If asked, I’d call myself risk averse. My investments have always been conservative. I scream and cry on roller coasters. My idea of an adventure was a cross-country trip, in which every stop was planned to the letter. I’ve never had a tolerance for thrills, mostly because the excitement associated with them felt more like fear to me. Fear of the unknown. Fear of getting hurt. Fear of not getting what I wanted. The exhilaration of adventure wasn’t attractive enough for me to face my fears. So I played it safe, at least until I started a new relationship at age 48.
It was my first time alone with Mike, my current boyfriend, and we were in the apartment he’d lived in since his divorce. His two-bedroom in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, belonged to a married couple we both knew, separately, from college. Mike and I had only met a few weeks prior on Bumble, which matched us up. Right from the start we’d dispensed with small talk in favor of more important conversations. Our shared college experience and dozens of mutual friends made it easier to talk — almost immediately — about things like illness, religion and past relationships.
Yet our physical relationship, in six weeks, had only progressed to kissing. Mike pointed out that a section of the sofa had been dubbed “The Cuddler” by our mutual friends, and I got the hint that he wanted to pursue greater intimacy. We arranged ourselves in The Cuddler — you really do sit in and not on it — and wrapped our arms around each other. We kissed, and for the first time in my life, I was completely aware of the experience. I felt relaxed, while feeling the soft, wetness of Mike’s lips. I noticed the taste of his tongue, the lingering bitterness of this morning’s coffee covered by spearmint toothpaste. I experienced a sense of calm, along with a sexual urgency that guided my hands over his shoulders and into his hair. Everything felt so present and so natural, important. Then, panic and fear followed.
“I have to tell you something,” I said, pulling away. My breath caught nervously in my throat as I nervously worked the hem of my t-shirt. “I’m in recovery for sex and love addiction.” I was afraid to tell Mike, who I’d known for less than a month, about one of the deepest secrets of my life. I’d only spoken about my addiction to other people in recovery. I held my breath, waiting for a response, expecting misunderstanding and rejection.
Mike’s face softened into a look of compassion and understanding. His sky blue eyes registered concern, mixed with affection and empathy. His tender display of emotions was the warm welcome I needed to continue with my confession. I talked tentatively about fiending for sex and love the way a junkie fiends for a needle, and pursuing sex with many partners in search of a feeling I didn’t know, but knew I’d been missing. I spoke about how I had used sex and sexual attractiveness to manipulate men into spending time with me, and maybe loving me, but never getting what I really wanted from them. I cautiously mentioned the names of emotionally withholding and unavailable men whom I’d slept with, whom I had hoped could provide me with a desperately-needed sense of love and security.
“I know what it means to have sex, and how it feels to be desired,” I said, losing my feigned composure. “But I don’t know what it feels like to be loved.”
I began to cry in earnest, my eyes overrun with fat tears that tracked rivulets down my face. Mike grabbed me and folded me into his arms, holding me tightly, accepting and soothing my sobs. In the midst of my outburst, I felt an unfamiliar comfort, a tender fullness in my heart I’d never experienced. Was this love? Through my tears, I was relieved to have revealed a part of myself that caused shame and embarrassment; the fear that I would be rejected for this confession. My body experienced conflicting emotions so quickly that my mind reeled. Could love have been the result of facing my fears, and of finally relating honestly with another person?
When I calmed down, Mike touched my face, looked into my eyes and spoke with measured kindness.
“You deserve love, and you deserve everything you want,” he said. “We both do, and we might find it together.”
He held my face in his hands and kissed my tears. He pulled me closer and matched my honesty and vulnerability with some details of his past, admitting his fear of showing me his less desirable qualities and doing it anyway. He spoke of professional failures. He told me the secrets he’d kept from his wife, and how he didn’t know how to make her happy. The loss of confidence from a loved one, which resulted in him believing the worst about himself. I saw the tears glistening in his eyes, and that vulnerable honesty made me feel that I could reveal to him my deepest parts without judgement or rejection.
“Getting your heart broken by a bunch of different people is the same as getting your heart broken a bunch of times by the same person,” Mike said. I looked into his eyes and saw a kindred spirit; another soul who’d been hurt and rejected, but who lived with the hope of finding lasting love. This emotional honesty was equal parts frightening and relieving, and it brought us closer.
Several weeks later, after we made love for the first time, we lay facing each other, basking in the hazy, post-coital glow of endorphins and emotional connection. Speaking giddily, we talked about books and poetry, and kissed softly between statements. As a gesture of affection, I reached out to rub Mike’s neck, which was tight with knots. As I massaged a muscle knotted with stress, he let out a groan. His breath caught in his chest, and I realized he was weeping. I wrapped my arms and legs around him, and he responded in kind, the tension draining from his body. I know the feeling well: the shock of a pleasure I’d forgotten existed; the letting go of old demons and haints to make way for a new joy; the painful juxtaposition of past rejections with the hope and anticipation of love and acceptance. This was a real adventure — opening oneself up to the heights of ecstasy and the depths of sadness, and experiencing those highs and lows with one person.
It turns out that we are a crying couple; the kind of people who express both soaring joy and crushing defeat through tears. We cried when talking about the death of our parents, and when we said, “I love you,” for the first time. With the tears came comfort and tenderness and acceptance, and head-thrown-back laughter at a shared joke or funny story. To me, these spontaneous outbursts are signs that our hearts are re-opening.
We’re both still afraid of repeating past patterns, of getting hurt and of hurting each other, but less afraid of honest emotion. We regularly confess that we’re out of our depth, learning how to have an openhearted relationship after decades of heartbreak. Nonetheless, we show up for each other every day, knowing that facing our fears has brought us the love we’ve always hoped to find.