She must have Daddy Issues.
October 7, 2010 9:22 AM   Subscribe

How do I overcome my severe trust issues with men? Very long backstory inside, be warned.

I apologize in advance for how TL; DR this is and thank anyone who takes the time to answer it. I’m an early-20s woman who has pretty severe trust issues with men. The precedent for this is a long, sad story which starts with my alcoholic & largely absent father and parents’ divorce when I was twelve. I’m the youngest child and the only one left at home at the time of the divorce and I had court-mandated visits with my father throughout my teenage years. I saw him at his worst after he went through recovery, when he was a crying mess who didn’t have the best grasp on reality, and relied on me as his “touchstone” – starting when I was a twelve year old girl (albeit bright and pretty self-possessed for my age) His instability led me to fear being alone with him and I came to dread any contact with him. Despite my efforts to disengage he’s continued to be needy, even now, when I’ve finally gotten away from my hometown for school. He has never remarried but has had several serial relationships with women that invariably end badly. He also had a porn addiction at one point. (I’m not making the call that it was an “addiction”; he is the one who used that term) He has occasionally made weird sexual comments to me or tried to alternately make me “cover up” or “show off” in my dress-yes, it’s really creepy. Although I am “too skinny” (his words) I have a feminine shape/am busty, and forgive me for getting too arrogant or detailed here, I am fairly good-looking.

I love my father, and I pity him, but he has continued to demonstrate a complete lack of ability to be an adult, a role model, or allow me to live my own life in the way best for me. He’s a constant source of stress; even without the bad history we’re not a good personality match, he’s a much jokier, practical type who’s into sports, and likes to remind me that I’m “too skinny and shy” and I read too much. My only sibling and older sister is married and lives across the country and doesn’t get the worst of it. My mom has since remarried and has no contact with him. I don’t get along well with my stepfather, just don’t have much in common, although he is a decent, if reticent, guy.

I have had two relationships, one in which I was very much in love, but my father belittled my boyfriend for being “shy and weak” and generally made things uncomfortable for me. We broke up after three years and I discovered that that guy I had been so in love with had a pretty extensive interest in child pornography and had lied to me about some not-insignificant things. After a few months he started stalking me, this continued for the better part of a year and I had to get a restraining order. I still don’t think he’s the violent type but he just wouldn’t listen to me when I asked him to leave me alone, and was coming over at all hours of the night and it started scaring me. My father’s response to this? “Huh, that’s weird. I never stalked any of my girlfriends.” No anger on my behalf, no advice for me, nothing.

In yet another example, the second guy I dated ALSO became way too clingy and after we broke up, started sending me long angry emails and generally making me feel like shit. I honestly feel like I bent over backwards to be a good girlfriend to both of these guys; never cheated, never belittled them, and it’s generally agreed by them and everyone that I’m typically a sweet person. I obviously have severe boundary issues.

All of this has led me to be pretty pathologically afraid of men. I can’t talk to anyone with a Y chromosome. I’m afraid to talk to male professors. It takes an extremely long time, if ever, for any man to gain my trust. I had a male therapist once, and it took me literally about 6 months to open up to him in any real way, and still not even fully, though I think he did help matters. This is weighing heavily on me-I’m starting to feel like the world is a terrible place in which the genders can never cooperate. I WANT to trust men, I LIKE most men as people, but I’m so damn afraid of them that I’ve basically accepted constant disappointment as my mode of interaction with the other half of humanity. I like taking a sort of distant academic impersonal interest in men who have similar tastes or interests, but I have a huge mental block when it comes to accepting that a man could ever feel something real for me, or even feel something beyond that-like something fatherly or protective or just having my best interests in mind as a person. It’s almost like I just don’t believe men can feel love the same way I do, or that they just can’t understand the world in any way that would allow for effective communication. Like they just can’t help it, it’s just the way things are, and I’m doomed before I ever try, because they either get too attached to me or don’t want me. I feel like every relationship is guaranteed to be a huge burden on me where I become responsible for my boyfriend’s health and happiness yet he never really “gets” me the whole time, where I am the only one who feels love and devotion. I am terrified of marriage. I am horrified at the idea that I might end up with someone like my father, or worse yet, inflict that on any children I had. This is basically straight up misandry and I hate thinking things like this. I know this is bullshit, but I can’t help but feel that it’s the reality I’m living in, even if other people aren’t. And I think, if there are great guys out there, why the hell would they want distrustful me? I get “you’re so shy” “I thought you didn’t like me” “smile” (ugh) and similar comments quite a lot.

