This "intimacy," I fear it.
February 2, 2009 2:03 PM   Subscribe

After a series of painful relationships, when did you know you were ready to date again? Alternately, how do you tell the difference between "not ready" and "making up excuses to not date due to being scared silly of the opposite sex" and "anxiety problems" ?

Long, Non-Obligatory Background: Up until I was 24, my dating life was smooth sailing but co-dependant: I was a serial monogamist, never ever single, scared witless of not having a boyfriend. I had a couple tricky break-ups in college, but we all remained friends and I never treated anyone with less than the utmost respect, and vice versa.

Then I moved to a big city met "Adam," whom I dated for four months. We were ludicrously happy, he took me to meet his parents, told me he loved me, said he'd never been happier, and then cheated on me out of the blue. I forgave him once because he was blackout drunk and apologized so much I could barely get a word in edgewise. Then he cheated again weeks later. So we broke up. Then I met "Zed," who was brilliant, handsome, and, in his words, an emotional robot who couldn't really care about people. I was head over heels crazy for Zed (and probably somersaulting from a rebound, no less) even though he was clearly just interested in long conversations and sex once a week at the most. So I spent a good four months of sleeping with both guys, using Adam as a confidence buffer while ignoring his pleas to take him back, hoping Zed would finally realize he wanted to date me seriously. This messed me up A Lot, lead me to question my ethics and my taste in men, and my self-esteem hit bedrock. I felt like the two of them had drop-kicked my heart into a windy vortex and the worst part was that I let them.

Short story: I had a rough year. This lead to a near nervous breakdown after a few months of subjecting my emotional welfare to two pretty self-absorbed men, so I swore off dating for a year. My bedroom became a no-fly zone. I learned how to be single, focused on my friends and my career, and enjoyed the silence of coming home to an empty room. Except for the celibate part, I was really pleased with being single and valued my independence.

But it's been a year since I've met someone who caught my attention like Adam and Zed did, and no one seems remotely interesting to me. I've met objectively awesome people who ask me out on dates, but I freeze up and bail every single time. I could write pages on what I find wrong with them, and every little thing turns me off. The idea of sleeping with a new person squicks me out. In theory, I don't want a boyfriend, couldn't really fathom trusting someone else with any part of my happiness, loathe the notion of depending on anyone else, would opt to spend all my nights alone rather than suffer the emotional jeopardy of admitting someone new into my life. But I can't tell if this is okay or neurotic.

I've assumed this aversion to intimacy is part of the process of healing and learning (again) how to be single. But after blowing off lots of awesome guys who have asked me out for drinks because the idea of "just drinks" gives me the hives, I wonder if I'm writing myself a pass when I should soldier up. I know there's the adage of "being ready when you feel ready," but my fears are intensifying rather than lessening over time. So what is this? Should I respect my hibernation phase to its fullest extent, or should I suck it up and make myself go on dates with a guy who isn't manipulative Adam or bloodless Zed? And is my fear of sex and intimacy a sign of something worth shelling out money for therapy? I can barely afford my rent at the moment, so before everyone starts shouting "THERAPY," keep in mind I don't have an easy $100 lying around each week.

Wow, this is so long and self-involved. Thanks to anyone who read it in full, I'm practically going cross-eyed at the length.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
While facing a similar conundrum myself, I decided to go out on up to three dates with anybody who asked. If, at the end of three dates, I (and he) still felt like hanging out - we would. I've actually found that it still takes me a couple months of dating someone to really start feeling anything near comfortable, but after a handful of dates I can usually figure out the difference between "not really into this guy" and "want to hang out again but scared what that might mean," with the second feeling being grounds for going out again.

