Dear Aunt Acid,
I’ve been with my partner for almost three years, living together for two. We have made a great little home together with cats and food and decor we both like. I really do love living with him. But sharing my space with him also just makes me anxious for reasons I can’t define. This has been true my whole adult life with any kind of roommate: I’m always hyper-conscious of what they’re up to, I feel weird doing things in my own corner of the house without them, and I feel a constant tension between wanting to do things with them and wanting to be alone. With a romantic partner this is elevated: I want to tend to his needs and receive affection, but I also want to be left alone. Sharing the space seems to give me a constant low current of anxiety. And yet I lived alone for years and was lonely and miserable the whole time! I want to share my life with him, but especially as it gets wintery and we’re both inside together all the time, I’d like to gain full peace of mind about sharing space with another human.
Small apartments during cold winters can be hard on everyone, especially when our anxieties alone take up what feels like at least 150 square feet. That’s valuable real estate for which our anxieties are not paying rent. It simply can’t be allowed.
You are voicing, in this letter, an unhappiness that goes back years and pre-dates your current living arrangement. What’s making you unhappy isn’t so much your partner as those anxieties, and they will continue making you unhappy until you deal with them. Right now your partner isn’t helping. You haven’t given him the chance.
Dissatisfaction can feel like a hailstorm happening inside our own heads, an endless window-rattling howl-a-thon so insistent and destructive that it seems amazing our partners can’t hear it – and yet, that’s subjectivity. Your partner is probably distracted by his own internal hailstorms, or else by “Bojack Horseman.” You have to tell him there’s a problem for him to know.
Yes, confrontation is scary. Admitting you have these frustrations with your living arrangement – let alone that you would like them to be dealt with – is terrifying. But to share space effectively with someone else, one has to have the courage to summon up one’s needs from where they’ve been safely stowed away and introduce those needs to one’s partner. “Here’s my need for some alone time, especially when I first come home from work,” one says. “Here’s my need for affection and approval, and here’s my need for the occasional Shouldless Day spent watching ‘Dr. Who’ or re-reading T.H. White or dressing up the cats like the cast of ‘Rocky Horror’ and posting pictures on Instagram.”
It doesn’t matter how seemingly rational those needs are, how mundane, how reflexive, how petty. They’re your needs, and they’re powerful, and you’re stuck with them. Your partner, if he wants to stay with you, is stuck with them too. At least now he gets to know what they are. I sincerely doubt that they’re so terrifying that he’ll run screaming into the wilderness; and if he does, well, then he wasn’t the guy for you.
Let’s give him some credit and assume he’ll stay. Maybe he’ll even make friends with your needs. (“So you’re what she’s been hiding all these years! Tell me about yourselves. Where do you hail from, anyway?”) Right now, you’re pretending your needs don’t exist so that you can seem smaller, easier, lower-maintenance. Women are often taught to do that, just as they are taught to host in their own homes: to make everyone else feel comfortable, regardless of how they feel; to anticipate other people’s needs and repress their own. To take up as little space as possible. But this act you’re putting on is not merely retro, it’s disingenuous, and it’s destroying you.
How your partner reacts when you open up about your needs is key to what happens next. And I can’t glean any hints from your letter. You mention, for example, that you want to tend to his needs, but you do not mention how either of you feel about whatever needs of yours he does know about or intuit. Does he make accommodations for what he perceives to be your preferences? Is he clingy, and does that aggravate your claustrophobia? What’s his part in all of this? Is it that he wants to help facilitate your happiness but doesn’t know how? I hope very much the answer to that last question is “yes” and, indeed, that he’ll be relieved that you’ve at last given him something he can do.
Figuring out potential solutions to try together is the next step. Perhaps all he needs to give you is permission to follow your own instincts. To spend time with him if you want to, rather than because you feel obliged out of an assumption that you have to host him in your joint home. To spend some time in solitude, especially during certain times of the day or when you feel triggered. To have a corner of the apartment you can retreat to you can stage your “Rocky Horror” feline photoshoots. To try a larger apartment altogether where you can actually have a Room Of One’s Own.
Peace of mind requires living with integrity. It’s hard to summon the courage to be honest, to admit that you’re not some super host person but instead a regular messy human being who requires attention and care. But dear God, there’s no quiet like the quiet when the hailstorms stop.
Good luck, Cadet.
Dear Aunt Acid,
In the past year I have begun to seriously question my gender identity, and have started slowly coming out to myself and a select few others as non-binary/genderqueer/gender fluid (I am still not sure which label fits me best). With this has come a change in my gender presentation, towards the masculine side — I am AFAB and up to this point had been living as a cis woman. I am afraid that my new presentation, while it feels more authentic to me, will cause my partner of ten years to no longer feel attracted to me. While he is bisexual, his preference is for binary-identified and -presenting people — that is, masculine men and feminine women.
The biggest sticking point so far has been shaving, or lack thereof. I no longer shave my legs as much as I used to because it no longer feels “right,” or at least necessary, for my gender. However, he has a hard time viewing it as anything other than an indication that I no longer care to get “made up” for him or care about his preferences. I’ve tried explaining that it’s not about carelessness, but instead about a change in what makes me feel attractive to myself; he seems unable to fully grasp how deeply gendered I experience shaving, though, and sees it as merely an aesthetic preference. He says he’s tried to get used to unshaven legs and simply hasn’t been successful. Do you have advice on how to frame this conversation so we can be constructive, or advice on how we can find some sort of compromise? We still love each other very much, and we want to spend the rest of our lives together, but we don’t know how to resolve this conflict.
Insert Clever Pseudonym Here
I don’t know how much patience to urge you to have with your partner. He’s been with you for a decade, whereas you’ve only been on this journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance for less than a year. Maybe he simply needs some time to catch up. Or maybe he’s a deeply traditional person in terms of what he likes and another ten years wouldn’t be sufficient to get him to appreciate you, hairy legs and all.
Regardless, you sound like a catch. You’re trying to live honestly, even when it complicates your life. You’re doing the hard work of figuring out who you are and what you need. And, at the same time, you’re sufficiently kind that you’re looking for a constructive way to talk to someone who sees the legs you were born with in their natural state and says, “Ew.” Who interprets your efforts to live in a more authentic, comfortable way as an affront to him, because you’re doing less of the lady grooming he has been (forgive me) groomed to prefer.
Sure, there are compromises you could try. Shave sometimes, even though you don’t like to. Wear thigh-highs during sex. Open up your relationship so that he can occasionally have dalliances, or you two can have three-ways, with silky-legged femmes. But I can’t imagine these are functional long-term solutions, because the issue is a more fundamental one: you are changing, and your partner wants you to stay the same.
It happens in the best of relationships. Your partner can grow along with you; he can put in a good-faith effort to understand what’s happening and adjust accordingly, however long it takes him. Or he can move on.
As of now, you’re running a marathon and, instead of cheering you on, your partner is letting you know that he doesn’t find sweat attractive and by the way would it kill you to put on some lipstick. You deserve better.
The role of Aunt Acid is played by Brooklyn-based know-it-all Ester Bloom.