How do you get over the anxiety of starting a new relationship?
July 19, 2016 8:14 AM   Subscribe

...if the last one was awful. I'm 25 F. My parents are divorced and had a very abusive relationship. I don't speak with (or have a relationship with) my dad as a result. I'm not really sure what a healthy relationship looks like. My friends (and family) are mostly single. My first and only serious relationship was a complete disaster.

In my last 2 year relationship, I was either ridiculously happy or ridiculously sad. Looking back, our relationship was dysfunctional and I'm so glad it ended. But, while I was in it, I thought no relationship is perfect and we were working on our issues, getting couples therapy, and felt stronger together (which we vocalized all the time). Things unravelled over the course of about two months, so it was quite shocking.

He was my best friend and breaking up was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Keep in mind, many traumatic things have happened in my life: friends dying, parents got divorced 5 years before the breakup, my grandma died a year before, my uncle died a month after. Still, the breakup was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I can't believe I survived! I did :)

The past year after breaking up with my ex has been the best and most fulfilling year of my life. I got some counselling, got my dream job, travelled the world, the non-profit I founded is thriving, I live in a fantastic apartment, my mom now lives in the same city. I've had a lot of casual sex that was truly liberating (I was a virgin when my ex and I got together). I can't ask for anything else, I'm so happy and grateful.

I've met someone who seems truly special and although we're casually dating, I have the feeling he might want more. This is so tormenting. This is the first time it's happened the past year because my other casual relationships have been mostly sexual and with people I couldn't see myself in a relationship with.

This guy is different. He feels special. It's hard to explain but that feeling of being giddy and excited about a new person is so nerve wracking because I remember being so giddy and crazy in love with my ex and also remember how hurtful it was when it ended. I remember the way my ex looked at me and remember how hurtful it was when he stopped.

The first time the new guy came over to my place, I felt so anxious. He doesn't know me well enough to understand my physical reactions to anxiety so he assumed I was tired. I was actually just really anxious and quite sad because I remember the same excitement I felt the first time my ex and I had sex, whenever he would come over and how crushing it felt when we broke up and knew that would never happen again. It feels like deja vu, "I've done this before, I know how it (probably) ends." and this is so uncomfortable.

Basically, the thought of starting a new relationship makes me so afraid because I vividly remember the pain of the last one ending. I would say this is an intense fear of abandonment and not a sign that I haven't moved on. I have moved on but like the other sad things (everything from death to something seemingly simple like ending a friendship) that have happened in my life, the grieving period lasts a while for me. That's just who I am. I'm also very scared and don't want to share this with the new guy because towards the end of our relationship, my ex used my past against me in very hurtful ways :(

I'm a wonderful person who is flawed like everyone else, which makes me difficult to date. I'm stubborn, don't outwardly show my feelings a lot and tend to be really controlling about everything in my life. I realize that I probably should start working on these issues again, which I assumed I sufficiently did after my breakup. But it feels like these issues I had in my last relationship are coming back to haunt me.

I like this new guy a lot and I think I'm being really nice to him and seemingly open but he doesn't know what's really going on inside doesn't match the smiles and warmth I provide on the outside. I guess that the somewhat positive thing is that this new dude is so sweet, kind, considerate and hot and he makes me feel good but I've not been able to shut out this nagging anxiety.

To people who've dated a lot, how did you get over the anxiety of starting a new relationship if the last one was awful? How do I become a less anxious person to date?
posted by Femiluv to Human Relations (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I would date. Just date. If you want to move into a relationship, then that's fine, but there is nothing wrong with taking things very slowly and being cautious with your heart. Enjoy the time you have together without immediately jumping forward in time in your mind and wondering how the relationship is going to go in the future. You can ruin a relationship in your own head just by thinking of all the ways in which things can go wrong, so put the brakes on for a bit, go on dates, and really enjoy yourself.
posted by xingcat at 8:43 AM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

I sensed a concern in your statement that your ex used your past against you and hence you "don't want to share this with the new guy". You will absolutely have to share this with the new guy eventually, if you are going to have a relationship with him, and thus you have to plan a route towards somewhere you'll be comfortable to do so. Obviously you don't have to share it right now... just sometime in the future.

