We say in 12-step programs that you usually don’t end up there after a bad weekend of drinking or wild sex; it’s usually because your life has come crashing down. This happened to me last summer in my sex and love life. It totally blew up. After months of agonizing healing (and many messy mistakes), I’m here to share 12 important lessons I learned about dating from a 12-step sex and love program.
Boundaries are a great litmus test for respect. Boundaries are not only crucial to my physical safety and emotional well-being, but they’re also great litmus tests to see who respects me and who doesn’t. If I tell my date that I’m ready to go home and they push back on my needs, I should be warned that they’re bad news. Alternately, if I tell my date I’m not comfortable doing more than kissing and they take a step back to let me lead the way, their actions indicate that they respect me. I can measure how much respect someone has for me relative to their reactions to the boundaries I set to keep myself safe.
“No” is a complete sentence. It’s common for many women to be unfamiliar with saying “no.” We’re taught to defer to men, be people pleasers, and not make a fuss. A big part of my healing has been to totally smash this idea and to instead let myself say what I need and not explain. Sometimes this means saying “no” to someone who has asked me on a date and not explain myself when they ask why. I’ve learned that “no” is a complete sentence.
Getting physical too soon clouds my judgment. I don’t even need booze or drugs to feel high. Give me some time in a room with someone I’m physically attracted to, and I can be flying high for days. Much like nose-diving into a pile of cocaine, though, getting physical immediately is fun for a while until the rush ruins everything. Quickly, I’m unable to tell if I even like the person or if I just like the endorphins that touching them causes. When I’m physical on the first few dates, I find myself making excuses for red flags and falling into the “but they’re so hot…” trap. Alternatively, if I can give myself space and time to decide if I like someone, I have better judgment of our compatibility.
Rainchecking people isn’t appropriate. Toxic people find their way into my life, and I sometimes find I’m unable to say no. Instead, I say “maybe” or “later.” Rainchecking is saying anything other than “no” when that’s what my answer should be. It leaves me feeling anxious and the other person confused. It results in later acting out (booty-calling that dude who smokes too much pot) or awkwardly ignoring him the next few times he texts me. It’s much better to clearly say “no” when it’s in my best interest.
There are actually a lot of good people in the world.When I was toxic, I was attracting people who were also toxic. Healing in a 12-step recovery program specific to relationships has made me a much healthier person. As a result, I attract healthier partners. When I turned my attention away from all of the bad boys and unavailable people, a world of genuinely nice human beings opened up to me. It’s like they were hiding in plain sight all along — I just couldn’t see them. With recovery and a desire for a healthy partnership, these people became available to me.
Once they’ve been honed, gut feelings should be listened to. I’ve made an important distinction here: gut feelings need to be honed before they can be listened to. As a survivor of sexual trauma, I learned to disassociate from my body, cutting off my ability to clearly read gut instincts. It was a protective mechanism for a while, but it stopped working when I began healing. As I’ve honed my gut and healed from trauma, I see that something in me very intelligibly tells me when a situation or person is dangerous. My body even tells me when someone isn’t a good fit if I give it space and time to do so.
Chasing unavailable people ensures my fear of being abandoned is fulfilled. The irony in my former habit of pursuing unavailable people was that I was making my greatest fear into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was ensuring I’d be abandoned because I set myself up for failure from the start. I was so afraid of dating someone who would leave that I’d only pursue people who could never fully be there in the first place. Sometimes this meant a married man and other times this meant someone who was clearly still hung up on their ex. In the end, it’s much more worth it to at least try with someone who is available, it’s okay if it doesn’t work out.
Hobbies and pursuits outside of my relationships are incredibly important. “Bottom lines” are acting out behaviors that I refrain from to keep myself safe (like getting emotionally or physically involved with married men). Alternatively, “top lines” are behaviors that help me to live and love my life. They look like creative writing from my heart, playing hockey, connecting with old friends, volunteering, and thrift shopping. It’s important I feel fulfilled through pursuits outside of a romantic relationship. Before top lines, I would lose my sense of self in my partner. Now I understand the importance.
My body is sacred and deserving of love and care. The 12-step program doesn’t tell anyone how to live their life. Rather, I had to discern my individual truth with the help of a mentor (sponsor). Coming from a deeply spiritual background, she helped me to connect to the idea that my body is sacred. All bodies are sacred, but my vagina is literally where human life is created. Sex is diving into this life force with another human, and it’s deeply intimate. I learned to appreciate my body more and to stop giving it away so easily. Instead, I’m working to only be with those who know how deeply my body and soul are deserving of love and care.
Pain is the greatest motivator. I can know for months or years that an aspect of my life needs to change before I become willing to do anything about it. I’ve learned that’s okay and that pain is a huge part of the growing process. Often we need pain to light a motivational fire under us to become better people. It doesn’t make me any less of a person because that needed to happen.
Discipline can actually bring peace.If you’re anything like me, you roll your eyes at the word “discipline.” I hate it. I’m so stubborn and want to do everything on my terms. Turns out that doesn’t work out so well for me, though, especially in my dating life. Instead, I’ve been integrating discipline into my life in small ways. In the Buddhist lineage I practice in, we see discipline as a gentle focus on what will lessen our human suffering. As I’ve integrated that definition of discipline into my dating life, I’ve paused for a few hours (or minutes) before making a rash sexual decision. I’ve called a friend instead of messaging a hot (taken) guy on Facebook, and I’ve blocked a girl who was alluring, but absolutely crazy and not good for me. These disciplined actions have brought newfound peace.
I’m too worthy and lovable to settle for less than I deserve.Being alone for a long time has taught me just how much of a loveable and worthy human being I am. Warsan Shire, a lovely Somali poet, said eloquently: “My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.” And so it is. My solitude is a warm hug. I’ll only date someone if they’re comparable to it.
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