Heavy Meddle: On The Perils Of Being A 40-Year-Old Romantic Virgin
Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.
I am a 40-year-old woman who has never had a real romantic relationship. Whenever I start getting close to someone, I end up sabotaging the relationship. I think deep down I am afraid they will leave me, so I explode the connection before they can hurt me.
I also struggle with low self-esteem, and have a hard time believing anyone could actually love me. I've been in and out of therapy over the years, and I've tried to heal myself, but I always end up repeating the same old patterns. Is it too late for love? How do I muster the strength, trust and self-love and start again?
Thank you in advance. I cherish this column, and your compassionate approach. I hope you might have some words of wisdom for me.
Lonely and Afraid
Dear Lonely and Afraid,
Oh my. I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been living in such pain. There is no way that one little advice column can begin to reckon with your struggle. But I do have a few things to say.
The first is that you are by no means alone.
I myself didn’t get married until I was nearly 40-years-old, and I spent many of the preceding years feeling a less extreme version of what you’re describing; that is, feeling unlovable.
In thinking about your dilemma, I found myself returning to the work of the social worker Brené Brown, who writes a great deal about shame and vulnerability. She defines shame as “a fear of disconnection.” And she talks, quite explicitly, about how people struggle to transform their lives. Positive changes, she insists, “require a platform of self-esteem.” If you haven’t, I strongly recommend that you read Brown’s book on shame, and take a look at this talk she delivered a few years ago:
I recommend these measures because Brown is very good at compelling people to recognize that a fear of vulnerability is much of what keeps them from a deeper connection with others.
My sense, from your letter, is that you should focus your attention not on finding a romantic relationship with someone else, but on the relationship you have to yourself. The real questions here are: Why do I feel I don’t deserve love? Why do I sabotage intimacy? What, precisely, is it that I’m afraid potential lovers will discover?
My sense, from your letter, is that you should focus your attention not on finding a romantic relationship with someone else, but on the relationship you have to yourself.
I do think that a skilled therapist can help you grapple with these questions. (That’s certainly what I needed.) But more important than any specific measure is a willingness to confront your struggles around intimacy, which I suspect have less to do with potential lovers and far more to do with your experiences as a child and adolescent. In my own case, I had to go back to the beginning to get to the bottom of my own fears and anxieties.
I don’t know exactly how you “muster the strength, trust and self-love and start again?” But I do know that it begins by admitting that you’re not happy with your life; that you feel isolated and cut off from passionate connection. I also know that the process of establishing those connections will require you to make yourself vulnerable. And that this process of surrendering to vulnerability will take time and require courage. People can give you good advice. But the difficult human work is yours to do.
I can tell you, for certain, that it’s not too late for love. But it’s not a matter of finding the right partner. It’s a matter of developing the bone-deep sense that you, yourself, are worthy of love.
I wish you courage on the journey,
Author's note: This letter is, in many ways, the essential question of humanity: How do we find the courage to risk deep connection? I did my best in a short space, but perhaps you readers have some additional thoughts? Send them along in the comments section below. Or, if you prefer, a letter of your own to Heavy Meddle. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.
Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.