Having a difficult time - male with intense panic and fear surrounding dating/intimacy
I spent 5 1/2 years in a bad relationship. To cut a long story short, it involved a lot of psychological abuse and so many aspects of my life were under the control of my ex. The most damaging aspect of this time was that I was forced to have sex even though I didn't want to; however when at times my body wouldn't respond (seems normal to not find an abuser attractive in retrospect), I was yelled/screamed at. It was honestly like world war three. I didn't know how to deal with all this back then and I stayed with her honestly believing any issues with intimacy, or the relationship in general were my fault.
I left her just over 2 years ago and have been single in that time. Initially once the trauma-bond started to ease, I felt a sense of peace that I enjoyed. Now days I do deal with intense loneliness and in some ways want some kind of deeper connection with someone.
Last week a close friend of mine (female) sent me a message that gently hinted she took a romantic interest in me. We've been good friends for a while now.
Instead of feeling flattered or feeling good about this, I plunged into an intense panic episode that's lasted most of last week, it's been totally debilitating. I'm terrified of any form of intimacy, especially anything physical, to the point where I feel physically nauseous... this was all caused by one very innocuous message . I don't know even if I am attracted to my friend in that way, I can't even think that clearly with all this fear and panic.
I replied to this message, in a friendly way but didn't really encourage that direction of conversation, and we did catch up yesterday , with others, and things seemed a little awkward at first but were better as the afternoon went on.
I feel sick with guilt, worried I've hurt her... also absolutely sick of this intense panic and fear. I want to be able to accept compliments from females, and ones I'm attracted to, and even eventually date again... but instead I freeze and invariably push people away.
I feel so utterly alone and hopeless at the moment, I never chose to be abused and I'd sure never choose to live like this.
I'm hoping others on the forum might be able to empathise and/or offer me some advice? I'd be very grateful.
Thank you for taking the time to share what you have been going through. We can hear you’re feeling alone and hopeless right now and it can be such a scary feeling. We want you to know that by posting here, and sharing your story with our community, you’ve already taken an enormous step and shown such bravery and strength.
A situation such as the one you have described can feel really distressing and overwhelming when there is a history of trauma. Please treat yourself with kindness as you navigate through this and know that it is completely valid to be feeling this way in a new situation.
If you ever want to talk it through, please don’t hesitate to give the lovely Beyond Blue counsellors a call on 1300 22 4636 or speak to them on webchat here.
Thanks again for sharing here. We hope the words of our lovely community members above brings you some comfort through this challenging time.
I’m really sorry you had these experiences of abuse in your relationship. It is very understandable you have these struggles with intimacy now. It’s like your body’s survival response telling you intimacy is not safe and when that kicks in it tends to override everything else. So even if you could be potentially interested in your female friend who seems to be showing interest in you, I understand how that panic takes over and it’s hard to assess anything or work out your own feelings about your friend when that happens.
I very much relate as I too have a fear of intimacy, so I don’t have any great answers on this one as I’m still dealing with it myself. In my case I think I’ve been affected by two assaults that were obviously a physical invasion I went through, experiences of intimacy that felt invasive even if they were not outright assaults and an almost total lack of physical affection in childhood. So I don’t really have positive associations with intimacy and I can recoil from anyone coming close to me at times. Yet I would love to feel safe with closeness, but my body has other ideas.
So I’m sorry I don’t have a way I know yet of overcoming this, but just wanted to say I really empathise with your situation. My sense is that meeting a good, kind person who is unquestionably safe who you know you can trust is what heals this part of you. But as you say how do you get to that point if you have the panic that takes over?
I’m wondering if your good female friend is someone you could potentially share this vulnerability with as a friend, which may at least help her to understand your situation? Does she know about the abuse in your past relationship? You may or may not feel comfortable raising it so I think see if you can sense/feel into if it is the right thing to share. This is something I find difficult to share/talk about myself. But it’s something you would want a potential partner to be understanding about.
