How can I get over my fear of hurting others?
March 18, 2008 12:54 PM   Subscribe

In relationships, I'm very, very afraid of the possibility having to break up and hurting the other person. DTMFA threads like this make me want to hide under my bed. I often don't get into relationships or pre-emptively end relationships quickly -- even if things are going great -- if I can imagine a time in the future when things won't work out. The fear makes it hard for me to know myself how I really feel. So my question to you all: can you give me advice -- maybe links to psychological studies or just from your own life experiences-- on how someone can know if a relationship is worth pursuing. Not looking for guarantees of eternal happiness and marriage, just the knowledge that even if things don't work out, I'm pursing the relationship in good faith... and not being an asshole.

I'm 29, straight, male, and my longest relationship was 4 months... 3 of those months wondering if I should just "end it now". In my past 2 relationships, we never had sex because I knew I would feel like a terrible person if we did and then things didn't work out.

The only times I've been able to feel sure in my feelings for someone was when it was clear that they weren't that into me... because the danger of potentially hurting them was removed.

This is a fairly deep-seated fear, so if your advice is just "you can't worry about things like that", I'd appreciate your best effort to convince me.
posted by specialfriend to Human Relations (26 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, the vast majority of people know when they get into a relationship that there is a real chance it may not work out down the line. It's not something one enjoys thinking about but it's absolutely a reality one takes into account. It's not as if you realizing someone isn't the right person for you is some horrible betrayal of their love and trust, as long as you don't cheat on them or lead them on or mistreat them.

IMHO it's better to break up with someone than waste their time (and maybe even marry them) out of a fear of confrontation or of being hurtful. And it often takes a good long while to find out whether someone is THE ONE-- better to continue to date someone you care about but are unsure about until you ARE sure they aren't for you, than to pre-emptively dismiss the possibility for happiness.

So just keep in mind that whoever you're dating probably won't have a set-in-stone expectation of permanence, at least until you get engaged/married. (Of course, even then things don't always work out, but we're talking about expectations here.) But just hope for the best and wait until you're sure one way or the other-- which is probably what your SO will be internally doing as well. Which is all to say, take some pressure off yourself and just enjoy the process, even if often times breaking up is a natural part of the search for the right person.
posted by np312 at 1:14 PM on March 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

You've got to stop focusing so much on the possible outcome of the relationship, and remember that what makes any relationship special is the day-to-day quality content.

Someday down the road, you want to be able to look back on relationships (even the ones that didnt work out) and say to yourself: "I did the best I could, I enjoyed the good quality moments we had, and that makes me feel good."

Remember, you can share sublime moments with other people that last seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks or years. It could be a wordless look from a stranger on the subway, it could be someone you meet at a coffee shop and enjoy their company for 30min. It could be someone you party with for a weekend. It could be someone you date for weeks or months, or someone you live with for years.

All of those situations are opportunities to share a memorable quality moment, and also opportunities to learn and grow as a human being. If you are fixated to much on "OMG, something unforeseen might happen in the future"--- then your mind is distracted from fully participating in the present moment. Sure, you want to use common sense and look ahead enough in life to be prepared for possible events... but dont let those thoughts of preparation consume you so much that it affects your daily life.
posted by jmnugent at 1:15 PM on March 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

For what it's worth from my own experience, I think that sometimes you can't know how you feel at first, and you do need to jump in and risk hurting the other person (and getting hurt yourself). A year ago I asked this question, and ended up breaking up with the guy concerned because, after six months, it really wasn't working for me. I'm now four or five months in to a new relationship which I orignally feared was going the same way, but the man concerned is definitely growing on me and I can see the possibility of a future for us together.

The moral of the story is that (for some people, at least, and I'm one of them) you never know until you try, and you really do have to risk hurting and being hurt. It's all part of the game. The trick, and it's not easy, is to balance the risk with care and consideration for the feelings of all concerned. There's no magic bullet.

