I am concerned about my overattachment to men I hardly know. Can I date safely? | Leading questions

I divorced from my husband over a year ago (we had been living separately for a couple of years before that). He was the absolute love of my life – we were together for 26 years until his one-off infidelity with my half-sister. It was a horrific time. I have lost both of them, but live happily now with my teenage children in my own home. I have a great job, lovely friends, I’m independent and am told I am attractive.

I have since subscribed to a couple of online dating sites and realise I am almost addicted to the validation I get from them – the likes, smiles, swipes etc. This has led to a very intense but short-term online interaction with a guy that I absolutely fell for. I might have even said I felt like I was in love. He met someone else and stopped communicating with me, and I was devastated. It took weeks to get over.

More recently I went on one date with someone who I was very attracted to and we had so much in common, it looked promising. He decided he would rather be just friends and while I said that was fine and I understood, behind the scenes it was like a bereavement. I had a terrible physical response – trembling, crying, vomiting. Couldn’t work, sleep or function properly.

I am concerned about my overattachment to men I hardly know and the impact it has on me. Friends talk about having “fun” on these sites, but I experience either extreme highs or utter despair when I am rejected. I am worried that I can’t do dating safely, as I cannot go through this overwhelm and abandonment every time.

Eleanor says: I think it feels like a bereavement because in some small way it is: having our excitement dashed feels like a miniature-scale model of a heartbreak.

There’s not a soul alive who hasn’t mourned a new relationship more than strictly made sense – the trick is to recognise what we’re actually grieving.

You say you’re overly attached to these men. But I wonder whether the grief isn’t for them, exactly, but for what they come to represent. You went through an awful loss with your husband. Dating again must have taken no small amount of bravery. What might the prospect of a date mean to you now, that makes it so thrilling to have and so crushing to lose?

Is it about proof of value? Sometimes we’re only able to see the wonderful things about ourselves through other people’s eyes. We thrill when another person sees our talent, promise or beauty, because it’s the only time we get to have a glimpse of it ourselves.

Is it about having hope? Does the giddiness of new romance feel like a chance at something capital-G good; do these small-scale rejections bring back too much of the feeling your spouse made you endure?

These are guesses, of course, and a professional would be able to help you get to the root of these intense physical reactions.

But I think part of why it hurts so much when a love interest gets snuffed out early is that we lose what it symbolised as well as what it was.

The good news is that this realisation can help make rejection bearable. Here’s how: let’s say that when you lose these people, you aren’t grieving for them so much as a set of hopes. Well then equally, what they’re rejecting isn’t you – how could they know all of you so quickly? – but whatever you came to symbolise to them.

They sketched an outline of you in their minds with impressions and shorthands and expectations – none of which has much to do with what you actually are. It isn’t you, it’s a person they drew who looks like you. And you are not responsible for the version of yourself that other people make inside their heads.

Don’t beat yourself up for feeling too validated by these dating sites. A lot of design expertise goes into keeping your eyeballs and emotions glued to them. Dating apps can be like a slot machine for the heart: the “jackpot” always just one round away.

Maybe it would be more fun to make initial date-connections in person, where ghosting is a little harder and idealisation a little slower, or to try the “friends” setting on some of these apps; lower-stakes ways to forge connections while you figure out the origins of this pain.

It’s fun to send people a drink in a bar or to pass a phone number on a folded-up napkin, and in real life you get the fun little moment of realising you’re both looking at the other. These little electric jolts might give you the thrills of dating on a scale that feels more manageable.

Until then, try to hold on to the thought that early romance is as much about imagination as reality. When someone walks away, it might just be from the fantasy.

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