Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

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androidgf
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Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by androidgf »

Hi there.

I've been struggling with really bad anxiety since I had a mental health crisis in Halloween 2023. My relationship with my gf of 9 months (I am nonbinary) has suffered because of this and we've stumbled into more conflicts but have strived to come back together despite us not being able to see each other as often as usual.

It's important to note that my gf is really avoidant and tends to shut down and withdraw during conflict and she has struggled with believing that I am criticising/judging her. Dating has never been on her radar so we have struggled to match expectations of each other as I seem to know mine and she doesn't.

This New Years we booked a hotel together and celebrated it together. Sex has been anxiety inducing to me lately and since Halloween we haven't done more than make out and she has never pushed me for more. We started making out on NYE and it got heavier. I broke away to say that I was nervous to have sex and she affirmed that and told me we didn't need to do anything other than kiss if that was okay for me, which it was. After that, the kissing became a little heavier/heated until I started to feel overwhelmed and started to give what I thought were physical cues that I wanted to scale things back. She didn't pick up on these and my anxiety was going a mile a minute - I thought at worst she's ignoring the cues I'm giving and at best she just isn't recognising them which also didn't feel good. I wanted her to pick up on how I was feeling but she continued until I pulled away.

Immediately I knew that I needed to tell her how I was feeling - which was that I felt unsafe during that moment and wanted her to pick up on it - but I was nervous. I felt sick (which is common for my anxiety) and went to the bathroom. After taking some time, feeling nervous because I didn't want her to shut down or withdraw after I told her this, I told her (through the closed door because I was scared to do it face to face) that I felt she hadn't picked up on how I wanted to slow things down and it had made me feel bad. She then shut down and withdrew. I tried to initiate our process for 'checking in' when she withdraws like this but she didn't engage, and eventually I came out and we went to bed. We had a bit of a conversation where I admitted that I had felt unsafe and that I wanted her to pick up on how I was feeling. What upset me was that she replied that somestimes it's hard to always accurately read people physically but she apologised. She also told me that she worries that I'm not what she wants but stressed that I also need to process how I feel about what happened as I initially had felt unsure about how I actually felt about what happened while we were kissing. The next morning, we basically didn't speak at all and she left without telling me - I only knew because I texted her asking if she left and she said yes.

I know all of this sounds bad, because it is and the way she handled things made me feel horrible. When I got home she called me and gave the exact response I had wanted - which was a profuse apology both for how she made me feel and how she reacted to it. She said she didn't want to have sex, she didn't pick up my physical cues I was giving her even though she should've been paying closer attention, and that withdrawing wasn't the right thing to do and she should have given me space to feel whatever I was feeling rather than making the situation revolve around her withdrawing. I told her that her response that sometimes it was hard to always physically read people didn't make me feel any safer, and that it felt like she had basically said that this could happen again. She accepted this and apologised that she spoke so generally, she definitely didn't want this to happen again and she was only speaking generally in that moment and she understood that saying that wasn't helpful in the moment. She said she left th morning after without telling me because she felt like she'd basically assaulted me while we were kissing. I expressed that I was scared to tell her how I had felt because of how she might react and we both acknowledged that that wasn't healthy.

She feels extremely guilty and ready to leave the relationship because of what has happened. She said it was safer to leave the relationship if I wasn't sure if I felt assaulted and if how she acted after that moment wasn't acceptable to me. The hard thing is that I'm still not sure if an assault feels accurate to me (which she says isn't good either and I agree), and if anything I'm more upset about how she reacted to me telling her that I felt uncomfortable which she has acknowledged full responsibility for.

My state of anxiety that I'm trying to recover from has made it really hard for me to process exactly how I've felt about what happened. I've read up on reactions to assault but it has felt dizzying - I'm worried that my love for my girlfriend has clouded what could potentially be an assault. To me, it feels more like it was a result of poor communication around what I was uncomfortable with/a lack of confidence in clearly telling her and her unintentionally crossing a sexual/intimacy boundary.

My anxiety has made me second guess a lot of things and I have had to refamiliarise myself with lots of things that have felt scary or overwhelming like public transport, sleeping and eating. My girlfriend says she wouldn't be comfortable if after this experience she became something I felt unsafe around or if I felt I had to refamiliarise myself with her but wants to know if this experience is something I'm open to moving forward from and making sure doesn't happen again.

I'm worried my anxiety is messing with my perception of what happened and if I trying to cover for my girlfriend. I have a session with my therapist on the 9th but I really would appreciate any thoughts on this.
Willa
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by Willa »

Hi Androidgf,

I am so sorry that happened and that it has been so difficult for you. It sounds like you are trying very hard to advocate for yourself and communicate what you need, which I commend you on. With situations like this it is very important to remember that consent from both parties needs to be enthusiastic and consistent. When one partner disengages, it is important for both to keep the lines of communication going and to touch base on how both of you are feeling and I am sorry you did not receive that from your partner.

