Love Doesn’t Have to Hurt

Love Hurts by Nicole Hanche
Love Hurts by Nicole Hanche

I can’t believe I used to identify as a masochist for god.

If god is a sadist that gets off on my pain then that isn’t a god that deserves my devotion.

After growing up in constant emotional pain, and witnessing a mother in constant physical and emotional pain, I found ways to learn to endure pain by finding meaning in it. I thought pain was part of life and love. Instead of seeking ways to alleviate and heal my pain, I sought ways to make meaning from it, so that I never put my attention towards the masochistic pattern that kept me in harm’s way.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I played with physical and emotional masochism within BDSM as a tool for healing my trauma from being raped and having my life threatened more than once by a lover. I do find physical masochism, to a certain degree, to be arousing. Sharp things, floggers and single tail whips, being pushed, pulled, grabbed, and squeezed roughly by my Dominant – these all turn me on in big ways. I believe that was true before I was raped, because I was drawn to erotica about lesbian vampires and I started playing with bondage as soon as I knew it existed. I don’t play hard anymore because I endure plenty of pain with Fibromyalgia, I don’t need more pain. But I still play submissive and light masochist with my partner because it makes me happy.

It’s unconscious emotional masochism that I wasn’t seeing – how I was seeking and co-creating painful relationships to recreate what I believed love to be. Until I woke up.

I am 42 years old and it’s only in the last year that I truly started standing up for myself.

I started trying to stand up for myself when I was co-leading the Impropriety Society (the same time I called myself a masochist for god by the way), but I nearly always let the bullies silence me. I let them tell me I was too loud, as if somehow my volume was a bigger problem than their bullying. I let them tell me I was too honest, as if telling the truth is more harmful than abandoning, criticizing, insulting, screaming at, and acting entitled with your volunteer leaders. I let them tell me cultivating self and relational awareness is woo-woo, as if knowing ourselves and others better is simply a New Age concept to dismiss rather than a vital aspect of sharing this planet successfully with other humans. And despite knowing my truth, I shamed myself into thinking I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn their care respect, as if being human and giving thousands of hours of my time and energy to make the events and the community function weren’t enough.

I also tried to stand up for myself in my relationships during those year with lovers who criticized and bullied me (the couple who called me feral and wrote me a two page letter about everything I did wrong on our last date and then thought we could take a break and come back together for the Valentine’s Party), or treated me carelessly (texting other girlfriends during our one date a week yet never responding to me when he was with others; or using my rape as part of a BDSM scene without my consent), which led to disintegration every single time. Of course, now I know that it’s a good thing I left these toxic people behind. Now I know that if calling out bullying and carelessness is a problem for you then I can’t trust you with my vulnerability, I can’t trust you to hold safe space for me. But at the time I thought pain was part of love and I was just too broken to make relationship work.

Now I understand what was really going on. I am a woman that experienced trauma many times in my life and did not have the knowledge or resources to address and release that trauma appropriately. So I did what traumatized people do, I retraumatized myself over and over again seeking a way to resolve the original wounds. Until now.

With my Beloved Eros I heal through love and we work through triggers together rather than use them to beat each other up because we both desire to grow and heal. He causes me very little pain. Instead of continuous relationship issues to be addressed, he offers me safe space to be all of myself and builds me up. We share joy every day. Over the past five years we chose (and choose) to learn how to face our traumas head on, to look at the deeper causes of our triggered reactions, and to talk about our needs and our hurts gently so that we don’t trigger one another into old defensive patterns. We are learning how to hold space for each other’s thoughts and feelings, and how to go back for more information and clarity when misunderstanding starts happening. We adapt tools from various places – nonviolent communication principles, Brene’s Brown’s strategies for dealing with sticky places, etc. – to guide our communication towards greater kindness for ourselves and each other.

If there is anything I can hope to share with other people who suffer from unresolved trauma, it’s that we don’t have to keep traumatizing ourselves to heal. Relationships do not have to cause us constant pain for us to grow. We can grow in love and safety.

