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You see a cigar, I see a penis: what I see emerging as the crush dust settles

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

I saw my former-crush and his wife the other day. I focused my energy on conversing with her rather than him and tried to be my most charming self. It helped -- not worrying about his attention. I felt more like myself in his presence than I have for months, and I didn't walk away kicking myself for not being cooler, or funnier, or more interesting.



But while I'm not spending (much) time thinking about this man who has no interest in my attention, I've hit a patch of ennui. And this has extended to the excitement I had for the possibility of PM and I experimenting with ethical non-monogamy. Turns out that my crushing hard on another person had been the fuel behind fantasies of experiencing other people sexually. And no big surprise but I'm finding that all of this is intricately tied to my perception of self and my life as a 42-year-old, married mother-of-three.



In the midst of writing this essay, I got a text from my friend and confidante. After months of flirting and texting and hanging out with her own crush, she had decided to be up front and just tell this person (via text, because eek!) that she had developed a crush on them. When I saw her that evening for drinks, I got the whole story.



Well, turns out we had both Googled "how to get over a crush."



My friend's person-of-interest, who happens to be a lesbian engaged to another woman, promptly and directly told my friend that she needed to stop with the whole crush thing (as if it's that easy!) but that they were cool and could continue being friends. They texted each other the following day, and she found this person was very kind about the whole thing. My friend appreciated the kind but upfront response. But then the inevitable shitty feelings of rejection set in. And to this I could most certainly relate.



As I shared last time, my whole crush business over the last 8 or 9 months hit me like a punch to the gut when I realized just how unrequited my admiration was. I wallowed in self-pity for almost a week, so much so that PM realized that something was up.



I never shared with PM the awkward text exchange that happened with the man formerly-known-as-my-crush. We share a lot with one another, but not everything. (I know this may seem counterintuitive, but there’s something to be said for mystery. And I actually think some privacy is healthy and feeds our passionate marriage, but that’s a topic for another time.) And this was just too humiliating to share with PM. Not to say that one day I won’t spill all the beans, but my feelings about this whole crush situation are still much too raw. He doesn’t need to see me pining over some other man, no matter how much he likes the guy.



That being said, PM gets me. He knows my self-doubt. He knows my fantasies (well, many of them, at least). He knows how much even a small amount of validation from other men seeing me as a smart, sexy woman boosts my self-confidence and, in turn, feeds my erotic self. Which he also knows greatly benefits him.



Because when I’m feeling confident and desirable, I’m going be in the mood to light shit up in the bedroom. Or wherever, really. *winks* As I've said before, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say.



So, although he didn't know details, it was no surprise that when I wasn't my typical saucy self, he sensed that something had changed, something that had impacted the integrity of my erotic self.



As the rawness of rejection has eased to allow me a better perspective on things, and as I see my friend face similar shitty feelings, I've realized that my crush wasn't just a crush. As I noted last week, yes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as they say. But sometimes it's a penis.





What I mean is that sometimes things are not simply as they appear. A lot of what I was feeling about my crush had to do with how I saw myself as a woman, as a sexual being. My crush represented something bigger –– the hope that at 42 and as a mother of three, I could still be wanted by someone new. And what more, my life could still hold new and exciting possibilities.



The last time I had a serious crush (by which I mean, more than just a physical attraction) I was 25 and had just started graduate school. PM and I had been married for four years, and after working full-time for several years in the financial sector in a job I absolutely hated, we had made the decision that I would quit and focus full-time on graduate school.



So I was making a fresh start of sorts as I explored new passions and discovered a potential in myself for great things that I didn't really know existed. I guess I would say I was blossoming as a person. And maybe it shouldn't be surprising that in the midst of all that change and self-discovery that I felt drawn to a brilliant person doing brilliant work in the field wherein I was just getting started.



He was a fellow graduate student but was finishing up his degree at the time, and he taught the intro biblical Hebrew language course that I took my very first semester, a time when I was filled with a lot of self-doubt at the entire prospect of graduate work. This man was incredibly encouraging of me in that first year as I acclimated, and I felt myself drawn to him almost immediately.