Have you been able to discuss and work through any of this with a counsellor/psychologist? It could help work through the issue. While I’ve done some somatic work with my psychologist on traumatic experiences I’ve been through and that has included dealing one particular assault where I was held against my will, and I got to discharge the freeze/stress energy from my body, I haven’t really directly dealt with the fear of intimacy with her, which I think reflects how strong the fear is that I haven’t wanted to go further into it, at least so far. So I get how much something like this affects you. Yet it could be something to try and work through with a trusted professional and it would probably help me too.
So I’m not sure if that helps much but just wanted to let you know I experientially get the feeling sick, panic and fear that arises. I too have pushed people away and wish I didn’t, but haven’t found a way to overcome this yet. I would be interested to know of anyone who has and how that worked. Take care rhinoceros and know you are not alone and hopefully it’s something that can be overcome with the right support and hopefully meeting a safe, loving, kind potential partner.
Hi Eagle Ray
Thank you so much for your reply, I really appreciate it. I'm so sorry to hear about your past experiences too, I can empathise elements, I grew up in a house hold with an alcoholic father who didn't show interest or affection towards his children. He showed me exactly what not to do.
Being a male that is afraid of intimacy is a very isolating experience, but it's helpful to know there are others out there struggling with this too. There are so many jokes made in general conversation made about male sexual performance (or lack there-of) too, that as someone who experience trauma in that situation, it can be kind of stressful at times, or reinforce a sense of inadequacy. I certainly feel inadequate on almost every level.
What you said about your body having other ideas is exactly how I feel! On an intellectual level I can identify someone I'm attracted to, or acknowledge that I'd like to experience closeness, certainly feel the loneliness, but the body/nervous system takes over instantly and it triggers uncontrollable waves of panic, terror and paranoia. Even during those episodes, I can logically recognise that fear response is not proportional in any way, yet I'm totally immobilised by it.
My friend is largely aware of my background, and knows I was abused. We're catching up for a walk this weekend and I want to use that as an opportunity to 'clear the air'. I feel like that's the right thing to do? In a way I feel like it might take a weight off my shoulders in some way. Really I want to impart the message that my 'weirdness' is absolutely not her fault in any way.
I am working with a counsellor and phycologist, although I haven't been as proactive at dealing with my fear of intimacy as I probably should have. For the last while we've been talking about my existing depression/anxiety issues. It's a tricky thing to talk about. I feel such a deep sense of shame and embarrassment about it.
I'm so sorry to hear about that assault too, that sounds horrific and hugely traumatic. I'm sorry you too experience that feeling of sick, panic and fear. It hurts knowing that I've pushed some genuinely nice people away from me, and in a bizarre way, it's exactly what my ex would want to happen.
I'm hoping the catch up with my friend this weekend won't be too awkward, I feel very anxious about it already.
Thank you again for your empathy and support, it really means a lot.
I so totally relate to the feelings of shame and embarrassment. I find it the hardest thing to talk about too so I also haven’t been that pro-active at dealing with it. I’ve been avoidant, I think because I associate intimacy with threat and therefore it triggers feelings of threat just talking about it.
I meant to also mention too I’m female which I realise I didn’t explain before. It’s true, it can be particularly isolating for men whose experiences in abuse situations like you have been through are not always recognised and acknowledged. I’m so sorry you went through that. You deserve someone loving and kind who treats you respectfully.
I’m glad your friend knows about your experience of abuse in the past relationship and it’s great you are catching up with her for a walk. Try not to worry too much and just see if you can enjoy her company as you usually do. Just see how you feel at the time and let your intuition guide you about what feels right to discuss. I remember something I was worried about handling and my psychologist said something along the lines of dealing with it in the moment while seeing if I can let it go at other times. So like not worrying about it before I’m in the situation and then letting my intuition guide me when I am in the situation. I know that can seem easier said than done, but I think it’s helped me a bit in situations I’ve been handling with people where it was impacting me a lot of the time.
