I am a 50-year-old queer woman, embarking on a new relationship after leaving my previous partner of eight years. My new lover is beautiful, smart, insightful, passionate and she actually takes my breath away. We have been dating for about three months. I like what we have and I am extremely fond of her. However, I find myself catastrophising our relationship.
I feel a sense of dread a lot of the time and suspect that there is a part of me that might be self-sabotaging us, based on the belief that she will eventually break my heart. I don’t know how to stop this. I just want to enjoy the relationship, instead of being constantly worried and jumping to the worst conclusions about our future.
Eleanor says: This kind of dread is like your mind offering you a self-protective deal: constantly scan for possible bad things, and at least that way they won’t surprise you. It’s a bad bargain. All it does is make you think about catastrophe a lot, and when it happens, it doesn’t hurt any less.
It is very hard to loosen the tentacles that dread wraps around the mind, but I’ve found this thought helps: nothing bad will happen to you just because you feel afraid. Suppose you get gripped with the sudden sense that your partner doesn’t care; is lying; will leave. Whatever the burst of dread is about, the feeling alone can’t hurt you.
Once you realise that, you realise you don’t have to do anything to make it go away. Fear likes to present itself as urgent and agenda-setting; it barges in and takes for granted that you’ll cancel your plans to spend time with it.
But armed with the knowledge that it can’t hurt you, you can stop responding to it as though it will. You don’t have to soothe it, or run from it, or even think about it at all. You can just … do nothing. For me, this thought was utterly emancipatory: the more I responded to dread by simply not doing anything reassurance-seeking, the more the dread learned it wasn’t needed. The goal isn’t to be free of fear, but to be free despite it.
It can help, too, to notice when you feel the least dread about your relationship and then put yourself in those situations more. Absorbed in work? Doing something with your hands? Laughing? Chase the things that make you forget to be anxious.
But a word of caution: while you work to calm your worry, do be careful with your partner. To the person on the receiving end, dread and wrath can feel very much alike: they both make a roulette of what reaction you’ll get today.
There’s a fine line between sharing your fears with a partner so they can help, and sharing them as though they’re the only person who can help. The healthy version usually feels like a request or an apology: “I know this isn’t rational, but…” The unhealthy version feels like a demand or an accusation, as though if they really cared, you wouldn’t feel like this. This latter thought is a lie that will eat you both.
Hypervigilance promises you safety at the same time as it erodes it: it overlays disaster onto your sunny afternoons, holds up the gifts you’ve been given and tells you they’re illusions. What a curse.
It’s natural to worry about losing the things you want to keep – but the worry doesn’t get to control you. To face it down, you must control yourself.
This question has been edited for length
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