On the Memory of a Break-in, and on Kissing Anxiety

Roe McDermott

Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.


Dear Roe,

I am coming to terms with something that happened a number of years ago after I broke up with my ex-boyfriend. We were out, met each other and proceeded to argue. I told him I didn’t want to talk to him anymore but he followed me home in a separate taxi anyway. We argued some more and I left him on my doorstep. The following morning I woke to find him sleeping next to me. He had broken into my house in the middle of the night. He even admitted it. He jumped the side wall, slashed the window latch open with a credit card and crept through the darkness of my family home to lie beside me.

It took years to articulate the feelings of shame, embarrassment and helplessness I felt waking to him that morning. He didn’t touch me (to my knowledge), but he still violated me. I blamed myself for so long, acting like it was my fault, like I brought out a bad side in him. How did it happen that I thought of him as the victim more than myself? I’m upset and angry now. How do I come to terms with this when it happened so long ago?

He’s with someone else now and so am I. We’re no longer 20, but does it matter that we were that young when it happened? It still happened. I think I’m looking for reassurance that I’m entitled to my reaction and that he was wrong. Six years later and I can’t believe I’m only now feeling angry. I had suppressed it so long.

And what about talking about it to friends? I always felt the need to protect him, but if I feel I have to talk about it, should I be putting him and his new girlfriend first? I feel I’m not allowed talk about it, like it would be in bad taste and put his new relationship at risk. I don’t want that to happen necessarily, but I don’t want to have to bottle up these toxic feelings for his benefit. I’m completely confused and upset by all of this. I would be grateful for any advice. Thank you.

Dear Reader,

You write that you’re looking for reassurance that you’re entitled to your reaction, and that he was wrong.

I hope that you’ve read enough of my columns to know that I’m not in the habit of just telling people what they want to hear, that I’m honest to the point of bluntness and if I disagree, I will let people know. With that in mind, let me tell you what I think.

You’re entitled to your reaction, and he was wrong.

Your ex-boyfriend’s actions were, first of all, illegal – a basic but glaring fact that needs to be acknowledged. That he was your boyfriend at the time doesn’t make it any less illegal, or any less invasive or terrifying. In fact, given that the majority of home break-ins (burglaries etc.) are non-violent, but one in five Irish women will experience partner violence, having a partner break into your home is a far more dangerous experience, and thus just as scary – if not more so.

And because one in five Irish women will experience partner violence, I am hoping with all my heart that men read this column, bearing that statistic in mind. Men, because women experience violence at the hands of their partners so goddamn often, we cannot always feel safe around you. We cannot always trust that your anger will not become dangerous. We cannot always believe that an argument won’t boil over into a dangerous rage.

We do not always know that you will not hurt us.

And so I hope men try to understand why I say that what your boyfriend did to you was – as well as being illegal – a layered form of emotional abuse.

By following you home after you clearly stated that you did not want to speak with him, he disrespected your physical and emotional boundaries.

Though many I’m sure will say that of course a boyfriend is going to follow you home if you leave after a fight – they’re ignoring the stats. They’re ignoring the awareness women have that male partners can easily become violent, and we don’t know if it will happen, or when. And so in your situation, suddenly you had an angry man stalking you home.

When you again asserted your boundaries outside your house and refused him entry, he waited until you were asleep, forced himself into your home, and crept upstairs to get into your bed. This isn’t just a boyfriend not letting you walk away after a fight.

This is a man deliberately trying to intimidate you by showing you that you do not get to tell him no – ever. You do not get to set boundaries, you do not get to withhold consent, you do not get to leave, you do not get to relax alone in your own home, you do not get to sleep soundly.

You do not get to feel safe.

You say you feel violated – you were. He violated your boundaries, your home, your sense of safety. He violated the sense of equality in your relationship, by acting like your wishes were not equal to his. He violated your trust in him as a romantic partner, which had made you believe that he would respect you and make you feel safe.

Again – he wanted you to know that you do not get to feel safe.

This is a display of power, pure and simple. He wanted to show you that he can do what he likes, when he likes. He wanted to scare you into submission. And a man with that attitude is dangerous, pure and simple.

At this point I’d like to address any men reading this who may be assuming that you and I are overreacting. I repeat: One in five women experience partner violence. We are sometimes scared of you because men give us reason to be. So when a man gets angry at a woman, follows her home, breaks into her house and crawls into her bed uninvited, yes, we are going to be fucking terrified. Because that is fucking terrifying.

