“Sex” — this word is everywhere and can mean anything.
A few days ago, I was in a cafe and I heard a guy saying to his friend: “Hmmm… your coffee looks sexy.”
A coffee, seriously?
As an Italian, I’m always impressed by such expansive use of this word. I still remember the sense of panic I felt when a colleague of mine used this word during a lecture I gave at a conference. He described my paper as “sexy.” What? I blushed and smiled nervously.
Now I know. This word is nearly synonymous today with all that is spicy, juicy, vital, dynamic.
Yet if we look at its origin, this very “sexy” word was born in a dusty bureaucratic office.
“Sex”, sexusin Latin, comes in fact from the verb secare, “to divide or cut,” and is related to “section,” or that which is divided. Latin used this word to point to the quality of being male or female in order to group the population and make the census.
Thus, the contemporary use of this word is relatively recent. D.H. Lawrence seemed to be the first to use this new sense of the word, in 1929.
1000 ways to say “I want you!”
So then what are the words that the Greeks and Romans used to indicate sexual love?
For sure, Greeks, more than Romans, were not at a loss for words when it came to saying, “I love you,” or in this case “I want you.”
They used the verb agape to indicate a spiritual, unconditional love; stergo to mean affection; phileo to indicate a kind of a mental love relating to friendship; or finally, erao for intimate love—yes, that kind of love accompanied by passionate desire and longing.
It is so fascinating! In the Greek world, Eros stands for nature. Eros is that natural power that impinges on human existence and calls us to what our natural body needs in order to be in harmony with nature, or better, to be one with Nature.
A case in point is the satyr.
The satyr, half man and half animal—as Aristophanes described him—was gifted with boundless sexual energy that he tried to satisfy in any possible way, with animate and inanimate erotic (so to speak) “partners.” If you happen to wander into a museum somewhat yawning and bothered by your back that keeps on aching, pay closer attention to their pictures. They are a cold shower.
Those vases were the adult magazines of antiquity. Greeks liked them so much that on one of these vases, kept in Palermo (V, 651) you can see a group of satyrs mating with amphoras and pots themselves. Lissarague, a philologist, explains this somewhat questionable choice, saying that the wine amphora was the necessary accessory of the kōmos (a ritualistic drunken procession) and the symposium. Wine and sex are what make a satyr happy! Thus the famous saying “Afrodite kai Dionysos met’allelon eisi,” “Aphrodite and Dionysus are with each other.”
Certainly, satyrs loved women as well. Women, though, did not return the affection. (This explains the amphoras.) As MacNally wrote, the relationship between satyrs and maenads (the followers of Dyonisos, who were, by definition, a little bit wacky) started out friendly between 550 and 500 BC, and then, like many friendly relationships, “changed” between 500 and 470, becoming clearly hostile after 470. Maenads, according to Plutarch (Virtuous Women 12.249 e-f), were inviolable—I guess, especially if it was a bunch of half-goats coming on to them.
Well, satyrs did not get discouraged: They loved men too, of course. And in this case, they were more successful. Unlike the rest of Greek society, they were not worried about the difference in age. It did not matter if the guy, the beloved one, was younger (in fact, as a rule, they preferred this way) than they (the lovers). There is a cup in Berlin (1964.4)—another “adult magazine,” that shows a group of five satyrs in a full erotic frenzy.
To their defense, satyrs were not alone in this consuming desire. There were human beings that shared that devouring hunger. The most well-known were philosophers and poets.
They both despised Eros but found it irresistible. In his Erotic Essay Pausania named these refined class of gentlemen “monsters of appetite.”
Socrates and sex
In particular, the clique of Socrates and his followers had a lot to say on the topic.
Xenophon, the second most famous disciple of Socrates, relates a conversation the philosopher had with him about a super sexy young boy. Socrates was irritated with him because he was using his beauty to exploit people, in particular Socrates’ favorite disciple, the young Critobolus. The boy stole a kiss from Critobolus, and after that Socrates was so “philosophically” furious that he warmly invited the boy to leave the city for one year. His kiss, mumbled Socrates, was as poisonous as the bite of a spider and he commanded Xenophon to avoid him at any cost.
Socrates, agreeing with Plato and Aristotle, considered erotic pleasure fun and necessary, but it was to be handled carefully. Pure sex is meant for the beasts, or half-beats—the satyrs again. Satyrs were invented to make people see how clumsy a man was who had been completely converted to nature. The bestial passion—as Aristotle, the super-balanced thinker who fell desperately in love with the virile king, Alexander the Great (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives) said—is “slavish and brutish.
Sex, a creeping thing
Sappho (a wonderful female poet) called eros a “creeping thing.” She knew very well what erotic love was. There is one lyric of hers, “Glittering-Minded deathless Aphrodite,” in which she wrote:
“If she runs now she’ll follow later,
If she refuses gifts she’ll give them.
If she loves not, now, she’ll soon
Love against her will.”
“Love against her will.” Pretty clear: Do you love someone? Just wait. None can withstand the passion of being loved. Love is stronger than anything. Some centuries later in Inferno, V, 103 Dante will write “Amor ch’ha nullo amato, amar perdona;” adding three lines after “Amor condusse noi ad una morte certa” v. 106. “Love is Nature and Nature is Death. This is the equation. You cannot resist your nature, but somehow you have to find a way to do it.”
In the Phaedro Plato’s metaphor of the two horses is a sort of manual to learn how to succeed in this attempt. For Plato, our life is always driven by two horses, the black and white, our passion and our reason. We cannot drive just one of the two horses, or our trajectory would be crippled. Our task is to determine the right balance, or as Aristotle put it, ‘the golden mean.
“Desire doubled is love; love doubled is madness”
As Prodicus (a sophist of the Vth century) said: “Desire doubled is love; love doubled is madness.”
Love between animals was still considered cool, and the love with vases was still fine, but when it comes to women, be careful! Women’s love was considered insane, destructive, dangerous. “The memorable disaster,” Hesiod writes.
