I had an enlightening conversation with one of my best friends last weekend. We were talking about what each of us wanted out of love, which was an interesting point to begin with: how much time do we typically spend thinking about what “love” or “a relationship” really means to us, specifically? I think we tend to assume that it means the same thing to most people, when actually two people talking about the ideal love may have very different things in mind.
As I fumbled to describe what kinds and aspects of love I most desire, the word “enmeshment” became more and more prominent in the discussion. Enmeshment. Two distinct bodies becoming closely interlaced, due to features of their topography, such that it is difficult to see which parts belong to what. It’s a good word, no?
When Charis first introduced the word to this conversation, the context was negative: she was talking about the enmeshment between herself and one of her exes, and how excruciating it was to try and detangle herself after that relationship dissolved. Since then she has learned to keep herself more distinct in relationships, which is all to the good. But it left me with the uncomfortable awareness that enmeshment, and a very high degree of it, is something I crave, something without which a relationship would be barren and unsatisfying to me. I delight in moments where the boundary between thou and I becomes hard to see. I like it when “we” comes sooner to my lips than “I”. I like the feeling of almost having an extension of nerves in my beloved’s body and soul, so that I feel my their pains and pleasures directly, as things touching me, not simply as echoes and reflections of my beloved’s experience.
I recognize that there is something pathological in all this. Egos more robust than mine do not crave this kind of dissolving into a shared identity, and if it starts to happen they feel it as a burden, a calamity. I know I undervalue my independent self. I have a long list of weaknesses — not character flaws exactly, but areas of underdevelopment and malformation in myself — and this desire for profound enmeshment can be related to several of them. What I realized for the first time, in this conversation, was that maybe that doesn’t mean I can’t want what I want. In the past, I might see this hunger for enmeshment as a symptom of a disease, and try to create for myself desires that were more compatible with a whole and enlightened self. But guess what? Real desires aren’t created as easily as all that. A desire that has its source in truth, in the real me, is necessarily going to reflect the warps and wibbles that are actually there. And part of loving myself is letting that desire stand, owning it, instead of trying to mask it with a cleaner, more virtuous craving.
I had a similar experience with sexual fantasy — in fact thinking through that might be what allowed me this breakthrough. For many, many years, I didn’t have any sexual fantasies at all. I had romantic daydreams, but none that yielded real erotic energy, made me burn to touch myself. In the process of my sexual awakening over the last several years, I’d try to conjure up images and scenarios of sex, but none of them did much to turn me on past the initial spark.
Then one night a scenario popped into my head, I don’t remember why or whence. It was exotic, degrading, abusive, and it got me so hot I almost combusted on the spot. After having the best orgasm of the year, I considered this, and quickly remembered episodes from my late child/early teen years, when similar scenarios were a huge turn-on (before I even knew what a turn-on was.) I was always vaguely uncomfortable with my response to these, and never let them become full-blown erotic fantasies. In fact, I’d suppressed and largely forgotten about them through my adolescence and early adulthood. Erotic fantasies, I was quite sure, should be something completely different, should center around a well-sculpted body or something like that. Never mind that dwelling on well-sculpted bodies aroused me about as much as looking at a picturesque landscape; that was the kind of imagery that turned proper, well-adjusted people on, and if it didn’t work for me, well, maybe I didn’t have that much of a sex drive.
It’s the same kind of thing, you see? The fear that what I actually desire, what I actually respond to, reflects my pathologies and malformations of personality. Because guess what? It does. It has to: it comes from me, and not just the smooth-and-pretty bits of me. It’s shaped by everything in me, healthy and unhealthy, mature and underdeveloped. My response to that, for most of my life, has been to say, “Well then, I’ll just desire something different.” If you’re tempted to try that approach, let me just tell you right now: it so does not work. Your body, your psyche, will not be fooled into wanting something other than what its kinks and curves actually want. You’ll just be hopelessly confused, and have layers upon layers of repression to deal with before you can achieve authentic connections, whether sexual or emotional.
So yeah. My project for the next couple of weeks is to consider the possibility that my emotional cravings, while I can see how baldly they expose the cracks in my character, need to be honored for what they are.