In a new twist in Lalalaletmeexplain's hit column, readers ask for her expert advice on their own love, sex and relationship problems.
In this first week, one reader tells of her devastating experience with a man who enjoyed choking, with fatal consequences. This article includes accounts of sexual abuse and violence.
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One night, my (then) husband (who I was very happy with), sneaked out of our house to see his mistress of three years (obviously I had no idea). Long story short, two detectives came to see me the next day and told me he had strangled her in a sex act, and she died. He is due to be sentenced for manslaughter [he has since been sentenced to four years in prison].
He had done it to me on a couple of occasions when we first got together but I think he quickly got the impression I didn’t like it (and then obviously found someone else who did).
This has had a massive impact on my view of men. Firstly, I’m terrified of someone actually doing it to me in the bedroom, as I know how common this is amongst people my age (29) and younger.
Secondly, even after intensive counselling and hypnotherapy, I can’t shift the idea that all men are, underneath it all, misogynistic and toxic and will ultimately just hurt me. I think I’m forever just going to push them away.
I’m also concerned that I’m only attracted to men that will hurt me and ‘nice guys’ actually just don’t do it for me. I’m perfectly happy being single with my two dogs, excelling in my career and I have a fantastic support network in my friends and family. I’m just really concerned about how this experience is going to affect future relationships for me. Please help!
I just want to start by saying that you are an incredible woman. Finding out that a partner has cheated is harrowing enough, but to find out under those circumstances is beyond traumatic, yet you have managed to get yourself to therapy and begun to rebuild your life.
You should feel proud of yourself for the ways that you are caring for yourself. I am also grateful to you for sending this in because I think that it may act as a stark warning to people about the dangers of choking as a sex act. I have written about how dangerous choking is in a previous column.
This case is a reminder of the reality that death and serious injury are a highly possible outcome of choking in the bedroom, even when the choking is consensual. I personally see men who want to choke me as a red flag – it makes me wonder why they want to do that to me.
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Not everyone will see it that way, but clearly it’s not something you are into, and given the context, I completely understand why it scares you. You are spot on in saying that it’s something that has become scarily common (among all ages but particularly young people) so I think it is good to prepare yourself for the fact that it’s an issue that might come up with new intimate partners. I would recommend making sure that in future you do more than give them the impression though – I think it is really important to set boundaries clearly.
You don’t have to give them the reasons behind why it is such a triggering thing for you, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for why something is a boundary for you, you just need to be clear that it’s not something that you enjoy.
If you encounter someone who questions, ignores, or tries to push your boundary, then that’s a red flag and you should immediately block, delete, move on. If you feel comfortable explaining to them why it’s particularly terrifying for you then you should do so, you have no shame to carry around your ex-husband’s actions.
In terms of the impact on future relationships – I think it’s important to remember that this is all still so recent. It hasn’t even been a year since you had your life turned upside down, so how you feel now is likely to be quite different to how you feel a few years down the line when you have had more therapy, and more opportunity to process it and to begin trusting yourself again.
Because even though the crux of the issue is the very valid fear of not being able to trust men, being able to trust yourself is the first step. What I mean by that is that it is inevitable that you will meet red flaggy people when dating, it’s impossible to avoid them completely, but if you trust yourself, you will be much better equipped to run at the first hint of trouble instead of questioning your own instincts. This will not be easy, given the huge betrayal of trust you have experienced but it’s something that you can work on in therapy.
I think it’s interesting that you say that you fear toxic misogynistic men and that you worry you will push all men away for fear that they are secretly evil, but then you go on to say that you’re only attracted to bad guys. I don’t think you are. I think it’s more likely that bad guys feel familiar and nice guys feel foreign. You aren’t attracted to ill treatment or bad people, you’re attracted to something about how they make you feel.
Often, we experience uncertainty about where we stand, or how they feel about us, or whether they are going to harm us. Which is then balanced out by a dopamine hit on the few occasions when they do make you feel certain, safe, and valuable. When the uncertainty returns, we chase the rush we felt when they were good, we stick around waiting to be validated again. It might be worth exploring your attachment style to figure out how it impacts on the way that you form bonds and the type of people you form bonds with.
I have a lot to say on the subject of worrying about all men being toxic and misogynistic and have written a chapter about it in my book, which will be released in February 2022. I think it’s right for women who date men to have an awareness of how much misogyny can harm us when dating and how prevalent it is among men.
That awareness keeps us safe and helps us to look for red flags. But I don’t think it’s good for us to assume that all men are toxic until they prove otherwise. I think it’s better to be very knowledgeable about the red flags and to exit as soon as one appears. Though trying to do that after experiencing trauma from a misogynistic man is hugely challenging.
I discussed this with forensic and clinical psychologist Stephen Daniels, he says: “Being untrusting of people after trauma is a way to keep ourselves safe. Rebuilding trust involves three things, risk, time, and consistency. The building of trust between people is transactional, i.e. you do something, then they do something in return.
"Risk relates to the fact that we can never fully know how trustworthy someone is until we are willing to be vulnerable and offer some part of ourselves to someone else so see what they do with that. The parts we offer are usually small but may get bigger over time.
"The more we’ve been hurt or the bigger the trauma, the longer it will take to give bigger and bigger parts of ourselves. I like to think of building trust as being the reverse of building a wall. The wall is up to keep you safe, and you slowly remove one brick at a time, to see what another person does when they see more and more of you, until there is little to no wall left between you. Consistency is key, trust in other people is built by them responding to you in a consistent and predictable way.”
Take your time with dating. Dating is always going to be somewhat risky, when we open ourselves up to love, we inevitably open ourselves up to the risk of hurt.
Nobody can tell you that you’ll never meet a misogynistic man again but following my page and similar pages will arm you with knowledge that will give you the power to spot red flags and the motivation to block, delete and move on when you see them. If we react to the red flags early enough, we can potentially avoid serious harm (but that does not mean we are to blame for harm if we spot them and stay).
You will meet someone who understands what you’ve been through and who accepts that you’re going to need patience and time to build trust, until then keep doing what you’re doing. You sound like you’re embracing single life, the more you embrace it and enjoy it, the less likely it is that you’ll find yourself settling for ill-suited people. You’ve got this.
Follow @Lalalaletmeexplain on Instagram for more advice on sex and relationships. Have a question for Lala? Email [email protected]
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