Do you know what the gods’ punishment was for men after Prometheus gave them the gift of fire, which was stolen from the immortals? It was the gods’ creation of woman and her desires! I am still laughing. I think this can give us an idea of how much the Greeks were frightened by women!
According to Hesiod, after Prometheus stole fire from the gods, Zeus set about his terrible revenge, the creation of the woman in the “likeness of a bashful maiden.” Three other gods schemed in this plot. Athena taught her the housework art of needlework and weaving (boring). Aphrodite gave her Persuasion and the power to arouse “cruel longing and limb-devouring cares.” (Now it begins to get interesting!) Finally, Hermes, the god of thievery and deceit, gave her a “bitch’s mind and deceptive character…lies and wily words.”
Source: Alessandro Stefoni, used with permission
The nightmare was ready. This beautiful scary creature, this “sheer trap,” Pandora, was created as the ancestress of the “race of women,” the “plague to men who eat bread” (Hesiod, Op. 105-120). Pandora, the prototype of women, is the pure Nature, untamable and attractive. Hesiod writes that her sexual beauty (reminiscent of the lost paradise) returns each spring and her passions (destructive like nature’s inhuman forces) necessitates the “technology” (yes, this is the word he uses!) of marriage in order to control her.
Along with Pandora, there was Helene. She is the symbol of the essential ambiguity of woman and sexual beauty divinely embodied in her patroness Aphrodite, and equally as destructive as hers. Byron calls her “the Greek Eve,” the cause of masculine Greece’s “fall.” Homer even calls herself twice “bitch-faced,” adding once the honorable adjective “evil-plotting.” Why? Her sexual appetite could not be easily satisfied and controlled by men. It happens….
Her half-sister, Klytaimestra, was another interesting character. She embodied — as Aeschylus (Oresteia) says — “the relentless havoc of unleashed female passion that attacks from within the orders of household and state.” She was “the lion raised as a pet in the house…child-loving, and a joy to the old” while young, but ultimately defiling the house with blood, a “priest of destruction” when its savage nature surfaces.
I will spare you the number of times Homer calls her “bitch-faced.” This woman, driven by the female’s most potent force, a sexual energy magnified by a sense of injustice and dishonor, killed her rival Kassandra and her spouse Agamenon with a “man-minded heart,” Aeschilus says. She is even more dreadful than other women because she is a male woman! She appears to be the combination of “man’s will-driven mind” and “woman’s sexual passion” colluding to bring destruction and death.
Maybe “the technique of marriage” did not work so well in her case.
However, the list of merciless examples of female erotic power is long. I will stop here in order to discourage further misogynist feelings.
The word “sex” has traveled a long way, from the dusty office of sleepy bureaucrats all the way to the blood that flows in our human veins.
Books on the topic:
B. S. Thorton, Eros. The Myth of Ancient Greek Sensuality, Oxford: Harper Collins Publisher, 1997.
D. Halperin, J. J. Winkler, F. I. Zeitlin, Before Sexuality, Princeton University Press, 1990.
People browsing for sexual content, like those searching for illicit love, guarded their anonymity and frequented hard-to-find addresses, often at night. Like those caught up in affairs, they could become obsessive, protective of their time in the zone. Like those donning drag, they assumed new names and created parallel identities. The tech writer (and self-described nethead) J. C. Herz would make the point in her 1995 book Surfing on the Internet that the wired universe offered “gender options that don’t physically exist. For instance, the LambdaMOO virtual world gives users a choice of male, female, neutral, neither, royal (the royal ‘we’), and the natty, insouciant ‘splat’ (*) option.” Women and men would assume cross identities: a member of one sex, disguised as another, would engage in cybersex with Net partners of either gender, or both, depending on the mood and circumstance. This elasticity unleashed a new freedom to experiment, fantasize, and role-play.
As the digital age bloomed, sexual variety reigned. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, cybersex had a limited connotation: virtual-reality kink. VR sex, theoretically, involved people in proximity or in distant locations donning special suits and/or cybergloves and/or headgear, festooned with wires, and then remotely diddling their partners and sharing a simulated sexual experience, sometimes accompanied by SFX audiovisuals. (CGI—computer-generated imagery—was a huge gaming and cinematic breakthrough in the 1990s.) Cybersex was sim stim. For a time it went by the cringe-worthy name “teledildonics.” And at the time, it was pure hokum. (In 1997, Mike Myers, with a debt to Wilhelm Reich—and to films such as Barbarella, Putney Swope, Sleeper, and Liquid Sky—introduced “fembots” to explore the concept of robo-shagging in his Swinging Sixties spoof Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. But for a species that now got its babies from test tubes, why shouldn’t a geek try to get his ya-yas out by way of Alpha Centauri?)
Back then, it was called cybersex. Or virtual sex. Or netsex. And much of it was emerging from Usenet and newsgroups. In the fantasy forums called MUDs, it was sometimes called TinySex, as Sherry Turkle would note in her 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, discussing early “computer-mediated screen communications for sexual encounters. An Internet list of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ describes the latter activity . . . as people typing messages with erotic content to each other, ‘sometimes with one hand on the keyset, sometimes with two.’ ”
Along came CD-ROMs and DVDs—interactive discs that could be slipped into a disk drive or game console—which allowed users to issue simple commands and choose various options or outcomes in their sexual entertainment. There were Internet forums where people could post erotic stories (or add to others’ stories)—many of which would evolve into multipart series—that would attract tremendous followings. There were hatchling websites that stole printed porn pictures and posted them as their own; sites that featured virtual strip blackjack; sites where online models popped up in tiny matchbook-size peep-holes, responding to keyboard commands (“How about removing those fish-nets?”). The Internet began to micropander to every type of sexual connoisseur.about the author
David Friend is a Vanity Fair editor, journalist, and Emmy-winning documentary producer.
According to Forbes, by the end of the ’90s there were half a million sex sites, with one hundred fresh ones popping up each week, many of them very profitable very quickly due to the sales of ads, products, and links to spicier paywall-protected areas. Come 2000, the porn industry’s total yearly take was some $2 billion in Web business alone.