I still sort of have to talk myself down sometimes, though, like: "Self, going out with this guy again does not mean you'll get married and be together forever. It does not mean your happiness, well-being, or self-worth depends on him. It just means you're both hungry and enjoy conversation over food." I figure, as long as I want to hang out ON THIS DAY, then I should. I try not to worry too much about the long term stuff, because thoughts of whether I want to be a wife or even a girlfriend are way too overwhelming. One day at a time is the best way to take it.
posted by vytae at 2:27 PM on February 2, 2009 [7 favorites]

2 years. So 1 year isn't so bad. Give it time. The new guys asking you out might be 'awesome' but if you don't feel anything then of course you won't want to have drinks or anything with them. It's a numbers game too, so maybe as more guys keep asking you out, eventually one of them, in a year, will be someone you'll be excited about.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 2:28 PM on February 2, 2009

Sounds like you've spent a reasonable amount of time getting your head straight. Don't fret that.

As the above posters suggested (IMO), if/when it feels right, it will be. The next dates don't have to be meaningful & serious, of course. I wouldn't give someone the three dates suggested by vytae, but it shouldn't hurt if you stay focused on "This is not a relationship yet!" (and don't lead them on in that misbelief).

Certainly, when you feel like you're not still teeming with hurt & anger, it could be time to at least accept the next date offer that comes your way. One date is such a small thing, if you don't attach importance to it.

Best of luck, but it sounds like you're doing OK. Keep caring about you. Everyone makes mistakes in love.
posted by IAmBroom at 2:43 PM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

If I'd had an experience like yours, where there was Boy Overload and Major Heartbreak and Devastating Cheating and Nervous Breakdowns, I'd give myself a lot longer than a year to let my heart sort itself out. I had a breakup of much, much less dramatic proportions, and it took me six years to get back in the saddle. Yeah, as you appear to be doing, I asked myself hard questions about my issues and what I could've done better and why I had gotten myself into that mess, but I wasn't too rough on myself, nor did I push myself into accepting dates with objectively attractive guys just because they were interested in me -- halfway through my romantic hibernation, I tried. Disaster followed.

Give yourself time and space to heal.
posted by joyceanmachine at 2:56 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

This whole question could be rewritten in my personal journal under the heading "The Story of Me". So thanks to everyone who has posted advice; you've helped more than one person today. OP, being in the same boat means I have no helpful suggestions or pithy one-liners to cleverly help you pull up those bootstraps. But if it helps, there's a girl who is just as straps-on-the-floor as yourself when it comes to this situation. I think we'll get over it, and emerge stronger for it.
posted by thatbrunette at 3:41 PM on February 2, 2009

I dunno how to answer your question. Frankly, I'm kind of in the same position, but from the guy's point of view. I've had chances, but I keep passing them up because I just don't want to get trapped in the same kind of cycle that made me do all that stuff in the first place.

My problems didn't involve cheating, but the did include a whole lot of un-necessary drama, time, expense, emotional difficulties, etc. I finally met someone awesome last year who opened my eyes to exactly how good a healthy relationship between two people who are into things for good reasons can be, and now ... well, you called it. You just can't go back, can you? I'm not sure what to call it, because not everyone seems to go through the same experiences, but in a way it's been part of really growing up and becoming an adult. I'm 29, by the way. Yeah, my clock runs slow.

It's been a year since I dated that other person, and while I've had opportunities, I've always backed out. Making the same mistakes just seems like a waste of time, and I'm not sure when it'll feel right again.
posted by SpecialK at 4:14 PM on February 2, 2009

You can just go for drinks with someone without throwing yourself into sex, having a boyfriend, emotional intimacy, and dependency. Really. That´s why it´s called ¨just drinks¨, it doesn´t mean you are going to have sex or be in a relationship or any of that stuff.

Maybe you should try going on a date/drinks with someone and see how it feels. Arrange your own transportation, don´t go to the guys house or take him to your house. Keep things short, an hour or two at most.

I wouldn´t recommend setting the bar so low that you do this with anyone who asks, but don´t let your criteria be that someone else would find them ¨objectively great¨ either. Just pick the first person who seems like they might be interesting to talk to for an hour or two, and don´t feel that you have to get into a relationship with them.
posted by yohko at 4:40 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

You sound so viscerally opposed -- I can't imagine advising you to override your entire being like that. You sound self-aware and healthy, so I think you should give yourself the patience and sense of protection you need to heal. Maybe you could make a pact with yourself (the side of yourself that is asking "what if this lasts forever?") that you'll revisit this at a particular point in the future, say two years from now, and that you'll take action if it hasn't changed by then.