Where was PM when all this was going on? Well, PM and I didn't see each other much in those busy days. He had just graduated seminary and was working long hours as a chaplain while also trying to figure out a career path into church work. I was often in the university library until midnight. I'd say we were more cohabiting than anything else at the time. And while I grew a lot as a person in that period, it definitely was not the best years for us in terms of our marriage. I was lonely. PM was lonely. But we just weren't connecting.



As I look back, I think both PM and I had a lot of growing up left to do. We needed to find ourselves as adults, as individuals. And that's not easy to do when you've tethered yourselves together at such a young age.



When that past crush fizzled out, I was sad, for sure. But I didn't feel crushed. But it's not surprising, really. At 25, life stretched out endlessly in front of me.




Now, 20 years later and finding myself in the throes of withdrawal from another serious crush, the emotional fallout has been vastly different. Of course, my life circumstances are also vastly different.



These two men I had intense crushes on as an adult (married) woman embodied what psychotherapist and author Esther Perel calls "the third," the possibilities that lie outside my monogamous relationship. (For more on Perel's idea of the third, check out some of my past essays, for example, "You and me and steamy dreams" and "A nod to my erotic self.") In my attraction toward these men, I indulged my erotic self. I was leaning over the fence, if you will, to get a better look at those roads not chosen. (And, boy, were they mighty fine. *smirks and nods*)



When I was 25, it was fun and exciting to think about the many paths not taken, because the truth was, there were many choices still available, in many aspects of my life. I was newly married but still figuring out a career, and without the weight of a family yet, the possibilities of what my life could be, of where it could go, seemed endless.



But now that I'm 42, the landscape on the other side of the fence looks vastly different. Now when I leaned over to take a peek, it was only to find there were no other roads. And damn, that hit me hard.



Did it suck that my crush didn't want my attention? Fuck, yes. But that wasn't the real cause of the heartbreak that I felt. The grief was real, but I wasn't pining for my crush as much as the idea of being admired, the feeling of still being a desirable woman.



For me, my crush represented other possibilities that could be, other doors that might line the hallway of life, if that makes any sense. I had felt excited and full of hope and passion for life, for the future. And the potential for ethical sexual experimentation with other people within my marriage to PM was one of these exciting possibilities.




A few weeks following my awkward exchange with my crush that had left me feeling shitty about myself, I had a epiphany of sorts. PM was making a pot of coffee when I plunked myself down at the island. “Hmph,” I grumbled. “All I want is someone that I like to flirt with me. Is that too much to ask? I’m not so bad — I’m cute. I’m fun. I’m smart. Why doesn’t anyone like me?” Of course, at the moment, I really had one particular someone in mind.



Earlier that night I had seen my former-crush, as we were both picking up our kiddos from the same activity. While we waited for our children, he politely asked how my week was going and what PM was up to — all very normal and innocuous. I tried to keep the conversation going by asking him about work, but he didn’t seem interested in continuing to chat. I tried engaging him again at some point, but his attention was clearly elsewhere.



As I drove my kids home afterwards, I replayed the last 20 minutes, mentally picking apart our interaction. And I felt like shit all over again. I wanted this man’s attention so badly, and yet it was as clear as day that the feeling was not mutual. While he wasn’t ignoring me outright, it was obvious that he had no special interest in conversing with me. And I got the feeling he was gently reaffirming boundaries. Yes, I already knew all this, but it still felt terrible to be reminded of it.



The most frustrating part of all was that I had been trying so hard to let go of all thoughts of this man. And I had been fairly successful and feeling better about myself and the whole thing.



I had seen him the previous weekend at the park, and he and I had hung out together along with a mutual friend as we watched all our children play together. It was all very normal. I’m not going to say I didn’t admire his lean physique a few times over the course of the afternoon, but whatever. I’m only human, after all. The point is that I had been cool (well, as cool as my nerdy -self can accomplish) and had managed to avoid dreamy-eyed stares.