The Web, by definition, offered virtual sex. Much of it was literally autoerotic. The solitary online sexual encounter, for many men and women, came to be regarded as noncommittal, less emotionally taxing, and less trouble. Why deal with the challenges or rewards of another’s needs, when one could satisfy one’s own—and so efficiently? For many online users, the synthetic actually replaced the actual: online sex became not an expression of mutual connection but of selfish release. But this was only half the picture.
For millions of others, the earliest forms of cybersex brought the promise of genuine engagement, not alienation. Strangers typing words to one another—digitally stimulating a partner by writing on a keyboard—could experience real-time interaction on an entirely new plane. Online sex brought InstaGrat. It boosted the ego. It offered a number and variety of potential partners that were theoretically limitless. It allowed for a semisanctioned embrace of new taboos, which was arousing in and of itself. Its virtual nature made “online cheating” arguably more acceptable to one’s real-life partner or one’s conscience. Its attendant anonymity could be exhilarating and often emancipating. Its seamless utility (from the comfort of one’s home) was liberating. Its relative safety, to many users, beat its real-world equivalent hands down, because electronic transmission came with zero risk of STDs.Enter the Con Man
One of the earliest Net-sex horror stories involved an online skeeve who turned out to be a con artist. Susie Bright remembers it vividly. One of the West Coast leaders of sex-positive feminism, Bright in the early 1990s had left her job editing On Our Backs. Bright recalls that she had first gone online because she’d heard that on a computer bulletin board called The WELL a community of people was engaged in a discussion thread labeled “Why I Love Susie Bright.”
Bright now says, in a series of interviews and emails, “The WELL was like the shiny new toy that everyone in the media was fascinated with. Soon, of course, came the con man. The first time there was a sex hoax on the Internet—at least that I am aware of—it happened at The WELL. There was a private women’s conference that only [female] members could be part of. There were quite a lot of women on The WELL—for an Internet group, it was a shocking number. That was part of what made The WELL so cool. It didn’t even occur to me that computers were supposed to be a guy-only space. [As part of ] this private women’s conference—it was more gossipy and talking about our private lives and things you didn’t necessarily want everyone else to see in public—someone started a topic called ‘That Son-of-a-Bitch.’ ” She laughs. “Sounds promising, right?
“This woman told a story about how she’d met this wonderful man on The WELL and it just all seemed so incredibly touching and poignant and like a match made in heaven. It’s hard to capture how innocent we all were. So we were ‘listening’ to her describe how sexy it was. By the end of the story, as you can imagine, he turned out to be a con artist. He [had seemed] really, sincerely interested in her—‘We’re going to have dates and so on’—and then he had these emergencies where she had to send him money. That was when the worm turned. But by then she was so in love with him, so infatuated with their virtual affair: they’d had phone sex; they’d done so much [online]. So when he started extorting money from her, she didn’t even see it [coming].”
“Along comes the Web, and I dropped into this world in which I believed my body would be accepted.”
Bright remembers that one of the other WELL participants chimed in. “The woman stopped her and said, ‘This same thing is happening to me and I haven’t told anyone because I’m so embarrassed and ashamed and I’m starting to feel like a chump. And here we are, we’re both these ultra-smarty-pants, computer-genius women—how can this be happening to us?’ They compared notes—and it was the same man.” When they floated his name to the wider community of The WELL, Bright recalls, “there was complete pandemonium. They outed him. And he had been doing this with so many other chicks, it was just [crazy].”Most Popular
Bright recalls her reaction: “I’m sitting there at my keyboard and I just dropped my cup of coffee, because I had just fucked this guy in New York City a couple of weeks earlier. In real life. And I felt really embarrassed because, unlike the others, I had not given him money. I had merely had sex with him. I wasn’t that attracted to him. I was on a book tour. It was proximity. Yes, he had been a big fanboy and told me how much he just loved-loved-loved the idea of seeing me and he would do anything for me when I came to New York. Then I said, ‘Well, we can meet.’ He was based in New Jersey. This guy has all these super-brainy women dangling on a string. [He] was, as far as I knew, the first Internet cad.”More Freedom
There were downsides, there were upsides. My friend Stephen Mayes, a respected photo editor and champion of photojournalists, insists that the Web had a largely salutary effect on the sex lives and love lives of many gay men. “I had had an incredible disability in the gay world of never having picked up a man in a bar,” Mayes confides over drinks at a speakeasy in Manhattan’s East Village. “What the Internet did was give me a new awareness of myself. Previously, the gay bar scene revolved around a body fascism: a prescriptive sense of muscles, tight abs, shoulders that you had to have. And I am less of a physical specimen in that way. So in a bar, my eyes had always been filled with fear—the fear of rejection. Along comes the Web, and I dropped into this world in which I believed my body would be accepted. The Internet released me from all that fear. It suddenly gave me a freedom to meet with men in a way that I’d never experienced before.”
Mayes believes that when it came to the stereotypical sexual aesthetic of the gay man, the digital realm had much to recommend it. “The gay world seems to lend itself to this idea of sharing stuff,” he insists. “It’s open-source, like the Web. It has that reputation: open relationships, sharing partners, etcetera. It has, historically, a sense of being furtive—pushed into the underground for centuries—but once outside social constraints, it was a lot freer within a private, underground context.” In many ways, these were also the hallmarks of the early digital space: a private, members-only society with its own language and codes and libertine ethos that existed under the radar.