I don’t think I can handle a relationship right now, although my family is always asking about it. When someone shows interest in me, I cringe, blame myself for accidentally leading him on, feel terrible and become an instant cold fish. What I want, and the point of this question, is just to feel a general level of trust for humanity. I would like to be able to actually believe that the genders are not constantly undermining each other, that there are more important moral principles and ideas besides sex that men and women can agree on, that society is not hopeless. I would like to be able to talk to a man and act normal; and not like a shut-down monotonic robot. I’d like to feel able to be myself and share my honest thoughts without fear of offending a guy, and talk about my father without making it sound like I think all men are that way. He IS that way! I would like to not have to bite my tongue every time some happy young couple gets married and prevent myself from screaming “Watch out! Doom lies ahead!” I see other women laughing and acting normal and confident around men all the time, and it seems like they’re functioning just fine without the crippling fear I have. I’m on the fast track to crazy cat ladyship and I’m not yet 25. I have a little 6 year old male cousin (basically the only male in my extended family, no uncles and my grandfathers have passed) who likes me a lot, and who I babysit often, and he is so sweet that it breaks my heart to think I could instill in him the idea that I dislike men or a negative association with his own gender. (His mother, by the way, is openly unhappy in her marriage) It just really gets me down, I feel very small and isolated in a crazy world that full of guaranteed disappointment and suffering. How the heck do I overcome this? Therapy helped, but I’ve talked myself hoarse about my father and there’s just not much left to say or do. He’s always going to be a problem I have to deal with. I’m already on SSRIs. What are some coping mechanisms I can use in daily life to just stop feeling so afraid and alone on a basic level? Has anyone else overcome a similar problem? What should I do, if anything? Where should I start?

Also, PLEASE believe me that I truly mean no offense with anything I’ve phrased here, and I am sincerely sorry if it has come across that way. I am 100% genuine with this question wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t stumped.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
As a doctor just recently told my brother - go to an Al-Anon meeting- it will change your life as you begin to find out why you are who you are. You will be amazed at the transformation in yourself if you listen to people who have been where you have been, do what they have done and sincerly want to change.
posted by shaarog at 9:36 AM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

To start with, bless your heart. That you survived your childhood to grow into a woman mature and healthy enough to ask these questions says a lot about your strength.

Can I ask you why (or if) you feel you must have a relationship (any relationship, any contact) with your father? I understand the longing, believe me, but this man is toxic. Exposure to him won't help you recognize healthier men, when you DO find them.
posted by cyndigo at 9:44 AM on October 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

First of all, stop blaming yourself and stop apologizing. The first step through this is to be your own best friend and to be easy on yourself. Essentially, you need to trust yourself and be comfortable with YOU first before you can tackle this. You cannot be responsible for how other people choose to react to things - that is within their control and not yours. You only have control over YOUR feelings and actions.

With that said, I'd highly recommend talking to a therapist. I used to have some major trust issues myself and it made a world of difference, enough for me to even say it was life-changing.

In an abusive situation, many therapists (mine included) indicate that there is an unwritten code/pattern of "Don't talk, don't trust, don't feel" - in other words, with you as the "victim" you do not feel entitled to really talk about these issues (hence why you're apologizing for it), not trusting (obvious) and not feeling or feeling like you are not entitled to feel the way you have. A therapist will help you work through these issues. You are entitled to your feelings and you can only begin to bridge your trust issues in light of a relationship if you are able to accept yourself, acknowledge the situation and understand your feelings.

In other words, don't put the cart before the horse.

You need to address YOU first before you can trust others and be emotionally open to them and a relationship. This is not a bad thing and may take some time, but just think of how much of a better, stronger YOU you will be.

I don't know if any of this helped, but I've been through a lot myself, and this is essentially in a nutshell, a major theme that I had to come to grips with in order to bridge my own trust and emotional issues that were created via an emotionally abusive relationship. The good thing of all this is that you're already doing something about it and want to change. That's the biggest and most positive step you can take. Go get 'em!
posted by floweredfish at 9:47 AM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I do not expect that any men are going to be offended by your question. We men are perfectly aware of the fact that our gender includes many members who are predatory, obnoxious, or otherwise deserving of your distrust.

