Contempt is a Luxury of the Entitled
First of all, I want to give a shout out to Reese Piper. She wrote the original article, entitled The Cost of Feigning Intimacy for PeepShow. PeepShow covers news and stories from the sex industry.
Secondly, I love everything about Piper’s article. Her story about the cost of feigning intimacy really struck home for me. Reading Piper’s article I was reminded again how many of the relationships in my life are built more on theater than reality.
Which, as a sidebar, PeepShow reminds me that I really don’t know anything about the lives of other people.
Spend some time on Peepshow and check out the great writing about the sex industry. Perhaps, like me, you will recognize the biases and assumptions culture makes about people and the industry.
I hope you will add your thoughts below and read Piper’s story.
The Cost of Feigning Intimacy
I was never a fan of strip clubs.
I haven’t been in one since my 21st birthday and in the USMC. They never seemed authentic to me. I watched a few young – and old – Marines fall in love with women dancing to pay their bills and make a life.
I had more than one Marine friend believe there was something more meaningful to a lap dance than commerce.
Here is the thing I realize as an adult: maybe there was more to their choices and I was simply judgemental. Obviously, some need is being met, or else why choose to participate? My decision to self-righteously judge their choices with such contempt reflects my entitlement. I didn’t make those choices because I didn’t need to make those choices.
As I said earlier, so much of what gets dressed up as reality is really theater but the best theater has substance behind it. The best theater leaves an impact. Everyone chooses a part for a reason that makes sense at the moment. Even if that part is an act. Even if the part is chosen unconsciously. For example, I recognize I have unconsciously played a Hero to some, and been imagined as the Villain by others. Sometimes I even played the victim.
However, those roles were defined based on the reality of my life in that moment or someone else’s imagination.
When I hear someone claim their betrayal “doesn’t mean a thing” (or some variation), I roll my eyes. Of course betrayal means something. Probably not what we think it means, but it definitely means something in the moment.
The reality is none of my experiences, and the choices that led me here, are random. None exist in a vacuum.
Not infidelity. Not divorce.
Not a lap dance.
The Price of Appearance
For me, I have always pursued meaningful attachments even while I struggle to honor the requirements to build a secure attachment (if you cannot tell, I’m a bit disorganized).
Too often I would give the appearance of confidence and commitment while at the same time believing I was intrinsically unworthy of this love and trying to hold back a rising neurotic tide imagining eventual rejection and abandonment. I thought proving love was a requirement for being worthy of love. It was, like a lap dance, transactional.
As a result, this hunger for intimacy brought me to a different kind of strip club. One where I paid for it with something other than money. I paid in broken hearts, dreams, and tears: mine and others.
Of the many truths revealed in recovering from the pain of my infidelity, secrets, and lies are many of the relationships in my life were also theater: a personally improvised, interpretative Greek Tragedy with occasional musical interludes.
Repeatedly I have pursued emotionally distancing partners struggling with equally disorganized, traumatic, and anxious attachments. I repeatedly chose to love partners carrying trauma, shame, secrets, lies, stories, and possessing bits of the betrayer and the betrayed.
And they chose me back.
Up to this point in my life, I have pursued emotional distancers and engaged in unhealthy self-defeating patterns. Once I own this truth, I am forced to take responsibility to do it differently.
Looking at the partners and patterns I realize I have always chosen relationships with people ignorant of their own damage, perpetual victims looking for Heroes, or carrying a deep emotional entitlement. However, they alone are not responsible for the failure of the relationships. Paraphrasing Commodore Perry, “I have met the enemy, and it is me.”
“One rarely falls in love without being as much attracted to what is interestingly wrong with someone,” writes Alain de Botton, “as what is objectively healthy.” And I love interestingly wrong people specifically because we are wrong in complex and amazing ways.
Frankly, owning this truth also makes me acknowledge the reality that I will never be the first choice for people with experience in stable and secure attached relationships.
Knowing this I recognize the best opportunity for a secure functioning relationship at fifty-two years of age, two attempts at marriage, and lots of broken promises is found in partnership with someone who has gazed into the mirror and not blinked at their reflection. Someone with self-compassion, awareness, generosity of spirit, and likes to give, and receive, the occasional fuck.
Someone that is able to own what is the good, bad, and Ugly about themselves without blame. Someone that can, and will, graciously allow for my idiosyncrasies because they are aware of their own.
Someone recognizing, as Botton writes, “Few in this world are ever simply nasty; those who hurt us are themselves in pain. The appropriate response is hence never cynicism nor aggression but, at the rare moments one can manage it, always love.”
Someone with a mature self-awareness recognizing intimacy and growth is built on being open to risk and uncertainty and not pursuing safety and consistency.
