Beck helps a newly divorced client overcome intimacy roadblocks—and sets her on the path to finding a soul mate.
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Martha Beck is the bestselling author of

The Way of Integrity and host of the podcast Bewildered. This article is the first in a three-part series, and it originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
It’s been three years since Erin Hearts, 38, and her husband separated. Now that the divorce is final, she’s living in Oceanside, California, with their 6-year-old son and pursuing her longtime dream of writing a memoir. But there’s one area where she still feels stuck and confused: relationships. “I’m drawn to romantic partners who are emotionally unavailable,” says Hearts, “and when someone flirts with me, I find the attention intoxicating, which makes it hard to relax and be myself.” For help making a love connection, she called life coach Martha Beck.
Martha Beck: Erin, it’s so nice to meet you! Why don’t you start by telling me how you’re feeling right this minute?
Erin Hearts: Good! I’ve learned a lot about myself in the past few years. That’s what eventually led to my divorce.
MB: Tell me more.
EH: We were together on and off since high school, but I started to realize how unhappy I was a couple of years after our son was born. When he napped, I’d try to write, something I’d always wanted to do, but I was flooded with negative thoughts: Who’d want to read this? You’re so boring. I was ashamed, so I went to therapy to get to the bottom of it. That’s when it dawned on me that things weren’t great in our marriage. They never had been. I had to leave.
MB: That must have been scary.
EH: It was. My son and I went back to California, and his dad stayed on the East Coast. Now I’m doing well, but I really need help figuring out how to have a healthy relationship. After my separation, one person I dated had some anger issues. Once, when we were in bed together, I asked him what sex meant to him, and he told me to shut up. When I said that hurt me, he claimed he was kidding. I knew I should get out of there, but for some reason I didn’t.
MB: Did you discuss it with your therapist?
EH: I haven’t had one. I made an appointment once, but the therapist seemed dismissive. When I asked whether I could see someone else, the clinic never returned my call. And since the divorce, I’ve been having problems with my insurance—I just got it back a week ago.
MB: Let’s revisit the situation where you thought you should leave the guy but didn’t. How old did you feel?
EH: About 13.
MB: Interesting.
EH: I’m also coming to terms with the fact that I’m attracted to women as well as men. I’ve had these feelings for years, but never had the opportunity to explore them. A couple of years ago, after the separation, I had too much to drink and wound up sleeping with a woman friend of mine.
MB: Is this woman gay and out?
EH: Yes. For a long time, I wasn’t sure I was really bisexual, but now I realize God must have made me this way for a reason.
MB: When you have sex with a man, do you drink to feel more comfortable?
EH: No, although sometimes I did before I was married. But I’ve stopped drinking now. Alcoholism runs in my family, so I’m careful.
MB: What’s bothering you most at the moment?
EH: I’m still drawn to people who aren’t emotionally available. Recently, a guy asked me out, but I knew he wouldn’t be a good partner for me, so I turned him down. He’s very attractive, though, and when he showed me some attention, my head went spinning.
MB: In that moment, how old did you feel?
EH: I’d have to say around 13 again. Actually, there’s something else I should bring up. I experienced some sexual abuse in my childhood—not with an adult, but with another girl my age. It started when we were just 5 and lasted till we were teenagers.
MB: Let’s talk about that, because it’s probably fundamental to understanding everything else that’s happened.
EH: Even though she was mean sometimes—she bossed me around and acted like I was lucky to hang out with her—we had fun together. But there was also inappropriate touching. She’d touch me, or touch herself in front of me. We never talked about it. For many years, I thought, How could a girl my age have done that?
MB: I’ve worked with several people who have been through something similar. When a prepubescent child does this, it’s probably because someone did it to her as well. The abuse re-creates itself because we all have a strong drive within us to speak our secrets. If we can’t tell our secret, we’re almost compulsively driven to act it out. And she was probably very angry and then projected that anger onto you. No wonder you’ve been confused. You were having this interaction before you were old enough to know what sex was.
EH: Yes, there have been times when I’ve wondered whether that’s the root of my attraction to women. I haven’t known how to separate those two things.
MB: You deserve to talk to a therapist about this. When you’re abused at such a young age, it affects your sexuality and everything connected to it for the rest of your life.
EH: In puberty, when I started to feel sexually awakened, I felt attracted to her, but then she rejected me.
MB: You were about 13?
EH: Yes. Later I found out she’d been doing the same thing with other girls. I thought I was special. I felt horrible.
MB: It’s so devastating. This relationship that imprinted on you sexually became kind of a love relationship, but at the same time, it was exploitative and controlling. I’d like you to read a book called The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis. It’s a classic that I would recommend to anyone who’s survived sexual abuse. Did you talk about this with the therapist you were seeing?
EH: She didn’t ask me much about it.
MB: Wow, that really surprises me. It sounds like a central trauma.
EH: It feels good to hear you say that.
MB: When you go back to the time the abuse began, how do you tell the story of that 5-year-old? Was she complying with something naughty? Was she a victim?
EH: I knew it had to be kept a secret, so I was ashamed. But I also didn’t want it to end. It was a source of pleasure that I wasn’t getting in other places in my life.
MB: What was going on at home that left such a huge gap in your heart?
EH: Definitely a lack of attention.
MB: Do you have siblings?
EH: One older sister.
MB: So it wasn’t like the house was full of kids and there was no time for you.
EH: No, but when I was in kindergarten and my sister was in second grade, she got in trouble a lot. It was all my parents talked about, so I tried to be quiet and stay out of the way. I was lonely.

MB: You may be thinking, Oh, everything’s fine; I just didn’t get a lot of attention. But even serial killers can’t stand solitary confinement. We need people’s eyes on us, and little kids are completely dependent. Imagine just putting your son in a corner and ignoring him.
EH: I can’t. Part of why I’m doing this work is so I can be emotionally present for him.
MB: When you look at him, you can see how vulnerable a child that age is, and you can have compassion for the little girl that you were. You mentioned that the therapist you saw before seemed dismissive. I suspect you might have been projecting what happened to you as a child. You tried to get help, but deep down you believed Nobody’s going to be there for me. You’re conditioned to duck your head and say, “I’m fine.”
EH: I’ve been thinking that I must not ask for what I need in therapy because it feels like I’m not being heard.
MB: Imagine your son in that much pain. Does he deserve to be ignored?
EH: Oh my gosh, no. Of course not.
MB: We’re not gonna stand by and let little Erin be ignored, either. Okay?
EH: Okay.
MB: Let’s start thinking about getting you a therapist who specializes in treating adults who were sexually abused as children. I know it’s very hard.
EH: I’m ready. I don’t even care about the dating thing right now; it just feels so good to be taken seriously.
MB: You’ve come to the right place. Erin, I’m really hopeful about this.
EH: Thank you. I am, too.
MB: Okay, honey, take care—and let’s check back in again in a few weeks.

Work Through Trauma to Find Your Truth
Martha Beck on Breaking Unhealthy Patterns
How to Find Courage and Joy After Loss
Martha Beck on Understanding Coincidences
Finding Meaning in Misfortune
Martha Beck on Finding Purpose
Oprah Asks, “Who’s in Your Chosen Family?”
Kirby Bumpus Made Her Son’s Nursery a Haven
Oprah on Our Urgent Need for Connection
Oprah’s “The Life You Want” Class on Connection
Oprah on How Every Mistake Is an Opportunity
Oprah on the Power of Sharing Your Story

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