I completely understand about the involuntary fear response and being able to see it but still being immobilised by it. I’ve done work with my psychologist using the Somatic Experiencing method for dealing with that kind of freeze response in relation to situations/instances of abuse and assault. It’s worked well for those specific instances. But I’ve not yet directly addressed the fear of intimacy itself through that approach. If I do find something that helps I’ll let you know, but like you I find it so hard to address this topic and prefer to look at almost anything else but that 🙈
I too wish I hadn’t pushed certain people away, but it was like a self-protection thing that I just did automatically, even though another part of me really wanted to connect with the person. I so understand that dilemma.
Must go to sleep now but sending you encouragement and support. I believe there’s a way through somehow and if I have any breakthroughs in this area I’m happy to let you know in case it helps.
Hi Eagle Ray
Thanks again for your reply. It's such a hard thing to talk about. I think even without trauma and abuse being involved, it's naturally a bit of a tough thing to talk about. I've been mentally in an "OK" place the last year, mostly due to the fact I've avoided anything to do with intimacy etc. and really in many respects have lived like a hermit outside of work. The strange thing I that I work as a jazz musician, performing in front of crowds of people and experience no noticeable anxiety, yet a single slightly flirtatious message sends me off the deep end... beyond frustrating.
I like your suggestion about letting my intuition guide me regarding the catch up this weekend. I suspect none of it would be a surprise to her but it's just something I loathe to talk about. I'm more conscious that I don't want to give the wrong impression; it's kind of important I'm clear with what I say. I'm trying to not worry about it too much right now.... although I'm not succeeding on that front. But I'll try to look at it that way.
I'm interested in the Somatic Experiencing method. I am seeing a Psychologist week after next and will discuss this. I have had some success with EDMR. I was terrified of my ex (after we broke up, she became even more scary than before). Some of that fear was lessened through that, although I haven't really tried it with intimacy stuff, but I am also interested in seeing what my Psychologist has to say about Somatic Experiencing. Really I'm open to anything that could help.... I find living like this so incredibly exhausting and isolating.
Again, thank you so much for message. I really am very grateful and you've been a huge help to me
I completely relate to what you say about being more ok as long as you are avoiding anything to do with intimacy. I find if I just don’t go there I don’t have that anxiety and it’s easier to get on with life. Yet, I know a healthy, kind, close relationship with another human being can be profoundly meaningful and healing. I think part of us is wired to connect. But like you I can go into a freak-out state if confronted with anything to do with intimacy, even if it is just the smallest thing. I do photography and go off into nature a lot photographing wildlife and landscapes. That is my safe place and it feels more safe than the world of humans to me.
The Somatic Experiencing method was developed by a psychologist named Peter Levine. It works at that deep level of the fight/flight/freeze responses. I’ve read a couple of his books on trauma - In an Unspoken Voice and Trauma and Memory. I vaguely remember some stuff that I think was intimacy-related so should go back and have a read. I sought out a psychologist who does this method as after reading about it I connected with it in terms of addressing trauma experiences. In only my second session with her we successfully cleared a trauma stuck in my nervous system using this method. But I think my psychologist does EMDR too so that may also be a way of addressing intimacy issues.
It helps me too to be able to talk about this so thank you for being brave enough to post about it. I know my mother had a deep fear of intimacy, and I think my father’s mother had a traumatic time in that area of her life too. I think sometimes it can be passed down intergenerationally, and then if you have bad experiences in actual relationships it just compounds that vulnerability.
I feel the more work I do on myself to heal, the more chance I’ll have of meeting someone who I could potentially be in a healthy relationship with. But I’m also recovering from quite a lot at the moment and it’s almost like I need more retreat time to safely heal and then I might be ready to be more open to connecting with someone.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy your time this weekend with your friend. I do understand about feeling anxious about it. She sounds like a nice friend though and that there’s a good chance she’ll be understanding. You have already been really brave posting about this topic so know that you are courageous and a good person working through a challenge.