Something to think about: Is your concern for hurting the other party (and I don't doubt that you're genuine in that) masking an even bigger fear of getting hurt yourself?
posted by different at 1:17 PM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh and also, I second everything that jmnugent said. Great comment.
posted by different at 1:18 PM on March 18, 2008

A really good relationship will have all of the following:

- Good timing. You are both in a place in your lives where you want the same things (i.e., commitment, fun, children, travel, whatever) and neither of you is being weighed down by baggage from other relationships. For example, you don't want to date a girl who is in the divorce process or going through major life turmoil, it sounds like.

- Equal opportunity. You are both available and appear to like each other equally. Neither of you is taken; neither of you is overly committed to work, school, or lives far enough away from the other to make dating difficult.

- Sexual chemistry. You enjoy kissing, touching, cuddling, or whatever it is that makes you happiest; you have the same sexual proclivities (whether it's bondage or a certain position or porn or what-have-you) and complementary sex drives.

- Friendship. Can you see the value in your partner beyond sex? Beyond children? If things work out, at some point, you will both be old; at some point, one or both of you will be sick, away, overworked, upset, bereaved. Will you want to be with this person no matter what? Do you value this person's friendship on a level that makes her irreplaceable in your life?

- Acceptance. This, to me, is the most paramount of all needs. Your partner, if she is right for you, will NOT want to significantly change you. By significant, I mean, she may prefer you to wear button-down shirts and encourage you to change jobs if you are miserable, and this is acceptable; she will NOT, however, force you to get rid of all your friends, treat your family poorly, deride you in public, or try to control you with passive-aggressive behavior. You will feel the same about her. When you spend the majority of your relationship trying to change the other person into someone more acceptable to you, THIS IS NOT THE RIGHT PERSON FOR YOU.

Perhaps the final sign of a bad relationship is being unhappy. If you find yourself in a state of fear or worry regularly with someone, or your relationship is defined by moments of extremity (lots of sex followed by weeks of fighting, threats, hurtful behavior, overcompensating gestures, etc.) without any lulls, this is not a good relationship. Unfortunately, many people fall hard for someone who isn't right for them and because of the strength of their emotion towards that person, stay in that relationship to the detriment of their own development as a human being. Please don't do that, although it is much easier to say it than to do it. If you are at the point with another person that you begin seeing how much you can hurt the other person and still get them to say "I love you," it's over.

If you are ever with someone and you realize that it's temporary, don't stay in it. That's the right way to behave; otherwise, you are leading that person on. Be honest but not hurtful. Communication is important. Respect is also important; do not overly involve your friends or family with the inner workings of your relationship. Relax and believe in yourself and trust your instincts and you will know when it's the right person; if ONE of the items above is a little off, it may be worth it to make an extra effort to be with the right person. Just be wary of giving too much (or taking advantage) when it comes to love.

Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion, but since I work in the dating and relationships industry and have been married and divorced myself... Let's say I've learned a lot from other people's input and mistakes. Hope this helps you!
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 1:21 PM on March 18, 2008 [28 favorites]

You can't know. Life experience can help you tune your instincts for a person that is probably a good match, but that's as good as you're going to do.

There are arranged marriages that work. There are shotgun weddings that work. There are marriages between two people who date for a while time, live together for a while, and seem to have each other all figured out before they marry—that don't work. I've been in that last situation. The woman who became my first wife moved halfway around the world to move in with me. And yes, I had great trepidation that she might be completely uprooting her life for something that wouldn't work out—but ultimately that was her decision to make. Bear that in mind: you don't force anyone to get into a relationship with you (unless you're some weird head-case). The other person is an equal participant and equally responsible.

You'll never get into any serious relationship if you don't open yourself up to the possibility that you'll get hurt, and that you'll hurt the other one. And even if that happens, it doesn't mean the relationship was pointless. "It was good while it lasted" can still be good.
posted by adamrice at 1:23 PM on March 18, 2008

From my own life experience:

I share your fear. I have always felt, in every one of my relationships, that the relationship was doomed and that I was somehow betraying the person I was with by staying in the relationship and allowing them to believe that we had a future when I "knew" that we didn't. What helped me the most was honesty. I told my current boyfriend about my fears (that I didn't see myself marrying him) and he laughed in my face. He was all, we've been dating for five months. It is really early to be thinking about marriage. This was unbelievably reassuring.

