An atheist considers a stained-glass manger scene
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We all have that one friend, who’s shy, introverted, a little weird, and possibly has some social anxiety issues. You invite them to a thing, they spend a lot of it hanging around the food table and sucking at small talk. It’s probably easier for them to make friends with the cat than with new humans at the party. But later, they’re like “Yeah, that was fun, thanks for bringing me along.”

Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash.
Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash.

Okay, fine, I’m that person. However, few people realize it unless I tell them, because I’m also a professional performer and my resting bitch-face actually comes across as neutral when I want it to.

So, you have this friend, and you somehow arrive at the conclusion that since they’re an adult, it’s on them to tell you how they’re doing, and whether or not they’re having fun (shocking, right?). If you bring them to an event and they don’t look like they’re the life of the party, but they also don’t tearfully ask you to leave, it’s probably a sign that they’re doing okay. Perhaps their version of having fun simply doesn’t look like your version of having fun. Maybe they just like people-watching. Whatever. It’s cool.

What amazes me is that so few people seem able to translate this mentality – they’re an adult, they’re responsible for their own experience, if they need something they’ll tell me – from friendships to relationships.

Some of the problems I’ve heard about, and experienced, when it comes to sex and relationships take the following shapes:

  • “My partner agrees to do the things I want to do, but doesn’t seem to enjoy them as much as I do.”
  • “I want to perform XYZ sexual activities on/to my partner, but they don’t orgasm from it, what’s wrong with me?”
  • “Whenever we do ABC my partner clams up, and doesn’t sound like they’re into it, or not as much as I would if someone were doing ABC to me.”

Now obviously, obviously, there’s room in here for someone to be enduring touch or a social activity, or to feel/be coerced into doing something. There are definitely ways that an unhealthy or abusive dynamic can look rather like what I’m describing here. However, this post is more about relationships where people are making an effort to do the work to not create co-dependent, manipulative, and/or abusive patterns. I’m assuming mature adults who aren’t perfect, but are willing to admit when they’re wrong, and make amends, and try to do better in the future (and are probably in therapy, or at least open to the idea that asking for help doesn’t mean you’re broken).

But, just like someone’s resting bitch face in a social situation might look unpleasant to outsiders, but is actually just a neutral expression worn by someone who’s having an a-okay time, someone’s sexytimes face could look contorted or like they’re in agony or whatever…but they’re actually really caught up in the sensation and having a GREAT time. Seriously, not everyone looks like they’re in total bliss when they’re swept up in a sensual or sexual experience.

I guess what I’m saying here is that just as I want my friends to accept that I’m weird and awkward in social settings but still capable of having a good time, I want everyone to accept that their partners’ enjoyment of an activity may not look like their own – but that’s okay. If you can trust your friends to be like “hey here’s what’s going on with me, I’m good to hang out for a while” then why not your partners?

My main tip here is to recognize that someone else’s experience is not always about you. You might’ve invited your friend to the party, but your responsibility ends there (I mean, you’ve gotta follow through if you offered them a ride, and you’ve gotta not be a dick in general, but yeah). Similarly, you can craft experiences to share with your romantic and/or sexual partner(s), but you’re only responsible for some of that when the other person hops on board. As soon as another person’s involved, it’s not all about you. And I know there can be a lot of shame in feeling like you (especially cis-het men) haven’t done enough to create the perfect experience for your partner thanks to socialization… but let me reiterate, it’s not all about you. Each individual brings their own history and context to the table, and trying to take responsibility for their experience of an interaction robs them of their individuality and agency.

See also: Changing Your Conditioning Sucks But Sometimes You Gotta

When it comes down to it, accept that in order to meaningfully interact with others, you must use your words. It’ll sometimes be scary, or awkward, or both. But humans are maddeningly and wondrously opaque to one another, and recognizing this truth doesn’t detract from our need to feel connected to others who invariably experience the world differently than us. At the same time, we’ve been socialized to believe that we must internalize and predict our lovers’ every need and desire in order to be worthy of them.

So, we’re all in a bit of a bind here, and it’ll take more compassion and communication to work our way out. I’m guessing most of you have heard the admonition to not perform negative self-talk along the lines of “if you wouldn’t talk to your friend that way, why would you talk to yourself that way?” Well, my suggestion is this post is more along the lines of “If you wouldn’t talk to your (weird introverted) friend that way, why would you talk to your lover that way?” Give it a try. Maybe it’ll help with empathy and connection!

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...