I can not say for you whether or not the experience was assault, as you know best how you felt during the experience and the level of enthusiastic consent during the interaction. It does sound like you and your partner are having difficulty communicating about the event even after the fact. Just generally as well you do not need to decide how you feel to understand that it was not a positive experience for you and that you did not feel supported in the aftermath. It is very important in a relationship to be able to voice when you are not feeling safe and when you would like to stop an interaction, sexual or otherwise. If you do not feel as though you feel safe or comfortable saying no or stop to your partner, this is something very important when considering continuing the romantic or sexual relationship. Does that make sense?
androidgf
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by androidgf »

Thanks Willa. That makes perfect sense.

During the interaction I think I felt as if my gf should've picked up on how I felt. Is that unfair? I agree that consent should be consistent and enthusiastic and that it is an issue that I felt uncomfortable talking about how I felt unsafe because I didn't want my partner to feel criticised or judged (which has been an issue with us before).

I'm struggling to know whether it's good to continue this relationship knowing that I felt overwhelmed/unsafe in that interaction and felt unable to voice it. I do have the utmost confidence that if I had, my gf would have completely respected it. However I don't know if that's what I should be focusing on, and maybe I should be focusing on how I felt more than what my partner theoretically would have done if I did speak up.

Should I only move forward with the relationship if I feel confident that I can give enthusiastic consent?
Willa
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by Willa »

Hi Androidgf,

I was not there, so only the two of you have the experience of the level of physical cues you were giving your partner. In general we owe it to ourselves as well as our partners to be as communicative as possible during experiences like these, but of course there are often situations where we experience a freeze response or feel unsafe vocalizing our feelings. However it can be an indication that if we feel unsafe or unable to communicate during these experiences, the person we are in sexual contact with may not be someone we can safely continue a sexual relationship with.

Would you feel the situation would have been different if you both set clearer boundaries on what exactly is off limits? For example if kissing was fine but actions that make the interaction feel "heavier/heated" for such as hand or body placement were off limits- do you feel like the interaction would have gone better or that your boundaries would still be crossed?

If you feel unable to stop sexual contact without negative or shutting down reaction from your partner, they are not a person that is going to give you the safe and comfortable experience you deserve. Sexual boundaries and communication are part of healthy sexual relationships as well as something many couples have to work on strengthening. However if that does not feel doable for you or your partner or if you feel as though contact will continue sexual experiences where you do not feel comfortable or like your boundaries are being violated-then moving forward may not be healthy or helpful for either of you.
androidgf
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by androidgf »

I do feel that if we had both set clearer boundaries then I wouldn't have felt that my boundaries were violated at all.

I do feel as if the anxiety I'm struggling with has a part to play in why I felt less confident/had a freeze response during that interaction. I don't think that makes how my partner reacted (by shutting down) okay, but I can understand how she may have interpreted it as me expecting her to read my mind (which is something we have struggled with before). When we were having sex more regularly, this is something that we struggled communicating with as my gf is less experienced than me and I sometimes expected her to be able to anticipate my needs sexually without me fully guiding her.

I do think we need much better communication moving forward around sex, especially establishing a framework of enthusiastic consent which wasn't necessarily present before this.

Does it make sense that this experience has made me more worried about future encounters even though we have never struggled with consent or making each other feel comfortable in the bedroom before? Could this be connected to the existing anxiety that I'm already feeling?

If I feel confident that my partner would not shut down or react negatively if I voiced that I was uncomfortable during intimacy, would that be good enough? Or is it enough that this encounter has already made me feel anxious and that I experienced a freeze response anyway?
Last edited by androidgf on Wed Jan 03, 2024 1:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
Sam W
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by Sam W »

Hi androidgf,

I do think that at least some of how you're feeling around all this is related to intense anxiety it sounds like you've been experiencing over the last few months. I say that in part because it sounds like even in the moment, your anxiety basically raced ahead of everything else as you were trying to evaluate whether she was ignoring you on purpose or not. Anxiety that intense can be exhausting, and as you've pointed out can also make it harder for us to parse out a situation or our feelings around it.

I will say that if you two decide to continue being sexual together, some reflection and communication about expectations and what you each need from communication during sex is for sure going to be necessary. I say that because I think this sentence from your first post gets at a big part of what's going on here:
"I told her that her response that sometimes it was hard to always physically read people didn't make me feel any safer, and that it felt like she had basically said that this could happen again."

