on truth-telling, romantic love & toxic masculinity

My last blog post on communities of belonging emerged out of a new romantic love relationship. This black man’s mysterious entrance into my life can be characterized as the last pages of one volume of my life and the first pages of a new volume waiting to be written. 

Over the past 10 years, I’ve been on an intentional journey of unmasking my authentic self.  Unbeknownst to this handsome black man, his presence called me to no longer wear the masks that I once wore to perform romantic intimacy.  His way of being took me by the hand, inviting me to live into my most authentic & intimate self—all that I am & all that I am not was revealed as garments of inner liberation.  For a brief moment, we choreographed our own dance & moved to our own rhythmic beat of belonging. 

This man moved to a beat that took me by surprise.  His pursuit of me was swift, intentional & sweet to my spirit.  The momentum propelling his consistency had my whole being spinning.  His vulnerability was a pleasant balance of masculinity & femininity. His eagerness to receive me in all that I am and all that I am not was my fairytale ending.  He carried within him many of the attributes that had long been unseen in my former relationships, yet that I longed to see.  He wasn’t a perfect man but was likely the closest that I have come to that realness that makes your heart skip a beat.  

But, I am a black woman with a history and a story that has been dramatically shaped by the woundedness caused by the struggle for authentic and life-giving relationship with black men. And, the thing about deep trauma is that you can do your healing work but there are no guarantees that triggers won’t surface, demanding your full attention.  

Truthfully, I wasn’t prepared for his grown-man swag. While the pace of his pursuit of me was inviting, captivating and impressive, it was more than I was prepared to receive in that moment.  I wasn’t ready. And, he wasn’t hearing me in the ways that I needed him to hear me when I said, “Slow down, you’re moving too fast for me.” And, I wasn’t able to be firm in the ways that I needed to be firm with him for me. 

My spiritual director once told me while we were in conversation about the messiness of my romantic love life, “You cannot deny a self unless you have a self to deny.” She was referencing Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples in Mark 8:34 – 35, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” This passage is oftentimes misunderstood or misused in order to support participation in parasitic relationship. Contrary to this misunderstanding, Ron Ruthruff, a writer for Relavant magazine, writes in his article “How to ‘Deny Yourself’ Without Destroying Yourself” that the Cross “demands that we all enter into the vulnerable space of declaring what really is—and there is a lot of risk in doing this—rather than clinging to how we hope things are. In a broken system, this truth-telling feels like death, but it is the only chance of gaining new or resurrected life.”

My spiritual director wasn’t suggesting a self-denial that fosters a type of self-negation or self-deprecation that leads to co-dependency and reinforces harmful and destructive behaviors at the expense of one for the sake of being in relationship with the other. Ruthruff in the same article speaks of “co-dependency [as] a system of homeostatic behavior—an attempt to keep things in balance by overlooking what is really happening—that manifests in a broken or unhealthy family or community in order to avoid disrupting the status quo.” My spiritual director, at that time, years ago, was challenging me to see things as they are, not as I want things to be so that I can live into the present realities and become not only liberated but also resurrected. Ruthruff goes on to suggest that the Cross “ask us, to be honest about where real life is found, and where artificial life has been manufactured as a coping mechanism to distract us from finding that real life.” Truth-telling that spurs on life is difficult if one does not have a self to deny.

In our story of us, I needed to be truthful with myself. What this handsome black man was offering, coalesced with the inner battle between the old bankrupt self & the new flourishing self.  Doing a new thing with old tools, old memories & old ways of being are counterproductive in the pursuit of being that new authentic self.  Declaring that I needed the pace to slowdown while not being firm in what I needed because I wanted everything the he was offering in tandem with his inability to receive my request created the perfect environment for what would happen next.  

And with the quickness, there I was wading in the rising waters of memories & fears threatening to kill, steal & destroy the new life being called into existence.  There I was fully aware of the projections of my past being placed on him, yet I was defenseless to pull them back to free us from what was unfolding so that we could continue moving to our own rhythmic beat of belonging.  

In that moment, the only way I knew how to choose us was to choose me.  I chose to walk away.  I chose to step out to deal with the inner battle that was warring within me.  I chose to search for new tools. I chose to ready myself to enter into a new way of being & doing romantic relationships. In choosing me, I was attempting to save him from getting caught up in false projections & baggage that wasn’t his to wear or hold, even if it meant losing him.  This was my attempt to deny myself.  

In the midst of it all, I failed to calculate the impact that walking away would have on his being.  The truth is I was unaware of the ways in which I too have been socialized to believe in the fears of toxic masculinity.  That is, toxic masculinity trains men & women to believe that men don’t have the capacity to feel pain, hurt, love & deep intimacy.  When I abruptly withdrew my presence & intimacy, I inadvertently bought into toxic masculinity.  

In full transparency, I didn’t actually believe his truth.  I didn’t have the capacity to believe that his truth was what he shared with me about his affection for me.  And, it’s not just because of my former experiences with men, and it’s not because I believe that I am unlovable, it’s because I am not sure that I believe a man has the capacity to emotionally show up for me in the ways that are authentic & life-giving.  This is the truth that I need to reckon with so that I can be set free from the fears of toxic masculinity.  In not confronting this truth, I too run the risk of not showing up emotionally for a male romantic partner in ways that are authentic & life-giving for him.  

Toxic masculinity suffocates the realest parts of ourselves & the ability truly feel the fullness of living our authentic self with one other.  Toxic masculinity doesn’t permit the self to become a self that can be denied so that one can love another as they would love themselves in ways that are life-giving. The truth is, I hurt him.  The truth is, I hurt me. I hurt us.  The truth is, toxic masculinity hurts all of us—women & men. 

Suggested resources: some I’ve read, some I’m presently reading & some I’ll read next:

Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love

bell hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love

Amire Levine & Rachel Heller, Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind – and Keep – Love

YouTube Resources

Emotionally Unavailable Partner

How to Open Up Healing Dismissive Avoidant Attachment Style

Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style

Healing Anxious Preoccupied Attachment Style

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