Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Dismaying Story #93: Moving Past the Fear

Dear Andrew,

I've made poor relationship choices in the past, repeating what was modeled to me as a child. Now I want a healthy relationship but I'm unsure how I can allow myself to have one. Are there steps/questions that one goes through while dating in order to dig out the weeds and allow the garden to shine through?

My mom was bi-polar, she loved me and hated me and was abusive. My dad is a controlling man who traveled a lot for work and when he was home I was his little princess. He would bring me gifts from all over the world. My mom would use me as a pawn when ever she needed more money, depriving me of things -for example a shower or a bath - claiming she couldn't afford to pay the household bills. Then he'd give her more household money, which taught me love was conditional. My kids and cats taught me love was unconditional.

In the past I dove into relationships way too fast, then when I'm in, I will do anything to keep it even when I know it's bad. I give away my needs for the needs in the relationship, which are generally his. The men I choose are unavailable emotionally. Then I run away and look for another one because my needs are not being met. This is the reason I've been living on my own for a while - to break that pattern.

Dating men who lack intimacy may very be because I also fear intimacy. If I don't give away that part of me, then it's like I'll be safe... but it hasn't worked yet. At this point I'm willing but scared to let go, to let someone really get to know me.

Also, abandonment issues raise their ugly head when I attempt a relationship. My mom was only half there when I was growing up, which left me fearful of being left. It's easier to not even get involved in the first place, or to give men the sex they want without any feelings. I know I have to do things differently but I don't know how.

The bottom line is, I've met someone who is willing to go as slow as I want. I've told him what I'm willing to do and what I'm not willing to do, but how do I know if I'm just keeping him at arms length to get to know him better or if I'm doing it because I don't want to let him get to know me?

I've had some insight reading The Intimacy Struggle by Janet Woititz. It has been very enlightening, not only for my behaviors but also for my prior partners.

Signed, Afraid to Jump

Dear Afraid to Jump,

Fear is a learned response. Your past experiences have taught you that you can expect the people in your life to:
  • consider you as not worth much (less valuable than, say, household spending money);
  • leave you alone whenever they feel like it;
  • be emotionally abusive, and so on.
More than that, deep down inside (or maybe even not so deep) you have come to believe that you deserve to be treated like that. You feel like you are not worthy of loving companionship.

You keep guys at arms length for at least two reasons. One, you expect them to hurt you, and two, you don't dare let them see the real you. You have built up a brave, happy, hard-working, over-achieving persona that you show the world every day. (I'm guessing on a couple of those adjectives, but I bet I'm close.) You are afraid to let any guy get too close because he would discover the "truth" -- that behind the facade there is this person with so many faults, which means she is not really worthy. And if he discovers your true nature, he is sure to do just like everyone else; he will leave.

So maybe you try to let a guy in, just a little, and what happens -- the closer he gets, the more fearful you become, which makes you shut down emotionally and push him away.

Now what kind of guy would be attracted to a relationship like that? You mentioned him in your letter: someone who is emotionally unavailable. You each feel like a safe place for the other because neither of you will demand more than the other can give. It's like two terrified middle school kids who claim to be going steady, yet they physically hold each other as far away as they can when they do the slow dance at the sock-hop, and both are glad to dance that way.

Neither of your get much from the relationship, though, so your fears and beliefs about yourself are confirmed. Then you break up, which strengthens your fears even more.

Happily, though, just as you learned these fears, it is also possible to discover how needless they are. You can replace them with trust in others and humble confidence in yourself. Reading the book you mentioned (and doing the work it suggests) is a reasonable way for you to begin this process. As I have mentioned before, you may also consider finding a coach or therapist to help you silence that inner voice, the one who is always predicting doom and telling you how worthless you are. Until you do so, you may find the prospect any relationship daunting, regardless of how great the guy is.

Your question, though, is what to do when you meet a guy. You might decide to wait while you work on your own issues, but then such issues are often managed rather than cured, so you will want to take the plunge at some point. When you do, the most basic question you should ask yourself is this: "Is he the type of guy who will (a) feed my fears, or (b) help to show me that my fears are groundless?" Will he bring you down or prop you up?

You learned to be afraid by repeated exposure to negative stimuli. To learn trust, you need to be exposed to guys who will treat you with respect, dignity, compassion and understanding. The brash, self-centered type is not the one you need right now. You should be looking for tender and patient, someone who will look you in the eyes and say, "You are a wonderful person, and of course I want to be with you." In other words, you need the exact opposite of the emotionally distant guys you mentioned in your letter.

Unfortunately, realizing what you need is no guarantee you will find it. Being aware of your needs, though, should put you in a better position when considering which guys to date and when evaluating how any relationship is proceeding.

You are most definitely worthy of love! Good luck!

All the best,


  1. thanks doc...this is said exactly on target and very understandable, great advice

    and i agree bad boys do seem to be unavailable....so exciting yet disappointing at the same time

    now i've got to read the next story about where all the good men are - smile!

  2. Anonymous5:01 PM

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  3. Very good response. On target. Letting the wall down can be a very long process. Remember you may not get hurt by having a wall in place, however you are also limiting yourself to the possibilities of a true love relationship. All gain, has some element of risk. Relationships are no different. Once in a relationship, I highly recommend the "If" series of books.

  4. Great advice Andrew,
    Once again I find myself wishing I could reach through the computer and take this writer by the hand. In my practice I deal with many people (men too) who suffer from the torments of past experiences that create the nagging voices that tell us we are unworthy. Unconditional love is rare, so is a perfect childhood, so the world is populated by men and women all wishing for perfection but unable to recognize it when it comes. By examining the voices and quieting the doubters that make up our inner committee, we can live on purpose, let go of the past and define ourselves by only the strength we derived from coping with our past emotional circumstances. I’ll say it again; we cannot hope to find the person of our dreams if we are not the person of theirs. When we become comfortable with ourselves and find peace through humble confidence, that is when we can accept someone who is our perfect match.
    Thomas Matthews