Only when I take a more mature perspective on my choices do I start to appear properly in my own life, and not a production imagined by me or someone else. Only then do people start to see me.
Not everyone will see me, but the ones that matter will.
“Maturity begins with the capacity to sense and, in good time and without defensiveness, admit to our own craziness,” writes Botton. It is in this self-awareness of my own craziness that I have found a foundation for self-compassion and intimacy.
The price I paid for maintaining appearances held open the doors to neurotic choices and choosing partners struggling with their own insanities: the Harley riding recovering alcoholic bombshell, the firey red-head twenty-five years older than me, the beautifully brilliant teacher traumatized by an abusive husband, and the ice queen constantly seeking new knights.
I love these women as well as I was able to love. Even while the patterns unfolded. Even as we each danced and swung around our own personal pole of chaos. Stripping the clothing covering what was both interestingly beautiful and damaged.
For this reason, there are specific themes in Piper’s writing that really grabbed me. I’m going to post a few below because they spoke to the nuances in my life beyond simple infidelity.
Just the Tip
When Piper talks about how she compartmentalized her pain and frustrations it really struck a chord for me.
I’ve been in sales most of my life and one thing I recognized early was the happy, warm, gregarious, salesperson always sells more than the one who brings their issues to work. No one wants to work with the curmudgeon. No one wants to spend time or money with the Grumpy Gus. No one wants to be married to the person that is depressed, anxious, or lonely.
Positivity sells more cars, mortgages, pizzas, and lap dances – even when it is a facade. The goal of sales is to solve a problem, even if the problem – and the solution is simply imagined.
Someone said to me, “I only want positive people in my life.” My secrets and lies were attempts to only bring the positive to the table, to always show people the positive me.
Now, I’ve come to see the most difficult people in my life to be authentic with are the people that only want to feel good and hear the positive things. Anything that makes them uncomfortable is someone else’s fault. As a result in nearly every relationship in my life, up to recently, there was no room for failure. Anything negative had to be ignored, overlooked, shamed, ostracized, and dumped.
Like Piper, I had my mask to wear too.
My role as Hero on the white horse was a part I was trained to play my whole life in one relationship after another. It was not until the last several years did I realize how this “constant emotional performance would impact my capacity for intimacy” and what it would cost me.
Without a doubt, I learned somewhere that “performing happiness” acts “as a shield against violence.” Enthusiastically “going along to get along” reduces conflict and makes other people happy. It has been the rare relationship where the person I am with asks me “What do you want? What do you need?”
When I am asked that question I feel like it is bait for a trap.
The family comedian learns early humor could act as a shield from pain and bullies. As Ella Wheeler wrote in 1883, “Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone.” It doesn’t matter if on the inside I was crying.
For this reason the cliche in the many stories around infidelity is if “a man weeps, he is weak and looking for self-pity.”
Is it any wonder pretend normal is the default approach to emotions for so many men?
As Brene Brown discusses in her talk on shame, we all play a role for someone.
When a man confronted Brown at a book signing he reminded her that a man’s shame is built around being perceived as weak by others. He declares to Brown, “My wife and three girls would rather see me die on my white horse than appear weak.”
To this end, if a man cannot protect his loved ones from pain and harm because of his failures and mistakes is he weak? If he needs help is he weak? Should he apologize when the act of apologizing is treated as evidence of weakness? Is he apologizing for being weak or for his mistakes?
With infidelity the vulnerable man is greeted with accusations of weakness, self-pity, and being beta.
“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness,” said the movie star John Wayne.
As such, if the goal is not to appear weak or needy, where does that leave a man looking to own his mistakes? Grow? Change? Mature? Where does that truth leave a man to go with his shame? Who is safe to hear a man’s weakness?
Perhaps the bartender or mistress or stripper will listen.
Someone that will allow him the privilege of being the fake real person as Piper describes, instead of the real fake person, buried with the anxiety of knowing his own hypocrisy. The stripper pumping him up and sending him home in the hopes he can ride one more day, wondering if this is the day he dies upon his stead.
Who fluffs the stripper’s heart?
Like the man that confronted Brown, Piper writes, “This was something I understood in theory but working with people unconsciously taught me that I was only likable when I was in a good state of mind. The work conditioned me to feel unsafe expressing a range of emotions.”
I read stories from women about how much they desire a vulnerable man; how much they long for a partner that will show them their heart. After reading thousands of tweets, reading hundreds of posts and articles, the vulnerable man is still trapped by toxic expectations. The vulnerability is conditional: people are only interested in a vulnerable truth when it conforms to the expectations, not the reality.