And it had felt good. I had left the park that day feeling like I was truly over my crush on this man. I could imagine a time in the very near future where I would relate to him in the same way I did all the other men with whom I have asexual friendships. And I felt a sense of relief at that thought — that eventually I wouldn’t even notice this man’s lack of interest in me.



And yet here I was, feeling like shit. Again. I accepted a cup of coffee from PM and continued my pity-party out loud. “I’m so short,” I whined. “I bet if I was taller, men would want to talk to me. Or had bigger breasts. Or if I actually had something interesting to talk about…I’m so boring.” Annnnnd cue the tears.



I said it in my last post, and I’ll say it again: I'm truly amazed at my capacity for heartache over something that was never anything more than admiration from afar and the stuff of erotic daydreams. And the fact that I so quickly move from bruised ego to self-doubt to self-loathing? Welcome to my world. *shrugs*



PM had been quietly listening to me, even as I began to spiral. “Did someone not want to talk to you tonight?” he asked softly. I paused to swipe a hand across my tear-stained face and shrugged, “Yeah, it seemed like it.”



“That’s their loss then,” he replied. He didn’t push me further for more details. He knew it was less about the specifics of what happened and more about how I perceive myself. I sniffled pitifully and sipped at my coffee.



That’s when PM chose what was tantamount to the nuclear option, at least in my mind. If only he had quit while he was ahead. Yet he plunged forward and said to me, “You should know, if you swing, you’re going to get rejected.”



Yeah, this was not what I needed to hear. If I hadn’t already been busy beating myself up, I might have been able to see where he was going with this. But as it was, this felt like someone was kicking me while I was already down.



“So, in other words, you think no one’s going to want me. And that we obviously shouldn’t swing, because I’m just going to get rejected and feel like shit over and over.” I fled the room as the sobs overwhelmed me, and I heard PM shout after me, “Molly, that’s not what I meant!”



Yeah, well, I’m not sure how he thought, in the midst of my moment of self-pity, I would take it in any other way. But even PM can misread a situation and make a misstep. And this was a particularly stupid one, in my opinion. (I also have a sneaking suspicion that he wanted to capitalize on this opportunity to raise still one more reason why swinging would be a bad idea for us. But more on PM’s perspective on partner-swapping another time.)



I let the misery take over and ugly cried for a few minutes. When PM found me curled under a blanket on the couch, he sat down with a sigh. “I didn’t mean it that way. I wasn’t saying no one would want you. I’m only saying that swinging involves a lot of rejection, in general. Couples go out and meet potential partners, and a lot of times it doesn’t work out. For one reason or another. I only meant that people who swing, who are in the lifestyle, have to be able to handle rejection well.” I heard another him let out another sigh.



I hear what’s he saying. I really do. We’ve talked about this aspect of the lifestyle before. And he knows how much I struggle with my self-image and feeling confident, and I know that he wants to spare me possible grief and further self-doubt.



This was just not the moment to have this particular conversation, and I determined to make him see the miscalculation he made.



I scowl at him. “Why would you bring that up now? I just finished saying that no other men like me, and you decide to just throw out there the fact that I’ll get rejected a lot if we were to swing. What the fuck? Why would you choose to say that now, when I’m already feeling shitty and unwanted?!”



“I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to make you feel worse. I just wanted to point out that swinging involves a lot of rejection, and it doesn’t seem like you’d be able to handle it well.” He pauses for a moment and then adds, “But you’re right. It probably wasn’t the best time to bring it up.”



“Ya think?” I reply petulantly. I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. He slides over, picks up my legs, and puts them on his lap. “I am sorry I made you feel worse.”



The next day — when everything didn’t seem quite so shitty — I thought about my emotional response the night before. It became clear to me that the intense letdown I felt had very little to do with crumbling of my crush fantasy and more to do with the realization that I'm growing more invisible to other men (not to mention to our culture at large) by the hour.



