The abuse I suffered as a child is inhibiting my love life

I don’t want to be defined by the incest I survived. But as I approach 40, I have bouts of despair

PROBLEM: I am a successful professional in my late 30s. I have good relationships with my brothers and sisters and many dearly beloved friends. I like my work and get on well with my colleagues. I’d say people would describe me as popular and confident. I have a nice home and I enjoy lots of activities, including voluntary work helping adults with literacy challenges. In other words, I am doing well in most areas of my life. But I have problems with romantic relationships.

I had two serious relationships, both about two years long, but both guys were problem drinkers and I was supporting them financially. My friends and family were horrified that I had relationships that were so “beneath me”. But few of them know that I was sexually abused by a family member for all of my childhood, as far back as I remember (aged three) and possibly before. I felt like I matched those poor broken men because I am broken too.

I have a lot of love to give, and it has a healthy expression in my friendships and my family relationships. But, like most people, I’d like to have someone to share my life (and my bed) with. I don’t want to be defined by the incest I survived. But as I approach 40, I have bouts of despair.

I have done three kinds of therapy over 15 years, done forgiveness work, made a pilgrimage, meditated, wept and fasted, wept and prayed, but I am still unable to overcome this obstacle. Once I tried to make a deal with myself that I would just accept that I was irrevocably damaged and this wasn’t for me, so that I could put an end to the painful hoping and longing, but that didn’t work. I do want this for myself, but I don’t know how to get well enough to be able to love and be loved romantically.

ADVICE: It is appalling that you went through such trauma as a child. That you have survived so well is a testament to the human spirit. You are a successful person with a rich life full of friendship, work and giving to society. But you continue to suffer. You refuse to give in to the idea that you will not be able to have a deep romantic connection, and as you approach 40, this appears to be your aim for the next stage of your life.

The two poor relationships you had were understandably fractured, and you have learned that these types of connection are not worth having; your friends and family are very clear about this.

So what to do? Your childhood experience left you with a deeply embedded lack of trust and a huge need for protection. You cannot ignore the signals from your body and emotions that tell you to run from any form of sexual intimacy as if your life depended on it. This is where you are starting from. Your body and heart will need a lot of reassurance to develop even a small level of trust in you to make good romantic choices. Is it possible for you to firstly see if there are good men you might be attracted to? You will need to enrol the help of a good friend to double-check your choices. To take even the first step towards dating will require courage, but it will also signify to you that you are not accepting the script from your past.

Rationally you may have decided that the person you are attracted to will not harm you, but it is another thing to get your body and emotions to accept this and allow the person to get close. If you move too fast or do not move at the pace that your body dictates, you will panic and exit the situation with a sense of failure and hopelessness. It will require some level of honesty with your chosen partner, and this might seem “too much too soon”, but all relationships require risk; intimacy cannot happen without vulnerability.

It will take a lot for you to expose your sensitivity, and you will need to trust your judgment that you are ready and that you have chosen someone who is worth the risk. Most intimate relationships require some secrets to be shared, and this serves to make the couple more bonded.

Your body will need a very slow and patient approach to allow it to feel cared-for and unpressured. It has a right to this pace, and you will need to honour it and encourage it to trust your preferences. As you have made poor choices in the past, you will need a trusted friend with whom to reflect and check your moves. Remember, every effort you make, even if not successful, is a step outwards into life and an acknowledgement of your right to love and connection.