Asexuality and Labels, Part Two

Last week, I shared the first part of my response to a colleague’s question about young people identifying as asexual. You can read the first part here, where I talked about the benefits and potential pitfalls of labels, and how we can embrace fluidity while still communicating important aspects of our identity to one another. This week, I’m tackling the second part of the question, and talking about youth and sexual identity. 

Youth and Identity

Young people have so much to figure out about themselves. I often wonder if my own coming out process would have been different had I known a fuller range of possibilities when I was very young. I was born in the early 1960’s, and I definitely did not know anything about being gay or bisexual, let alone pan or asexual. 

But I do remember how I fought with my mother when she wanted me to study subjects that would lead to me having a good job, and I wanted to study art. I got very stubborn. And I remember her vociferously discouraging me from marrying when I was 18. I often wonder if I would have been able to find the courage to call off the wedding if it hadn’t meant I’d have to swallow my pride and admit to my mother that I had been wrong. 

In both cases, I fought so hard for my right to know myself better than she did that I was not able to change my mind easily. I wasn’t willing to have that conversation with my mom. I didn’t want to hear “I told you so” on top of everything else I was going through at the time.

So how the heck do you teach young people how to navigate fluidity, without telling them you think they will probably change their minds and identities multiple times in their lives? Young people are often in a process of differentiating from their parents, and also from their culture. That might involve trying on new labels or identities, and it may involve engaging with important aspects of themselves–such as sexual identity–that may be surprising to you or run counter to your expectations. 

Maybe that identity will evolve over time, and maybe it won’t. In either case, you can help them stay open to whatever may emerge by welcoming their disclosures with warmth and curiosity: “Thank you so much for trusting me with this information. Tell me more about what this means to you. How can I best support you?” 

Teaching Resilience and Flexibility

I think it is so important that we help children and young people build resilience, flexibility, and differentiation. But I don’t think these are skills that can be taught directly, by explaining the concepts. It’s likely that would just feel too didactic, or judgmental to someone who is just beginning to explore what it is to disagree with authority figures. I think these are things that are better taught by example, and indirectly. 

You might be able to help a young person learn to bounce back from disappointment by doing so yourself, and by celebrating when they are able to do so in any area of life. Similarly, teaching young people how to challenge themselves, evaluate and re-evaluate situations, and make course-corrections and pivots in other spheres will give them the skills they need to navigate fluidity in intimate and relational contexts. Supporting differentiation in young people means giving them positive feedback for sharing difficult material with you: 

  • “Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me.” 
  • “I’m so glad to know this about you.”  
  • “Would you like to tell me more? I’m so interested in how you came to understand this about yourself.” 
  • “How can I best support you?”

With support like that, I’m confident the young people in your life will be able to make any course-correction they need to, and will feel they can come to you with anything they want to share. They will meet with plenty of doubt and marginalization. Having a safe place where they don’t have to feel defensive about their self-exploration is the best gift you can possibly give.

Asexuality and Labels, Part One

After my most recent blog post about asexuality, a colleague wrote to me to ask a question about the topic. She was interested in my thoughts about young people who identify as asexual–whether it’s possible to know that you’re asexual from a young age, without having had much relationship experience, and whether it can be unhelpful to lock yourself into an identity early on. 

I thought that her question was quite valuable and interesting, as well as being a fairly common one, and I wanted to take the opportunity to share my response here, for all of you who may be wondering something along the same lines.

There are three overlapping issues in this question: 

  1. What is the utility of labels?
  2. What about fluidity over the lifespan? Do we lock ourselves in or limit our options by identifying in a particular way?
  3. What about youth and identity? What can young people know about, in particular, orientations such as gay, lesbian, bi, pan, or asexuality? 

As you can see, my colleague’s question got me thinking about some interesting, meaty, complicated topics–too much for a single blog post, so I decided to split my response into two. I’ll tackle the first two questions in this post, and next week I’ll share my thoughts about the third–as well as a few stories from my own youth that might help illuminate my perspective. 

Regarding Labels

No label can perfectly express the complexity of a whole human being, or even come close. But labels can be useful nevertheless. They can serve a purpose in helping us communicate with each other. Labelling yourself “bisexual,” for instance, is unlikely to capture the nuances of how you experience attraction, what kind of person you happen to be drawn to, what intimacy means to you, or who you are currently intimate with–how could it? But it can serve as a little signpost, guiding the person you’re speaking to a little closer to understanding an important aspect of you. 

Because labels are both useful and imperfect, everyone has to make their own decisions about how to navigate the relationship between the fullness of the experiences and the somewhat limited information captured by the label. 

So when someone tells you that they’re asexual, we know it probably won’t capture the full nuance and fluidity of their inner world, just as with any label. But it does point you in the right direction, towards an important aspect of themselves that they want to express to you. 

Seen like this, an identity label is a shorthand form of communication. One way to respond would be to get curious, and let them know you are interested enough to invite them to go beyond shorthand–not because you want to argue with them or because you doubt them, but because you care about them and want to know them. You can simply say, “Tell me more about that, and what it means to you.” Your goal is to better understand what they are trying to communicate about themselves.

