I know this from experience. For many years, memories of early heartache kept me out of a healthy relationship.
In my case, the heartache occurred at a young age. I felt rejected, abandoned, unlovable and somehow faulty because I was parented by parents who, bless them, were disconnected from their own emotions and who struggled to love themselves. Therefore, they were unable to give me the loving and nurturing I needed.
This feeling that I was unlovable, that I’d done something wrong, was sealed when my dad announced he was moving out of our family home and separating from my mum. Sitting on his knee, hearing him announce his departure, my heart broke.
You will have your own memories of heartache or your own experiences of heartbreak. Perhaps your parents were unable to give you what you needed. Perhaps you lost a parent early on. Maybe you were bullied at school, or maybe a partner rejected you when you were young. Your heartache may also be connected to a previous marriage that broke down.
The expression once bitten, twice shy comes to mind. We remember being hurt once and we don’t want to get hurt again. In my case, I made a decision, deep in my subconscious, that love equalled pain and it was to be avoided at all costs.
I avoided love in a number of ways. Here are three examples:
1. I threw myself into my career, keeping myself so busy that I didn’t have time or space in my life for dating or relationships.
2. I ran away from emotionally available people and fell into relationships with unavailable people, because that was my way of keeping myself ‘safe’ from hurt.
3. I found fault with all the healthy partners I met, judging and criticising them, labelling them not good enough.
If you recognise yourself in any of these patterns above, that’s a good thing. It means you are growing in self-awareness and awareness is the first step to change.
Once we become aware of our deep wounds, we can start to heal them. We can open our hearts to love. We can risk being vulnerable.
Of course, we don’t want to go to the opposite extreme, launching ourselves into relationships without taking care of our tender heart. This would be foolhardy.
In Proverbs 4 verse 23, we’re advised: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” So how do we find the right balance between guarding and opening our hearts. Try the following steps:
1. Date slowly, mindfully and consciously
Take things at a steady pace. Start with coffee dates and outdoor walks. Avoid getting physical too fast, as physical intimacy can cloud our judgement and lead us to override the intuitive voice that’s telling us this person isn’t right for us. Notice if you are dating with a deep craving for love and affection, as this can lead to an unhealthy connection. Ask the important questions to see if you are aligned in terms of your values.
2. Notice any red flags
Is the person you’re dating emotionally available? Do you notice any signs that they’re disconnected from their feelings or attached to someone else? Do you feel content and peaceful around them, or do you feel anxious and on edge? Are they moving the relationship along too fast, ramping up the intensity? Are they respecting your boundaries?
3. Date with support
From my own experience of dating, it’s important to get as much support as possible. If you have a positive or negative feeling about your date or partner, check it out with someone else, with a friend, a church leader, a counsellor or a coach. Share how your relationship is progressing. Notice if you feel inclined to keep secrets about the relationship from people you respect and trust. This is a sign that you’re going against your intuition.
Ultimately, you will make your own decisions about the relationship, ideally in conversation with God, but it’s helpful to have other people by your side, cheering you on as you date.
One of my favourite sayings is ‘hurt happens in relationship and healing happens in relationship too.’ Romantic relationships have the power to heal many of our past wounds, provided we find that balance between risking our heart and guarding our heart.