I would like to reply to your question, if there are great guys out there, why the hell would they want distrustful me? Bear in mind that we are all imperfect people (although some are more imperfect than others) and many women have imperfections, such as obesity. There are undoubtedly great men who would find your distrust of men to be a much easier problem to deal with than other problems that they encounter.

It is sort of a mixed blessing to be, as you are, a young, pretty woman. You will attract the interest of many men, among whom will be good men and bad. It's not an easy situation to deal with even under the best of circumstances, and you also have a lifetime of trauma to deal with.

I would suggest that you approach the situation gradually. If you don't want to say anything else to men, you can at least say hello to those who don't appear to be overly threatening. Gradually you might attempt something more ambitious than hello. Get to know people without getting too close or making any kind of commitment, and at some point, you may feel that you know a particular man well enough to be able to trust him. There is no time limit here; you can go as slowly as you like.

Bear in mind that even by asking this question on a site that has both male and female participants, you have a kind of indirect contact with men such as myself. You and I are now communicating - although chances are we will never meet in person. But it's a step.

I will add that I completely agree with the comment from cyndigo above, that you should just have nothing more to do with your father. We all hate to give up on our parents, however, at some point you have to admit that nothing good can come of that relationship.
posted by grizzled at 9:57 AM on October 7, 2010

I think maybe one aspect of this could be that you keep finding yourself with needy guys who don't respect your boundaries, because you are maybe more likely to accept that kind of behavior and be nice about it. Whereas other people might stop interacting with that person a lot more quickly, and/or not be nice about it.

Example: an kind of eccentric guy approaches you in a cafe, and talks and talks and talks, about his problems, while you wanted to read your book. Do you let him know you want to be left alone, or do you feel obliged to smile and nod, or do you feel obliged to try to help him?

The end result of that is you end up with needy boundary-less guys taking up huge chunks of your time. And then it feels like these guys are all there are.

I also think it's possible that from growing up in the situation you did, you have a really high tolerance for weirdness/weird behavior (not weird in a good way). And that's why you end up with these really weird guys, because you tolerate their weirdness when other people would have been really turned off.

If any of this resonates with you, I think it might be helpful to go back to a therapist, but not in an open-ended way where you just explore whatever. It might be helpful to go back with the specific goal of the therapist helping you develop boundaries and the ability to enforce them.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:00 AM on October 7, 2010 [10 favorites]

I don't have time to write much now but have similar issues, so I invite you to mefimail me (or post a throwaway address.)

Something that stands out at me right away, though, is that you don't seem to be proactively setting boundaries with your father that allow you to interact with him in a way that isn't dissapointing, creepy, uncomfortable, etc.

Have you considered dialing back your interaction with him signifigantly? Possibly only by email, and even then, insisting that he refrain from/apologize for any comments about your body, anything negative, anything sexual?

I have done this with my father, and now I see him in person again but only for short periods of time and with a third party present so I have someone to re-normalize with me afterward--someone to say "wow, that was kinda fucked up" so I know my sad, uncomfortable, angry feelings are reasonable.

Your exes being crazy is NOT your fault. None of this is your fault.
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:13 AM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Al-anon is a fantastic suggestion. It's a safe place where you can talk about these things, and you'll be shocked by how many people who you'd see on the street and assume they have so much more stability and sanity than you could ever dream of are either going through or have been through just what you're experiencing now.

Trust in others is not something that appears on your doorstep wrapped in a big giant bow the morning after you stay up all night thinking and then have an epiphany about your past. It's something that's built, in concert with the people in your life (relationships are risks, and you must learn how to take smart risks), and learning where to place responsibility when someone does let you down (hint: Not on yourself!). You're going to mess up a lot -- but with a good support system around you, you are going to get there. It sounds to me like you have enough love for yourself and your head on straight enough to get that support system and start the process of learning how to do that.

It sounds to me like you're spot-on about not being ready to be in a relationship. You may be ready to start the process of learning how to disengage from your father. Your father's relationship with you is inappropriate. It really can work a terrible number on you, but you do not have to be your past. What you need to do is stabilize, and this means finding a way to disengage from him in a way that won't make you crazier with guilt. This is a long process and you need help with it.

