I was in a relationship for four-ish years which began very well: We had a satisfying sex life for the first two years, and then my partner began to identify more & more as asexual. The sex fizzled out until it ceased entirely for the second half of the relationship; we broke up, but I was willing to see if things would have changed. My partner and I discussed opening the relationship so I could get the sex I needed but ultimately I turned this down because I was so burned out trying to keep the rest of my life afloat. This whole situation was codependent and unhealthy!
This was two years ago. We broke up, finally; I left my shitty professional situation and moved many miles away from all of this to a really good job in a rural place, where the nearest city is over an hour away. I’m doing a lot of work on myself to figure out what I want and need. I know I am acceptably hot and I have a drawer full of sex toys that get plenty of use. But, I am so afraid of losing the feeling of being desirable to someone else again. I need a lot of reassurance on this front, which I am not exactly getting in a place without a lot of people to date. I need to regain this confidence and I don’t know how.
The common theme seems to me that, essentially, you lost yourself in navigating all these elements of your life: your previous relationship, the ways in which your former partner’s evolving identity impacted you (and the how hard you tried your best to show up for them during these changes). Simultaneously, a toxic work environment can lead to emotional and even erotic burn out in your personal life. I want to commend you for how you’ve handled the situation – it seems to me that you really did the best you could by your partner, and also knew when to say when – something that many, many people struggle with. Now, two years later and with enough physical and metaphorical distance between Now You and Past You, and you’re ready to get back to yourself.
First I want to acknowledge that the situations you were dealing with back then were not easy situations to deal with. Supporting a partner through changes in identity, especially when part of those changes directly impacts the relationship dynamic, is probably one of the hardest things people do for those they love. And while intellectually perhaps it was easy to support a partner becoming more authentically who they are, when it impacts the relationship in a way that is important to you (like when suddenly you have to navigate drastic changes to your sex life), that’s really hard.
It sounds like the two of you tried your best to acknowledge both of you as full, complex, and autonomous individuals in relationship with one another, each with needs that were valid, though they caused conflict. But while opening a relationship when one partner’s needs are incompatible with the other’s is certainly a valid and valuable method of growing together within a relationship, it’s often easier said than done. You and your partner were monogamous and had a satisfying sex life up you didn’t, and their decreasing interest in sex may have felt like rejection to you. Rejection like that is painful– even if intellectually you understood it, and emotionally you were supportive of their journey. This, combined with the stress that you were feeling at work, would have made pursuing romantic and sexual relationships outside of your relationship come from a place of desperation rather than one of desire, curiosity, and pleasure. I commend you for having the self-awareness to recognize that, and to make the changes you needed to get to a healthier place.
Now, for the second part of your letter, which has to do with where you are now, and some of the logistical challenges to getting your groove back. You’re in a healthier place in a lot of ways – no more codependent relationship, no more toxic job. You took the time you needed to process the effect that both of those things had on you. You’re being proactive about figuring yourself out, too, which is amazing, and so important. But you happen to be in a location where there isn’t a huge dating pool, an hour away from the closest city – and I get the sense, too, that maybe you’re a little gun-shy when it comes to being vulnerable enough to be intimate with someone else again. The desire is there – those sex toys wouldn’t be in such regular rotation if it wasn’t – but it seems to me like your own belief in your desirability is what’s lacking.
Now, I’m not the type of person who believes that you have to love yourself in order to “be worthy” of the love of someone else (though for a long time, I was, because that’s the narrative we’re so often sold, usually in a misguided attempt at empowerment). But there are plenty of people in the world who are a little broken, a little hurt; who are nursing-ourselves-back-to-whatever-we-define-as-health-and-happiness, and who still get out there and find love and sex just fine. And you can do both: you can be healing, and you can be searching, and finding, the types of relationships you want and you can be out there, trying, and messing up, and feeling shy and awkward, and trying again. Because while I appreciate that you’re doing a lot of work on yourself – work that you are willing and dedicated to doing – I also want to acknowledge that you are enough, just the way you are.
When we go through a long periods of stress, we experience harm, and it is harm that we have to be patient about healing from. And while the tone of your letter seems to downplay some of this stress (you write in a very matter-of-fact way, giving very little away in terms of how the end of this relationship impacted you, or how it felt to get away from your shitty job and move to a brand new, fairly isolated place), that doesn’t mean that you’re done dealing with it. You’re at your most vulnerable when you describe how afraid you are of never being desired by another again. Own that vulnerability, because really owning our soft parts is part of what confidence is. Similarly, though it’s difficult to unlearn – you don’t necessarily have to worry about whether you’re “acceptably” hot or not, or to what degree you consider yourself sexy, though literally everything we’re ever taught from the time we can walk is how to be pretty, or attractive, or sexy, or appealing. Screw that. Instead, I suggest really sitting with your vulnerability and fear. What does it feel like? What happens in your body when you think What if no one ever wants me again? What happens to your heart, to you chest, to your breath? It sounds like you have a healthy masturbation practice, and that’s great – but what is the intention behind the ways you touch yourself? Do you do it to release sexual tension (totally valid), or do you really love on yourself? And if you don’t – what would it be like to love on yourself? To be with yourself? To take sexy selfies just for you? To run a bath and light candles and rub oils into your skin and hair? To touch yourself gently, like a lover would, as an other would, with newness and delight, all over your body, and not just the go-to spots. Explore with different sensations. Explore different fantasies. Really hone in on yourself as an erotic being. Get to know that person. Set intentions for yourself, calling on courage; opening yourself up to receive; or just being with your own hurt, vulnerability, fear, and softness.
Of course, the thing about feeling desired is that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and skin hunger and the need for intimacy and closeness is a very real thing that can’t be solved by you, alone. I don’t know where you live, and I don’t know what your social circle is light, so I don’t have any real, concrete ways to get you out into the dating world again. But in terms of building confidence, there are some steps you can take even right now, where you live, to start seeing yourself – and inviting others to see you – through the eyes of a lover. If you’re comfortable posting things online, why not try taking part in the #SensualSelfieChallenge next time it rolls around. If posting things on your general social media sounds too scary, why not create a private Instagram (a finsta, as the youths tell me it’s called), and explore yourself as an erotic object there? If that’s still too much, then maybe identify a friend or two who would be open to receiving your nudes, with the explicit understanding that this is a positive feedback space only, and the only appropriate responses are the tongue emoji and a bunch of exclamation points. Several of my friends love sending nudes to each other, or posting them to their Close Friends on Instagram or SnapChat, and it’s such a common phenomenon now that even Broadly has written about it.
Mostly, though, I think you should be gentle with yourself. You made the choices you had to make to get to a healthier place, and at the same time, your healthier place is one in which there aren’t that many people for you to date. That’s a real, logistical conundrum, and as someone who has lived in cities for my whole life, it’s one that I don’t have quick fix to offer to you. I do know, though, that you don’t need to rush yourself, and you don’t need to fix yourself to whatever degree or goal you’ve got in your head before you’ll be worthy and deserving. You’re already worthy and deserving, even if you don’t feel the most confident. Guess what? You don’t need to be the most confident. You just need to be you.