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Relationships and Sex: Moving Forward by Our Own Terms, not Society’s

By Priyanka Hardikar

“I feel like we are breaking up when we were never going out. I think I may have been your rebound without being your rebound,” he says to me, and I find myself reflecting on that.

A guy that I dated briefly years ago resurfaces in my life and I feel the immediate comfort of his presence, his familiarity. His attentiveness and adoration for me make me feel like I am wrapped in a blanket of love in the moments I am the loneliest. His sense of humor and lightheartedness soften my mood, the heaviness I feel from an aching heart.

And the way he views me reminds me that I already am complete and whole on my own.

Had the circumstances been different, it would have been effortless to pick up right where we left off as if nothing had happened in between, as if I had forgotten why we hadn’t worked out before and why we couldn’t work out now. But as it turned out, a lot happened in those years apart – including my ending a relationship with a man I was madly in love with but could not pursue a future with.

While I was processing my emotions, I fell into some old habits and I am not proud of the mixed signals I was sending this guy. I flirted with him, I was affectionate towards him, but I was also hesitant and guarded. I was careful of what I gave away. He might have perceived it as I was just being picky, but I knew what it was: I felt comforted by his presence – that persisted through all the seasons of me – but that was it. I did not see anything long-term with him. I never had.

That left me in a strange place with him, though, because I also wasn’t the type to sleep around. Sometimes, I almost wanted to be, but the idea of it contradicted with what I looked for in love and relationships. Just thinking about sharing that kind of intimacy with someone I did not know or love brought me anxiety. Maybe one day it wouldn’t. Maybe one day it would feel right for me. But I had to honor and accept where I was at this point in my journey. 

Years ago, I would stop talking to a guy that I got along with really well because he was looking for “just sex” and I knew that wasn’t me. It wasn’t an easy decision for me, but I felt a certain level of pride for staying true to who I was. Sex, to me, was and is something sacred, that I wanted to share only with someone I love. And I’ve learned, as I grow older, to embrace that, even if society doesn’t. I used to wonder if I was taking life too seriously – if I should change the way I view sex. I wanted to be carefree in my social life. But just as there is nothing wrong with hooking up, what is wrong with wanting to share intimacy only with someone who makes you feel safe and loved? Brene Brown says to be vulnerable with those who have earned the right to see it. When in life are we more vulnerable than during sex?

Isn’t it interesting how we went from one extreme to another? At one point, we used to get shamed for sleeping around and now we are shamed if we refuse to play into the hookup culture. Both extremes are wrong because whom we sleep with and when and why we choose to is up to us, and us only.

If and when we choose to have sex with someone, it should be because we want to. Because we are ready to. Because it is our choice. It shouldn’t be because we think we are supposed to. Or because we want to fit in with our peers and the hookup culture that we may not even believe in. I like that consent is defined as an agreement between two people that is freely and clearly communicated – that is an enthusiastic yes, not an “I’m not sure but I’ll just go along with it because I don’t know what else I should do.” RAINN, an anti-sexual assault nonprofit, describes consent as an ongoing process of discussing boundaries and what you’re comfortable with.

This means that we are allowed to change our minds at any time, and not feel bad about it. We are allowed to speak up for ourselves, instead of staying silent out of fear. We are allowed to want differently for ourselves than what society often tells us we deserve. I read today in Roxane Gay’s book, “Not That Bad:” The question is not what will he think of me if I don’t answer his question, if I’m not polite, if I don’t want to go, but what do I think of him?”

The whole time we’re worried about what he will think but do we ever stop and wonder what it will do to us, how it will make us feel? Not listening to our inner wisdom and running away from ourselves leaves a lasting impression not just on our bodies, but on how we love – ourselves and others.

Sometimes, the most important messages – the lessons we need to learn – come from the most uncomfortable conversations.

So, that day, I chose to be honest with him, to honor where I was right now. I told him I was still in the healing process of my last relationship, that I was still hurt. He asked me why I was hurt, and I told him it was because I ended a relationship with someone I wanted to spend my life with. He said that we can’t change people, and we can’t change the past. He shared with me that he wished that he had stayed in Arizona and had done whatever it took to mend that relationship, but that he hadn’t and now he lives those regrets. “But I’m moving forward anyway,” he tells me. “And you should, too.”

I realize that he is right. Moving forward isn’t just about going on with your life and your daily tasks. It’s not about dating someone new in an attempt to replace your old love with a new one. It’s about creating space in your heart, clearing some of the toxic or self-sabotaging energy inside of you. I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on what I have lost, but I’ve spent very little time on what I have gained. The silver lining has always been this: I get to find out what I really want with someone who wants it, too. Rather than remaining in a relationship with a dead-end, I get a chance at finding my happy ending. This is something to celebrate, not to mourn.

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