I'd suggest leaning on good, close friends (female friends are fine for now!), giving Al-Anon a shot, and looking for a good Cognitive-Behavioral Therapist. I think you have a good handle on what got you here, and you're on the right road. You need coping mechanisms to help you get out there and form happy, healthy, healing relationships. You can totally do it. Good luck!
posted by pazazygeek at 10:25 AM on October 7, 2010

Oh and another thing--if you know any relatively happy couples, try to spend time around them.

I, too, feel very uncomfortable/afraid around men, especially of a certain age/body type/personality type. Hanging with couples helps me interact with "normal" men with less OMFG DANGER signals coming from my brain and fucking things up.

Another thing to research--personality disorders, if something resonates with you about your father it might help reassure you that they're relatively uncommon.

Might be a good idea to be in therapy with a male therapist just to keep that positive bond going; and anyway I think you have plenty to talk about still when it comes to your anxiety, anger, and mistrust of men in general.

I think all of that anxiety, mistrust, and anger is justified, by the way. If you'd been bitten by dogs for your whole life, would you blame yourself for having negative feelings towards dogs? I wouldn't, even though a lot of dogs are nice, that doesn't change the fact that you've been bitten.

Desensitization might also be useful to you as a concept

(Sorry for any disjointedness, I'm on my phone but our stories are so similar that I think a friend reading would seriously wonder if this is me so I really wanted to make sure I commented.)
posted by the young rope-rider at 10:25 AM on October 7, 2010

For the record, if it matters, I'm a guy. You sound like you feel really guilty about not being able to trust men, and I just want to say that you should not because you've had a lot of men, starting with your father, treat you like shit and break your trust. There are good reasons why you feel this way. You are absolutely not a bad person for feeling this way. It seems likely that (like how most of us do) you are putting some aspect of yourself out there that may be attracting these sorts of wrong guys (um, obviously other than your father, who you had no choice in knowing, and who must certainly be the cause of some of this).

What I want, and the point of this question, is just to feel a general level of trust for humanity.

You want to get past this pervasive distrust because, obviously, it's not a fun place to be all the time. But don't think you aren't allowed to feel this way or that you are bad somehow because of it. Also know that it'll take you time to work through this stuff and you may never be able to trust men fully...which may be okay too on some level.

I mean, listen, people—men or women—are not always trustworthy, there is no getting around this. If you work on yourself enough to know exactly what you want and need and deserve, however, your "sensors" for figuring out what sort of guy is going to supply more (not complete!) security vs. what sort of guy is setting off your "stay away he's bad" sense will become more sensitive. When you're ready to be in a relationship—don't rush it!—then if you have worked through more of this and are treating yourself better you will attract better guys, I believe.

That's not to say that you're going to be able to start trusting guys right off the bat or anything...but why would you want to? There's good reasons for you to feel this way: you are trying to protect yourself. You should not necessarily let go of that entirely. Maybe part of the problem is that you are pathologizing (is that a word?) yourself for feeling distrust, rather than understanding how you are justified and allowed to feel that way.

Note that I'm not saying you should become permanently bitter and apprehensive towards men, and start teaching your kid cousin about why men are assholes...but, you wouldn't right? You are already past that and you are trying to reconcile your emotional reality with what you know to be true, despite your terrible experience with men. Bravo, seriously. This is hard!

Anyways, also echoing others who say that you might want to cut off or at least limit contact with your father. You needn't feel guilty about doing so either. Take care of yourself. You deserve it.
posted by dubitable at 10:37 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

seconding al-anon
posted by caddis at 10:39 AM on October 7, 2010

You may have already tried this, but if not, what about creating a really safe life and community for yourself for awhile? You sound alone with these feelings. You sound like you don't accept yourself here. In my view, your feelings are very well-deserved. The situation sucked! You're entitled to feel pissed off, nervous, fearful, defensive, or anything else! I think you should honor that and accept it. As you learn what it has to teach you, the feeling will wear itself out and eventually pass.

I hear you saying you don't want to feel this way forever. But no need to worry. The very fact that you're asking this question makes me confident that this won't last forever. (Though, if it did, so what?) I know early-20s can feels kinda old, what with college and all, but speaking as someone who is 32, and still young, you are VERY young. You can go through phase upon phase still, before things will begin to settle (e.g., into cat ladyship).

