Fear of connection, fear of loss
September 28, 2010 11:35 AM   Subscribe

Extreme fear of intimacy... how do you get over it?

I'm not very close to my parents and I was in an abusive relationship with a much older man for most of my teenage years and into my mid-20s.

I resent that my family did not do more to take care of me as a child, to protect me from my parents' abuse, and to help me get out of the abusive relationship when I was so young. I feel like I've never really been able to count on anyone and have a hard time trusting people.

I have wonderful friends that I'm very close to and a lot of love in my life. But I have a terrible time getting close to people romantically. I desire love so desperately and at the same time am terrified of it. When I get close to someone, truly intimate, I get all "I hate you, don't leave me" -- terrified they'll leave me and pushing them away out of fear that they'll take advantage of me.

I've dated several "nice guys" and while things went all right, I never felt much passion and they all eventually dumped me. I dated them because it felt safe and I definitely didn't want to get involved with an abusive person again.

The last person I dated triggered all kinds of feelings in me that I had not experienced since my abusive ex, who I thought was the love of my life. I broke up with him out of fear that there were too many "red flags" that he might become abusive. I'm still not sure if this was a good idea or not at this point. He was a bit self-centered and immature but he really loved me and accepted me despite my flaws.

My deepest longing, since childhood, is to love and be loved by someone amazing. I am a very devoted, submissive sort of person, and am happiest when I make a man the center of my world. On the surface, I am an ambitious, driven career person, but I don't really care about any of it. I just want a great relationship more than anything. This contributed to the abusive relationship, as I let him abuse me and stayed with him out of misplaced devotion and love. Now, I struggle between wanting to surrender fully and being terrified of it.

I'm not a red roses and picket fence kind of person and I don't dream of a white dress and all of that. I just want to have the real thing, to love someone that I respect and admire, and have him love me back.

I am in therapy (of course), but I am wondering if you Mefites can tell me what worked for you in getting over fear of intimacy and getting into healthy, loving relationships, with real passion and abandon, but safe enough so that you can trust the person and know that you will be taken care of.

Please share your stories of how you got over this, how your relationships work, anything. It's the thing I most want to do in this life... please help me.
posted by 3491again to Human Relations (10 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I share many of your concerns and I worry daily how I'm going to be able to let go and just *trust* the guy that I'm with and trust that he's not like my cocksucker of an ex who liked to hit girls when they pissed him off.

What seems to be working for us right now is complete and total honesty and sincerity. I let him know early on about my abusive ex and how batshit I was because of all that had happened to me in my relationship, so he's able to take it a little easier, I think, when I try and push him out of my life because I'm scared of it all. I tell him how I feel, even if that feeling is "I don't want you here" or "I don't know" or "Please hug me." I tell him that I am guarded and that I am scared and that I don't know when or if I can ever reciprocate his big scary deep feelings for me--and he accepts it.

So I guess what I'm saying here is that it will take the right combination of you being forthright and your dude being patient and willing to work with you. Although I'd say that if your dude was patient and willing to deal with this, he's not worth your forthrightness and love anyway.

Therapy: thumbs up. Being aware of your issues and trying to work toward fixing them: thumbs up.

Good luck. You will find happiness.
posted by adrianna aria at 12:13 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

My deepest longing, since childhood, is to love and be loved by someone amazing. I am a very devoted, submissive sort of person, and am happiest when I make a man the center of my world.

There's a lot to unpack in your post, and I'm sure the people around here will be up to the task, as always. I wanted to pull out the sentences I quoted above because I think that, while absolutely understandable, that sentiment is at the heart of your problem. It's one of the cruel ironies of the way people are wired that if finding love is the most important thing in the world to you, if it’s the key to happiness for you, you’re going to have a very hard time doing it, because you’re going to be putting too much pressure on other people, or expecting the wrong things, or being disappointed with when the mundane reality of actually being with somebody in a comfortable relationship doesn’t make you as happy as you thought it would. Because no other person can make you that happy - only you can do that. A great relationship doesn’t make everything perfect - it’s nice, but like anything else it carries with it a whole bunch of problems.

So, if you’re not already addressing this core belief - that finding the right man is the key to your happiness - with your therapist, I strongly suggest that you begin immediately. This is a very common belief to hold, and it makes a lot of sense that your history of abuse has made it stronger in you. But your goal with your therapist should be to get to the point where you could have a happy, fulfilling life even if you never dated again. That’s a tall order, I know, but striving for that will move you in the right direction, even if you don’t quite get there. Good luck!
posted by Ragged Richard at 12:31 PM on September 28, 2010 [8 favorites]

I am by no means a pro, but a few of your stated preferences and goals:

I am a very devoted, submissive sort of person, and am happiest when I make a man the center of my world.

I just want a great relationship more than anything.

and the emphasis on "abandon" and "surrender" sound, in themselves, a little worrisome from a mental health standpoint. I guess what I'm saying is, don't assume that your healing process will help you achieve the tempestuous, passionate, all-encompassing relationship you seem to want; part of that healing may be realizing that you don't need that sort of relationship, that it was never a healthy way to approach human interaction in the first place.

