One of my dear friends spent the better part of her 20s hopelessly searching for love. Even though she had a fulfilling, lucrative career, a circle of supportive friends, a fluid income, and a kickass handstand, I was often amazed at her tireless pursuit of the one thing she didn’t have: a boyfriend. She invested in her personal health and sought the guidance of matchmakers – and eventually, a therapist. She went on solo trips and even said ‘yes’ to people outside of her comfort zone.
Along the way, she experienced one disappointment after another – one guy wasn’t ready for commitment, another one cheated on her, a handful turned into ghosts, and others fizzled after a few dates. No matter how hard she tried or how many strategies she executed, it all seemed fruitless. That is until three months after her 30th birthday. She happened to swipe right, and he did, too. She’s now in the happiest relationship of her life.
But what she didn’t expect when all her romantic dreams came true was how much dating anxiety she would have to overcome in order to settle into a healthy partnership. Over cocktails a few weeks ago, she called her condition “dating PTSD.” Even though post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with people who return from war, experience abusive situations, survive hate or sexually charged crimes, going through many terrible dating experiences can leave you constantly waiting for the shoe to drop.
Developing trust, letting that emotional wall crumble, and investing in your partnership is essential to a long-term relationship. But if your dating life was taxing or traumatic, the process may be more challenging than you initially realized. If you find yourself madly in love — and terrified of everything falling apart — consider this your guide to mending your jaded heart and finding happiness.
Take your time
There was a time when you found yourself opening up on the first date, but now after a few heartbreaks or failed relationships, you’ve built impenetrable walls. Sound familiar? Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, PhD, says this is a common symptom of dating PTSD. Dating anxiety, aka the fear of rejection or being hurt again, can prevent you from forming emotional attachments, so Dr. Thomas suggests giving yourself the time you need to feel comfortable in a new relationship. The right match won’t rush you and will be patient as you start to let your guard down.
Stop suppressing your emotions
Before I met my partner, I can’t count how many men called me crazy or emotional or ridiculous for simply expressing my feelings. I even had one ex who would walk away anytime I had showed emotional vulnerability, making me feel judged and causing me to suppress my emotions. Many times people with dating anxiety stop expressing their needs and desires in attempt to play their cards right, says Sarah Schewitz, a love and relationship psychologist. “Worry less about being the cool girl and more about asking questions and expressing your needs to build an authentic relationship,” she says. “This reduces the chances of your getting blindsided and hurt unexpectedly.”
What’s more, in being yourself — and not some version you think you should be — you’re developing a partnership that is based on honesty and communication. “If you both can be vulnerable and share concerns and feelings with each other slowly but surely, these actions can help in building the trust and emotional security necessary to accept a good relationship,” Dr. Thomas adds.
Be aware of self-sabotaging behavior
If you’ve been traumatized from past experiences that turned sour, it’s normal to feel a little apprehensive or anxious in a new relationship. Just be aware of self-sabotaging thoughts, like “this is too good to be true” or “they always leave eventually,” and behaviors. Though it’s difficult, processing these thoughts and accepting that you may have to overcome some old habits to develop new ones is important. If you are really struggling, the help of a trained professional can make a huge difference in your progress.
Try not to compare experiences
It’s easy to get stuck in the comparison trap. In my current relationship, I tend to do so after my boyfriend and I have a fight, fearing he’ll give up or suddenly lose interest like my ex boyfriends did. But comparing your current partner – and experiences with them – to past partners ultimately undermines their potential. “Consciously try to give a new person a fair chance and an adequate amount of time to show you who he or she genuinely is through both their words and actions,” Dr. Thomas explains. “If you have been hurt in past relationships, it is very important and emotionally comforting if someone new is and remains consistent and stable with both their words and actions.”
Stop saying it’s your last shot
When my friend found her guy (on Tinder, of all places), she once admitted that if it didn’t work out, she’d freeze her eggs and set sail on a new adventure, one that’s far, far away from men. Though I understood her fear, I also knew this backup plan was, in part, an effort to guard her heart. After all, once you meet the person who you really think is “The One,” the mere idea of staring over is daunting. But as Dr. Schewitz reminds us: You’ve been hurt before and you survived, so you will survive if and when it happens again. “The chance of a relationship not working out is more likely if you’re approaching it completely guarded, making it hard for your partner to truly connect to you,” she says. At the end of the day, most people play the biggest role in keeping themselves single. Dating anxiety is a common occurrence, but it’s one you can overcome.