Most people have been hurt in interpersonal relationships. With time and painful experiences, we all risk building up varying degrees of bitterness and become defended. This process begins long before we start dating, in our childhoods when hurtful interactions and dynamics lead us to put up walls or perceive the world through a filter that can negatively impact us as adults. These adaptations can cause us to become increasingly self-protective and closed off. In our adult relationships, we may resist being too vulnerable or write people off too easily.
If, for example, you were raised by parents or caretakers who were negligent or cold, you may grow up feeling distrusting of affection. You may feel suspicious of people who show “too much” interest in you and instead seek out relationships that recreate dynamics from your past. You may then choose a partner who is aloof or distant. It isn’t always easy to see when we have our defenses up. As a result, we tend to blame our singleness on external forces and fail to recognize that we aren’t as open as we think.
2. Unhealthy attractions
When we act on our defenses, we tend to choose less-than-ideal relationship partners. We may establish an unsatisfying relationship by selecting a person who isn’t emotionally available. Because this process is largely unconscious, we often blame our partner for the relationship’s failed outcome. We tend to feel devastated or hurt by the repeated rejections without recognizing that we are actually seeking out this pattern.
Why do we do this? The reasons are complex and often based on our own embedded fears of intimacy. Many people have an unconscious motivation to seek out relationships that reinforce critical thoughts they have long had toward themselves and replay negative aspects of their childhoods. These may be unpleasant, but breaking with old patterns can cause us a great deal of anxiety and discomfort, and make us feel strangely alien and alone in a more loving environment.
Our fears of parting with the image we developed of ourselves early on and starting to see ourselves in a more positive light paradoxically make us feel uneasy and may trigger self-attacking thoughts like, “Who do you think you are? You’re not that great.” These fears may cause us to hold on to relationships without potential or to feel attracted to people who aren’t really available, because they reinforce our negative image of ourselves, which feels more comfortable and familiar, albeit painful.
3. Fear of intimacy
As my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, wrote in his article “You Don’t Want What You Say You Want,” “Most of us profess that we want to find a loving partner, but the experience of real love disrupts fantasies of love that have served as a survival mechanism since early childhood… Pushing away and punishing the beloved acts to preserve one’s negative self-image and reduces anxiety.”
Our fears surrounding intimacy may manifest as concerns over someone “liking us too much,” an understandably irrational reason not to date a person. Or we may punish the other person by being critical or even engaging in nasty behavior, essentially making sure we don’t get the loving responses we say we want. The reality is most people can only tolerate a certain amount of closeness. We are defended about letting someone else in. In effect, on a deeper level, we don’t necessarily want the love we say we want.
Our own defenses often leave us feeling pickier and more judgmental. This is particularly true after we’ve had bad experiences, where we were deceived or rejected by a person we had strong feelings for. Many women start to have thoughts like, “There are no decent men out there” or “All the good ones are taken.” Men may have thoughts like, “You can’t trust a women” or “Women are all out to take advantage of you.” We may have unrealistic expectations for a partner or pinpoint weaknesses from the moment we meet someone. When viewing the world from critical or distrusting eyes, we tend to write off a range of potential partners before even giving them a chance. We think of dating certain people as “settling” without ever seeing how that person could make us happy in the long-term.
A friend of mine felt closed off to a man who pursued her for more than a year. Although she saw him as kind, funny and smart, she convinced herself that he was “too into her.” She said he was too needy and was sure he would wind up getting hurt by her. She often stated that she just wasn’t attracted to him. The men she was drawn to instead tended to be unreliable and emotionally distant. At her friends’ insistence, she finally agreed to go on a date with the man who’d been pursuing her. What she found, to her surprise, was a high-level relationship choice, a partner with whom she shared a great deal of mutual interest, and, ultimately, genuine love.
What hers and so many similar stories show us is that when we think we are “settling” for someone, we may not be settling at all. We may actually find ourselves in a relationship that is so much more rewarding than those we have experienced. Ironically, initially we tend not to trust the people who really like us, but when we give them a chance, we find that we’ve chosen someone who values us for who we really are, someone who can really make us happy.
