My fear of rejection is making a relationship impossible

I lost my parents as a child, and my first relationships with women ended with me being left

PROBLEM: I am a 52-year-old heterosexual man and I have never been able to maintain an intimate sexual relationship with a woman for any sustained period of time.

Both my parents died before I was 10 and I was reared by my aunt.

I have been in counselling, but it only dawned on me recently, and with some force, that my first intimate relationships with women ended with me being left for another man. These, as it transpired, short-term relationships were sexual and they began when I was 20 years old.

My way of coping with the pain of the loss was to injure myself, sometimes severely, resulting in hospital treatment on one occasion. I could not tell anyone for years, and from the age of 22 I retired from sexual relationships for as it turned out, seven years. A long-term relationship then ensued, but the same thing happened, with the same impact on me and more physical injury to myself.

Since then, it has been sporadic relationships, with me withdrawing sexually after a time.

I am currently involved with someone, and we get on well, but I think I harbour deep fears that I will be left, and it is like I am constantly on “emergency watch”, ready to bolt before the news comes again. This fear feels like it will overwhelm me, and as I get older it seems to get worse and I can get completely swamped by it.

It seems that my formative sexual relationships with women were not solid and the original fissures they caused have now widened to deep faultlines.

The fears for me are very real and the self-injury response, unfortunately, has not fully abated. I know the past should not determine the present or the future, but the pull of the fears is at times intense and nausea-inducing. I am at the end of my tether.

ADVICE: On the positive side, you are currently in a good relationship and this desire for intimacy has never abated. You also went for counselling as you realised that it was too much to cope alone with the traumas and insecurities in your life. Both these things may well offer you the supports with which to face again the precipice of closeness and dependency that an intimate relationship creates.

The suffering you have experienced over the years is extreme and in some way demonstrates the huge level of pain and abandonment you experienced as a child. To have both parents die before you have any sense of security in the world can be beyond endurance, and it can be a lifelong task to trust that those close to you won’t crush you by also disappearing.

To be sexually close to someone (beyond a one-night stand) is to allow them inside your skin, and this is a risk that needs to be taken carefully. Your early experiences of rejection by lovers may have exacerbated your sense of exposure, and this triggered responses that seemed to ease the pain. That self-harm is more acceptable to you than the fear of rejection shows how intense and primitive this fear is for you.

However, you have the desire to be in a close relationship and perhaps this demonstrates your willingness to continue to live in spite of your experiences. If you are to develop and trust this wish for a relationship, then the fears and traumas of the past need to be met, as this current relationship brings past traumas to the surface on a daily basis.

The good thing about a real relationship is that it is supposed to support you as you face whatever is arising. Two people tackling an issue will always have more possibility of success, as one will provide motivation when the other has given up.

But this requires an honesty and trust that, in itself, creates panic in you. It may be that you need back-up in the form of counselling support to initiate this emotional intimacy, so that you can plan and reflect on what is happening in your life. If you had a good and trusting relationship with your previous counsellor, you could re-engage so that you do not have to go over everything again.

Another option is to go to couples therapy, so that from the very beginning both of you are supported in the intense experience that may be in front of you.