At the same time, Mayes recalls, the digital photography revolution of the 1990s served to enhance the sex lives of those who were drawn to the visual, to exchanging private pictures, and to creating homespun erotica that might invite and satisfy the fellow male gaze. In previous decades, many gay men, he says, had relied on Polaroids (which required no processing) since they were concerned about bringing their undeveloped film to the corner drugstore or one-hour photo shop. “There was a social stigma,” says Mayes, “and, more importantly, legal issues in taking your film to the lab. Sodomy was illegal in places like Texas until the 2000s. So the digital camera freed up people.” And those intimate digital photos could be easily traded electronically. In the early days of the Web, Mayes notes, “the digital sexual image is very private—you take it, put it up on your computer, share it just with the people you want to see it. No lab technician! In the late ’90s this changed. If you wanted to, you could place an explicit photo online to attract partners, and you felt it was private. You had to register under a screen name. You were addressing members like yourself. But it was a misguided belief that you were addressing a private club. In fact, anyone could register and, more than that, you could download the image—and suddenly your own photo [would be] feral, animal, developing a life of its own. For all the benefits that these websites brought us—gay and straight and otherwise—little did we know the extent to which our personal images would become public commodities that had the potential to spin out of control.”Online Dating
The Internet, for many, was a virtual singles bar. On the largest dating sites, chemistry (both sexual and interpersonal) would be replaced by algebra. Algorithms that had been designed to sift through a voluminous database of attributes listed in members’ profiles would sort and rank potential partners’ likelihood of attraction and relationship longevity. Individual subscribers would then be presented with a slate of possible dates who, in time, might be possible mates.
Social media would not only help define one’s persona and sexual expressiveness, but would also have long-term effects on social interaction, free speech, and political change.
Matchmaking services, of course, had been around for decades. But the Web brought a new level of respectability to such artificially induced interaction. Little by little, the fix-up began to lose its total-loser stigma. In the digital age, the unattached, no matter what age, came to see e-dating as socially acceptable, safe, and efficient. In fact, the algorithms and the screening process conferred a certain authority. (At the time, columnist Michael Wolff would describe online dating as a new and rather vanilla way of mating: “a perfectly decent, unremarkable, squares ville thing to do.”) By comparison, the singles scene, the bar scene began to be regarded as crass.
Dating sites took off. And this ’90s phenomenon so revolutionized the way urbanites coupled up and settled down that today, according to the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten, “fee-based dating Web sites” take in more than a billion dollars annually and have become “the third most common way for people to meet. (The most common are ‘through work/school’ and ‘through friends/family.’)” As the dating dot-coms grew, so did a new set of online meeting places that turned one’s wider net of contacts into their own raison d’être. These were the start-up social networks. And in terms of the wider culture they would become far more influential than the dating sites. Social media would not only help define one’s persona and sexual expressiveness (shaping one’s real-world reputation and online demeanor in the eyes of potential suitors, friends, strangers, and even potential employers), but would also have long-term effects on social interaction, free speech, and political change. Services like TheGlobe.com and SixDegrees.com (well before Friendster or LinkedIn, before MySpace or Facebook) were the online hubs where communities of users gathered to converse and exchange information about shared interests, pastimes, or backgrounds.
Sex, of course, was central to the origin story of social media. “We often forget that social networking, early on, was really all about sexual stereotyping,” says my friend Rachel Winter, the film producer. “Facebook was founded as a way of rating women’s looks. From that nucleus—devised by male students at Harvard—came everything that followed, including the trolling and shaming. At this stage I would say: let’s all take a breather and ban social media for five years. We’d all be better off.”
When you’re in a healthy relationship, everything just kind of works. Sure, there are bumps in the road, but you generally make decisions together, openly discuss any problems that arise, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
Toxic relationships are another story. And when you’re in one, it can be harder to see red flags.
If you consistently feel drained or unhappy after spending time with your partner, it could be a sign that things need to change, says relationship therapist Jor-El Caraballo.
Here’s a look at some hallmark signs of toxicity in a relationship and what to do if you recognize them in your relationship.
What does it look like?
Depending on the nature of the relationship, signs of toxicity can be subtle or highly obvious, explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of “Joy from Fear.”
If you’re in a toxic relationship, you may recognize some of these signs in yourself, your partner, or the relationship itself.
Lack of support
Your time together has stopped being positive or supportive of your goals.
“Healthy relationships are based on a mutual desire to see the other succeed in all areas of life,” Caraballo says. But when things turn toxic, every achievement becomes a competition.
In other words, you don’t feel like they have your back.
Instead of treating each other with kindness, most of your conversations are filled with sarcasm, criticism, or overt hostility. You may even start avoiding talking to each other.
While it’s normal to experience jealousy from time to time, Caraballo explains it can become an issue if you can’t get yourself to think or feel positively about their success.
Questioning where you are all the time or becoming overly upset when you don’t immediately answer texts are both signs of controlling behavior, which can contribute to toxicity in a relationship.
In some cases, these attempts of control over you can be a sign of abuse (more on this later).
Holding on to grudges and letting them fester chips away at intimacy.
“Over time, frustration or resentment can build up and make a smaller chasm much bigger,” Caraballo notes.
You find yourself constantly making up lies about your whereabouts or who you meet up with to avoid spending time with your partner.
Patterns of disrespect
Being chronically late, casually “forgetting” events, and other behaviors that show disrespect for your time are a red flag, Manly says.
Negative financial behaviors
Your partner might make financial decisions, including purchasing big-ticket items or withdrawing large sums of money, without consulting you.
A normal amount of tension runs through every relationship, but finding yourself constantly on edge is an indicator that something’s off.
This ongoing stress can take a toll on your physical and emotional health.
Ignoring your needs
Going along with whatever your partner wants to do, even when it goes against your wishes or comfort level, is a sure sign of toxicity, says clinical psychologist Catalina Lawsin, PhD.
For example, you might agree to a vacation they planned, either intentionally or unintentionally, for dates that aren’t convenient for you.
You’ve stopped spending time with friends and family, either to avoid conflict with your partner or to get around having to explain what’s happening in your relationship.
Alternatively, you might find your free time is wrapped up in dealing with your partner.
Lack of self-care
In a toxic relationship, you might let go of your usual self-care habits, Lawsin explains.
You might withdraw from hobbies you once loved, neglect your health, and sacrifice your free time.
Hoping for change
You might stay in the relationship because you see the other person’s potential or think that if you just change yourself and your actions, they’ll change as well.
Walking on eggshells
You worry that by bringing up problems, you’ll provoke extreme tension, so you become conflict avoidant and keep any issues to yourself.
Can the relationship be saved?
Many people assume that toxic relationships are doomed, but that isn’t always the case.
The deciding factor? Both partners must want to change, Manly says. “If only one partner is invested in creating healthy patterns, there is —unfortunately — little likelihood that change will occur,” she explains.