So, be honest. Say something like, you know, I really like you, and I'd love to go out with you and see where things go. I gotta tell you, though, in my last relationship I felt this incredible pressure to make a significant commitment from the beginning, and I'd really like to take things slowly. In other words, be honest about the fact that you're interested in a slow process of getting to know the other person, not a race to church. You can do that without presenting it as an issue or problem.

Also, see if you can try to accept the idea that you will not experience love at first sight. It will never happen. You will never look across a crowded room and see HER EYES LIKE STARS. Don't fantasize about this. Try to imagine something more realistic. Imagine that you meet someone who is really fun to talk to and has a cute smile. You like her, and she seems into you, so you go on a date, and you have a good time. You have stuff in common and start spending time together. Sometimes you fight but you figure it out. Over time you start to get close to her and begin to trust her. You tell her some of your secrets and she leans on you in a crisis. You guys give each other great birthday presents. A year passes and she has become your best friend. You talk to her or see her every day, and you're starting to think about moving in with her. Sometimes you argue, and you don't like her weird need to knit on the subway (IT'S DANGEROUS) or how messy she is (IT'S UNHYGENIC) but she's important to you and you make it work. Etc. You need to replace your idea of love with something closer to this so that you're measuring against a truer model. Think When Harry Met Sally rather than Romeo and Juliet.
posted by prefpara at 1:26 PM on March 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

i'm trying to remember where i heard this, but in a nutshell: no relationship works out until one does. that's it. period, end of sentence.

it's true that you have to try not to worry about that stuff. it's wonderful that you do care--it means you are probably a kind and generous person, and one very much worth loving. but you have to let that go. in any relationship, even a successful one, you will disappoint, anger, annoy, hurt, and embarrass your partner at some point or another. i think once you accept this, it may be a little easier.

second, you have to trust your partner. i assume she is not a dummy. she knows there's a chance things will end, a better-than-average chance. it's not up to you to decide what's worth the risk of heartbreak for her. she is not a fragile doll--she will make her decisions as she sees fit. can you imagine how insulted you would be to hear, "i'm afraid you'll be irreparably damaged if you fall in love with me and then we break up, and i want to spare you that, so i'll leave you now."

third, i would consider seeing a counselor. you have self-esteem issues and expectation issues that seem unreasonable and to interfere with your life. it's worth addressing in a more formal way.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:26 PM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Also, see if you can try to accept the idea that you will not experience love at first sight. It will never happen. You will never look across a crowded room and see HER EYES LIKE STARS." - posted by prefpara at 2:26 PM

This might be appropriate advice given the OP's question (and at his (apparent) stage of growth), but IMHO, its terrible advice for life in general. (no offense meant to prefpara, of course). "love at first sight" CAN happen, DOES happen... and IMHO, might be one of the main (subconscious) forces driving us forward through life.

To find a love that defies categorization or labels is the goal. That may happen in a relationship after years of fighting and struggling and figuring each other out. It may slap you in the face completely unexpectedly when you least expect it. I think one of the secrets to finding "love at first sight" is to have grown to a place where you keep your awareness 'open', and you trust that no matter what life throws at you, there are positive lessons to be learned in any experience.
posted by jmnugent at 1:42 PM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

If your goal is to only engage in relationships that you "know" are "worth pusruing", you'll never enter into a relationship at all. There's no way to tell if a realtionship will work out, other than to live it.

So, there's you choice - Either only pursue the relationships that you know will work out (ie: none), or accept the fact you might get hurt, or hurt someone. That's the stuff they write all those songs about.
posted by ManInSuit at 1:57 PM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

jmnugent, I was not suggesting that love at first sight never happens. What I do suggest is that the querent ought not wait for it to happen, rejecting any relationship that doesn't immediately inspire "a love that defies categorization." Love at first sight is not the only kind of love, it is not the best kind of love, it is no more legitimate or authentic or likely to last than any other kind of love, and the idea that it should be on a pedestal and that it, and only it, is worth committing to, is a very destructive one, and one that I suspect has had a serious and negative impact on many people, including specialfriend (and me!).