Right now, it sounds like for her to feel comfortable in a sexual interaction, she needs really explicit cues around your boundaries, because she feels like she doesn't always have the easiest time parsing them. You, on the other hand, feel like if you don't have the assurance that your partner will pick up cues quickly and will never miss one or misunderstand it, you won't feel safe in the interaction. Do you feel like you two can have a conversation where you talk about how you might balance those expectations, or what you could set in place so that you have ways to make boundaries explicit when verbal communication is sometimes hard (for instance, a distinct, physical sign for "stop")?

This does, at least from your description, sound far more like an instance of miscommunication and mis-matched expectations than it does like an assault, though as Willa said how you want to describe it is up to you. I will say that in my experience, even if we've been with a partner a long time and know things like each other's tone and body language well, sometimes there can be a mis-read cue or other miscommunication. So I agree with you that really setting a an expectation of clear, enthusiastic consent and communication might help prevent situations like this in the future, even if it can't take the chances of them down to perfect zero.
androidgf
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by androidgf »

Thanks, Sam. This has really helped.

I'm almost confident this wasn't assault - I think what tripped me up is that from what I read online, anything that makes you feel unsafe is assault, but it didn't feel as if my gf intentionally crossed any boundaries, more that I was struggling to say what I was comfortable because my anxiety was racing ahead of me. Which to me sounds a lot like poorly constructed boundaries and a misreading of physical cues - and even though that did make me feel unsafe, I don't feel it was done maliciously and I can understand if my gf just wasn't used to being as 'tuned in' to the physical cues I gave as she hasn't had to before.

I definitely feel like we can have a conversation where we talk about how we can balance our expectations for communication - my gf has been giving me all the space I need for processing this and has been completely open to talking through it which I think is a good sign.

I agree with your assessment about my anxiety. The only other thing I'm worried about is how this might affect our casual intimacy (kissing, holding hands, cuddling). Usually after a conflict it does take us some time to reconnect in that way but my anxious thoughts have me convinced that I'll need to establish clear consent rules around even casual intimacy and I don't know if that's a bad sign. I suppose I will have to meet with her in person to see if those feelings persist and assess that then, but I'm worried that if I'm worried about that then I should be worried about how this interaction with my gf has made me feel altogether (even writing this, it feels like this is an anxious spiralling thought).
Last edited by androidgf on Wed Jan 03, 2024 3:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.
androidgf
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by androidgf »

I think what Willa said about feeling unable to voice that I was feeling unsafe because my gf didn't read my physical cues because it might lead to my gf feeling criticised or judged is also something that's still niggling at me too. I can't decide if its a red flag that I felt that or that I felt that way because I was still automatically operating within the framework of needing my partner to pick up cues quickly/never miss one/ misunderstand and fuelled by anxiety. Is that a cause of concern that I should think more deeply about or trust that we can come to an agreement that makes us both feel safe?
Sam W
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Re: Can't tell if what my GF did was assault, a mistake, or a result of poor miscommunication

Unread post by Sam W »

I'm glad what I said is helpful!

With those worries around intimate but not always sexual touches, like kissing or holding hands, I think it might be helpful to ask yourself what consent and boundaries would look like for you in that situation. For instance, maybe it means agreeing that if you pull your body away, that means "please don't try to continue the contact."

As far as those concerns about having been unable to voice feeling unsafe, it might help to look one step more into what you were trying to avoid. In other words, did you not want your girlfriend to feel judged because you care about her and didn't want to upset her? Is it that when she feels that way she shuts down and you were trying to keep the situation one where you could both talk about what happened? Or does her feeling judged lead to her treating you in a way that you don't want to be treated?

While I know where people saying "if it made you feel unsafe it was assault" comes from--often it's to counteract the still-prevalent culture tendency to minimize or excuse assault because it "wasn't that bad" or "only" involved this specific activity or was "just a misunderstanding"--but I do find those kinds of statements aren't all that helpful when we're talking about actual sexual interactions. Part of that is because, as someone with anxiety, I know full well that there are moments when I feel unsafe because the anxiety dial in my mind is cranked all the way up, not because of anything my partner is doing or might do.

That being said, and this is something I'd for sure bring up when you see your therapist, if you're at a point where you consistently don't feel safe with your girlfriend, then it's likely time to end the relationship. That can be the case even if you're pretty confident that the feeling of not being safe is due to anxiety rather than anything she's doing or has done. I say that because at a certain point, staying in a relationship where you don't feel safe isn't a kind thing to do. It's far kinder to yourself to end it, and it's also a kinder call for your partner as well, even if it sucks in the moment.
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