You Need Help: How Do I Become the Protagonist of My Own Life?

You Need Help: How Do I Become the Protagonist of
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Q:

Four years ago, I came out, left my male spouse, and partnered up with my current girlfriend. I rode high on living true to myself, the euphoria of new love, and the feeling of liberation for quite some time. Then, reality set in.

My girlfriend has a 10-year-old daughter. Because of past trauma they experienced together, my girlfriend and her kiddo have a really enmeshed relationship. My needs have come dead last for 4 years. It’s easy for me to provide emotional support when my girlfriend is having a hard time, and she expects/ demands this unfailingly – often in the middle of the night. Until recently, that hasn’t been difficult for me. However, I’ve felt really abandoned the few times that I’ve been in crisis through the course of our relationship. In fact, my partner seems to resent the fact that I have needs. As you might have guessed, I have some issues establishing boundaries and also tend to be independent/”needless” unless I’m having just a super hard time, and so our needing/needless styles formed a pretty toxic interlock.

We’re finally in therapy. I’ve been working on setting boundaries. My partner is beginning to acknowledge some aspects of her relationship with her daughter and making SLOW change. I appreciate the effort my girlfriend is making, but I feel trapped and fed up. I also think I put up so many defenses in this situation that I’m having trouble (and maybe just don’t want to) take them down. I just don’t really trust her to be there for me. I have the sense that it’s sort of too little, too late.

That said – I know all relationships have problems! I love my stepdaughter a lot. And, when it’s good with my girlfriend, it’s really good. I just perpetually feel like an outsider and also feel totally alone (and punished?) if I ever need support. Whatever comes next might be worse, just in a different way! This is also my first relationship with a woman, and I’m terrified of dating. I’m 30 and haven’t been single since I was 17. I’m also a total weirdo and feel like I’ll never find someone who loves and accepts me if I leave.

So, there’s my story. Should I continue to make incremental improvements in this relationship, or leave and try to find a relationship situation in which I feel like a central/equal participant from the outset? I’m pretty tired of being a minor character in my own life.

A:

There’s a lot to unpack here – coming out! A new relationship! Sudden step parenthood – but the thing that stood out to me the most was your very last line: “I’m tired of being a minor character in my own life.”

The idea of subjectivity is an important one for me, and that’s immediately where my mind went when I read those words. I’m a certified sex educator, and one of my final research papers for my certificate program was about the idea of sexual subjectivity, which is defined as our sense of ourselves as authentic sexual beings. It’s something we innately have, and something that we are slowly convinced out of, over the course of years. In my work around sexual subjectivity as a coach and therapist, I talk about peeling back layers of social conditioning – who we think we “should” be based on what systems of power and oppression we interact with based on our identities – as well as who we’ve learned to be, based on the patterns in our relationships, in order to find who we actually are.

When I work with clients around discovering their sexual subjectivities, I often encourage them to incorporate a creative process in order to uncover who they really are. Because I’m a writer, I typically start by asking them to think of the stories and characters that they obsessed over as children and adolescents, and what they can infer about themselves as adults with that as their starting point. It doesn’t have to be books; not everyone is a reader, and that’s okay. But we interact with stories in so many different ways, and I believe interacting with media (movies, TV shows, video games, songs, bands, comics) – not consuming, but truly interacting – can be as much of a creative act as writing it might be. There is a relationship there, between the story or the song, and you, especially as an adolescent, when you’re so open to the world, so intensely emotionally vulnerable to it, and trying so hard to figure out who you are and what your place in it is. Think about the ways teenagers get excited about things! I don’t envy much about teens (god knows I wouldn’t do it again) but I do envy them that.

For me, in my adolescence, it was fan fiction: I would write thousands and thousands of words of fan fiction, and most of what I wrote was in that most hated subgenre of fan fiction: the Mary Sue. I literally turned myself into a protagonist and sent myself on romantic adventures, and as an adult, it’s hard not to look back on that adolescent with more poignancy and fondness than chagrin. The topics I grappled with as an adolescent were usually about sex and romance and desire and desirability, and trying to be a subject when I felt so incredibly objectified in the world. I carved out a different world for myself by creating it, because for so much of my adolescence, I felt lonely, and unprotected, and like there was no place for me.