Here are a few other signs that you might be able to work things out.
Willingness to invest
You both display an attitude of openness and willingness to invest in making the relationship better.
“This may manifest by an interest in deepening conversations,” Manly says, or setting aside regular blocks of time for spending quality time together.
Acceptance of responsibility
Recognizing the past behaviors that have harmed the relationship is vital on both ends, Manly adds. It reflects an interest in self-awareness and self-responsibility.
Shift from blaming to understanding
If you’re both able to steer the conversation away from blaming and more toward understanding and learning, there may be a path forward.
Openness to outside help
This is a big one. Sometimes, you might need help to get things back on track, either through individual or couples counseling.
How can we move forward?
According to Manly, repairing a toxic relationship will take time, patience, and diligence.
This is especially the case, Manly adds, “given that most toxic relationships often occur as a result of longstanding issues in the current relationship, or as a result of unaddressed issues from prior relationships.”
Here are some steps for turning things around.
Don’t dwell on the past
Sure, part of repairing the relationship will likely involve addressing past events. But this shouldn’t be the sole focus of your relationship moving forward.
Resist the temptation to constantly refer back to negative scenarios.
View your partner with compassion
When you find yourself wanting to blame your partner for all the problems in the relationship, try taking a step back and looking at the potential motivators behind their behavior, Caraballo says.
Have they been going through a hard time at work? Was there some family drama weighing heavily on their mind?
These aren’t excuses for bad behavior, but they can help you come to a better understanding of where your partner’s coming from.
An openness to therapy can be a good sign that things are mendable. Actually following through on this can be key to helping the relationship move forward.
While couples counseling is a good starting point, individual therapy can be a helpful addition, Manly says.
Regardless of whether you decide to try therapy, look for other support opportunities.
Maybe this involves talking to a close friend or joining a local support group for couples or partners dealing with specific issues in their relationship, such as infidelity or substance misuse.
Practice healthy communication
Pay close attention to how you talk to each other as you mend things. Be gentle with each other. Avoid sarcasm or mild jabs, at least for the time being.
Also focus on using “I” statements, especially when talking about relationship issues.
For example, instead of saying “You don’t listen to what I’m saying,” you could say “I feel like you aren’t listening to me when you take out your phone while I’m talking.”
“Both partners must acknowledge their part in fostering the toxicity,” Lawsin emphasizes.
This means identifying and taking responsibility for your own actions in the relationship. It’s also about being present and engaged during difficult conversations.
It’s important for each of you to individually determine what you need from the relationship and where your boundaries lie, Lawsin advises.
Even if you feel like you already know what your needs and boundaries are, it’s worth revisiting them.
The process of rebuilding a damaged relationship offers a good opportunity to reevaluate how you feel about certain elements of the relationship.
Hold space for the other’s change
Remember, things won’t change overnight. Over the coming months, work together on being flexible and patient with each other as you grow.
Abuse vs. toxicity
Toxicity in a relationship can take many forms, including forms of abuse. There’s never an excuse for abusive behavior. You’re unlikely to change your partner’s behavior on your own.
Abuse comes in many shapes and sizes. This can make it hard to recognize, especially if you’ve been in a long-term, toxic relationship.
The following signs suggest physical or emotional abuse. If you recognize any of these in your relationship, it’s probably best to walk away.
This is easier said than done, but we’ve got some resources that can help at the end of this section.
Your partner blames you for everything that goes wrong and makes you feel as if you can’t do anything right.
“You end up feeling small, confused, shamed, and often exhausted,” Manly says. They may do this by patronizing, dismissing, or embarrassing you in public.
Chronic stress and anxiety
It’s normal to have periods of frustration with your partner or doubts about your future together. But you shouldn’t be spending significant amounts of time worrying about the relationship or your safety and security.
Separation from friends and family
Sometimes, dealing with a toxic relationship can cause you to withdraw from friends and family. But an abusive partner may forcefully distance you from your support network.
For example, they might unplug the phone while you’re talking or get in your face to distract you. They may also convince you that your loved ones don’t want to hear from you, anyway.
Interference with work or school
Forbidding you from seeking employment or studying is a way to isolate and control you.
They may also attempt to humiliate you at your workplace or school by causing a scene or talking to your boss or teachers.
Fear and intimidation
An abusive partner might explode with rage or use intimidation tactics, such as slamming their fists into walls or not allowing you to leave the house during a fight.
Name-calling and put-downs
Insults aimed to humiliate and belittle your interests, appearance, or accomplishments are verbal abuse.
Below are some examples of what things a verbally abusive partner might say:
“You can’t do anything right.”
“No one else could ever love you.”
They may control all the money that comes in and prevent you from having your own bank account, restricting access to credit cards, or only giving you a daily allowance.
Gaslighting is a technique that makes you question your own feelings, instincts, and sanity.
For example, they may try to convince you that they’ve never abusive, insisting it’s all in your head. Or they may accuse you of being the one with anger and control issues by acting like the victim.
Threats of self-harm
Threatening suicide or self-harm as a way to pressure you into doing things is a form of manipulation and abuse.
Threats and verbal insults can escalate to physical violence. If your partner is pushing, slapping, or hitting you, it’s a clear sign that the relationship has become dangerous.
Get help now
If you suspect you might be in an abusive relationship, trust your instincts and know you don’t have to live this way.
Here are some resources that can help you safely navigate next steps:
Day One is a nonprofit organization that works with youth to end dating abuse and domestic violence through community education, supportive services, legal advocacy, and leadership development.
Break the Cycle provides services to young people and adults in peer-to-peer abusive relationships.
DomesticShelters.org is a mobile-friendly, searchable directory that can help you quickly find domestic violence programs and shelters in the United States and Canada.
Cindy Lamothe is a freelance journalist based in Guatemala. She writes often about the intersections between health, wellness, and the science of human behavior. She’s written for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Teen Vogue, Quartz, The Washington Post, and many more. Find her at cindylamothe.com.