“I love you and I cheated on you,” has caused more controversy on closed threads than anything I have ever written or said. It is a statement of vulnerability, of both my intentions and my weakness.
Botton asks, “Do you love me enough that I may be weak with you? Everyone loves strength, but do you love me for my weakness?” For Botton, and many others, this “is the real test. Do you love me stripped of everything that might be lost, for only the things I will have forever?”
Will you love the real me or just the fake me? Will you love me at my worse or only at my best?
Lots of questions. Few simple answers.
And here again, I recognize two simple and elegant truths:
1. Few of the people in a relationship with me want me. Instead, they want the shallow shell of me. They want me to make them feel good, make them feel wanted, make them feel important, they want me to make them feel safe. They want me to make them feel secure. They want me to be something for them so they don’t have to be themselves. If I do make them feel these things I must love them. If I don’t make them feel these things than I must not.
2. I want the same things from them.
I’m not doing this anymore, even if it means melting my life down again. I’ll not make this same mistake. I’d rather lose it all again than live someone else’s story for the sake of appearances and proving I’m worthy of love.
I’m not doing it perfectly but I am doing it.
Piper’s post reminds me how people from all walks of life compartmentalize and wear a mask just to get through the day. She reminds me that the things that look intimate are often not intimate but simply facades of intimacy. Long shadows cast by wounds illuminated by loneliness, grief, and loss; fearful shadows thrown by feelings of abandonment, shame, and unworthiness.
It is for these reasons that vulnerability feels uncomfortable, unsafe, and unsure and often traded in for masks that allow people to move unmolested through the ether of their tribe of choice. Removing the mask, revealing our doubts, faults, failures, and mistakes to one tribe may simply be out of step with the rest of the group.
The dancer falling a beat behind, left behind.
Vulnerability and intimacy require people to trade appearances for depth. Is it any wonder intimacy and vulnerability are a commodity poorly traded? Tough to live authentically when most people are unwilling to reflect on the meaning and simply look to blame to feel better and avoid pain.
Blame feels better than taking responsibility. Blame is easier than reflections on the fake real self we hide behind. Blame is theater lighting cast towards what we want people to see, not what is happening backstage.
As a wise woman in the Facebook Esther Perel Discussion Group reminded me, “Infidelity isn’t something you do, it is someplace you go.” It is a theater where I went to wear a mask to explore something about myself that the real me couldn’t.
Infidelity, with all its secrets and lies is, as Botton writes, the need to “inhabit one reality without destroying the other.”
Clearly I failed.
The reality of my choices have impact and hurt and harmed people that love me and that I loved. My actions were not a fantasy. The impact on my life or the lives of the people around me struck a deep and meaningful tone that continues to reverberate through my life and my ex-Wife’s life.
It will reverate for a long time but what we hear will depend on what we are listening for and how as individuals we choose to interpret the chords.
My ex-Wife’s decision to call my X stripped me of the mask I was using to shield my heart from more trauma — and the heart of others. It stripped me of the mask I was using to explore an alternate life.
My ex-Wife did me a favor.
Not only did it unmask me, allowing me to be more authentically myself, but it stripped my X of her mask as well. I see my X more clearly for who she is, and not who and how I imagined her. It forced me to confront what I already knew about my X but refused to believe: she wanted only the fake real me.
When my X and I stood together at art shows, we would tell people I was her driver, sherpa, and manservant. I would tell people that to love her was to love her work and her life. I would sit in a chair during the art show and watch her twirl and flirt about and think of all the ways I loved her. I would tell people my X was my soul passion. That I never wanted to be anywhere other than with her.
Which was always true. Always. She was my rock-star.
Like Piper, I realize I shrank so my X could see her reflection.
Looking back, I’m not sure she ever saw me the way I saw her. On long rides back home she would turn to me and the boys and say, “Make sure you think Sean for keeping us safe and getting us home.” Then I would unpack the RV, unpack the art trailer, and walk the dogs, while she sat on the couch and played Word with Friends.
I didn’t want to be thanked. I wanted to be loved as passionately as I loved her.
In pursuit of this goal I compartmentalize my life, destroyed my marriage, and abandoned my self in exchange for a couple of oil paintings, strokes to my ego, and a few trinkets. My X didn’t value me for me but, in my opinion, valued me for what I could do for her and how I made her feel.
In truth, I didn’t value myself either, and as such I acted accordingly. Like Piper, “I didn’t realize what it would cost me” to try to be everything for my X leaving little for myself.
Of course, like many things in life, until the bill is due, no one ever knows the cost.
I’ll not make the same mistake again. I may not be perfect but I am worthy.
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