Q. I am an attractive, intelligent, and outgoing 45-year-old woman. In the past I have dated men who did not measure up — the bad boy, the Peter Pan who didn’t want to grow up, the financially irresponsible guy, the verbal and physical abuser, the addict…I could go on. I realize in part I did this to keep some level of superiority — if they went away I would not get hurt. For the past eight months I have been dating a responsible, caring, professional 52-year-old man. Unlike with my exes, I really care about him and am terrified that he will perceive me as clingy so I am doing my best to act distant. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells every minute. If he drops me it will break my heart. I would love some advice. — Katie
A. First off, congratulations. Change is hard but you’re clearly determined to break the whole ‘I never met a loser I didn’t lust after’ habit that’s hobbled you for so long. Women who are drawn to abusive guys catnip frequently had a man in their childhood who treated them badly. (Um, calling daddy dearest?) Thus this pattern seems normal.
That penchant for bad boys protected you, according to Laura Grashow, PsyD. The Florida-based co-author of Dating the Older Man: Consider Your Differences and Decide If He’s Right for You suggests that "dating someone who on a subconscious level you don’t take seriously enough to really suffer a big loss if it doesn’t work out gives you a sense of control. He wasn’t the type of guy I would have married anyway….."
Now, you’re dating someone who is worth taking seriously. Suddenly the stakes are higher — with real potential to get hurt. With all this self-imposed doubt and pressure, no wonder you’re playing the ‘act distant in hopes he’ll move closer’ game, which involves tricks like not returning phone calls right away to pretending to not give a damn.
New York psychologist Gayle R. Berg, PhD, puts it this way, "Distancing is a self-protective reaction to the anxiety generated by rendering oneself vulnerable." But acting out of fear is never productive. And as you know, walking on eggshells is never comfortable.
So take a deep breath and stop. Find your center. Focus on yourself, not him. Etienne Charland explains, "When you feel whole as a person you can appreciate someone without being emotionally dependent." Adds the Montreal dating coach, "Figure out what you’re looking for from him, and find some ways to get that feeling from within you."
How to start? Look to discover the root of your terror. Is it fear that once he gets to know you he won’t find you worthy? Or that you don’t deserve a guy who treats you well? Perhaps you harbor a conviction that if the relationship doesn’t work out there’s no chance you’ll ever find another decent guy?
Put energy into this quest for self rather than the quest for someone to give you a self and you’ll wind up with the keys to the Magic Kingdom — whether or not this particular man winds up as your playmate.
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