If you have been through a painful breakup, you may have lost trust in yourself and in romance. You may feel discouraged by dating apps or meeting new people. But don’t despair: experts share some advice on how to recover and move on.
Sarah, 44, has only been on two dates since she left her partner five years ago. “I’m terrified of trusting someone like I did before,” she says. “Whenever I look at a dating app – which is very rare – I only see red flags in people’s profiles. I wish I could find someone, but I’m afraid of being hurt again.”
Sarah and her partner were together for eight years. They planned to have children someday, but he changed his mind and exploited her financially. When they broke up, he admitted he never wanted a family. “It was a huge blow for me. I felt like I had lost everything, because I had lost myself in that relationship. It was a devastating change for me, even though I needed to get out of that relationship.” At the time, it felt as if she had “failed as a human being”, she says. “It’s not just trusting other people; it’s trusting myself. I let myself get into a situation before and now I don’t trust my own judgment; how will I know if someone is lying to me again?”
We asked our readers to tell us about their experiences of losing faith in love. We received many stories of abuse, cheating, ghosting and disappointment.
One woman, who is black, realised that she was being “sexualised by white men”. The last time she went on a date, the man tried to force himself on her and dumped her when she refused. “It seems like men only want one thing from me,” she wrote – and they don’t care about her feelings.
One man, 54, has been single for most of his adult life after a bad breakup at university: “I never got over her and I couldn’t move on with my life,” he wrote. A 47-year-old woman wrote: “I’m exhausted. I have too much baggage and trauma. I’m scared of falling in love and getting hurt again.”
“It’s normal to feel scared after being in a toxic relationship,” says Jo Hemmings, a behavioural psychologist and relationship coach. “It makes people hesitant and fearful of patterns repeating themselves.”
Hemmings says you need time to think about what happened and whether there were clues that you missed or chose to ignore. It can help you realise what you don’t want, “even if it doesn’t give you a lot of information about what you do want”. A therapist can help with impartiality and with identifying what you could learn from your experiences, she says: “It’s comforting to have friends who all say: ‘I hated them anyway,’ but it’s not always that helpful.”
There is nothing wrong with being single, stresses Hemmings, but if you would like to be in a relationship again, taking your time will pay off. How long it takes varies for everyone, but one sign that you may be ready is when it doesn’t feel like the odds are against you. “Am I ready to go for it, take that risk, use what I’ve learned from previous poor relationships and put them into effect?” says Hemmings. “Or do I still think it’s probably not going to work out well? Do I not trust men, or women?”
There is always a risk that you will be disappointed or heartbroken again, she says: “You’ve got to be aware that any relationship could unravel for whatever reason.” But by taking the time to learn from previous relationships, rather than jumping into another, “you get better at spotting the signs”.
Many of us “tend to see relationships in terms of pass or fail,” says Cate Campbell, a sex, relationships and trauma psychotherapist. “If you think of them in terms of self-development, then it’s more difficult to pass or fail: this is what happened, this is what was successful about it, this is what I want in the future, this is what I don’t want.” Campbell asks: if you are scared to restart your love life, what is it that you are scared of? “Repeating the pattern? If you know what it is, you can be alert to it. Often, it is the fear of rejection. In that case, think about what you actually want. Do you want this to be a lifelong relationship, or are you just looking for some fun? What form should that fun take? Go into the relationship knowing that and not thinking: ‘I’ll only be validated if this person wants to be with me for ever.’”