It reminded me of the opening scene of the very first episode of the television series Cougar Town, where we find the main character Jules, a 40-year old single divorced mother of a high-schooler, making an inventory of her aging body in the mirror — loose elbow skin (this particularly hit close to home for me because I just noticed my elbows looking different the other day 😒), belly roll, jiggly thighs. A face that’s beginning to slightly sag all over.



As I had watched the scene with PM recently, I could feel my anxiety level creep up. And keep in mind, this character is played by the gorgeous Courteney Cox. It’s down-right ridiculous that this beautiful woman is despairing over her body, when the rest of us mortals could only dream of looking that good. But just the same, getting older is friggin’ hard on women (particularly on cishet women but perhaps it's true more broadly) living in a youth-obsessed culture.



And as per usual, PM’s redirection of our conversation about rejection that we had the night before (even as horrid as it had been) helped me get a better handle on the heart of the issue.



My crush fantasies had been fueling my desire to sexually explore with other people because it allowed me a space to feel good about myself. Crushing on another person — feeling a pull toward someone and allowing myself to indulge my erotic imagination in the thought that maybe, just maybe, my admiration was requited — had me excited. It had been a long time since I last felt so taken by another person that I wondered what it would be like to erotically experience another person. I felt desirable, frisky and playful. Eager to experiment. Open to new experiences.



And now the revelation that my crush had no interest in my attention — that, in fact, the sexual tension that I felt existed only in my mind — had me experiencing all the opposite feelings. I felt depressed, listless, unwanted and undesirable…apathetic, even. Perhaps this man felt that ignoring my attention was the kindest, gentlest way to set clear boundaries, but, in reality, his refusal to acknowledge my attention made me feel invisible.



I was suddenly very unsure about myself, and I worried over how other people saw me or if they could see me at all. Do people like me? Am I likable? What could I possibly offer other people? Why would anyone want to explore anything with me? The idea of new sexual experiences suddenly seemed scary and not worth the risk.



So, yes, PM, had a real point (although I maintain that his timing and the way he went about bringing it up to me has much to be desired). It was certainly worth considering whether I could tolerate a scenario that almost certainly would mean experiencing some rejection within an overtly sexual context, given my response to being shutdown by my crush when I knew our relationship never would have amounted to anything more than friendship from the start. But more on this issue another time.



While I hadn't taken the direct route of confessing my crush that my friend had taken, I had put myself out there, just a tiny bit, after years of suppressing that side of myself to build a home and raise a family. When my fantasy crumbled, when I recognized that my crush was never a door that truly existed for me in the first place, those other doors seem to vanish as well. And that's what really hurt.



The hope that my crush might reciprocate my admiration, even in a small way, represented the hope that I could be desirable as the person I am right now, in this moment –– the person I've grown and evolved into over my adult years.



PM chose me many, many years ago. Before I really knew myself. So if I'm being really heartbreakingly honest, I wanted to think I could be chosen by someone (even if only hypothetically) for the person I am now. That I could be a desired commodity. That my time as a captivating, erotic creature wasn't yet over. But now the sting of rejection has me asking, What was I thinking?



When all is said and done, I’ll be able to see things more clearly in time. I know that at some point I'll look back at this crush and see him for what he is: an attractive, kind, smart man. A friend who, for a time, ignited something in me, and for this I’ll always think of him fondly.


But I have also realized that I need to come to terms with some things before PM and I can continue our conversations about exploring ENM. I have to make peace with aging. I have to pursue passions that make me optimistic about the future. I have to take an active role in pursuing new possibilities for myself.



I also have to accept that anything worth pursuing comes with its own risks. The real question is whether I would be happier remaining where I am, because to maintain the status quo means I won't be exposed to the risk of failure and heartache. But it also means giving up the potential for joy in undertaking new adventures and discovering new things about myself.





A quick note about future pieces: Not sure how often I will publish new content. October is kicking my ass in terms of non-stop chaos on the home front -- endless after school activities and weekend events and birthday parties. But going forward, I will try to put something new out every other week.



Next up on the docket is a long-awaited exposé on PM's POV regarding swinging. It's funny, people. And infuriating. *grins and shakes head*


Until next time, stay kinky. 😉

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