If you dream about someone you like (or even love!) it could just go to show how passionate you are about them. But there’s also some nuance here. If you dream your partner is with someone else, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been unfaithful. It could simply mean you no longer feel as passionate about your life as the people around you seem to feel about theirs.
What does it mean when you die in a dream?
If you die in a dream, or feel like you are dying, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are afraid of dying in life or have some terminal illness you didn’t realize. It may just mean that something in your life is coming to an end: “Dreaming about death often means that you feel something is coming to an end in your life,” says Anderson. “But that being said, how you react to the death in the dream can mean different things.”
What does it mean when you die in a dream, but feel peace about it?
If you experience death in a dream and you feel at peace with it, Anderson says that, “you have an ‘out with the old and in with the new’ attitude” and “it could be something that you’re ready to let go from.”
What does it mean when you dream about being scared of dying?
Alternately, if you feel a pang of anxiety or even panic at the thought of death in your dream (or, as Anderson puts it, “I need to resuscitate this thing that is falling apart”), it may be that “you’re not quite there yet” and uncomfortable with letting go.
What does it mean when you dream your teeth are falling out?
It may be that events in your life are swirling around you in a way that you feel you have no control, or that you’ve lost a job and with it, your feeling that you were guiding the direction of events has dissipated. The result might be that you dream of losing your teeth. As Wallace tells The Independent, “Your teeth symbolize how confident and powerful you feel, so some situation is causing your confidence to crumble in waking life.
What does it mean when you dream about birds?
This dream could mean you’re hoping to hear from someone. Birds have been symbolic messengers of information going back centuries and their appearance in your dreams can still be an indication that you are expecting to hear from someone or receive a message. Psychologist and dream expert Michael Lennox points to beliefs going back to Nordic mythology, where Odin, the head of the pantheon, was accompanied by a pair of all-seeing ravens that “would travel through the world of men and bring back important information.”
What does it mean when you dream you’re on a plane?
If you’re dreaming of flying in a plane or air travel in some way, your dream is trying to tell you that you are feeling the effects of fast changes in your life. Lennox explains in his book Dream Sight: A Dictionary and Guide for Interpreting AnyDream that, “Because of the dramatic way an airplane leaves the ground and speeds toward a destination, it is connected with any sudden transition in life.” It may not just be alerting you to the fact that you are going through serious changes, but that change “is needed or wished for. As a plane is our world’s fastest mode of public transportation, it connects symbolically to those moments in life where change is rapid and total.
What does it mean when you dream about an alien encounter?
According to Lennox, seeing an alien (as in one of those big-eyed, willowy creatures from The X-Files) in a dream reflects some unknown or mysterious part of your own personality. Whether you are encountering it in an everyday situation or have been abducted in the dream, “The more fear you feel in the dream, the more frightened you may be of the changes that are occurring.”
One (or more) of your limbs is amputated: You feel diminished or unable to get to a different place in life.
Lennox notes that amputations or missing limbs are a typical theme that appear in one’s dreams, and indicate some sense of lacking in ability or mobility. If you’re missing feet it “relates to an inability to be grounded on your path, whereas missing an entire leg or both legs connects to being completely stopped on your path.
What does it mean when you dream you’ve (literally) lost your head?
A more extreme kind of missing body part that you might experience is the loss of your head. According to Lennox, that’s a sign of “an eradication of a thought process, or to your sense of identity.”
What does it mean when you dream you’re in bed with a coworker?
If you are being intimate with a coworker in your dream, it does not necessarily mean you have a crush on them. According to dream analyst and the host of The Dream Show podcast, Jane Teresa Anderson, it may say more about them having “positive qualities you admire” that you “welcome in your own life.” That’s right: your dirty dream could be about admiration—not lust!
What does it mean when you dream you’re in an empty room?
Psychologist Ian Wallace, who has interpreted no fewer than 150,000 dreams over his three decades of practice, has found that unused or empty rooms that you dream about might be telling you that you’ve got untapped talents. As he told The Independent, “The more time that you spend exploring your dormant talents, the more likely that you will find other doors opening for you in waking life.
What does it mean when you dream you’re in an empty room, and it’s scary?
If that unused room is accompanied by feelings of discomfort or fear, it might represent something very different, according to Anderson: “If you go into the room and it’s spooky or scary, that means in the past one to two days you’ve realized something about yourself that’s unexpected. It can be something old that you haven’t look at before. It could be any aspect of your life—your job, a relationship—that you’ve shut the door on. It’s about trying to open that door, even if you’re scared.”
What does it mean when you dream there’s an out-of-control car?
If you’ve got an out-of-control car in your dreams—maybe you’re trapped in one or have one coming at you—it may mean that “you don’t have enough control over your road to success,” according to Wallace. He suggests, “Instead of trying to over control the situation…relax your grip and allow your fundamental instincts and drives to steer the best path for you.
What does it mean when you dream there’s a car, but it’s not out-of-control?
But a car in one’s dreams could indicate the opposite, as well. Wallace explains that, “The car represents your ability to make consistent progress toward a specific objective.” So if a dream features a car progressing steadily and consistently, things might be moving along just as they should be in your life.
What does it mean when you dream your car is missing?
Sometimes you might dream that you are missing your car or on the search for it. The lack of a car has a symbolic resonance about one’s career or ability to get where we want to go, according to Wallace. “If we dream about searching for our car, then we have lost our drive and ambition in waking life and are looking for ways to recover it and continue on our journey.
What does it mean when you dream there are animals nearby?
Animals can often appear in your dream and can vary in their significance or what they make you feel—a fierce bear is going to indicate something distinct from a high-flying hawk. But according to Lennox, any time an animal appears it may be an indication that your dream is “asking you to stop trying to think your way through a situation and turn instead toward your instinctive nature for an answer.”
What does it mean when you dream you’re in an attic?
Having a house in your dream usually connects back to your sense of self, with different rooms representing different aspects of yourself, so dreaming of an attic usually relates to your intellect or memories—and a “musty, dirty atmosphere means you are in realms that you haven’t visited in a while,” according to Lennox, which can indicate “unhealthy avoidance.
What does it mean when you dream about having a baby?