If you do want to accelerate this underground healing process, there are surely ways that don't require forcing yourself to date. Isn't sacrificing yourself for relationships part of what went wrong before? Seems like it could make it more important to do what feels right here (maybe your increasing self-pressure is why it's getting worse? (probably a stretch)).

Anyway, who says you have to date? Nobody thinks the millions of people focusing their lives on other things are "writing themselves a pass." You could fulfill every obligation you owe to the world and be an amazing person, and never date again in your life. But I doubt that will happen.

And look on the bright side: at least you're a great writer. :)
posted by salvia at 5:17 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing a lot of what's above. Too, don't underestimate the importance of getting away from being scared witless about not having a boyfriend. I've seen a ton of people--men and women--never get away from that. As a friend often says, everything's tendencies, but seems uncommon that good, healthy things come from anyone being determined to have a partner at all times.

So, a really wise move on your part to take some time to breathe, get used to being single, more self-reliant... and seemingly realize that there's value in moving forward with relationships at a relatively slow pace, doing your best to determine if people are self-absorbed before taking a plunge.

Give yourself some much-deserved credit for awareness of things that too many people seemingly never grasp (keep making the same mistakes) when they're 24, 34, 44.... Those are some big steps and it usually is something of a step-by-step process--spending the time and effort to create a solid foundation before building the house, and all that.

With perhaps going slower, anyone decent may not wait for 30 dates to move however far beyond the platonic realm, but anyone more in the after-three-dates-or-sayanora realm, "sayanora" is doing you a big favor.

Operationally, any prospect/interest in a group activity of some sort? Beyond the potential enjoyment, easy opportunities to interact with guys who might have potential, but in a relatively relaxed setting; it's chatting in a group, not necessarily a guy chatting you up.

Other thoughts: maybe there would be more comfortable if interesting guys ask you for drinks and you suggest something w/o alcohol (at night). Art gallery, strolling around in a park if there are big ones in the area, etc. If nothing else, it might lend some insight into whether the guy's interested in spending time with you or interested in spending time drinking with you.

I'm far from a squishy romantic, but much a thought that in time, the stars and winds of fate will come together and good things will happen. When it's there, it's there.

Much respect and admiration from here.
posted by ambient2 at 12:39 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wonder if I'm writing myself a pass when I should soldier up.

I kept trying to force it after a difficult break-up. One day, I realized that I just wasn't ready. I kept letting myself get into things with people who weren't right for me. Now I know better. Take your time, you have a lot of it left.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:09 AM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

but I freeze up and bail every single time

Being a romantic at heart does not necessarily have to mean you are a complete and total fool. Your brain may think you are ready, and this is going to sound cheesy, but it sounds like your heart isn't. From one serial monogamist to another...getting burned sucks. It makes us question what, if anything, is wrong with us. It makes us question our very value and self worth. Then we start questioning why we are questioning ourselves such silly questions. I loved having the company of a boyfriend. I felt secure, having someone to always talk to, etc., but when I was single, I felt the greatest sense of freedom. I didn't have to keep things constantly tidy. I didn't have to think for two. I didn't have to double check with someone when making plans with friends. It was enlightening and, at that time, the thought of being in a serious relationship made me want to vomit.

It is great that you are focusing on yourself. It sounds like neither of those guys ever did. A wise woman once told me that you have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of anyone else. I couldn't agree more. Hang out with yourself. Enjoy your friends. Focus on your career. Society trains us to think we constantly have to be the "plus one" party and we all know that is not the case. I do not think you need therapy, but you are more than welcome to go for some very unbiased advice. I believe your disgust for physical intimacy could be due to your monogamous history. You have equated physical connection with strong feelings. To have that with someone at this point and time triggers that part of your brain to think that it will be a serious relationship...something you are trying to avoid, ergo the repulsive reaction.

I think you are doing wonderful for yourself and in no way shape or form a head-case. Keep it up. It will take time, but this reaction and perspective you are having is perfectly normal.
posted by penguingrl at 8:47 AM on February 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

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