I completely relate to wanting a feeling to be over, but most often, the only way out is through. It takes a lot of hard emotional work to overcome childhood events, so I would keep going with therapy and all the other ways to learn and process. When I read your question, I get this mental picture of buried feelings coming to the surface, like a bubble getting ready to pop, so it seems premature to want this over with right now.

So, my advice: give yourself full permission to have these feelings and live a life that makes you feel fully comfortable. I imagine you moving to a college town or big city, meeting a great group of strong feminist women, cutting off your father, being relatively open with your friends about your healing process, maybe dating or maybe not, joining women's professional associations, choosing female therapists and professors and bosses and doctors, and generally accepting yourself and your current fear and anger. The easiest way to shift most emotions is to accept them.
posted by salvia at 10:42 AM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Step 1: End, or significant reduce your exposure to your father. That is a toxic relationship and you don't need it in your life.

Step 2: Forgot your past relationships. They sound immature and stunted. This does not have to reflect on you and celebrate the fact that you have moved past them, even if they have not or had difficulty in doing so. That's their problem.

Step 3: Forgot what your family expects from a relationship standpoint. You're not even 25, you have plenty of time for "settling down". You're young, live life. Enjoy the world, look for inspiration in travel, school, social activities.

Step 4: Listen to a lot of the great advice in this thread.
posted by purephase at 10:43 AM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


I get “you’re so shy” “I thought you didn’t like me” “smile” (ugh) and similar comments quite a lot.

...screw these guys; they're not helping you. This is their problem not yours.
posted by dubitable at 10:50 AM on October 7, 2010

Reading through your question I was struck by how much it was about your need to take care of men. The responsibility you feel them to the point that you shut down instead of being yourself and saying what is on your mind. You're even concerned that you are somehow influencing your 6 year old nephew. That is a lot to carry!

I would suggest removing men out of the equation while you work on taking care of yourself. Find a therapist who will work on that goal with you. As people have mentioned, understanding and establishing your own boundaries will be a part of this. Figure out your own needs and get comfortable with voicing them (even if it's just to yourself). It's not "undermining" men to take care of yourself before deciding whether to take care of others in your life. Women are conditioned to be caretakers and it can sometimes be hard to back away from a behavior so ingrained that it feels like instinct.

For me, goal oriented therapy where I figured out how to deal with family--not change them, not even necessarily get them to accept my point of view, and also not focus on blaming them--without compromising my sense of self was incredibly helpful.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:51 AM on October 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

It sounds like your past therapy was focused on talk only, when what you need is a solutions-oriented therapist. I know folks here talk about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy a lot, but it's definitely the go-to for things like this, and it's necessary to find a therapist who is specifically trained in the practice and aware of how to help you apply it in order for it to work. I'd definitely give that a try, if I were you.

Agree with the others who say:
• Spend time with people in healthy relationships
• Spend less time around your father
• Accept that some of what you've learned about people (albeit from men, specifically) is that some cannot be trusted and will do terrible/questionable things. This is a good survival skill to have.
• Avoid relationships for a while...they won't help fix this in the least (ooh, do I know this one from experience!).

And I'll add this:
Try journaling. Write down your impressions from the day and work through your feelings on what you experienced. Revisit decisions about people and apply the "why do I think that?" filter to break down their behaviour and yours to gain a better understanding of how you're coming to conclusions about others and what you might want/need to change about that process. At minimum, it gives you a way to look back as you progress to see how your mindset is evolving, and could be of use during more action-oriented therapy.

Whatever you do, take care of yourself and let your heart be light whenever it can.
posted by batmonkey at 11:04 AM on October 7, 2010

Young men and alcoholics are two groups of people who often feel that they are fully justified to pour their emotions on someone, because their emotions are so strong, they cannot be controlled or it would be wrong to control that kind of primal, confusing force. Most of the needy young men grow up at some point and learn that their feelings are not so special after all and that having emotions doesn't justify asshole behaviour.

I used to be emotionally needy and overly dramatic young man, but I grew out of it. It doesn't mean that you should accept such behaviour or wait for anyone to grow out of it, but just that your chances of meeting these people are getting smaller and smaller as people mature.