I want you to know that your feelings are real and valid. When someone triggers you, it means that they are wounding you, because we are only triggered where we have already been wounded by some kind of unconscious or harmful behavior in our past. If you are triggered by neglect, it is because you were neglected and something is happening now that feels like neglect. If you are triggered by bullying or other forms of emotional abuse (any act including confinement, isolation, verbal assault, insult, criticism, humiliation, intimidation, infantilization, or any other treatment which may diminish the sense of identity, dignity, and self-worth), then you were emotionally abused and something is happening now that feels the same. You are not crazy. Your present reaction may be bigger than than the present situation warrants because a trigger is old pain mixed with new, but the pain is real both past and present. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I want you to know you are an emotional creature who needs to have your feelings so they don’t have you. Repressed emotions and traumas harm our bodies, minds and hearts. It is good to feel your pain and express your pain, as long as you don’t get stuck in your pain. I want you to know you are worthy of safe space to feel, to heal, to talk, to write, to art, to dance or to yell, to scream, to vent, to swear, to do whatever you need to find your wholeness. You have to move through to find healing and wholeness on the other side. And you can learn from looking into all the dark corners of your heart where you could be capable of hurting others. It shows you where your own pain is, where you hurt so much that you could be capable of lashing out in verbal and emotional violence.

I want you to know that doesn’t love have to hurt all the time. While we are human and disappointments are guaranteed, a relationship that hurts most of the time and requires constant work to resolve pain is not a healthy relationship. We shouldn’t have to fight for love or to suffer for love. We certainly shouldn’t have to fight for safe space or suffer silently in fear of our partner’s reaction to our experience. Our partners need to be committed to ending pain and trauma cycles with us. To meet us at the table to work together on healing. To own their stuff and hold safe space for our stuff. To become more self aware and encourage us in our self awareness. I’m convinced it’s the only way to have the dream of love that most of us pine for.

The Heroine’s Journey: I am an Emotional Mountain Climber

540361_10201504920558445_1441567995_nI am struggling as I live between two opposing forces – the desire to build community with my son and his adoptive parents, and the desire to run as far as possible from the birth mother bruising of mine-and-not-mine every day. My heart is being pushed and pulled between conflicting needs, a daily wrestling match that leaves me emotionally exhausted and withdrawn.

I crave this family, the belonging, and the sense of purpose I have found here. And my heart aches daily as our son simultaneously cements his preference for Mommy and shifts toward the independence of toddlerhood.

Despite the perception in popular books and movies, the Heroine’s Journey looks different than the Hero’s. Women undergo journeys of awakening and self definition, but it is often an internal process that happens through our emotions and our intimate relationships rather than through confrontation with forces in the world. Heather Plett says that feminine rites follow a pattern of containment, transformation, and emergence (vs the masculine rites of separation, transition, and reincorporation). I am currently between containment and transformation, waiting for emergence to occur.

I have come to understand that I am an emotional athlete of sorts, an emotional mountain climber. Much like people who train to endure, and even enjoy, the growing pains and discomfort of intense physical adventures (marathons, surfing, skiing, etc.), I am trained to endure and enjoy the growing pains of seemingly unbearable emotional circumstances. The traumas that often damage and break other people are just added weight to the barbell my powerful heart can bench-press.

I experienced life as deeply emotional and profoundly painful from an early age. I score at least a 7 on the ACES test regarding childhood trauma, although there are many more traumas that aren’t listed. I also have an unusually deep capacity for empathy, meaning I feel other people’s emotions in addition to my own. Imagine what that is like when everyone you are a developing child/adolescent and everyone you love is suffering in a significant way. And I’ve worked to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder, also known as Emotional Intensity Disorder. I am running a lifelong marathon to maintain my sanity, emotional regulation, and the chance to thrive in a healthy family dynamic.

My Heroine’s Journey is a map of how to navigate the world with a raw and open heart. I don’t wear emotional armor to protect myself. I don’t know how. Instead, when I am too raw for exposure I hide in my bedroom, my sanctuary, away from people. I am not interested in fighting – not other people, not my own demons, nor the world’s evils. I am passionate about creating and nurturing justice, reconciliation, and belonging through acts of love and generosity. As part of my training, I strive not to turn words into weapons against others when I’m hurt and angry, whether beloveds or strangers. I’ve spent my entire adult life disarming the triggers that can transform my typical gentleness to verbal violence.

