Question

I don’t know why I’m afraid to be in a relationship. I want one but when it’s time to get serious I get so scared. I’m enjoying being single but feel lonely at the same time. I’m attracted to the guys who don’t want a relationship. I find that the guys who do want relationships aren’t attractive to me, even though I would like them to be with me. I want to be happy with someone, but it’s hard for me to commit.

Answer

I hear your dilemma and I can imagine how difficult it must be for you to simultaneously desire and fear a close relationship. The energy you have around intimacy suggests that getting this right is important to you. Please stay with it so you can resolve these conflicting feelings and find peace. There are cultural myths that suggest that you shouldn’t need other people. It’s true that you can enjoy a single life, but our default setting as humans is primary attachment with another person. The evidence is clear that close relationships are critical for our wellbeing, so let’s talk about how you can understand what keeps you from committing to connection and then take steps to build a healthy relationship with another person. You’ll be much better off in connection than in isolation.

Individuals who reflexively swear off relationships usually have experienced attachment loss, abuse, rejection, abandonment, or betrayal in a close relationship. I know nothing of your history, but it’s wise to seek professional help if you’ve experienced any type of attachment rupture. These injuries can happen in childhood, adolescence, or in adulthood. You’re not weak, dependent, or immature if you’re impacted by the loss of a close relationship. Sometimes the loss isn’t from an obvious betrayal but can happen over time as you fail to successfully attach to others. Stay curious about where you have been hurt in previous relationships and why being alone seems more attractive to you. If you have attachment traumas, it’s wise to seek professional help so you can repair the sensations and fears that make it difficult to securely attach to another person.

Even if you haven’t had any significant attachment injuries in your past, it’s important to recognize that getting close to someone else involves risk. Love feels amazing because it involves risk and reward. Being close to someone requires vulnerability, which most of us instinctively avoid. I’m sure we’d all love to have some guarantee that we can form a secure bond with someone else without any personal risk. However, as Dr. Brené Brown once said, “vulnerability is the birthplace of joy, belonging, and creativity.”

Unfortunately, there’s no way to guarantee that you won’t have your heart broken. I’m guessing that the unavailable guys are more attractive to you because they really aren’t an option. You can enjoy infatuation without any personal risk. Alternatively, the guys who are ready for connection require you to make the next move into vulnerability and uncertainty. Instead of focusing on whether a guy is “THE ONE”, focus on slowly building a safe and secure bond. You can do this by focusing on friendship and allowing yourself to know and be known over time. Over time, when you’re in a safe and secure relationship, you don’t even realize how vulnerable you are because you’re in caring hands.

I recommend you pick up a copy of Sue Johnson’s book, “Love Sense”, which will help you better understand the science of attachment as you sort out your conflicting feelings. Humans are born wired to connect to others. We only disconnect when we learn connection isn’t safe. As you understand where this went wrong in your life, you can begin taking steps to fix it.

Recognize that even though you are alone, you’re not alone. A 2013 report in USA Today cited census data showing that more than one in four households had just a single person in 2012. In contrast, in 1970, one-person households accounted for fewer than one in six. In 1900, it was one in 20. Our society is moving toward isolation, even though we’re more connected electronically than previous generations. Some commentators, such as Sherry Turkle, author of “Alone Together”, are noticing that our electronic over-connecting is our way of protecting ourselves from real connection. We can be lulled into believing that we can get the benefits of connection to others without taking the interpersonal risks that make secure attachment so thrilling.

There are many cultural myths that make selecting a partner more difficult. One of these myths is the belief that if a relationship is right, it will be effortless. After 25 years of marriage and 23 years as a marriage therapist, I know that the deepest and most satisfying marriages are forged in the purifying fires of faith in God, mutual commitment, sacrifice, and ongoing repentance. Commitment becomes less scary when you carefully build a relationship with someone who is willing to engage in this type of soul-stretching work.

I recommend you practice connecting with those around you. Instead of fixating on romantic love right now, practice showing up more authentically in your close friend and family relationships. It’s easier to step into the vulnerability of romantic love if you already have a secure base of healthy relationships. Nurture your existing relationships by asking good questions, listening, sharing your internal world, and making eye contact. Notice if you have difficulty tolerating closeness with others. Perhaps you enjoy the experience, but are afraid that you’ll be rejected. As you better understand your own reactions to closeness, you’ll be better prepared to navigate a close romantic relationship.


Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.