Understanding the boundaries within any relationship is extremely important. But is it wrong to crave attention from others? In episode 262, I received a question from a listener who has had to tackle past traumatic experiences which have resulted in a need to be wanted by other people, outside of their relationship. In this post, I take a look at this very complex topic, offer my thoughts on desire vs, action, and look at how therapy can help in this situation.
Ok, I don’t have a therapist yet, currently looking for a trauma therapist. My parents divorced when I was 6. My mom’s boyfriend molested me at age 9, she didn’t believe me for a long time. My dad came back “as friends “ to help him get off alcohol (I think I was about 12). At 13 I was raped by my boyfriend in a field. I started running away from home. My dad left because he couldn’t handle me running away. I started doing drugs and being promiscuous. I stopped at 17 and got with my now husband (I have cheated) and have 6 kids.
But here’s the thing, I still feel the need to feel wanted by other people! Like let’s say I’m 40, I have 20 year olds in my DMs wanting me to be their cougar! I actually want people to want me! My husband shows me affection don’t get me wrong but I would like someone else a lot of the time too. I can get where my f**ked up past caused my bipolar, depression, anxiety, PTSD, but to be like this?! What the heck?! Thanks for listening!
Good question! I think that there will definitely be elements of this that will resonate with people as well. I’m glad that you are looking for a therapist and that you mentioned a trauma therapist. Not everyone specializes in trauma work, so great instinct there. I also wanted to say that I feel for you that you’ve been through so much. You didn’t deserve it, you are not responsible for it, and I’m glad that you are alive and here to ask this question.
DESIRE VS. ACTION
This is sort of a complex and layered question. I think there are a few important threads to tease apart here. First off, let’s talk about desire vs action. It is 100% absolutely totally normal to experience attraction to people other than your partner. Be that romantic, sexual, or otherwise. This is something that I think movies tell us we are supposed to somehow turn off when we commit to being with someone romantically. There are certainly people where romantic or sexual interest for other people significantly dwindles when they are committed to someone, but that’ not the case for everyone and there is nothing wrong with that.
What you DO about this is a different story. You are allowed to have whatever private thoughts you would like or enjoy whatever kind of attention you might run into in daily life, but you need to make a choice about how you engage with that. Are you going to be actively drawing in that attention, actively flirting, talking openly about attractions, etc. There is no particular right answer here, which leads me to the other thing that needs to be separated out: moral behavior vs the boundaries of your relationship.
Like I said, it’s normal to have feelings toward other people and enjoy attention. It’s normal to have crushes, to crave affection, or to have fantasies of being with people. None of these in themselves are bad or immoral. At least from my perspective. If you come from a religious background, you may disagree. Personally, I don’t have one of those external forces guiding what is “good” and “bad” behavior for me. Where these things become problematic is when they are outside the boundaries of your relationship. Every relationship has a sort of spoken or unspoken contract that designates what types of behaviors are acceptable. There are relationships where the understanding is that both partners don’t spend significant time with the gender that they are attracted to without their partner present. To me this seems extreme, but if it’s something that both partners want, then that’s the standard that they should keep. On the other extreme, you have people who practice relationship anarchy, where there truly are no rules. Romantic, sexual, or platonic connections can be explored by any party without any need to check in. Then you have a whole bunch of gray area. Is it okay to flirt? Is it okay to sext? Is it okay to spend time with people you are attracted to? Is it okay to share pictures? Is it okay to date other people? There is a broad spectrum here and relationships can fall anywhere on it.
Often these things are not talked about openly in a relationship, which can be hard. When that is the case, you are just trying to take your best guesses about what would be acceptable and people can get hurt when you guess wrong or assumed things that were not actually true. I suggest that you talk with your partner about what these boundaries are and continue to have the conversation. To renegotiate the contract as needed.
EMBRACE THERAPY AND BE KIND TO YOURSELF
I hear a lot of self-judgment in your question. To me, this is not about you being bad for wanting certain things. It’s about sensation seeking and impulse control. So you don’t need to be judging yourself so harshly for being this way, but it does make sense to pay attention to this and try to get a better hold on your ability to control your urges. You talked about drugs, being promiscuous in the past, and cheating on your husband. It’s clear that you’ve had a bit of a hard time holding back. Some of this can be due to trying too hard to repress the feelings that you have and trying to force yourself to not feel that way, but there is probably more to it too.
Therapy is definitely the way to go here. There are going to be some practical nuts and bolts things that you can work on with your therapist. Ways to adjust your environment, habits to build and break, coping skills, that sort of thing. I want to strongly advise you to NOT lie to your therapist. There are a lot of people that really want to improve, but they get into therapy and want to please their therapist, so they lie about slip-ups they have had in order to feel like they are doing a good job. Don’t do this. It will limit their ability to help you. By the same token, if there is anyone else that you can be completely honest with about this, that would be helpful as well. As with most issues, it’s much harder for these things to exist when they are not allowed to hide in the dark. I have certainly had people that I’ve worked with in therapy that have benefitted significantly from just telling me that they want to be completely honest about something.
Then you will probably also want to dig deeper. You have a significant history of trauma. That absolutely changes the way that you interact with the world. Due to the age at which your traumas occurred, these had an impact on your identity development. Think about things like where you sought comfort to deal with your chaotic world, how you ignored the pain under the surface to function, how you escaped when you were trapped in an environment that was harmful to you, how you were able to exert control over your situation. There are any number of points like this that could be relevant and diving deep in therapy to understand how certain behaviors became useful for you can help you to change them and substitute them for more helpful/productive behaviors.
So you are absolutely on the right track. Don’t judge yourself too harshly for being human.