My advice to you is to start with something similar. I’m not necessarily telling you to write two hundred thousand words of Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction, but I am asking you to consider what stories – and what protagonists – you were drawn to as an adolescent. The developmental dilemma of adolescence is one of identity and role confusion, and the avid, easily obsessed nature of most teenagers to me seems deeply tied to this. What were you drawn to as a teen? Who were your fictional heroes? What were the stories that were told to you in the songs that you played on loop? Who were the artists who sang them, and how did their lives – so close to fiction anyway, by virtue of Hollywood tabloid culture – create stories for you? What did you imagine for yourself, as a teen? Was there a dream job? A hypothetical family? What collage would you have made of magazine clippings if your teenage self were to depict your ideal home? Did you play The Sims? What stories did your Sims characters tell? What kind of trouble did they get into? Did you rosebud them into riches, or send them to work each day?

You write that you came out in your mid-twenties, and this makes me think of some of the queer clients who I’ve worked with, who came out as adults (or young adults), whether in terms of gender or sexuality, and sometimes voice a kind of imposter syndrome, or a longing for continuity in who they now know themselves to be. When I work, for example, with other non-binary people, I introduce them to the idea of gender archetypes, another framework to reflect on the protagonists they interacted with growing up. It sounds like you came out, and pretty shortly after were in this relationship, and not only did you have a new partner, but you were also thrust into the role of a step parent. Where was the room for you to figure out who YOU are, in your new queer identity, in your new relationship? Liberated, yes, and also – at least partially – responsible for the safe growth and development of this whole other block of very vulnerable clay. The kiddo.

It’s not right that parents (particularly those who are socialized and read a feminine) are assumed to have no other identity outside of their role as parents, and yet, the sad reality is that, because of the way our society is structured, stepping into the role of a parent is, largely, all consuming. Trauma, too, can be all consuming. You’re young, and you were even younger when you became a stepparent to a traumatized child, and partner to a traumatized mom. Throw in your own self-identified willingness to not have any needs, and it’s no wonder that you’ve finally reached your breaking point. Where have you been this whole time?

I’m not going to delve too deeply into your relationship – that’s what your couples therapist is for – but I am going to recommend that you find a therapist just for you, if you can afford to, and you haven’t already. Our identities are shaped in relationship to others, of course – other people in one-to-one relationships, other systems and structures and power dynamics, and aspects of our culture. But if you don’t have it already, I do recommend for you a space that is entirely yours. Your own therapist could be that person for you, though it might be uncomfortable at first – how much of your being “needless” was hiding, after all? Of avoiding the spotlight? Of making sure you never really became the protagonist of your own life?

Where did you learn to do that, and why? Why has it always been safer to be a minor character, rather than the lead? And what would it take to move away from that? It sounds like you’re already starting the process – the irritation at your partner, feeling trapped and fed up, might be a sign of that. And that’s good, in my professional opinion! Anger, after all, is a sign of our belief in our own self-worth, and self-worth is part of what it takes to assert your right to take up space the way a protagonist would. But I would also encourage you to ask yourself what it might take to move away from this lifelong habit of making yourself smaller, not only out of anger and frustration at your partner, but out of compassion, love, and curiosity for yourself?

I can’t tell you whether or not you should stay in this relationship, or go. One small observation I do have, though, is just this: “The alternative might be worse” doesn’t sound to me like a wildly enticing reason to choose anything, let alone choose a relationship. But I don’t think it’s impossible to figure out who you are in a relationship; plenty of people do. It sounds like your partner is changing, and growing, if incrementally; more importantly, it sounds like she is committed to changing and growing. And, like you said, when things are good, they’re really good, and you love the kiddo. This relationship – the good of it, the bad of it – is part of you. The real question is: Is there enough space for you in this relationship, as it stands right now, for you to start being the protagonist of your own life today? And when it comes down to it, how much do you want to, and what are you willing to do to bring that protagonist into the world?

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