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Dating Advice # 156 - Family Dysfunction

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Will her dark family history scare off potential dates?

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

There is an aspect of dating that has concerned me for quite some time. I am worried about the stigma of coming from a dysfunctional family. My father has a debilitating substance abuse problem and my family has very little money. My mom lives with my grandma and sister in a poor neighborhood and is doing her best.

I have come very far and have worked and continue to work on myself. I attend Alanon meetings, I have supportive friends, I have seen therapists, I have a close relationship with God, and I am learning to take care of myself (eating healthy, exercising, creating and maintaining boundaries in relationships, etc.).

But in dating, I am afraid of being judged because of my family situation. I realize that I will have to discuss my background with someone whom I date seriously, but I would prefer to wait a while to do this. Some people say this is dishonest.

My question: When do I bring these things up in a relationship, and how should I go about dealing with this stigma in general?


Dear Stefanie,

We are so impressed with how you are living your life. It seems that you are doing everything you can to overcome your difficult upbringing and enable yourself to live a happy, stable life and someday have a healthy marriage. We hope that other readers who come from unhappy or poorly functioning families can follow your example.

One of the beneficial things you have done is to establish a support system. Everyone needs a support network, which can be comprised of family and friends, as well as rabbis, teachers, neighbors, and people from synagogue.

If you haven't already developed a connection with one or two happily married families in your community, we recommend you try to do so. Even though you are an adult, these marriages can be role models for you. We often recommend that teenagers who come from homes that lack harmony, find one or two happily married couples in their extended family, or among their friend's parents. They can observe how these spouses communicate with each other, solve problems, argue and resolve disagreements, deal with their children, balance work and family, maintain involvement in their community, celebrate holidays, and the like. A young adult like you can also benefit from "adopting" one or two families to be their mentors.

Your friendships with the members of your support network will help you in many other ways. Support networks are mutual arrangements, as you undoubtedly are learning. Just as your friends, etc. are there to give you emotional support and do occasional favors, you will be there for them. Mutual support networks help everyone involved nurture their compassion and generosity. These qualities will be important to bring into a marriage.

In addition, the people in your support network can be very helpful when it comes to introducing you to potential dating partners and to act as "references" when people make inquiries about you.

We suggest that you speak with each member of your support network about your hope of meeting your future husband. Describe the qualities you are looking for and the direction you would like your life to take over the next several years. In addition, let these people know your own strengths, and what you believe you can contribute to a marriage. Then, you can speak with each of them about the effort you have put into overcoming the challenges of a difficult upbringing, without going into all of the unpleasant details of your family life. Ask your network members to bear your background in mind, but to present information about you -- your best qualities, personality, intelligence, sincerity, tenacity, and the fact you are growing as a person and always trying to improve yourself -- in a positive light, without describing the problems. That should be up to you, at the appropriate time.

We agree with you 100% that the information about your background is something that must wait until you have been dating someone a while and have begun to develop a level of trust. Telling "family secrets" on a first date, or even on one of the first several dates, will probably scare your partner away -- not because he is "horrified" at what you have to say, but because it is very personal information that most people are not comfortable hearing from someone they have not gotten to know.

When you and your dating partner have gotten to the point that you are very comfortable talking about all sorts of subjects and have begun to talk about very personal matters, you can tell him that you have worked very hard to overcome a difficult background and can give him a small amount of information about your family situation. It isn't necessary to recount more than the most basic details and to answer your dating partner's questions. As time goes on and you develop a closer emotional connection, you will probably share more information with him. If you need further guidance about this, you can ask you rabbi about the type of information you should share and when you should introduce it.

We realize that it is possible that your date may have already learned that your parents aren't together or that your family life was less than ideal. Yet, even open-minded people are right to be concerned about a prospective date's upbringing because it may have an effect on that person's capability of building and maintaining a happy and stable relationship.

We counsel single men and women and the parents and friends who try to set them up with dating partners not to reject a suggestion simply because the person's background is less than ideal, but to look into the person's character. How are his personal skills? His relationships with his close friends? Do they believe he has the capability of communicating openly, resolving conflicts, giving other people emotional support? Is she emotionally stable? How has she addressed the difficulties she encountered when she was growing up? If the answers are positive, and the two people seem to have common values and goals and compatible personalities, we recommend they go out on a date!

Unfortunately, the reality is that some people will reject you because of your background and will not look into you as an individual. They hear the words, "divorce", "separation", "poverty," or "drugs" and refuse to listen anymore. They don't even ask for details, positive or negative. Some people are simply not open-minded. Others are afraid they will lose status if they or their child doesn't marry into a family that they can admire. This is a fact of life, and there is little you can do about it. Trust us, there are many people who are more interested in you as a person than how you are labeled.

We hope that you find our suggestions helpful, and that you someday soon find the man who is right for you and begin to build a lovely life together.

Rosie & Sherry

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