Hi there op.
l think er is on the right track and l'd suggest similar.
As to this friend , it depends whether you actually even see her in more than any friend ways first of all. lf not then your other problems don't really matter bc if your honest about that then hopefully you will just remain friends only anyway.
lf that was the case but you'd still like to talk about it with her just as a friend then you could try but if you'd rather not then really , none of that really matters either and doesn't even need to come into your friendship with her.
For the future though whether that be with her or someone else, you need someone that is just a very patient and understanding of your past person and is willing to go very very slowly with things , it might even need 6 or 12mths with her before it even gets that far.
But l'd think with someone that is like that in time your natural drive would take over bit by bit and things would develop from there if there is no pressure but understanding and time where things can be left to just develop naturally.
Your obviously not going to be out sleeping around atm so earlier in with anyone you do meet , things don't really even matter bc you will likely know within seeing her a few times that you don't even want to take things any further with her anyway.
So until you meet that special someone that you do actually wanna take things further with, really , there's no need to worry.
Best of luck anyway.
To be honest I really just see us as friends; well at least that my current feeling. It's tricky, all the panic/fear rushes in and to be honest, I really have a hard time of knowing how I feel about anyone.
Even figuring out if I'm physically attracted to someone is tricky; the anxiety gets out of control and I wouldn't have a clue. Maybe the level of anxiety is an indicator? I don't know.
The cold/hard facts of the matter are, she's actually 10 years older than me and has 3 kids... I'm 30; no kids. Her husband only moved out of their house a couple of months ago at most (although living separately under the one roof for years...). It all feels a bit off for me. With all that in mind, we click really well as friends, we have heaps of fun together, and I think that's the best thing for both of us.
You are right - it's going to take me ages to feel comfortable with anyone, 6 to 12 months seems a realistic time frame. My 'natural drive' has all but disappeared, no idea where it's gone but hopefully it comes back one day. Sleeping around is a total impossibility for me at this stage, it would be like someone with a fear of heights going skydiving.
This situation has triggered another issue of mine; I absolutely hate disappointing people/letting them down. A lot of this stems from a very controlling / emotionally abusive father (that's a whole other story), and I feel like be doing this to someone that I care about deeply which is a horrible feeling. This, on top of my fear of intimacy etc. , this is causing a huge amount of stress.
When we catch up I'm going to be really upfront and honest and really, there's one main message to impart;
I'm really not capable of being anything more than friends (with anyone) at this stage, and that's unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. It's not that complicated I guess when it's distilled to that point. I don't want her to feel bad at all for my 'weirdness' around all this, I take full ownership of that.
Last night was horrible, I really went into over-thinking mode and caused myself several panic attacks and have had to take today off work, I'm not in a good way at the moment. I'm hoping when things are cleared up, we can return to normal (I'd expect some awkwardness initially) but things will be easier.
I really appreciate your help, sometimes keeping things in perspective can be really hard
Hi op .
l can understand where your coming from but first up , with this friend. Your gut is telling you right there anyway though so for one , l'd really go with that if l were you and lf she does want more sorry to say but you'll need to say something sorry. lt might damage things a little for awhile between you as friends, or it might not but with that one man, l would def' really just stay well well away from anything more.
l did have a situation like that once with a friend until she wanted more, which never even crossed my mind it was strictly friends only. Unfortunately though when that came out and l did have to tell her. lt didn't go down well and the friendship did fizzle away from there which was sad especially as she was the only friend l had at the time but. Not to say it would go that way with you though but it can't be helped if it was too.
On anything else , really , l would just try not to worry. You won't have to know with the right girl, you just will anyway. So really until or if that comes along again one day, no one even has to know your personal business or pasts on that sort of level unless someone is a very very good friend that you trust and you feel like talking about it yourself but otherwise.
Try to relax, all the best.