My traumatic past is killing my love life

When a man I like tries to ‘break the ice’, I freeze up physically, verbally and mentally

PROBLEM: I am a 37-year-old single woman. For about three years now, a lovely man has expressed interest in me, not verbally but in all other possible ways. I’m delighted with this development because I had given up on ever meeting a partner in life and I am very attracted to him. The problem is that every time he tries to “break the ice”, I freeze up physically, verbally and mentally. Afterwards I could cry from frustration and anger at myself, there is nothing I want more than to connect with this person, but my inability to do so is like a reflex; it feels completely beyond my control.

I have always had issues around relationships and the vulnerability and openness needed to be in one. I had a difficult childhood with a cold, sometimes violent mother and an emotionally distant dad, but I have turned my life around in the past few years and have made peace with my early life and relationship with my parents.

This inability to trust and my self-sabotaging of potential relationships is hovering over me like a ghost, and I’m terrified that, despite my best efforts, it will stop me from finding true companionship and love. I am so desperately lonely.

This man has waited long enough and I fear my time is running out.

ADVICE: It seems as if you have taken all the important initial steps to sort out this problem: you are fully aware of having an issue and you know that it is coming from your past relationships with your parents. The difficulty is that sometimes knowledge and acceptance are not enough. We have a physical, emotional and mental response to trauma, and even though we know we are no longer in danger, our bodies and emotions continue to respond as if we need protection. This response worked for years: it protected you from intimate relationships and from your past vulnerability, and allowed you to function in your life. The downside to this inbuilt protection is that it does not allow you to connect fully with another human being.

However, the fact that you are attracted to this man and you are giving off vibes of interest might suggest that, in spite of your caution, you are ready to take the risk of intimacy. Three years is a long time to investigate whether this might be a person you can trust, and, from your description of the situation, the man has made his interest very clear to you. It seems that the time for action is now. Your body is expressing what is happening when he approaches – you freeze – and this reflects where you are at that particular moment. But you also want to express your interest, your desire and your hope for companionship and this requires courage.

One way of opening up this possibility is to ask him a question; this will allow your attention to focus away from your fear and give you a moment to compose yourself. There is no point in rehearsing what you might say, as this will come across as false. Promise yourself that you will take any opportunity that presents to engage with this man, and you will not worry about what comes out of your mouth. Even if, at first you might sound strange or nonsensical, the effort will be brave and that is what first steps look like.

In order to challenge the physical block, you will need to start by taking one step closer when you freeze. When you discover that you are not at risk, it will be possible to get closer and eventually you will be able to allow touch and intimacy. You will have to work with your body, reassuring it that there is no threat and not trying to get it to respond faster than it is willing to go.

Emotionally, fear needs to be overcome and this is done by always challenging your comfort zone, staying in the place where you feel some discomfort but not pushing yourself too far. If you push yourself too far, you might panic and all your fears will be confirmed. The tendency then is to retreat into the safety of the familiar: in your case, this means loneliness.

The reality is that this risk is a huge step for you, and you are willing to take it because you think this man is worth it. If this is your sense, then he will be someone capable of allowing you to take the time and small steps needed for you to trust. This is the power of love: it makes us bigger than we ever thought possible.