5. Low self-esteem
So many people I’ve spoken to have expressed the same sentiment. They believe they want a fulfilling relationship more than anything, but they believe even more firmly that no one worthwhile would be interested in them. We all possess critical inner voices that tell us we are too fat, too ugly, too old or too different. When we listen to these “voices,” we engage in behaviors that push people away. When we remain single, it is not for the reasons that we’re telling ourselves. Our lack of confidence leaves us giving off signals of not being open, creating a catch 22 in the realm of dating. Many people even have trouble leaving the house when they’re really down on themselves, let alone pursuing situations where they are likely to meet potential partners. Some struggle to make eye contact or are reluctant to scan the room for who they might be attracted to. When they are drawn to someone, they may fail to pursue their strongest attractions for lack of self-esteem.
6. Fear of competition
A lack of self-esteem often leads to fears of competing. It’s easy to put ourselves down in relation to others, especially when it comes to dating. When we meet someone we like, it’s all too easy to think, “He/she could do better.” When we see that someone else is interested in the person we like, we may be quick to back away. We may feel unwilling to compete, particularly as we get older, and we start to have self-attacks like “Your time has passed, you’re too old for this.” Our fears of competition can lead us to avoid putting ourselves out there. We may be afraid of looking like a fool or of not being chosen. We may even have fears about winning the competition, thinking we will “hurt the other person’s feelings” or that our success will result in aggression from the loser. The simple truth is: dating is competitive. It is scary to take a chance and go for what we want and compete, but when we do, we most often find it is well worth it to face our fears. We end up with a stronger sense of self, and we increase our chances of creating a relationship with the partner we really desire.
7. Isolation and routine
With age, people tend to retreat further and further into their comfort zones. Modern women are more and more successful, accomplished and self-sufficient, which are all extremely positive developments. Yet as both men and women get more comfortable, be it financially or practically, it is also easier for them to form a bubble from which it is difficult to emerge. It can feel harder to take risks or put themselves out there. After a long day’s work, many of us may feel more like putting on pajamas and crawling into bed than going out into the uncertain and anxiety-provoking world of meeting people.
The encouragement we feel to stay home or stay safe often comes from our critical inner voice. This inner coach offers self-soothing words, “Just stay in tonight and relax. You’re fine on your own. Have a glass of wine. Watch that show you like.” The problem with this voice is that it later turns on you with thoughts like, “What a loser you are, home alone again. You’ll be lonely the rest of your life. You’re not getting any younger! No one will be attracted to you.” Many of the activities we use to “comfort” ourselves actually make us feel bad in the end, as they result in us avoiding pursuing what we really want in life. It’s important to resist falling into a comfort zone and to repeatedly challenge the influence of our critical inner voice. We should take action and make an effort to get out into the world, smile, make eye contact and let friends know we are looking for someone. We should try new activities and even try dating diverse people as a means to discover new parts of ourselves and what makes us happy.
As the years pass, we often develop rulebooks for ourselves regarding dating. In effect, we put what we have learned “down on paper,” but what looks good on paper doesn’t always work in real life. When we act on rules based on our past, we can create a perpetual cycle of disappointing relationships. A woman I know once dated someone with whom she had amazing chemistry. When it didn’t work out, she decided to stop looking for a guy she felt a strong connection with or attraction to. Instead, she made “reasonable” choices, and as a result, she found far less satisfying relationships.
It’s important not to make fixed rules or to buy into other people’s rules when it comes to dating.
Staying open is one of the most important things we can do when looking for a loving partner. Yes, we might get hurt but when we stop taking risks, we reduce our chances of meeting someone we could really have a future with. Relationship rules tend to go hand-in-hand with game-playing. They can lead us to act with less sincerity and authenticity, to close ourselves off from how we feel. On the other hand, staying open and honest will lead us to find a much more authentic and substantial relationship.
Seeking love isn’t an easy quest, but it’s always best to take this journey on our own side. It’s important to fight the patterns inside us that hold us back from getting what we want. We can’t shield ourselves from the world or keep ourselves from getting hurt. We all carry flaws, and these vulnerabilities are especially apparent when getting close to one another. Thus, achieving intimacy is a brave battle, but it is one well-worth fighting for, each and every day, both within ourselves and, ultimately, within our relationships.