Dreaming about a baby is usually a sign that you are reflecting on burgeoning potential or “some new chapter in your life that is just beginning and has yet to unfold into full manifestation,” as Lennox puts it. Of course, since a baby is also helpless and needs to be cared for, Lennox also emphasizes that an infant in a dream brings up thoughts of the “intense responsibilities associated with” a baby.
What does it mean when you dream you can’t find your shoes?
If your dream consists of you being literally unable to find your shoes, chances are you’re having difficulty deciding what your position is on a topic—an important decision you have to make or may be faced with, something that causes you to “consider [your] values and where [you] stand in a certain situation.
What does it mean when you dream you lost something valuable—and can’t find it?
If we’ve misplaced something of value in our dream or spend the dream trying to find something and fail to do it, it may be that we feel a sense of lower value in our life. As Wallace puts it, “If we are looking for our purse or wallet, then we are reflecting on our value to others as we may feel that we have lost some self-esteem in waking life.”
What does it mean when you dream you’re searching for someone?
If you dream you’re searching for someone, it doesn’t always have to do with that person, specifically. “When we search for other people in our dreams, we are trying to reconnect with aspects of our own identities that we have lost touch with.
What does it mean when you dream you have suddenly become very wealthy?
If you have a dream about striking it rich or winning the lottery, you’re feeling pretty good about life or have gained a “sudden awareness of the richness of the self,” as Wallace puts it. “This richness can be an understanding of the wisdom the dreamer has gained, or a realization of their value to others.” In other words, not so much material as spiritual wealth.
What does it mean when you dream you’re falling in love?
If you dream of falling in love or a having a passionate tryst, it may be because you lack this kind of intimacy and passion in your waking life. According to Wallace, dreaming about falling in love, “can be triggered when we are about to fall in love with a potential lover in our waking life, or in an existing relationship, where inadequate love is being received and our uniqueness seems to be ignored.
What does it mean when you dream you’re just falling?
We’ve all likely felt the sensation of falling in a dream. Though this might make you think that you need to get a tighter grip and hang on, according to Wallace, the opposite is true. It’s a sign “you are hanging on too tightly to a particular situation in waking life. You need to relax and let go of it.”
What does it mean when you dream you’re flying?
While falling is an indication that something is amiss, flying in a dream is usually a sign that you’ve freed yourself from something frustrating or difficult. As Wallace puts it, the feeling of flying “suggests that you have released yourself from circumstances that have been weighing you down in waking life… Although you may regard this feeling of liberation as just luck or coincidence, it is usually because you have managed to make a weighty decision or risen above the limitations of a heavy responsibility.
What does it mean when you dream you’re flying, but there’s an obstacle?
Flying might not always be a pleasant experience, however. If you’re flying in a dream but feel scared or see an object or obstacle in front of you, it may be that you feel something is holding you back or preventing you from accomplishing something you are attempting. “You feel that something is taking off but it’s not quite there yet,” says Anderson. “It could be a relationship or a job—it’s the details in the dream that really explore your feelings on a deeper level.”
What does it mean when you dream that you miss your plane or train?
If you miss a plane or train in your dream, arriving just as it takes off and leaving you standing on the platform or tarmac, it may be that you feel you are being weighed down by too many other commitments. As Wallace puts it, “You may be taking on too much in your waking life in order to achieve the fulfillment you desire. You can reach your goals more effectively by being more aware of your deeper priorities, and leaving unnecessary baggage behind. Listen to your own internal rhythms instead of constantly trying to beat the clock.
What does it mean when you dream that you call the wrong number?
Your subconscious might be feeling frustrated that you can’t connect with someone in your life the way you used to—and this may manifest itself in a dream in which you are dialing a wrong number. “This suggests that a logical way of communicating with someone, or a specific personal behavior used when being with a particular person, is not really working anymore,” says Wallace. “It is also experienced in dreams about computers or calculators where the dreamer keeps pressing the wrong buttons. This reflects that what they are doing in waking life just doesn’t really add up.”
What does it mean when you dream that you’re naked, in the middle of a crowd?
You’re standing in the middle of a crowd, at work, or in some other public place—completely naked. Though you’re relieved when you realize it was all a dream, you might want to think about your feelings of vulnerability. According to Wallace, “Being naked in public suggests that there is a situation in waking life that is making you feel vulnerable and exposed.” It might be time for you to take an improv class or seek another way to get comfortable opening up to others.
What does it mean when you dream you’re walking around on bare feet?
Just as being naked indicates vulnerability, having bare feet gets to a similar sense in your subconscious—but with a more direct connection to the steps you are taking in life (literally). It can “indicate issues around how you are maneuvering through your current life choices,” according to Lennox. “If you are exposed to the elements, it leaves them vulnerable to injury. This can have a great impact on your journey and how you get to where you intend to go.”
What does it mean when you dream you’ve gone blind?
Suffering blindness in a dream usually indicates that we sense we are overlooking something in our life or worry we aren’t able to see something. As Lennox puts it, “By dreaming of the inability to see, you may be expressing areas in your life that you may be blind to…You may be dreaming of a situation in your life, or your personality, where you have a blind spot. You may have to go beyond what the eyes can see in a situation to determine how to respond authentically.
What does it mean when you dream you’re playing a board game?
While some might dream of fights or athletic competitions, if you are someone who has board games appear in your dreams, you are more likely someone who prefers “a civilized approach to expressing competitive impulses and conflict-solving skills,” according to Lennox. If you’re playing Monopoly or Scrabble in your mind, it may be a sign that you prefer some emotional distance to actual confrontation, and the more structured, rules-based logic to conflict that board games bring.
What does it mean when you dream there’s an explosion?
While we might usually think of bombs as a destructive force, often when explosions happen in your dreams, it shows that you are experiencing or ready for major change. Lennox advises looking at the specific context in which a bomb detonates, and how effectively it destroys its target.
“Whatever or whomever was hunted or destroyed will supply you with the meaning you should assign the symbol,” he says. “The area of life that is suggested by the target is the area of your life that needs a drastic change.”