But, as a guy, I would ask you to tell him at least that there's something there. Otherwise he'll have to guess why you're going slow and he is very likely to assume you're just not that into him. This is the default position for most decent guys and they might well cut their losses early rather than risk major heartache later.

If I were him, I would want you to say something like "do you remember the other day when you thought I was a bit tired? Actually, I was really anxious about us meeting because I've had some crap to deal with in the past. Now I'm getting anxious about my anxiety. How screwed up is that? (lol). It's not because I don't like you -- I do and really want to get to know you better. Is it ok if we go pretty slowly to begin with?"

His response to this will likely tell you all you need to know, and will let you see whether you can relate more of your concerns in the future.

It's perfectly normal to vividly remember past breakups and not want them to repeat. But if you keep it all to yourself the poor guy has no way to help make sure it doesn't.
posted by tillsbury at 9:06 AM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have the feeling he might want more.

Open mouth, make words.

He feels special. It's hard to explain but

No, the object of our interest feels special, that's how it works. It's called limerence. It's biochemicals in your brain.

Also we tend to think people are special if they're in our lives. We generally like the people we're choosing to spend time with, whether it's friends or family or boyfriends. It's not magic.

I was actually just really anxious and quite sad

but he doesn't know what's really going on inside doesn't match the smiles and warmth I provide on the outside

Words are how you indicate to people what's going on inside.

You're trying to read tea leaves and look for signs and portents. We often do this because we're afraid of the truth, but the fact is that if he isn't all that into you or if you realize he's not right for you, those things are still true whether they are acknowledged or not.

Use words to talk about what's going on, because you can't shield yourself from pain with deliberate ignorance. It doesn't work that way. If someone breaks up with you for telling the truth, then that's the thing that needed to happen because the only alternative is building a relationship out of lies, which means it will fail eventually.

That doesn't mean you need to vomit out everything you think, especially when you know anxiety is a magnifier that's making the thoughts bigger than they actually are. But you do need to be practicing verbal feedback in your relationships from pretty much the start.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:22 AM on July 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

If it makes you feel any better, most of what you are feeling--excitement about a new relationship, tempered by anxiety and sadness over your last breakup--is incredibly common and normal and not a sign that you are broken or unable to have good relationships. Especially when you are relatively new to it all. Be gentle with yourself.
posted by praemunire at 9:49 AM on July 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

My therapist told me, when I was going through something similar, "look, there's only one of four ways this plays out. You leave him, he leaves you, you die, he dies. It might take five months or fifty years but it WILL end". That's kind of like the nuclear option of existential reframing but it worked for me, and helped me think about the fact that however much I think I might have control over the outcome of our relationship, I really didn't. Being able to acknowledge the impermanence inherent in relationships in general let me relax and commit to being present in my developing relationship with my partner. Depending on your brand of anxiety YMMV.
posted by stellaluna at 10:26 AM on July 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I have a very similar family background/relationship history to yours, and I can completely identify with the feelings you're describing, which I also experienced when meeting my now-boyfriend. It took me a really long time to open up to him, and I had a lot of fears about being rejected when I did. Working through those fears was really educational for me, so sorry about this idea-dump but here are a few principles I use now that I thought might be helpful:

- I decided the best thing for me to do would be not to deny who I am or what I've experienced, but to try to kind of tap into advice from the most mature version of myself. I tried to access the voice in my head that said, "Yep, you are super anxious about whether he's going to call back / how he's going to respond to that thing you just said about your past. This type of anxiety happens a lot, remember? Now, you know that you need to turn off your phone and go outside and take a walk / wait quietly until he responds." You say you are "anxious and sad" and that seems reasonable! I don't think you have to somehow not-feel that way, nor does it have to make you "difficult to date." I think there are some issues that will always be difficult for me in any relationship; I was and am often anxious and sad, but I have just learned to communicate with my partner about it, and to recognize that because this is part of my personality that isn't going to disappear, I have to take responsibility for coming up with procedures for dealing with it.

