Ask Andrew – 330
My name is Charlotte and I hope you won’t mind me writing to you for help. I was interested to read your website, in particular the letter from the lady who lost her father. I was 7 when my father died, so I can relate to her experiences quite well. I found ‘The Single Trap’ quite helpful but I did wish you had written about the death of a parent, as I haven’t found much material on this topic and its effects on adult relationships. I’m now grappling with some issues and haven’t much idea of how to move forward, so I hope you won’t mind reading this letter and maybe even offering some advice – that would be great.
My current situation: I felt I have dealt quite well with life since my father died, though the area of relationships leaves a lot to be desired. I’m 33 and have only had 1 boyfriend – that was a very short-lived and casual relationship – plus some unrequited crushes and blind dates. When it comes to love, sex and relationships I feel very much out of my depth. I have a hard time imagining myself in a relationship and feel that I wouldn’t know how to behave. Also I fancy very few people, so I feel my options are limited. Most of my life I haven’t tried to date anyone, as I don’t have a gut feeling that anyone will want to date me, and I was a bit depressed most of the time and didn’t want to inflict that on people. I feel stressed if I do meet someone I like because I fear I can’t keep up with the positive image they have of me, and that a relationship would never work out.
Please bear with me, this is quite a long letter, but I feel there are lots of things I should mention if I’m going to give an accurate picture.
Due to my father’s death, I really felt a lack of male influence while I was growing up. My dad was a benign presence in my life, but not a particularly attentive parent. I sometimes felt that my mother preferred my younger brother, so I wanted to belong more to my dad and be a daddy’s girl but it didn’t really happen. After he died, I did have some other male influences: my uncle and my granddad. However, they were both emotionally and geographically distant. My uncle has always been great fun, but now that I’m an adult I find him a bit insular and emotionally immature. He didn’t make much effort to spend time with my brother and me, although our dad had passed away. My granddad was quite a kind person, though I found our relationship very limiting and I wasn’t even that sad when he died. Everything was about him: I don’t believe we ever had a 2-way conversation, except maybe about the weather! He did sometimes treat me as if I were cute, but he didn’t seem to know or care what kind of person I was, so when he called me ‘my little Charlotte’ and made a fuss of me, it didn’t ring true somehow.
Another problem has been my shyness, social anxiety and depression. My family were never that sociable and I felt I didn’t really learn how to have a social life until I left home at 18. I think the social anxiety has really affected how I see relationships: i.e. too scary. Also, the fact that I was very academic and preferred reading to hanging around the shops and reading teen magazines didn’t help, and it still feels a bit like that. I even self-harmed for about 7 years. After university, travelling and working abroad and generally expanding my horizons a lot, I have had therapy and antidepressants and I do feel much better these days. I have a lovely set of friends and a reasonably good job and am reasonably confident about most things – except relationships.
As for my mother, we have never been close, as I feel we’re quite different in many ways. Emotionally she can be very closed off, yet sometimes her emotions are very dramatic. I feel she’s not that good at managing her own feelings or those of others, and she isn’t very interested in people’s motives and what makes them tick. As the other lady said about her mum, after my dad died my mum got all the attention, things were all about her, and I feel my own needs were not met – nobody ever sat me down and told me everything would be ok, or that they loved me. I felt I couldn’t be affectionate to my family, so they weren’t affectionate to me either. With regard to an ‘emotional education’ about romantic relationships, I just didn’t get one. I grew up feeling really puzzled about how people get together, and why, and what a relationship means (and it still feels like that…). I think my mum is puzzled about my lack of romantic success and my refusal to discuss the subject, but I can’t talk about my feelings with her because I believe she wouldn’t understand. Also she has very high morals (more on that in a minute….) and I would hate to feel that she was judging me. As for my mum’s personal life, she dated casually a few times after my dad died, but never had another relationship.
One big problem for me is that my mother had an unrelenting ‘abstinence only’ sex ed policy, which in retrospect I think was very damaging. However, I could never confront her about it because I know I’d upset her. I blame her for my lack of romantic success, but I also blame myself because I feel I should have sorted things out by now. When I was a teenager she was always pointing out that sex outside marriage was wrong. I cannot stress how strong this message was, it has stayed with me and I now feel very scared of sex. (Fear was a very familiar feeling in our house actually.) You hear about girls from strict backgrounds going wild and sleeping around, but I never wanted to do this and still don’t. When it came to my peers’ influence, I attended a girls’ school, so I didn’t socialise with boys at all. After I left home at 18 I was extremely shocked that other people my own age were having sex, and that their parents didn’t seem to mind! These days I don’t rationally believe that sex outside marriage is wrong, quite the reverse actually, but I can’t get my mum’s warnings out of my mind.
