems deeper than just photo-appearance; his posture, balance of movement and bodily expressiveness communicate an ineffable sexuality. Indeed, the way Tre moves throughout life carries an assertiveness that, in a word, I find inspiring. His hands are muscular and masculine, and he uses them to idly massage parts of me as we talk, putting me at ease. When I’m with him, I feel protected, appreciated, heard, and loved. And perhaps most dear to me, he’ll never say “no” to a massage and not once have we slept together that we haven’t cuddled.

However, there’s also a lot for which to be emotionally cautious. Tre shies away not only from displaying from negative emotions but from situations that risk negative emotions — including situations with potential for emotional intimacy. I’ve witnessed him taking steps to deny a developed chemistry. His texts (to everyone) are brusque, bordering on cold; sometimes he boasts about sexual conquests. When we eat at his place, it’s rare that we face each other. He told me once that he prefers not to be alone with his thoughts; we often use drugs together. He churns through men, anxiously hunting for a boyfriend that I doubt he’ll find; others have described him as “perennially on a third date”. Many of his friends were amazed that I managed to transition into a recurring part of his life. Most of our interactions seem more under his control than mine, and I believe this preference applies to most of his life.

Each of these observations, positive and negative, came from repetitions of prolonged interactions with Tre. I’ve had the chance to observe, develop observations into trends, and hypothesize deeply about the trends– their predictability, their origin, their reason, their effect on me. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the reason to think so deeply and longitudinally about my relationship with one single person. The intellectual journey been an exhilarating ride of learning and growth that has felt incredibly rich. I’ve faced truly difficult emotions which I’ve learned identify, confront, and accept open-hearted. I’ve experienced the benefit of stepping back and listening. I’ve learned that through direct, specific, non-blaming emotional communication, I can start to wear my heart on my sleeve; indeed, in some senses, it feels as though Tre and I are learning to communicate our emotions together.

Perhaps most importantly, my relationship with Tre lit a fire under me to prepare for my next romantic relationship by digging into and better understand my own tendencies towards attachment. “Attachment theory”, a seminal branch in psychology, provides a taxonomy of how humans tend to relate to each other: either in an anxious, avoidant, or secure way. Anxious people tend to invest large amounts in a relationship, ruminating frequently about the other person, wondering if a small action might ruin the relationship, etc. Avoidant people tend to throw up barriers to emotional intimacy, overly valuing the role that independence plays in their happiness and seeing co-dependence as a threat. Moderate amounts of co-dependence, attachment theory posits, is actually a useful feature of a close relationship. Secure people recognize this, allowing for co-dependence in their lives while simultaneously understanding that others’ issues are others’ issues. A secure person would not internalize responsibility for an avoidant person’s intermittent intimacy: they would accept that the avoidant person has a history and a unique set of issues, and would not hang on to a relationship that hurts them.

To my surprise, I’ve found that in most of my longer relationships, I’ve been emotionally avoidant. I’ve dated people long distance, whom I’ve generally considered intellectually inferior to me, and whom I often criticized for being emotionally dependent. These are all characteristics of “an avoidant”. An avoidant will externalize blame to the other person, and will not tolerate change in their own worldly operations to accommodate their partner. Avoidants will subconsciously employ “deactivating strategies” — instinctively recalling their partner’s shortcomings if a moment of intimacy threatens to make them vulnerable. They’ll bring others along to avoid one-on-one time, etc. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been the one to break off all eight of my major relationships.

If it’s surprising to you that an avoidant person would ever let an anxious person into their life, consider that the actions of both parties confirm each other’s. The anxious person is constantly insecure about the relationship and internalizes guilt; the avoidant person fears that the anxious person will steal their independence and vulnerability is a trap. When the avoidant person pulls away out of fear, the anxious person too fears and thus clings more.

Within this lens, my actions of the first few months seem far less baffling. For one of the first times in my life, I’ve occupied the role of an anxiously attached person. Tre plays the avoidant. I repeatedly demanded more emotional availability and commitment than a secure person would, and Tre repeatedly was less willing to try to meet me halfway than a secure person. Neither title is absolute, and to both of our credits, we contain traits of secure people. But the signs of the anxious-avoidant dyad are clear.

One of the positive findings of attachment theory is that, with intentional work, one can develop a secure attachment style. As my relationship with Tre enters a phase in which we both are starting to consider how to make our relationship long-term, I’m investing time and thought in ways to shift my attachment. One great way to do this is to observe closely one or two people in one’s life who have secure attachment, and develop them as your mental ‘secures’: “how would Jesse respond to this?” “What would Ashley say?” Another way is to treat anxiety as symptomatic of self-care needed: to work to develop a safe home base and pleasurable leisure activities. A third, to combat my avoidance, is to intentionally allow for moments when vulnerability is possible, to share open-hearted and to avoid internalizing the reaction of the other; Tre’s issues are his own. Fourth, it is to learn no amount of genuine, honest, non-combative emotional sharing and listening is too much.

As such, I’ve worked to accept that Tre and I would never be boyfriends, and to release that desire in order to explore what we could be. In doing so, I’ve worked to de-possess him in my mind, and massage the jealousy that came with our early interactions. Every text he received was no longer a threat, because there was nothing to threaten besides a fantasy in my head. The best I could do to prevent the rebuilding of this fantasy was to listen. I learned to see our journey together not as a failure to be forgotten, but a period of intense and frequent self-work that was something I could be proud of — like my undergraduate thesis or my research.

At a recent potluck, Tre asked everyone to answer, “what does being gay mean to you?” As we went around the circle, several people spoke positively to the fact that our sexuality enabled us to disregard normative relationship schema and to develop our own, unique relationships. Unlike straight courtship, we didn’t need to follow the conventional map from “A” to “B”. We could assemble our chosen family, blur lines of intimacy when we wanted, and develop our own rules with a primary partner. This gave us opportunity.

However, someone spoke to the opposite: sure, we’ll start at “A” and end up at somewhere that isn’t “B”. But how do we know that it will be any better? What if we miss the mark in our exploration? What if, despite all our effort and thought and philosophizing, we were better off with the normative framework after all?

It’s a question that I wrestle with in my relationship with Tre. Our relationship will not resemble a normative relationship, and I do not know what that means for either of our well-being. However, at the end of a night together, after all our communicating and negotiating and laughing and crying is done and we embrace each other on our way to sleep, I can only cross my fingers and hope for the best.

In the words of Harvey Milk: “You’ll meet many men in your life, and only in the end will you find out who were your greatest lovers and who were your greatest friends.”

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