With that said, have you considered EMDR at all? It seems as though many people with trauma histories have found it a very useful adjunct to therapy when dealing with entrenched responses like the ones you describe here. Might be worth running the idea by your therapist or psychiatrist, just to see what they think.
posted by Bardolph at 12:32 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it seems like you have an overly dramatic idea of love, which ends up putting a lot of pressure on you. If love to you is submission, a tempest of nonstop passion, mutual absorption, and abandon, no wonder you're afraid of it! It sounds totally exhausting.

Try reading carefully through relationship threads here (sorry I don't have any particular to recommend.) While there are varying theories on how much "spark" you need in a relationship, and whether spark lasts, the happy couples around here universally seem to describe their relationships with calm and normal adjectives, like "comfortable," "fun," "understanding," "compatible," and "my best friend." And almost universally, they describe liking their partner as being key to their relationships. This all has very little to do with the consuming passion you're looking for, nor does it describe a relationship where the other person is center of your world.
posted by yarly at 12:59 PM on September 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

I am a very devoted, submissive sort of person, and am happiest when I make a man the center of my world.

Whoa, whoa. Is this the type of person you *want* to be? Devoted is good, but the "center of your world" is not really the place for an SO to be.

Let's change that around:

I am a very devoted, yet independent sort of person, and am happiest when I take care of myself— that way I can take care of, and love, others in a healthy, non-scary way.

Working toward this attitude is how you become happier in a relationship. Hell, happier in general. Focus on and take care of yourself! Because even though you've had crappy experiences of loss and abandonment, you'll always have yourself— and "yourself" can be pretty awesome.
posted by functionequalsform at 1:23 PM on September 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

From a similar background, I've pretty much accepted that I'll never be able to love anyone else with abandon. Passion? Yes. But I've been too far and seen too much, and I'll pretty much always be a little suspicious, and a little secretive.

That means I have to work a lot more on figuring out what is and isn't appropriate. I'm skittish. Trust takes a long, long time to build. And I think that's okay, and generally how it should be.

Yeah, guys make mistakes, but if you say "hey that bothers me" and they change their behavior, then fine, no big deal. But if there are red flags, and they aren't changing their behavior, then you're not compatible and it's time to move on.

I think it was right for you to leave someone who was self-centered and immature--everyone has flaws but those flaws, in particular, are not something you need to deal with if you already tend to put someone else front and center. If the person is already self-centered it will just get unbalanced.

There's no loving you "despite" your flaws. You deserve love very much, and anyone who ends up with you will be very lucky to have a devoted, loving partner. Find someone who deserves your love, not someone who "tolerates" your love. Because your love is awesome.

Aim for someone really gentle, sweet, who is not self-centered in the least, and let him earn your trust and respect over time with hard work and laughter and good times.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:53 PM on September 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

The first thing you need to work out with your therapist is what triggers you. Once you have a sort of list of things that make you distrust a man with whom you're in a relationship, you can identify the individual behaviors and your reactions/responses to each.

It's hard to work these things out when you're not in a relationship, but it's not impossible. Basically, you need to be able to separate the people who abused you from men with whom you have relationships. When your next boyfriend loses his temper, for example, the goal is to know that this guy is not the same as that other guy. In other words, the behaviors may trigger you, but you know there is a difference between your former abusive relationship and your current relationship.

It can be difficult to learn to trust people, but in my own personal experience the key has been to (a) know what was done to me that hurt me, and (b) know that is why I respond the way I do sometimes. Then you can say, "Look, this is a left over PTSD-ish thing, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't do X, because it makes me feel funny," instead of being all, "OMG my abusive boyfriend/parent did that same exact thing that you just did, so that must mean you are also abusive!"

So go easy on yourself, and on the guys you date. It's hard enough trying to find a partner without the added pressure of finding a superhero soulmate.
posted by brina at 2:00 PM on September 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I suggest this book all the time, precisely it starts out from the position of helping you unpack a lot of how your family of origin issues set up certain expectations (often unhealthy and self-sabotaging) when you embark on romantic relationships. I didn't have fear of intimacy issues, but I did keep repeating the same screwy patterns over and over again until I consciously figured out how to rewire certain essential assumptions about what I thought a relationship was really for -- which therefore led me to rewire my assumptions about how I (and a partner) were required to function in a relationship.
posted by scody at 2:12 PM on September 28, 2010

I think the first step is to make *you* the center of your world. Loving and respecting yourself is the pre-requisite for getting that kind of treatment from others. When you are able to meet some of your own needs, you might find that you don't need as much from other people, and being in a relationship is less important. I think that is at this point that a mutal, amazing relationship is possible. Being overly dependent is unsexy to most people, and at worst puts you at risk for exploitation from the nasty guys out there. I think with a little therapy and self work, love will probably come along on its own and take care of itself!
posted by amileighs at 3:49 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll second the rec for EMDR. My partner/fiance grew up surrounded by substance abuse issues, and a lot of the things that you describe sound very similar to the "people who should have cared for me when I was very vulnerable were not taking care of me" narrative that he's described.

He has gotten a lot of stuff off of his chest thanks to doing EMDR with a good therapist. Even better, he's become an informal advocate for others looking for help, and he's helped me face a lot of my own issues by drawing on his experiences.
posted by Madamina at 8:17 PM on September 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

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