If it happens, I doubt my advice to stop waiting and planning for it will hold the querent back from pursuing it. Meanwhile, nothing but ill can come of pining for it.
posted by prefpara at 2:00 PM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

I totally empathize with this. One aspect that hasn't been brought up yet is that when this fear is felt by men, I think it's sometimes based on some hidden assumptions about women that are actually pretty sexist. Deep down, is your fear of hurting women through ending relationships with them based on some kind of idea of them as these delicate flowers who would be irreperably damaged if you broke up with them? I think mine was. Part of the reason it took me a while to see this was precisely that I don't think of myself as remotely sexist in my social or political stances. And to believe that women are fragile is a sort of "nice" kind of sexist belief, rather than a "nasty" one, but it is still based on prejudice rather than fact.

And of course, after that, it only took a few moments of considering my platonic female friends to figure out that they mostly weren't like that at all; generally they were well-accustomed to weathering the ordinary shocks of dating, and the proportion of them who were seriously emotionally fragile was about the same as my male friends. I'm definitely not saying this to try to make you feel bad, but there is something grandiose about believing that you have the power to ruin someone's life after a few months or even a few years of being in a relationship with them. Worth bearing in mind perhaps.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:12 PM on March 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

OK, I'm 29, straight, female and have that same fear RIGHT NOW. You know what else I often suffer from? Anxiety. Well, obviously. Let me go ahead and step into my therapist's shoes for a minute, without the risk of diagnosing you and your fears. The deal is that this kind of thing is often part of a perfectionistic tendency. That means that since I know there's no such thing as perfection, but I need and want it to be there so I project all the impossibilities into the future and in order to avoid pain, I just avoid the possibility altogether. I haven't been able hang in there for more than 8 months (and that was a rocky 8 months) because of this fear.

The best way to deal with that, I think, is to let all that nutty chatter i your head about the future, not working out, what's the point, etc., to come and go. Acknowledge that it's there and then let it be. Don't get caught up in it. Just be mindful of it and move on. And then, when you're ready, try thinking about now. And don't look further than another week or so, for now. And enjoy the fun of a new relationship. And I share all of this with you after having had a freak-out of the same nature after one lousy week of going out with a really terrific guy. Luckily my friends pulled me back down to reality and here I am, just thinking about what fun we had over a couple of beers for St. Paddy's and what movie we'll see on Friday. Period.

And I kind of agree with game warden to the events rhino - don't think you're all that and are capable of single-handedly taking down the entire fort with a bomb. I don't mean this in an insensitive way, just that most of this stuff is probably in your head and your partner may just survive perfectly well if you do decide to end it because of your fears.
posted by cachondeo45 at 2:50 PM on March 18, 2008 [5 favorites]

1. If you actually start looking, you'll notice that heartbreak forges people into better people, who lead better lives. It's a dark chrysalis from which the butterfly emerges. Perhaps this is overlooked, but the difference it makes in people seems like night and day to me, and it's for the better. Not all the good and necessary things in life are easy, pleasant, and come at no cost - some things you have to pay for. I think heartbreak is absolutely necessary.

2. Heartbreak doesn't mean that someone was an asshole. Things often don't work out through no fault of either person. If this is not clear to you, start looking around. Break this mental association, as it is false.

3. Nothing is forever. Seek only the thing that will last forever, and you will die, never having had anything. Nothing is forever. Carpe diem!

4. It is her heart, not yours. She has the RIGHT to take risks with her heart, as SHE sees fit. She has the right to have her heart broken. It is not your job to treat her as sub-human, to treat her as some imbecile incapable of making her own decisions and taking her own risks, and weighing her own hopes and fears.

4b. As an exercise in respecting her, let her end the next relationship. She will use her judgement, and going by your question, her judgement is likely to be better than yours - which is another reason to let her end it. (If you come to dread every moment spent with her as an unwanted obligation, then you may end it, but otherwise, use her wisdom, not yours).