One of the primary challenges for people with Borderline is that we have difficulty living with opposing truths, called dialectics. The term’s dialectical means a synthesis or integration of opposites. This is why Dialectical Behavioral Training (DBT) is vital to recovery. Through my research I’ve learned that I consistently provide my own DBT by confronting opposing truths over and over, often on purpose, in order to learn how to regulate my thinking, feelings, and behavior in relationship. For instance, my experiences of polyamory required embracing the opposing truths of my desire for big open love and my abnormally strong fear of abandonment (another BPD trait). I could simultaneously feel compersion and jealousy. I could be deeply frightened and keep choosing love anyway.

Physical masochism is also a dialectic. I surrender my body to experiences of pain from someone who cares for me. Pain, pleasure, love, and fear usually weave together to carry me into ecstasy. But sometimes the physical pain gets wrapped up with my heart pain and I have an emotional release, where something that causes me deep heartache becomes more bearable as the pain is pushed through me with a flogger or a cane. This happened over the weekend when my fiance and I played a relatively mild BDSM scene,  the day after I read a memoir excerpt from a birth mother in an open adoption. Seeing myself in the mirror of her particular words and phrases brought my pain to the surface so that the slightest stimulus rubbed me raw and left me sobbing.

The emotional strength training I put myself through the last 20+ years gave me the ability to make an impossible choice – to give mommyhood to a beloved friend and  retain my place as a different sort of mother in my child’s life. I live the dialectic of mine-and-not-mine with my son every minute of every day. I feel the biological and emotional pull to be his mommy and I keep my distance to allow another woman to be the foundation of his safety and belonging. I ache because he favors her now and I am immensely grateful that I don’t often have to endure all of the hard parts (irregular sleeping patterns, tantrums, etc.).

I try to nurture connection and distance at the same time, both with my son and his adoptive parents. I truly crave the intimacy of chosen family and intentional community. I also choose to live with them because I desire to lighten the burden of full time parenting and help them afford a nice home in a good neighborhood with all of the related benefits. After so many years as a single mom, I don’t want our son’s parents to ever feel alone in their care and responsibility of him.  Yet as my relationship with our son shifts I become more withdrawn, spending less time with the family. I focus my attention on the parts of my life that aren’t so painful and complicated, like my relationship with my fiance and my book creation (and a good dose of television).

I am living in this family dialectic, navigating it mostly with grace, and yet I worry that I am not doing enough. I worry that I am not present enough, connected enough, or co-parenting enough. Because my work in the world is now focused on belonging, I am learning about the psychology of community and the practices that are required to keep community functioning in vibrant ways. Yet I refuse to act on these knowings with those closest to me because I am frightened of my own vulnerability. I don’t know how to be this raw with other people. In my journey to find emotional stability I have always lived in my own head – and bedroom – when in pain. It is how I contain myself, keep my emotions from overwhelming others. I have no idea how to be in this strange place I now live between love and pain in a home and intimate relationship with other adults.

Some days I feel like a fraud. Who am I to write about courage, connection, and community when I can’t yet find the strength to bring my own vulnerability to the table with those closest to me? I was able give a child from my body, I can give my work to support my family, and yet these past few months I can rarely share myself with them.

The focus of my self work these days is to hold myself in the same compassion and acceptance that I give others. I am working to stop beating myself up for falling short of my own high standards for conscious living and relationship. The truth is that to evolve from suffering a mental illness that will not allow opposing truths to living peacefully in a situation that is built of opposing truths is a significant accomplishment. It is in recognizing how far I have come these past 20 years that I  see I need to give myself patience. I am in the endurance race of my life. I will be living in some form of this dialectic with my son and his adoptive parents forever, whether or not I continue to live in the same home with them. I have plenty of time and safe space in which to build my emotional muscles with people who love me no matter what I bring to the table on any given day. I am already enough simply by choosing to be here and contributing in this home with this family.


Image by Flickr Artist Christian Thompson