Sex & Relationships

“I’m Terrified of Dating—Help!”

Our wicked-smart sex and relationships columnist, Kate Carraway, to the rescue!

Julianne Hough's TK is afraid to date again, but Josh Duhamel's TK has other ideas in Safe Haven

Julianne Hough’s Katie is afraid to date again, but Josh Duhamel’s Alex has other ideas in Safe Haven

I’m single. I badly want to be in a relationship but I am scared of some issues that go along with that. My previous relationships have left me hurting, badly, and I don’t want to go through the same thing again. How can I get over my fear? —Jane

So okay, I don’t want to be a traitor to this endeavor and all (is Clueless situated firmly enough in the canon that I don’t have to cite it here?), but the way we (“we” is gross) usually talk about fear is just garbage.

It’s not even regular garbage, springy with fresh uselessness, but the pile of garbage that was forgotten on the curb and has frozen into some pruney-sub-garbage pile of garbage. It’s the worst. It’s the worst because fear is, almost for sure, the most common and constant life-problem—how many moments in your day are guided by something other than managing fear on some level? Not very many pal! But fear is so rarely articulated for what it is, and so rarely considered an alive thing, a complex thing, a thing that implicates all of the details and contours of your history and circumstances. Right? Even when we (“we”!) talk about fear, or think about fear, it’s usually done with fear, as if being specific and doom-ily honest about it makes fear bigger or worse or more likely to prove itself right.

I think the problem—this problem, anyway—with fear is that it is easy to miss, or just easy to explain as something else, like when a person doesn’t acknowledge even wanting something because the fear of it has already rushed in and engulfed it. And then when you can admit that you’re afraid, and nudge it around with the toe of your Converse, like you’re doing right now, it simultaneously privileges and diminishes the fear as this distinct, overcome-able thing, “the” thing that’s in the way, if only you could just… get over it.

Fear, though, might be better considered an atmosphere. I dunno, I don’t know science. But, if I count up the fear I’ve experienced today—the moments that have, by 10 a.m.-ish on a Friday, been so obviously fear-oriented—it would take like three columns worth of words. Fear is also a good, natural boundary, like eyebrows and barfing, without which we might be doing, I guess, any of the infinity things we have bad instincts toward but don’t do, because sometimes our fear is right, or at least instructive. When fear involves itself in your romantic decisions—and it doesn’t for everyone; I love these people who are very “I’ll go on a date with anyone!” when a rude stranger hits on them and all “It’s a learning experience!” about a failed relationship—it’s doing that to help you, because sex and love and relationships, while probably the meaning of life, can also hurt you. Fear is the necessary, balancing, you-in-danger-girl half of doing anything worth doing; your job isn’t to eliminate or ignore fear, like we’re told to, or even to accept it on its own terms as something that limits you. I think your job, instead, is to understand what the fear is there for, what it’s doing, what it means.

(Complicating this is that fear, I think, also exists where we think it doesn’t. You know that “leap” that people talk about, that “dive”? That special, stupid kind of magical thinking? Like, “He has done nothing at all to establish himself as a caring person with an interest in me, but I’ll devote my weekend to positively interpreting his one-word text messages”? That’s a kind of fear, too.)

Relationship fear, specifically, is at least somewhat predictable. We’re all kind of sad bunnies about the same stuff. Try to get to know your fear and what it’s doing for and against you by separating out risk itself—which is good—from the expectation associated with that risk, the thing you’re afraid will or won’t happen. So, going on a date with a guy who likes you, to see what’s up, is good; pretending that you have feelings when you don’t, because you’re afraid of being alone, is bad. Liking or loving someone, because you’ve caught feelings and whoomp there it is, is good; assuming they feel the same way, because you’re afraid of how you’ll feel if they don’t, is bad. The magic that contributes to like and love and fairy-dusted ideas of forever is good. Using that magic against itself—against yourself—is bad. When you come at a hook-up or date or relationship having been down to the very depths of your fears, then, knowing what they’re telling you, the fear kind of… goes away, all on its own.

More great advice from Kate Carraway:
Help! My Boyfriend Sucks at Giving Gifts
Will Dating My Co-Worker Ruin My Life?
Why Do Women Pretend to be Someone They’re Not?
I’m Dating a Woman. What Do I Tell People?
Should I Be Worried About My Guy’s ‘Good Friend’?
Is My Sensitive Boyfriend Just Not All That Deep?
How Can I Make My Boyfriend Initiate Sex More?
We Had the Perfect Date and Then I Never Saw Him Again…
Help! My Boyfriend and I Are From Different Worlds
Help! My Friend Has Become a Selfie-Obsessed Monster
Help! My Girlfriend Is Always on a Diet
Help! My Boyfriend Is Better Looking Than Me
I’m So Tired of Hearing About My Friends’ Boring Babies.
I Have Proof My Friend’s BF Is Cheating. Do I Tell Her?
My Best Friend’s Life Is Perfect. Can I Tell Her to Stop Complaining Already? 
How Young Is Too Young?
Is Long Distance a Dealbreaker?
When Do I Need to Disclose My Dismal $$$ Sitch?
How Can I Curb My Tinder-Rejection Sads?
When Should My Guy & I Talk “Numbers”?
Can We Be FWB When He Wants More?
Is It Ever OK to Date a Friend’s Ex?
How Do I Get Over a Guy?
Why Aren’t I More Obsessed With My BF?
Should I Propose to My Guy?