My situation now is that I’m feeling very stuck, and I would very much like some advice about what to do next. I’m independent and don’t mind being alone, but I really don’t want to be this way all my life. I know that one day my family will all be gone and my friends will be occupied with their own families, and this really depresses me. On the one hand it would be a dream come true if I could find someone to love, and be loved in return – but on the other hand, I am scared by relationships, I’m not looking forward to sex and am very scared of it, and the thought of a relationship makes me feel claustrophobic (memories of my parents at home all the time without many friends / outside interests). I know I don’t have to follow patterns set by my parents, but it’s hard for me to imagine another way.
I think I’m reasonably attractive, try to take care of myself and dress well, have a good job, look ‘normal’. I guess that most people would never believe me if I told them I feel hopeless about relationships, as I have a lot going for me and some people even seem envious, but they just don’t know the truth.
As I said earlier, I fancy very few men, and I’m not sure why this is; I guess it could be a self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e. if I don’t let myself fancy anyone, then I won’t have to deal with sex and romance at all.
I should add here that people tell me I’m very intelligent, and it’s true that I don’t find many men intellectually stimulating enough to keep me interested. I do think, though, that intellectualism isn’t necessarily a good thing if it precludes emotional openness; I believe I need someone who is emotionally more healthy than me and my family. I think there are a lot of men who are intimidated by me; I guess I need to work on showing a soft, vulnerable side, though I’m not sure how to do this.
Here’s my dating history in a bit more detail: the first man I had any kind of relationship with – for a short time at university – left the country without saying goodbye. It took me years to get over this. I have met plenty of men through work, studies, socialising and internet dating, though few of them have ever really sparked my interest. About a year ago I did meet someone who I felt I really clicked with, but he was living abroad for most of the time and eventually met someone else – again, it is taking me a lot of effort to get over him. Whenever I have met someone I liked, my shame and embarrassment over being completely sexually experienced and not even very used to kissing or holding hands have caused me a lot of stress. From my awareness of today’s dating climate – through friends, acquaintances, and the media – it seems that everyone’s expected to sleep together after a couple of weeks, while maintaining several casual relationships at a time. I find this picture a very depressing one. It’s so hard to live in this climate of heightened sexual awareness and activity, whilst feeling very ambivalent about the whole thing. By the way, I don’t mean ambivalent about my sexuality. I have questioned this in the past and now firmly believe that I am straight, as I was physically turned on by my ex-boyfriend, and I do not feel sexually attracted to women.
I should add that I found your book a very interesting read, full of good advice, but it didn’t completely address what I’m worried about. I do agree that doing what you’re interested in should make it easier and fun to meet suitable people, and that meeting people without attempting to date them – e.g. avoiding internet dating – is a great idea. However, after having tried these approaches I can’t say I’ve been successful so far.
So, thank you very much for reading this very long letter, I really appreciate it. If you could offer any comments about my situation, or suggest any reading I could do, I would be extremely grateful.
Best regards and thanks again,
I hope it helped to get that all of your chest and helped you get a better perspective. Firstly, I’m sorry that I didn’t write more about the death of a parent in the Single Trap. Since receiving your letter, I’ve been totting up the number of recent clients who lost a parent when they were young and in ever case it has had a major effect on their lives.
Just like your mother, the surviving parent has been completely overwhelmed by loss (and the responsibility of bringing up children alone) and have either retreated into themselves (and been drowned by grief) or marched on regardless (and ignored it). The problem for their children is not only that nobody helps them with their grief but that they feel they have to be ‘good’ – and swallow all their issues so as not to trouble mummy or daddy even more. Although fairy tales and our culture in general is full of wicked step-parents, I think it is worse when the bereaved parent does not remarry – not only do their children get no role models for how to conduct relationships but the message that if you lose your partner (for whatever reason) it is devastating and your romantic life is effectively over. With the stakes of love so incredibly high, it is not surprising that you’re frightened.
When you say don’t fancy many people, I think this is a defense against getting close. Partly you put the bar so high that nobody can meet it – so avoid an potential pain. Mainly because you’re hoping for such an exposive attraction that all your doubts will be blown away (and that only happens in the movies!). Throw in the other dead-end falling for unavailable people (in another country etc) and you’re guaranteed to be on your own.
However, it is not all bad news. You are self aware, intelligent and have had enough therapy to know the difference between feeling unworry of love and being. So what should you do? Firstly, I would give your mother the benefit of the doubt and start to talk to her about your feelings more. If she screws up, explain what you need. Be gentle and understanding and I’m sure she will slowly improve. It is amazing how small changes can reap big benefits, so look again at the sections in Single Trap about improving your relationship with your mother. Next, I would start to give yourself permission to fanatsise and enjoy sex -if only in your own mind. I don’t know if you masturbate, but I would recommend it – as it will help you make peace with and enjoy your sexuality.
As for books, I would recommend: How to manage your mother by Alyce Faye Cleese and My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday (where woman talk about their fanatasies) as I think this will help to normalise your sexual desire. There’s also my book: Learn to love yourself enough – Seven steps to improving self-esteem in all your relationships
Finally, I want to offer reassurance. These are all things that can be sorted out and not to worry about your lack of sexual experience. I lot of men would welcome the opportunity to help you discover the sensual person I’m sure is within.