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Shadow Roles: When Gay Men Fall Into Detrimental Patterns for Love

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The term "Stockholm syndrome" was coined after a hostage situation during a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973. The victims started to care for and bond with the robbers, even going as far as fighting off the police. Stockholm syndrome is described as a subconscious survival strategy, and sometimes as an emotional tie to one's captor.

A great example of this would be someone in an abusive relationship. I still remember the first time I realized how bad the situation had become. I was at his (let's call him The Marine, seeing as that's how I now refer to him anyway) going-away party and got extremely drunk because I couldn't deal with the fact that he was going away to fight in a war for seven months! I was intoxicated to the point where I couldn't even walk. Before that moment, I had never drunk that way, and it wasn't until the next day, when I had to deal with the aftermath, that everything became all too clear. At the party I was on the kitchen floor, begging him not to leave. Enough said, right? I was clearly over-invested in this guy! I literally couldn't deal with it! I was so embarrassed and emotional, especially with him leaving in less than a week! I don't even need to tell you how he reacted, since he wasn't my boyfriend, and no one truly knew the depth of our "friendship." He walked away from me several times that night, and the next day all he said to me was, "You ready to go home?" That's all he said to me up until it was time for him to go be a Marine, which, of course, threw me into an even deeper emotional decline.

Why is it that we gay men allow ourselves to be subjected to secret relationships with closeted men? I would estimate that about 90 percent of my gay friends have had some sort of emotional or physical interaction with someone who is straight-identifying or in the closet. I'm notorious for falling in love with emotionally or socially unavailable men. Why are we OK with being degraded to second place to a wife, to a life, or to the simple fact that someone isn't comfortable with himself? I've gone through so much self-inflicted emotional anguish because I wanted to be with someone who, quite frankly, didn't care enough to want to be with me. When is a little less lonesome no longer enough? Where along the way did forgoing a serious, full-on, committed relationship in favor of accepting fragments of some sort of fictitious affection become appealing to us? I've gone through the ringer trying to change and make it work. I've wasted time on someone who didn't love me enough to be brave. I've compromised dreams because someone wasn't comfortable enough loving me without one foot outside the door. Do we really think a man will finally come around and fall madly in love with us and the pieces will fall into place? Or is it a more profound issue? Maybe we are more willing to look past the negative because deep down we don't ever feel truly accepted by society. Could it be possible that, just maybe, we don't feel worthy enough of those dreams we have of living a life with a family or someone who loves us and wants to show us off to the world like we do them?

I was fully committed to someone who was too scared to take action and love me back. I spent five years working and going crazy doing everything I could to make it as easy as possible for him, until it got to a point where I began resenting him for everything he put me through. I took the back seat to girlfriends, friends, and social outings, all because I allowed him that position of power over me. I let him feel that it was OK to treat me the way he did. I felt that it was OK that he treated me that way. I allowed it because (1) I loved him, and (2) deep down I never felt good enough for him. I felt too ugly for him, too fat, too crazy, too feminine. Any excuse I could come up with to convince myself that I wasn't good enough, I did. There was never a point in those five years when I felt worthy enough for someone I saw as so perfect. I guess I got to a point where I felt a little of something is better than nothing. I remember spending one night talking about baby names and adopting children and building a Victorian house to live in, then no more than 24 hours later we were back to being just friends. I acquiesced to breadcrumbs and convinced myself that one day he'd be ready to give me more. I built a life of wishful thinking and settled. It wasn't until I was out of that state of mind that I realized what those five years really were: a fruitless endeavor.

So, again, I wonder why is it that we gay men allow ourselves to take that back seat. Why do we take it so willingly, especially when talented, beautiful people who love us encourage so many of us? Research has shown that gay men with low self-esteem are more willing to practice unsafe sex or have high-risk sexual encounters, so if we aren't even willing to worry about our lives and our health, why would it matter to us that we aren't getting all the healthy aspects of a relationship from someone we love? If we can't even take the proper precautions for a healthy sex life because we don't give value to our lives, then why would we expect anyone else to give value to us? Is that gay teenager, the one who doesn't fit in, the one who's told on a daily basis that being gay is wrong, still haunting us? I'll admit that there are situations where I still get uncomfortable being as feminine as I am, like at Super Bowl parties! I still feel a little uneasy around so much masculine energy, and I don't believe it's because I'm scared to be judged: I think it has more to do with the fact that I just don't fit into the box that society says I'm supposed to fit into, but as little as I care for the norms of society, a part of me still hears everyone telling me as a kid that I act like a girl. I've never been more comfortable with myself or in a better state of mind than I am now, so I can't help but look back and wonder whether so many gay men settle for situation like the one I was in because they are blinded by all these insecurities. Why have I seen so many gay men let someone build them up and smash them down when it's convenient for that person? We run back time and time again, but do we really expect a different outcome, or are we just looking for a temporary relief from having to prove to ourselves that we are good enough? We know how we feel in the moments when we get to be wrapped in someone's arms, and we know how we feel when we don't have those arms to be safe in, but is that fleeting comfort and sporadic affection worth the roller coaster ride of being with someone who can't, or won't, fully invest their time, and more importantly their heart, in you?

Once, in a therapy session, my therapist at the time suggested that I cut all ties with this man, and I sat there and gave her a list of reasons that I couldn't and wouldn't do it. I never returned to therapy after that. It seemed to be a recurring event: I'd complain about everything he'd done wrong, and then I'd defend him and make an excuse for each complaint I had just made. No one knew him, so they couldn't judge him; that's where my mentality stood. So why would I complain? I did it because I needed someone to make sense of why he and I were the way we were. I needed an excuse to stay, but that's never what I got. Everyone started to become the reflections I wanted to avoid, the reasons that I knew I should leave but was too invested in him to do it. Given that I was so vulnerable and naïve regarding what a healthy love life is, I had no qualms about subjecting myself to such an intensely powerful, virulent addiction. I've found that I was addicted to the fights, the downward spirals, because, in my mind, the arguing meant that he cared. If he didn't care, he would just leave. It was easy to believe that, so I did. In retrospect, what was there to leave? How can you leave a place you've never really been?

So if I spent five years changing, trying to hide the fights, protecting someone who hurt me on a daily basis, wouldn't that mean I was a victim of Stockholm syndrome? I always protected his reputation with my family and friends, arguing that he was great, and they just didn't get to see or hear about the wonderful moments. In a sense I was protecting my "captor." Does the decline of our confidence slowly lead us into this subconscious state of dependence, even if the person is deleterious?