Making the Vulnerable Ask
The healing power of asking for exactly what you want and need.
Please enjoy the following article by this March’s guest author: sex and intimacy coach Leah Carey!
PS: March flash sales are still going strong! Check out my store page to grab The Avatar Guide for only $7 before I retire it, and any body neutral t-shirt for just $24!
Last summer, my partner and I decided to open our relationship. After four years of monogamy, we were ready to explore the unknown. I know there’s a common assumption that this type of thing is instigated by a man who wants to play around, and he coerces his female partner into it. So let me assure you up front: I was actually the driver behind making this happen. Women are allowed to want sexual adventures too!
We’ve had plenty of communication speed bumps to negotiate. Things like whether we’ll spend overnights with other people – I like to wake up together in the morning, no matter how late one of us has stayed out; he chafes at feeling like he has a “curfew.”
But for the most part, this transition into openness has been as seamless as I could have imagined. Neither of us have been plagued with jealousy. The fact that I take great joy in coaching other people through successfully opening their relationships has meant that we’re already starting ahead of the game.
I’ve even been able to play his wingman for both the women he’s been dating – one is a dear friend of mine, the other is a woman I know and like. In fact, they are both women we’ve had threesomes with, so I don’t even have to wonder what it looks like for them to have sex together because I’ve been in the room to see it happen!
Things have been a little more challenging for me. Since last summer, I’ve dated two men and one woman. None of them have turned into the type of regular, ongoing thing I’m wanting. The closest I came was with someone I’ll call Dave.
I was so wildly attracted to him that I was willing to overlook the fact that something never quite gelled for us. He would say things like, “I’m going to have more time the next couple weeks and would like to see you more,” but then I’d never hear from him to set up a date. When I probed, he’d insist it had nothing to do with how much he liked me, just that his schedule was a mess. Meanwhile I felt like I was being too needy by even asking the question.
I was on tenterhooks all the time, my anxiety levels spiking too high too often.
But I wasn’t willing to give up. I was going to keep trying, and god help me, I was going to figure out why this wasn’t working!
Two weeks ago, hours before I was supposed to meet him for a date, he pulled the plug. “I’m not sure why, but I find myself more anxious than excited about seeing you tonight. I think we shouldn’t see each other anymore.”
I can’t even pretend that I was surprised. But I was desperately hurt. I’d worked so hard to make him comfortable and give him space so that he could finally open up and relax with me, and instead it seemed to do the opposite.
So now I had the opportunity to go through a new-to-me stage of the non-monogamous experience: my first breakup of a non-primary relationship. I wasn’t sure what to expect: it hurts to be rejected by anyone, regardless of whether they’re a primary partner or not. The breakup made me sad, but it didn’t destabilize my life. I wasn’t left wondering “will anyone ever love me again?” because my partner was sitting right there loving me through the whole thing.
Plus, there was no animosity between me and Dave – just a deep sadness in recognizing that it wasn’t working and our time would be best spent in other pursuits. Which allowed me to approach this breakup in a way I never had before.
It was true that the two of us never fully relaxed together. My brain told me that was because I was defective. Specifically: I didn’t have a perfect body and I was bad in bed.
When I voiced all that to a friend, she asked, “Is there anything Dave could say that would help you believe that it wasn’t about you being not good enough?”
“I think I’d need to know that he didn’t get bored of me and that he wasn’t lying when he told me he liked my body,” I said. “But that’s too big of an ask.”
“Why is it a big ask?”
“Because he doesn’t owe me anything. He already took the exit ramp. This is my shit to deal with.”
It’s just one of the many ways little girls are taught to doubt and despise themselves: our worth is based on how we look, but it’s unseemly to ask for praise.
My friend left a long pause, so I knew something big was coming. “Dave left the door open for you! He said that you can call him with questions any time.”
Oh right. I don’t have to stew in my own toxic bullshit this time.
I promised to think about it and got off the phone, pretty sure I wouldn’t make the ask. But over the next several hours I couldn’t get rid of that voice in my head. “What would you need from Dave in order to feel okay about this?”
That evening, I sent him a message.
I’m going to ask you for something that feels wholly unreasonable to me.
My brain is being an absolute asshole right now. It is telling me some really vile stories about why you don’t want to see me anymore. They begin with my body being unattractive, move through me being bad in bed, visit the town of “I’m a dull and uninteresting person who isn’t worth spending time with,” and reach their pinnacle at “I’m far too much work for people to bother with.”
What I could use is a message from you about those things. It doesn’t need to be glowing or over the top. But I would like it to be specific. Not just “you’re great” but “Here’s what I really enjoy about you;” not “your body is awesome,” but “Here are the things I really enjoy about your body.”
If I was asking too much, I said, he was welcome to ignore it. But if he were willing to do it, I’d like to hear his voice saying the things rather than have words on paper. It might be easier for my brain to grok the truth if I could hear sincerity in his voice. Plus I’d be able to go back and listen to them again at times when I fell back into old doubts.
Within a couple hours he sent me a Marco Polo message so I could hear his voice and see his face when he told me what he actually thought.
“I’ve always thought you were attractive, going back years.”
He mentioned the night we met five years ago and how he’d noticed me across the room.
He chuckled and said, “I don’t know how crude you want me to be.”
Crude was exactly what I needed him to be. Thankfully he went there.
“You’re sexy as fuck.”
He detailed the parts of my body he likes most, and the reactions I had in bed that were particularly exciting for him.
“Bad in bed? No way! I really enjoy your eagerness to experiment and play.”
Obviously, if this had been an ugly break, I wouldn’t have asked for words of assurance because I would be afraid of receiving angry words about how awful and unappealing I was. But because I trust that Dave cares about me as a person even if we aren’t sleeping together, I was able to ask for proof that the voices in my head were being assholes, not truth-tellers.
So I offer you this question: Is there anything the Daves in your life could say? What would you need in order to believe that it was never about you being not good enough?
I’m not going to sugarcoat this: being vulnerable enough to make the ask is terrifying. And it’s not like the answer will erase all your fears and doubts forever.
I don’t imagine there will ever be a time when I won’t start with the assumption that the size and shape of my body is going to affect my ability to find people who want to love and adore me.
But I’ve just discovered another tool in my kit for how to deal with the voices in my head that are being assholes: invite other voices that I know aren’t assholes into the conversation.
It requires being brave and vulnerable to make the ask. That’s not something unique to me: you have it in you, too.
–Leah Carey, Sex & Intimacy Coach
Want more? You can find Leah on Instagram here, or check out her podcast Good Girls Talk About Sex!