Regarding Fluidity

It is certainly true that identities can be fluid, and that people’s perceptions of themselves can shift a whole lot over the course of a lifespan. Things change. But does having an identity and using a label limit the range a person might experience? 

My thoughts about this are informed by my own development. I was attracted to boys when I was a teen, and definitely identified as straight. But when I moved to Seattle in my early 20s, I came out as a lesbian. There were a couple of years in between, when I knew that shift was coming, but I had no idea what was ahead for me when I was in middle school and high school. 

Nobody considers telling a straight-identified youth they shouldn’t limit their options by identifying as straight. But I’m imagining right now what it would have been like for me if someone had. I don’t think it would have been helpful. In fact, anyone voicing any opinion at all about my identity would probably have made me dig in more, and show some resistance to change, out of sheer rebellion. In my case, I think it would have complicated my coming out process. That’s because, in addition to a lot of other things I was already grappling with, I would have had to figure out how I felt about capitulating to whomever had voiced the opinion that I might change in the future.

If you’re concerned about the possibility of someone locking themselves into a label, then, consider the possibility that, if you put them on the defensive, you might increase the likelihood of that happening. Sexual identity and experience are so individual and unique that, to an extent, we all have to walk our path and figure things out on our own. At the end of the day, the best thing you can do is show up with a warm heart and a curious mind. 

Next week I’ll tackle the second half of this question, youth and identity, so stay tuned!

Leaving the Honeymoon

In my last post, I wrote about some reasons romantic sparks flicker out, and how that shift relates to the natural evolution of relationships, as the early crushy, head-over-heels symbiotic stage gives  way to a more mature phase of the relationship. 

This week, I’m discussing a related question: How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?

It’s important to recognize that nobody can, or should, live in the honeymoon phase forever. At some point other commitments and connections will need some attention. In order to reconnect with friends, hold down a job, and engage in solo pursuits as well as mundane tasks, we have to go to bed and wake up on time, focus on something other than the new love, and resume building and maintaining a stable life. 

The reality of this might feel a bit melancholy–falling in love is magical, after all–but falling in love can also be immensely destabilizing. Also, let’s be honest, it’s not the state from which to make major life decisions (for instance, marriage) since the rose-colored glasses are too thick for flawless judgement. If you tell yourself that you are losing out as the honeymoon phase fades, you are doing yourself a disservice. Instead, I recommend focusing on what you gain through developing further. 

I can speak from experience here. I’ve had several failed relationships, as many of us have, so I understand how difficult it can be to move from symbiosis into a more differentiated relational state. But I also have a 25-year-long resounding relationship success. I can honestly say that my long-term relationship definitely has much more depth, intimacy, and rich connection than any honeymoon phase I have ever had. 

That richness comes with being very realistic about who we are, rather than trying to change one another, or pretend to be someone we really aren’t. We each believe in personal growth, and take our own growth and development seriously, but we don’t try to change each other. Change is an individual project, and how my partner changes (or doesn’t) is something I can influence at most–not something I can control. There is a powerful intimacy that comes with knowing and being known deeply, accepting the truth of your challenges as well as your strengths, and working together to maximize your potential and support your dreams and growth over time. 

The art of creating synergistic relationships, strongly interconnected yet independent, involves some very specific skills, including: 

  • Being able to identify what you think, feel, and want, separate from what anyone else might want for you or from you
  • Being able to get grounded and share that information even if you think the other person will feel uncomfortable hearing it
  • Staying balanced when your partner tells you something you are not entirely comfortable hearing. 

For more on this, check out my blog series about differentiation of self.  

Part of the process of moving out of symbiosis and towards a more differentiated relationship involves seeing our partner more fully, flaws and all. That will involve acknowledging some differences that probably got obscured in the excitement of the early relationship. It may be that you expect a very different level of cleanliness in the house, or you have very different levels of desire for sex, or one of you is a homebody and the other wants to go out almost every night. 

To strengthen your connection while acknowledging differences like these, you first need to approach relationships with the philosophy that difference is acceptable, even enriching. This is quite different from the “Disney Relationship Model” in which two halves of the same soul meld and complete one another, happily ever after. This shift requires you to look at your belief systems about relationships. Shifting toward celebrating differences requires that we neither take these differences personally, nor catastrophize them. 

Cultivating curiosity about your partner is one of the most important skills for navigating differences: “I would love to know more about why you feel that way, because it will help me deepen my understanding of you, my love.” That can feel like a stretch when it comes to a thorny topic with strong feelings attached. But keep in mind that if the two of you stagnate in a state of too-much-the-same, it will certainly kill the spark. Learning to find the spicy, somewhat sexy aspect of even very inconvenient differences will help motivate you to get curious. 

No matter how long you’ve been together, no matter how well you know each other, there’s always room for discovery–and that discovery can be thrilling. Maybe the spark from the honeymoon period can’t last, but there’s another kind of spark that comes with watching the person you love evolve and reveal new dimensions over time.