What does it mean when you dream that you show up for an exam, but you’re not prepared?
Another classic dream scenario is the feeling of showing up for an exam and realizing you are totally unprepared for it. Maybe you feel like you studied for the wrong subject or you can’t even understand the words in front of you, but the likely source of the feeling is that “you are critically examining your own performance in waking life,” according to Wallace.
What does it mean when you dream you show up for another exam, and you’re still not prepared?
Having the unprepared-for-an-exam dream is also the sign of something positive: you are a high performer who is used to working hard and doing things right. That’s the conclusion of Anderson, who says that those who have the dream are usually the people who perform well and that, “It’s your fear of being unprepared that actually drives you to being totally ready to perform.
What does it mean when you dream you need to use the bathroom, but can’t find a toilet?
Maybe you care too much about others or are ignoring your own desires or needs, but if you have a sense that you are not addressing your own needs, a typical dream you’re likely to have is one in which you’re trying—and failing—to find a toilet. “Toilets are what we use to cleanly respond to some of our most fundamental needs, so there is an issue in waking life where you are finding it a challenge to clearly express your own needs,” according to Wallace.
What does it mean when you dream you need to use the bathroom?
Dreams of needing to use the bathroom likewise can mean that “you literally want to let the crap out of your life. It’s about decluttering and letting go—you want to release something or someone,” according to Anderson.
What does it mean when you dream you actually need to pee?
Of course, it may be that you actually do need a toilet, and your dreams will alert you to this fact with dreams of water or in which you are seeking out a bathroom in vain. So it may just be that you need to wake up and hit the head before you wet the bed.
What does it mean when you dream you’re being accused of a crime?
Dreams can sometimes torment you with images of you accused of a crime or having committed murder or a less serious breach of the law. These kind of situations usually arise from a sense that you are hiding something yourself in your waking life—and it isn’t always something negative. “The crime we have committed usually represents a conscious choice that we have made in waking life to ignore some of our individual needs and talents in order to gain social acceptance,” according to Wallace.
What does it mean when you dream you’re entering a lot of new spaces?
If you have a large house in your dreams or spend your dreams going through doors and discovering new spaces, it “indicates that exploring the initial possibility will lead onto a number of other exciting opportunities and give you the chance to expand well beyond where you are just now,” according to Wallace. It’s telling you that, “You need to be open to opportunity and not close the door on any chances that you create. As you begin to explore one talent, you often start to become aware of other possibilities for using your unique abilities.”
What does it mean when you dream there’s something chasing you?
If you’re running away from something in your dream, “There is an issue in your waking life that you want to confront, but you don’t know how to,” according to Wallace. If you’re having a dream of this kind, your dreams may be trying to tell you that it’s time to face your fears and pursue something that you have been putting aside.
What does it mean when you dream about a bridge?
If you’re ready to move into a new chapter in your life or to make a change—but without losing touch with your past—the image of a bridge is likely to appear in your dreams. According to Lennox, the primary meaning of bridges in dreams “relates to the connections we make in life, hence the warning in the phrase don’t burn your bridges.” If the water below is especially rough, it might mean you’re uncomfortable with the change.
What does it mean when there’s a candle in your dream?
If you’re feeling a creative spark or an innovative idea just struck you, then the image of a candle might appear in your dreams. “When we light a candle, we are committing an act of creation,” says Lennox. He says that a candle can indicate the beginning of some important event or relationship in our life or a sense of creative richness. Of course, if the candle is blown out, it can mean the end of something.
What does it mean when you dream you’re climbing something?
If you’re climbing in your dream, straining as you make it up the side of a mountain inch by inch, it may be a signal that you are someone who likes a challenge and the opportunity to take a journey that, while difficult, promises a reward at the end.
What does it mean when you’re exploring a closet or looking in a cabinet?
Back to the dream house: If you are exploring a closet or looking at what’s inside an enclosed cabinet, it could indicate that you are hiding something or ashamed of it. “What you discover in a closet should be viewed through the focus of something you are hiding from or not wanting to face,” says Lennox. “A full or overstuffed closet may point to avoidance issues that need attention.
What does it mean when you dream about a farm or cowboys?
Images of a farm or cowboys can indicate that you have a self-reliant nature. As Lennox explains, “Working on a farm points to a call to action to dig deeper and take responsibility for getting your needs met. Owning a farm connects to how responsible you are to your self-nurturing and perhaps the dependence of others upon you for such needs.”
What does it mean when you dream you’re getting a divorce?
If you’ve filled your schedule with too many things and have a sense of overwhelm about it all, you may find yourself dreaming of divorce. Don’t despair that a divorce dream points to a loveless marriage or irreconcilable differences. According to Wallace, it may simply be giving you the message that “you are trying to balance your commitments and honor the promises you have made to other people. It can be difficult to service all these obligations and it can become very easy for you to start to feel out of balance.
What does it mean when you dream you’re getting married to someone you don’t know?
Whether you’ve taken a new job or agreed to attend an event where you are not totally sure what will be expected of you, a sense that you are committing to something which you are unsure about may be indicated in a dream with a feeling of being married to an unknown person. “Not knowing the identity of the bride or groom suggests you are unsure what you are really committing yourself to, and that you doubt that you will have much time for yourself if you take on these commitments,” says Wallace.
What does it mean when you dream you’ve become a professional athlete?
If you’re someone who responds to being part of a team or being part of something larger than yourself, you might have dreams where you’re a professional athlete, according to Wallace. A dream where you’re competing in the big leagues, “reflects their acceptance into a wider society where in order to have their skills and talents recognized, they will have to work as part of a team, and this will help them to ultimately achieve their goals.
What does it mean when you dream you’re unable to speak?Shutterstock
If you find yourself tongue-tied in your dream, unable to speak or as if there is a gag in our mouth (or maybe a bunch of chewing gum), Wallace suggests that it’s related to “an unresolved tension in our waking lives where we really want to say what’s on our mind and to speak and be heard.” He suggests considering the situations in waking life where we feel “ignored or have no way to make our opinions heard” and see if there is a better way to communicate or a way to do so that would help us feel “heard.”