Then another route: There was that threads some time ago about encouraging videos for young gays by older gay people, with just the basic message that now it can be bad and the environment hopeless, but it will get better with time, just keep living. I think your problem is similar. You've met bad people and been living in an environment, where there is a high chance of again meeting bad people and you are very aware of those chances. (I hope I don't say anything offending here): Your task is a lot like with a gay person in the woods, you are looking for a certain, rare kind of person, and there is a great chance that if you mistake someone to be that kind of person, when he is not, it will backfire badly. I guess what a person can do in that situation is either try to move into area or lifestyle where chances are better or learn to be very observant about both positive and negative signs that suggest that the person matches or not. Be careful, but don't stop looking and learning.
posted by Free word order! at 11:10 AM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I strongly recommend a therapist. Al-Anon is a tourniquet (sorry twelve-steppers- I don't want to ruffle feathers, it's a free country) and I've been through both. Please consider the premise that you don't need wounds healed as much as you need to see - with a professional - how your current behaviors once had a purpose to serve the integrity of your self but no longer protect you. Lacking any role models, you were left to survive with impressions, reactions and adaptations that were invaluable in keeping you in one piece.
You're mostly out of the direct line of fire, i.e, direct exposure to your parents (mom doesn't get off scot free), but your behaviors might still be tuned to threats that no longer exist. Combine that with your experience with the two rank specimens you mentioned, and you're trapped (or, as you've put it, doomed) to a binary outcome - either withdraw, or risk unknowable damage - at least that's how I read it. A qualified therapist - mine was an adherent of the Kohut school of self psychology if that matters - helped me overcome serious emotional and affective problems as I became a father, and my grown children would probably not be the emotionally healthy, well-integrated, really terrific people they are if I hadn't sought therapy out.
You are my anonymous hero.
posted by nj_subgenius at 11:28 AM on October 7, 2010

I don't think you necessarily need to or should trust men/humanity/everyone. Some people are not trustworthy, and until they earn your trust, you shouldn't trust them. (Not trusting is not the same as being afraid of.)

What you do need to trust is your own ability to get out of situations and get away from people who are not worthy of your trust, people are not good for you, people who are harming you.

Trust your own feelings and perceptions of people, so that you can say "I feel that this guy is creepy and I don't like him. My own feeling is enough of a reason for me to remove myself from his company." Or "I'm not sure if this guy is trustworthy, but I am going to keep alert and I trust myself to be able to stop things and enforce my boundaries if things go in a direction that I don't like." (It helps if you've set boundaries and know exactly what and where they are -- therapy can help with this.)

I know your dad quite well. When you grow up feeling like your feelings are not as important, or not to be trusted, it's really hard to feel justified in making your own decisions. If you tried to enforce boundaries, you were being selfish, or silly, or just wrong. Just having a feeling or opinion or thought was not enough of a reason to do or not do something -- it had to be justified to or evaluated by someone else.

You definitely need to start to emotionally distance yourself from your father. Do not give him the opportunity to break your trust. Do not entrust him with personal feelings, don't tell him about things going on in your life if you're hoping for a particular reaction (sympathy, etc), don't set up situations where you are depending on him to do something. I don't know anything about AA, but any situation where you can talk to other people and realize that your father and your relationship with him are not normal will help you distance yourself and be able to trust yourself more than you trust him. When he isn't physically abusing you or doing objectively really horrible things that you can put your finger on, it's really hard to realize that the way your father treats you is not normal, that the way he loves you is not normal, and you don't need to put up with it. (I'm still learning this -- threads like this and this help.)

When society says that "good children" have a duty to take care of and defer to and to a certain degree sacrifice themselves to their parents, they are talking about normal parents. A person is being good and kind when they give money to a homeless person; when they give money to a robber who has them at gunpoint, they are doing what they have to do to survive; when they still give money to that robber even when they are no longer in danger, it's time to walk away.
posted by thebazilist at 11:41 AM on October 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

Nthing purephase LOUD AND STRONG!

Those are really simple steps purephase lays out, but all the wisdom you'll need to get through this.

By design, your perceptions CAN NOT change until you cut off contact with toxic people, skewed family philosophies, and unhealthy dynamics.

I am half of one of those "Happy Couples" you avoid or feel worry for. My husband and I share a life you can barely imagine from your current perspective. I know you can barely imagine how good life can be, because once upon a time I was just like you, with a family just like yours.

