This is what it’s like being a Craigslist relationship counselor

A Craigslist relationship counselor shares her personal experience

Words by Helena Bala

‘It’s just…’ he trailed off.

He seemed nervous about talking to me, and I could hear the sounds of traffic surrounding his car. ‘Well, my wife and I haven’t had sex in months. We disagree on how to raise our kids. And now that she’s gone back to school, I find myself having to pick up a lot more slack at home. I’m really unhappy.’

I’ve heard this — or different iterations of similar sentiments — hundreds of times in my two years as an anonymous online listener. What I do is simple: through an ad on Craigslist, I offer to listen to stories that people have never told before. I do it anonymously and for free. My subjects know that I’m not a therapist. We sit down to talk as friends, often over a cup of coffee.

The service I provide is a simple one: I listen; I engage; I ask questions. A few months into this, I began to ask permission from my subjects to write about their experiences. The purpose was to create an anonymous pay-it-forward confessional where people can learn from each other and perhaps, in sharing their stories, not feel so alone.

It’s not surprising that the vast majority of stories I hear are about love and its side effects — divorce, money, kids, midlife crises, lost loves and missed opportunities, regrets, affairs, and everything in between. Over the years and the span of more than 400 accounts, I started to notice some patterns in the stories that people have shared. I’ve kept a list of lessons learned, some of which may surprise you.

1. ‘I love my children, but…’

It’s the conjunction that piques my interest. One mom told me she wished she’d never had her second baby. ‘It’s just too much work,’ she said. ‘My husband and I rarely have any time together. We both work, and we don’t have family nearby. When the kids aren’t in daycare, they’re with us — so alone time is out of the question.’

She went on to tell me that when the second baby came, the illusion of control over her own life went out the window.

I’ve learned that what’s sometimes expressed as resentment towards the decision to have children is most often chagrin towards dwindling choices and growing responsibilities. Although we might choose to believe that escapist daydreams are unique to the most recent generation of adults, they’re not. It’s natural to lament a growing roster of responsibilities, to fear change, or to look at a not-so-distant and comparatively simple past with rose-colored glasses.

What’s unique about this is that many of us also feel guilty for being conflicted about our choices. My subjects whisper these confessions with such shame and expect a reaction of shock or utter horror. They quickly follow up their confessions with — but I love my kids, and they bring so much to my life, and I wouldn’t have done anything differently — eager to skim over their negative feelings to a happier and more easily-acceptable narrative.

2. Money doesn’t matter…that much.

Studies often cite disagreement over finances as one of the biggest factors leading to divorce. What I’ve noticed as a listener is how often men mention ‘providing’ for the female. To me, that’s significant because it shows that no matter how far we think we’ve come as a society in redefining our gender roles, people often revert to the same old patterns under the guise of anonymity: men bring in resources, women tend the home.

So fights about money are seldom just that — at their root, they’re disagreements and resentments about who should do what, and whether they’re doing it well enough under different societal pressures. A year ago, I spoke to a husband and stay-at-home father who was struggling with his new role as Mr. Mom; he and his wife had been at each other’s throats more than usual. He told me, “I can’t help but feel that my wife isn’t sexually attracted to me anymore because I’m not ‘the man’—I’m not out there, providing for our family; I’m at home watching the kids and cleaning the house — basically, I’m a housewife. It’s hard to find a housewife sexy.”

3. Everyone has a secret.

I often find myself asking: ‘Have you told your partner about this?’ Most times, the answer is ‘no.’ I know what you’re thinking — what could possibly be so bad that I couldn’t even tell my partner or therapist about? And you’re right to question it: most of the stories I hear aren’t about atrocious crimes committed or dark childhood trauma, although I do get a fair share of those, too. So what’s keeping people from sharing these stories with their loved ones?

A big part of it is fear of being perceived differently. People don’t want to feel pitied; they want their experiences to build strength, to feel useful. They especially don’t want to become a burden to anyone — even if it’s someone they’re paying to help them sort out their issues — by prattling on about something in a way that feels self-absorbed or indulgent. It’s easy to feel that way when the person who’s listening isn’t invested in your story, or is someone whose job is to help you sort things out. So the language of confession is timid (‘I know other people have issues, too, probably way worse than mine…’), passive (‘things were done…’), and filled with fear and shame.

The only thing I’ve found people fear more than pity is judgment, or feeling morally or otherwise inferior to someone else. Giving someone a glimpse of your issues is seen as a power transaction — by showing ‘weakness’ or ‘vulnerability’, you forego the illusion that you’re perfect, strong, a go-getter. Society values the latter, all the while encouraging us to hide our imperfections behind perfect facades. So it is rare, indeed, to find a place where you can unload all your insecurities, hang-ups, and past trauma without fearing that you’ll somehow end up regretting allowing yourself to open up to someone.