- Most Mature Me advises me not to disclose everything negative about me/my life in one big heap at the beginning of the relationship [which I used to do]. Rather, Most Mature Me shares feelings and personal information little by little, in situations where it is appropriate, and judges whether my partner's reaction is such that I want to share more with them in the future.

- If, when I am following advice from Most Mature Me, the guy is still turned-off/weirded-out, well, we are incompatible. I had to accept that, if things worked out with whoever I was dating, I could deal with striving to be Most Mature Me everyday, but I couldn't deal with pretending to be Perfect Shiny Problem-less Lady everyday for the rest of my life. To me, it makes sense for a relationship to be about personal growth, but not about trying to be something you aren't; I'd rather be single. This was REALLY HARD but was totally life-changing for me when I came to accept it.

You sound like a brave, strong person; congratulations on building such a great life for yourself! Best of luck on this next part of your journey.
posted by Owl of Athena at 10:28 AM on July 19, 2016 [11 favorites]

You've got to say your feelings. Returning to counseling might be a good start for that if doing that is scary. If you communicate with dude a lot over email / chat, that might also be a good place to start saying your feelings so you both have time to think about your responses (with a preface / asking if now is a good time to talk).

But your feelings exist and you have to acknowledge them somehow. Relationships are meant to enrich your life - if you're feeling sad and anxious a lot of the time then you should think about what you need and ask for it or cut line.

FWIW, it took me years of regarding talking about my feelings as an experiment I was trying for my therapist before I accepted that it really is better to do it, even though it's hard and I don't like it all the time, I'm not one of those people who loves to "process". But acknowledging and sharing emotions makes life much better overall, and at this point I look at the hard parts of that like basic maintenance for taking care of myself and people I care about. Don't let it go until you're miserable and anxious. Do it as soon as you can after you realize what you're feeling, even if you don't 100% understand why or what to do about it.
posted by momus_window at 11:42 AM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

You sound like a brave, strong person

I couldn't agree more. You have an incredible life that you've created despite many challenges and heartbreak. You sound like an amazing person (no, really!). Be good to yourself, and remind yourself everyday, a hundred times a day, that you deserve good things. All Of The Good Things. Especially a new (wonderful!) relationship, with a new (wonderful!) person.

Maybe find a therapist that you click with to help work through some of these issues that are spiraling back for you?
posted by onecircleaday at 1:49 PM on July 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I tend to overdisclose. My therapist recommended that instead of verbally vomiting over new people I meet (at work, while dating, whenever), that I give a small pearl of myself to the new person to see how they handled it. Did they treat it with care, like the pearl it is? Or were they sloppy and careless with this person information? Use that person's reaction as a guide to disclosure, she said. I've followed her advice and it's been great advice for me. We have different issues, you and I, but you've met this guy only recently. So yes to sharing that you weren't actually tired but rather anxious about the date because you wanted it to go well. No about telling him the full story because it sounds way too early for that, IMHO.
posted by Bella Donna at 3:42 PM on July 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

Do you think you're ready to be in a relationship?

It took me about twice as long as you've been out of your relationship after a similar one of mine ended that was also two years long. So it took two years to get over two years. YMMV, of course.

I did get a crush on someone during the two years of singlehood, and it made me anxious as hell. This person was completely wrong for me though, and it didn't go anywhere other than a brief platonic friendship. I think your anxiety is very understandable. I went through all the same thoughts you are having with my crush. But the person I dated after him, and am still with, I didn't have those feelings.

For me, the anxiety turned out to be my brain and body screaming "WARNING! DANGER WILL ROBINSON!" because I was not ready and the crush-person was really incompatible with me.

None of this may apply to your situation, but you might want to consider it.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 6:48 PM on July 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

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