5. You worry about being an asshole by hurting someone. That is a risk. It could potentially happen. You ARE being an asshole by sabotaging your own relationships before they can bloom. That is not a risk - is it something you are already doing. Better to risk possibly maybe being an asshole in some future than most certainly being an asshole right now.
5b. If your motives are pure, you're not being an asshole, regardless of whether other people think otherwise. "Asshole" refers to someone whose negative actions stem from bad character. It is not a characterization of someone based on the consequences of their actions alone.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:59 PM on March 18, 2008 [7 favorites]

Speaking of Carpe Diem, perhaps it would help to watch "Dead Poets Society" again? (And again... and...)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:04 PM on March 18, 2008

Unicorn on the cob has the answers. I would like to favorite that answer more than once. There's also a reason Timing was the number 1 reason.
posted by rooftop secrets at 4:23 PM on March 18, 2008

This might hurt a bit, but it'll feel better when you're done:
It's NOW that you're being an asshole, not possibly in the future.
Not trusting the other person to be capable of handling the consequences to themselves of being in a relationship with you, causing to to be so overprotective OF THEM that you never let a relationship get started...that's an asshole.

If you were afraid of the consequences to yourself, you'd just be phobic.
But what you're doing is thinking that you're responsible for the risks/feelings/everything for the other person in the relationship. "I don't want to go out with you...well, I DO want to go out with you, but you might get hurt, and I won't let you take that chance."

You're old enough now that you're seeking/dating grownups who can be responsible for their own feelings and the consequences of their actions. Even if getting involved with you turns out in the end to be a mistake, let them make their own mistakes.

I also echo lots of the things said above, that this problem you're having can come from:
Perfectionism (If everything isn't perfect, it will be awful!)
Self-directed blame/lack of confidence (if anything goes wrong, it'll all be MY fault)
Problems with male/female roles & dynamics (I'm the man, so everything is my responsibility. Even if it's her that does ME wrong, it will only be because I wasn't X enough for her). It can also be, in my experience, from exposure to abused/abandoned/chronically mistreated women - it's the kind of thing that can trigger this kind of overprotectiveness towards women in men/boys. (I've seen what happens when a woman is hurt by a man, and I'm never going to do that to anyone).

All of which are taking too much credit for yourself and your power over other people's feelings. None of your relationships are going to be perfect - no one's are. Not everything is your responsibility - you're resposible for how you feel and act, and can't do anything or take any blame for how another person feels or acts. Women are not made of glass, and can probably take more pain and heartbreak than you can. You WILL probably let someone down or even break the heart of someone who's in love with you one day - do you want to do that by never even allowing that person to get close to you, without ever having even tried?

Ease up on yourself, and let someone take a chance on you. You'll hurt and be hurt in return, but that's part of the game. You're still hurting yourself and others by NOT playing, so you might as well get out on the field and play anyway.
posted by penciltopper at 4:38 PM on March 18, 2008 [4 favorites]

There are some great answers above but I'm wondering if good advice will be enough to solve your problem. If you find that even after you know how you "should" be thinking, your intense fear remains then I suggest that you work with someone to figure out what is generating this fear and how to tackle the underlying issue. This is just the kind of thing that short term therapy can be very good for. So, if you find yourself unable to follow the good advice, don't give up hope. You are capable of having the loving relationships that you want but you may need a little professional help figuring out the right way to do it for you.
posted by metahawk at 5:16 PM on March 18, 2008

Relationships are tricky for everyone. Just take a chance. You'll know in your heart when it's right. Quit overthinking. It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
posted by wv kay in ga at 5:30 PM on March 18, 2008

Yeah, the most hurtful thing I've ever done to someone that cared for me was to not let them do so, because I "knew" that they'd pay for it because I was a "terrible person". Turns out that shutting them out was what hurt more than anything I might have done if I'd let them in.
posted by bartleby at 5:34 PM on March 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: You all are the best. Thanks so much for all your advice and giving it to me straight. I really appreciate it. So many things here struck chords and I know I'll be thinking about what you all wrote for a good long while. Mefi never ceases to amaze me. Thanks, everybody.
posted by specialfriend at 5:49 PM on March 18, 2008