4. Once a cheater, always a cheater…?

I catch people at different points of their affair timelines: before they’ve had an affair — in which case they’re talking to me as a way to get permission to cheat (more on this later); during the affair — and they’re hoping I’ll alleviate the guilt they’re feeling; after the affair and before telling their spouse — in which case they’re wondering whether it’s better to tell or not to tell; and after the affair, after telling their spouse — and sadly, a majority of these are stories of divorce. Most people are either in the first or last category.

You might be tempted to assume that most stories of infidelity are shared by men, but you’d be wrong. Studies and my own personal experience show that women are just as likely as men to cheat. Eventually, one way or another, affairs are discovered:

‘Someone I’d broken things off with ended up emailing my wife and telling her everything,’ one husband told me.

‘I found a text she’d forgotten to erase,’ another husband said. ‘It was directed to J. All it said was: I’m free on Saturday.’

‘I’m not sure how she found out; she just confronted me with information and then kicked me out of the house for a year.’

‘The lady I was seeing ended up just telling her husband that we were sleeping together. I was expecting him to ask for a divorce but to my surprise, he fought for her. I ended up sending him a desperate e-mail in the middle of the night, telling him I was in love with his wife.’

‘One day, our text messages got crossed, and I put two and two together and realised he was looking for a partner on Craigslist,’ another woman confided.

In my experience, relationships that survive affairs are an exception, not the rule. Stories of infidelity are hardly ever just the accounts of people who are hardwired to cheat, can’t help themselves, and end up making regrettable mistakes. There’s much more nuance to it, often involving emotional and physical alienation of one or both spouses, and other factors — finances, children, career, sex, lack of communication — that push a spouse to cheat.

As someone once told me, ‘People who are happy in their relationships don’t cheat. It’s not something a content person in the right frame of mind would do — it’s an action borne out of extreme unhappiness.’

And that brings me to my last point.

5. Sex, sex, sex.

A vast majority, if not all, of the stories that people have shared with me about their relationships have featured one chief complaint — ‘We’re not having sex.’

In my experience from listening to these stories, the lack of sex is often a physical side effect of emotional unhappiness. No one has ever come to me and said, ‘I love my spouse, I’m 100% happy in my relationship, we have no issues, except that we just don’t have sex.’

It’s always so much more than that and sex — because it ranks differently in different people’s priority lists, and because it’s an easily ‘measurable’ metric (i.e. ‘we’ve had sex once in the last six months’) — comes up in almost every conversation as a complaint: there’s never enough of it.

The fact hasn’t escaped me, of course, that I’m collecting stories from people who, for one reason or another, find themselves looking through the Craigslist personals ads. So admittedly, I might be getting a slightly skewed look at American sexuality.

Due to the source of these stories, the past two years have also served as an education on fetishes. A while ago, someone e-mailed me about his adult baby fetish; I’ve spoken to a guy who identifies as part of the female supremacy lifestyle; a woman who worked as a call girl admitted that her weirdest experience had been with a client who insisted that she sit on balloons and occasionally, pop them with her thighs.

Although it’s a relief to hear about stories that aren’t always so serious and heartbreaking, it’s only momentary. I remember vividly a conversation I had with someone who admitted for the very first time that he thinks he is gay — he often frequents Asian spas and has unprotected sexual encounters with men. He’s also married with children. I remember, too, the guilt-racked account of someone with phimosis who had cheated on his wife as an attempt to get over his physical hangup. And it’s not just men: one of the most controversial stories (on social media) was shared by a woman who had cheated on her husband; as a result, one of her children refuses to have a relationship with her.

So, I find myself at the bottom of this list and I feel as though I’ve given you perhaps a darker look at the secrets we carry than you’d bargained for. I know that, for me, doing this day in and out never gets easier. Listening to these stories, however, always feels purposeful — yes, even when it’s an account that I can’t connect with from personal experience.

I challenge you, as you’re reading through people’s lives, to not let your initial feeling towards them be judgment. Judgement makes people retreat; it rebukes their attempts to connect with our fellow humans — it makes us strangers to one another. It’s a fearful world to live in, one in which we run parallel to our loved ones, never finding an occasion to reach out and offer solace, consolation, understanding, and love. Please read these stories with the aim of making a little bit more space in your heart for others who, albeit different from you, are just as worthy of your love. That is, after all, the purpose of Craigslist Confessional.

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