You can spend the rest of your life being unhappy, like the examples of folks in your family that you detailed for us -- or you can leave all that behind with the goal of joining the Healthy Happy People in the world.

Which will you choose?

Be aware that to overcome this stuff takes an active choice, as in, you must take ACTION to achieve it. If you want it and whine about it, but keeping rolling around in the mud with bad influences... eh. You'll be wasting your time.

In short...Nthing purephase LOUD AND STRONG!
posted by jbenben at 11:45 AM on October 7, 2010

As you know, you've developed a bunch of intertwining problematic beliefs.

Since you can see how they relate to a few specific men in a planet with billions of different men, and since you can see, logically, the cascade of illogical connections being made ("X means Y which means Z so X ALWAYS means Z!") a competent therapist should help you break [SNAP] those unhelpful beliefs fairly quickly.

To speed things up, start with addressing two pieces, which you can do right now, even before you start looking for a new, competent therapist:

1) Your fear of men;

2) Your need to be able make a greater number of distinctions between different men.

For the first, please spend five minutes and go through this exercise:

It'll give you a way of getting more control, immediately, over that fearful response.

2) For the second, play a game with yourself: Every time you see a man, ask yourself how he might be different than the last man you saw.

Since, initially, there might still be some fragments of that old belief that all men are the same, you'll probably first just note physical differences.

As you get more comfortable, you'll begin to let your imagination play, extrapolating from differences in appearance to differences in history, to differences in family history, to differences in personality, to differences in behavior and belief... at which point the different parts of you might begin to distinguish, differently, the different ways you and your friends see different men... and the differences between the way you thought about men before, and how-- looking back from a few days or months or weeks or days or hours from now-- differently you see different men now...

now that you see, and hear, and sense so many more distinctions between different men...

and you can see much different, and much brighter, and much more colorful possibilities for yourself, as a result.
posted by darth_tedious at 12:09 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Listen to old episodes of Loveline. Seriously. Your post could be written by 50% of their callers, and this is what Dr. Drew would say:

You were raised by an a-hole, so you will be attracted to a-holes. It's extremely common for abuse victims to unconsciously seek out and relive their abuse. Realize that when it comes to men, your radar is WAY off! And even if you meet a nice guy and get into a relationship with him, you will sabotage it (yes, you haven't done this yet, but you've also dated a-holes).

Sever or limit ties with your father.
Seek therapy.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:49 PM on October 7, 2010

At the risk of being the MeFite whose primary advice is "tell them to go fuck themselves"...

It's none of your family's business that you're not in a relationship, it's not appropriate for them to make you feel bad about not being a relationship and, if this is agita is coming from your mother, a big chunk of this is at least partially HER FAULT.

So tell them to go fuck themselves. In a nice way initially, and then in a less nice way if they don't back off.
posted by cyndigo at 1:07 PM on October 7, 2010

Regarding Al-Anon, CoDa, ACOA, and other 12-step groups for people with boundary issues: even in this program it is best to have good boundaries with the other people at meetings.

I strongly suggest that if you try a 12-step support group that you start with one that is women only. Most Triangle Clubs and other 12-step meeting places have a printed list of all the groups in the local area.

If you can find a healthy group, and if you don't find the spiritual aspects of the program problematic, such a group may help you. I only say this because I believe the other people who say they were helped by this sort of group. My own experience was very different. Also, my group was steeped in New Age spirituality and that didn't sit right with me.

I entered into groups like that at a very vulnerable point in my life, expecting to find a safe space where I wouldn't feel blamed, judged, creeped out, or condescended to. At one memorable early meeting, I sobbed for half an hour and disclosed some incredibly personal things about which I felt ashamed.

One of the program's rules is that you're not supposed to take someone else's inventory, which means that you listen supportively without giving advice.

After the meeting, a man twice my age, a program old-timer, took me into a secluded corner and told me exactly what I needed to do with my life and why, making sure to clarify to me that I was incapable of making my own decisions because I was so fucked up and that he'd be happy to take me under his wing (in a purely platonic way, but as an authority figure) for the first six months of my recovery. He said I should leave my husband because program mandates that you not be in a relationship for a year at first.

Another oldish man in the group used the outreach telephone call protocol to offer massages to me and four other young, attractive women in the group.