Relationships aren't about how they end; they're about what happens before that.
posted by ook at 6:07 PM on March 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

penciltopper for the win.
posted by salvia at 6:47 PM on March 18, 2008

specialfriend, I feel like this a lot myself, often not fully enjoying a relationship because I always worry that it isn't 'the one' and that ultimately I'm just leading the person on because it will have to end. Honestly I think it is a kind of narcissism. I've been really meaning to see a therapist largely about this (being able to open up / commit to people) as it feels like something which probably bleeds into other areas of my life - perfectionism, procrastination, giving up on projects or deciding they were stupid ideas anyway - I think these are all related to an egoistic ideal that is disappointed by reality.
I'm not saying you have the same problem, but it could be, or anyway, it may be worth thinking about the larger picture / the interconnections, or even going to a counselor.
posted by mdn at 7:44 PM on March 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

cachondeo45's comment resonates the most with my experience. I have struggled with this a bit in therapy, too - the perfectionism, the worry that I might get into something that wasn't quite "right" and would get too hurt, or hurt someone else, ruled every daily thought. I have gradually worked on understanding what "right" might be - not perfect every minute, not defined externally, not transferable from one person to another.

The therapist who helped me the most on this had a great way of talking about it. He would say something like this: That when you are listening more to your fears, you have a tendency to withhold a large part of yourself from the relationship that you are in. You don't confide your fears to your partner; you aren't comfortable with them yourself; you feel like you can't even really speak them. And when you are witholding your fears, it's like you're on a roller coaster, going uphill, steeling yourself for the horror of the downhill. You are absolutely not in the moment, when you are riding up a hill on a beautiful day, with a beautiful person beside you, who is clutching your hand and sharing an exhilerating moment. You are consumed with anticipatory worry about the fall, so you miss the climb. And when you are living in some drastic future moment, you are not really there with your partner -- you're really closed off to what possibilities may occur if you take the risk of connecting in that moment. To continue the metaphor, it might be that what transpires in that moment, if you can let go of the fear, becomes transformative. It might be that you find the drop is much, much less scary if you can grip someone else's hand while you fall. It might be that you find you actually like the thrill when someone who is close to you is screaming in your ear next to you, and laughing hysterically. It might be that you endure the drop in silent, shared terror, but then you open your eyes and find yourselves delightedly alive, laughing, bouncing over the small hills.

But you can't know what might happen with your partner if you instead weather the climb clenched by yourself, eyes shut tight, waiting for the horrifying drop.

The growth lies in what happens while you are in a relationship, in the moment. New possibilities emerge while you are in the moment, not imposing your idea of a future on the present and making unfavorable comparisons. My old therapist would say "You're standing with one foot in the room, and one foot out on the porch. You really don't know what it's like in the room. Come into the room."

In recent times, when I've felt fear or doubt about the relationships I'm in, I've really tried to listen to this advice. Come into the room. At some point, when you're in the room, you may hear your inner voice say "I need to get out of the room." And then you can. But the thing is, at least you gave the room a complete, fair shot. You know what the room is like. And that authentic voice will not desert you when you need it. But until you go into the room, it's not a very authentic voice - just the chattering of fear.

Whatever happens, you are going to be all right. Life is relationships. Don't miss it.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on March 18, 2008 [6 favorites]

Good thread. This is a major problem for me too. My current antidote right now is to invoke various attitudes that lead to the following:
- letting the chips fall where they may
- catching myself doing "social work" and stopping it, like if I see that I'm artificially getting myself excited to make a social interaction work-out, or playing up my romantic skills because it's cute.
- letting myself sort of just hang out, with no effort, and see what "it"/me naturally wants to go for.

I feel a lot better and it feels more right to do this. I found myself trying to "make" my last relationship. At every interaction, I was working some angle so as to do all sorts of things: maximize enjoyment, ensure it's success, ensure proper timing for everything, being excessively sensitive and caring early on, over-analyze the future of the relationship so as to minimize any pain. It's like being a perfectionist, yeah. It's like work.

So don't do that
posted by philosophistry at 8:22 PM on March 19, 2008

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