You don’t get to brush that away, or excuse it with your drunkenness, or your intentions. Your actions and how they affect us are all that matter. And you can fucking terrify us. Your privilege as men, and the violence inflicted by men, means you have to be aware of the fear you can instill, and take responsibility for it. It’s that simple.

Back to you, dear Reader. I’m not surprised it’s taken you a long time to process what happened, and I don’t believe that belated anger is any less valid. I think the question now is how to deal with it.

I think you have every right to talk to your friends. It’s your life, your experience, and you get to talk about that. You don’t clarify whether you two still share a lot of mutual friends, and if so, you do need to consider whether to tell them this story – not for his sake, but for yours. Telling them may open up the situation to scrutiny and side-taking and drama, which I’m not sure you need right now.

Decide what you want from telling people. To share the story for catharsis? So that other people will call him out? To warn your female friends and his new girlfriend about his behaviour? These are very different motives, and may have very different ramifications for you and your social circle. Be kind to yourself, and only take on the challenges you think you can handle right now.

On a final note, I’m not sure about your relationship with this man now, but you may also want to consider addressing the issue with him – but again, only if you feel safe doing so. You could email him and tell him what you told me – that it has taken you a long time to process what he did, but it was serious and he needs to take responsibility for his actions, and how they affected you.

Again, this may not have the effect you desire, and it’s important that you only contact him if you have a support system of other people who will make you feel safe should he react badly.

But you get to process your emotions, and you get to feel angry at him. I’m sorry this happened to you – that he happened to you. I hope your new partner makes you feel respected, and empowered, and safe.

Good luck.

***

Dear Roe,

I’m 23 and I feel quite embarrassed about this, but kissing is difficult for me. When a man gets close to me, I feel threatened, as if he’s about to hurt me. Dating is so difficult because of it. The guy will lean in and I want to run. There was this one guy who kissed me months ago, but he just sort of jumped on me while we were on a date, and I didn’t realise what was happening for a few seconds. I got such a shock, and ever since I just feel scared. I can’t remember what kissing was like as a teen, or if I enjoyed it, but I know I definitely don’t now. I just feel afraid of the man in front of me, even if he’s lovely and I know he won’t hurt me. Any advice?

Dear Reader,

Your letter is slightly ambiguous about how long it’s been since you (willingly) kissed someone, but the gap between your teens and now indicates that it’s been a few years. And given that you say that you don’t remember if you enjoyed kissing as a teen, it seems that you haven’t had many positive experiences in this arena.

Having a man shove his tongue in your mouth when you’re not expecting it is also deeply, deeply unpleasant, as every single woman will agree, and having someone misread the signs so badly can understandably make you wary of other dates.

Both a lack of experience and a lack of enjoyment would leave anyone underwhelmed and anxious at the thought of kissing someone, but I am concerned that there is another underlying issue here.

Having a certain amount of anxiety about someone new that you’re dating and becoming intimate with is perfectly normal, but always feeling threatened to the point of wanting to run whenever a man gets close to you feels more serious, because it’s now affecting your life and preventing you from happily dating.

I’m wondering if you’ve had any specific experiences that may have left you with some trauma around men and/or physical affection that may be affecting you? Or maybe this has just been a growing sense of unease and fear around men that has grown over some time.

Either way, I think it may be worth seeking a therapist who may be able to help figure out the reasons for this anxiety, and give you some strategies to help you both communicate your boundaries with men clearly so that you feel safer engaging with them, and to help you deal with any feelings of anxiety or panic.

If you’re dating, in the meantime, I think it’s going to be important for you to be able to make the first move, and to dictate the pace of your physical interactions with someone. Figure out a comfortable way for you to tell new dates that you have boundaries that need to be respected.

Keep it simple, something like, “I like getting to know someone and making sure I feel comfortable before I kiss them, so can we take it slow?”

Or give the guy a quick lesson on consent and give yourself an easy escape route by telling him, “I think men should always ask, ‘Can I kiss you?’ the first time they make a move. It’s romantic and respectful – and avoids that horrible awkwardness of a guy just eating your face – let me TELL you some horror stories …”

Good luck.


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Roe McDermott: Roe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she's completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

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