I had a sponsor, a woman a little older than I was. She respected the first man, and said that he meant well but shouldn't have taken my inventory.

With the massage guy, there was some drama as the five of us he'd hit on got together and discussed whether to boot him out of the group. My sponsor enlisted the help of the first guy, the older man, who was supposedly the second guy's sponsor.

After conferring, it was somehow decided that my sponsor would tell the massage guy that she and several other women in the group did not feel comfortable with his behavior and whether or not he would stay in the group would be based on his reaction.

Massage guy acted like he couldn't believe anyone would take his offer of a massage as a come-on and my sponsor and the older guy decided he probably had Asperger's or something and that he could stay in the group. He never acted that way again but I still felt creeped out by his presence.

I stopped attending meetings shortly after that. I intended to take a break to commit more time to therapy and work, but I ended up just never going back as I reflected on what had gone on in the group and got stronger in therapy.

Last week I saw my ex-sponsor in the grocery store, and she glared at me, whipped out her cell phone, and snubbed me. Not even a "hi, how have you been?" I ended up feeling like the whole experience had been more harmful than good.

I'm telling you this anecdote as a warning, because I would hate to see you turn to something you might feel is your last hope and then find your mistrust issues validated yet again.

My experience was not what it's supposed to be like in a 12-step program. Other people on Metafilter have had much more positive experiences. Just be careful, and I wish you the best of luck.
posted by xenophile at 2:51 PM on October 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

"You were raised by an a-hole, so you will be attracted to a-holes. It's extremely common for abuse victims to unconsciously seek out and relive their abuse. Realize that when it comes to men, your radar is WAY off! And even if you meet a nice guy and get into a relationship with him, you will sabotage it (yes, you haven't done this yet, but you've also dated a-holes)."

I realize this was probably well-meant, but I think bandying stuff like this about does more harm than good. It's a complex issue, and stating it this way is likely to make a person feel discouraged and blamed, as well as very fearful about their future.

Here is how I would put it: you have probably been trained by your upbringing to set boundaries in ways that increase opportunities for exploitative or abusive people to, well, exploit and abuse you. You have also probably had your understanding of what boundaries to set, and how to enforce them, quite severely obfuscated. So you might be going along thinking you're just living your life and being reasonable, but exploitative and abusive people have unerring radar for little details that tell them where your boundaries might be, and they are always actively seeking out people with these boundary issues in order to victimize them.

Hopefully you'll be lucky enough to meet a wonderful guy who's hot and sexy and who would never think of abusing or exploiting you in any way. And that would be a dream come true and life would be great, although when problems inevitably arise you might need to make more conscious effort to resolve them fairly than 'normal' couples might. Or not.

But the problem is that your screening mechanisms are not filtering out the bastards, which means that Mr Wonderful might not be able to find his way to you through the crowd. So, screen out bastards today with the following:

- Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behaviour
- Why Men Love Bitches
- and, just wait for it, the crowd is gonna projectile-vomit at this one, but: The Rules. The Rules is a popular hate favourite, it is twee in objectifying men as mere marriage prey, it is irksomely stereotyped about gender roles, and most offensively it states that abuse is caused by bad relationship dynamics, when it is not. But an important principle of the book is very true: that following its processes is an extremely effective way of screening out bastards. Of course it's not a 100% guarantee of bastard-free living, but at least you can start as you mean to go on. The Rules are especially likely to be effective for overly nice women who have trouble setting boundaries, which I suspect has something - not everything - to do with why it is hated as much as it is.
- The Betrayal Bond
- The Verbally Abusive Relationship
- Controlling People (Patricia Evans)

You seem to be very lucid and perceptive, indeed, and I think the fear you describe is a reasonable response to bad experience and not pathological at all. jbenben is, however, right that you need to take concrete action to move on.
posted by tel3path at 5:00 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

What xenophile said too. It pays to shop around and take things slowly with these things. That applies no only to 12 step groups, but also to any self-help group, therapist, religious advisor etc. If you do go to al-anon I recommend going to lots of meetings with different groups before picking group and before committing to work the program or reveal too much of your own story. Just listening to other's stories will go a long way toward showing you how unrare (is that a word) your own situation is.
posted by caddis at 4:26 AM on October 8, 2010

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