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Dating Advice #158 - The Negative Role Models

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

With parents fighting all the time, she's not sure a happy marriage is possible.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I have been dating a woman for the last two months. Besides one major problem, she is very close to what I am looking for. We have similar, compatible goals and values. We believe each other to be good, trustworthy persons. We respect and admire each other.

But lately, trouble has been brewing. Even though she displayed and expressed clear signs of interest in continuing the courtship, she has started to create major issues from petty things. She finally admitted that her behavior comes from her troubled family. She sees her parents' frequent quarrelling and admittedly fears that her own family will be like this. She wants both of us to commit to lifelong consulting.

After her last visit to her parents and the verbal fights she witnessed, she suddenly changed her attitude toward me from affectionate to nearly despising. She said she is scared by her seeing me like her father, and admitted that she is not ready to marry at this point in life. I believe she can marry only when she understands that good families exist, and that she can build one.

I am 39. She is 33. This is for both of us one of our last chances to create a normal family. She has been wonderful most of the time. All her friends describe her as loving, generous and helpful. Should I wait for her? How long? Are we bound to lifelong crises and therapy? What signs can prove to me that she has gotten over her issues? And what work should I do on myself to better endure this challenging situation?


Dear Larry,

Your letter expresses an underlying sense of worry that is perfectly understandable, but nevertheless we hope that we can help alleviate some of your concerns. We can certainly commiserate with your situation; a man in his late 30s who probably has dated for a considerable length of time and may, for the first time in his life, be at the point that he is ready and eager to marry. He has found the person he would like to spend the rest of his life with, but is frustrated and frightened by her inability to make a commitment. It is very upsetting to develop a relationship that seems full of promise, and then to feel helpless as it begins to flounder.

Although your situation is difficult, we do not believe that it is as hopeless as it seems. We think that the woman you are dating needs more time, and some guidance, before the two of you can progress further in your courtship. While we cannot make any guarantees, if she receives both time and help, it is entirely possible that the two of you will stand together under the chuppah in the not-too-distant future.

Our approach to your dilemma starts with the premise that no two people are alike. Each of us develops our emotional involvement with a dating partner at a different pace, and each of us has different baggage to deal with as we build a relationship with the person we will marry. While some couples focus their courtship in such a way that they will be able to decide after just a few months to get married, that time frame doesn't work for everyone. Some individuals need more time to warm up and open up to another person. Others take a while to develop a strong emotional connection with their dating partner, while others need to date longer so they can overcome psychological obstacles to trust and commitment.

In addition, our experience has shown that men and women in their late 20s, 30s and 40s usually need longer courtships before they are ready to become engaged. They are more complex and guarded than younger adults, have more fears and concerns, and often have built up a number of protective layers that they must peel away before they are comfortable enough to make the leap of faith to engagement and marriage.

It seems to us that one of the difficulties you face is that the woman you are dating hasn't had enough time in your courtship. Even though you have been seeing each other for two months, we don't know how often you have gone out with each other during that time, how long it took each of you to warm up and open up to the other, and how much of an emotional connection you have built. She may still need time to adjust to the idea that you are right for each other.

Your situation is compounded by this woman's fears. We sense that there are two primary reasons why she has begun to express them. First, she is being pressured to become engaged too early in the courtship. By vocalizing doubts about marital harmony, she can bind the anxiety she feels because of this pressure. In addition, although her problem appears to be related to the disharmony in her family home, there may be other factors as well. Fortunately for both of you, she is insightful enough to realize that she needs outside help to identify and address the issue, and she is willing to get it.

The important thing right now is to find a qualified therapist or rabbi who is trained and experienced at helping singles identify and resolve issues that impede the development of a relationship that leads to a healthy marriage. However, there cannot be a time frame in which she can "expect" a resolution of her issues. Some people can address these challenges in several sessions, while others need to work for a longer period of time.

Since the issues she wants to address are hers alone, it is entirely appropriate that she work on them alone. That's why the two of you should take a short break so that she can focus on them. When the break is over, and hopefully you begin seeing each other again, we caution you not to expect an instant metamorphosis. This will be an ongoing process, and you will both have to play it by ear. We cannot give you a time frame as to when, and if, she will be ready to become engaged. However, it is a positive sign if she continues to make progress toward resolving her issues, and the two of you continue to develop an emotional connection.

If this woman's main concern does indeed stem from the fact that she grew up in an argumentative home, and she worries that she does not have the role models or the skills that will keep her from experiencing similar difficulties in her own marriage, then we suggest she find successful married couples to serve as role models for her own marriage. In fact, we encourage most single men and women in their 30s on up to find a happily-married person or couple to mentor them -- to act as their sounding board and advisor. These friends provide the positive reinforcement and encouragement that helps the single realize that she or he has found the right person and that the two of them will be able to work together to enjoy a successful marriage.

Further, if the two of you do become engaged, we encourage you to explore the idea of pre-marriage counseling. We are not talking about counseling that is designed to help a dating couple who has a volatile relationship. We are referring to a course or counseling program designed for emotionally healthy men and women who have decided they are right for each other and would like to marry, but want to work on skills that can help them have a successful marriage -- skills such as adjusting to sharing life with another person, communication, resolving small disagreements and larger issues, dealing with different attitudes about money, dealing with in-laws, maintaining emotional intimacy throughout a marriage, etc.

We believe these programs can help almost every couple, because everyone comes into a marriage with different expectations and ways of dealing with situations. This will strengthen both of your self-confidence in the ability to have a good marriage, and actually minimize the need for therapy later on. Many synagogues and Jewish outreach centers will offer such programs.

We hope that your dating partner succeeds at addressing her concerns and that the two of you are able to celebrate your engagement in the future. If that does not happen, however, we worry that you will become resigned to the idea that you have missed your "last chance." Age 39 is certainly not too old to find a life partner. Furthermore, the experience of an "almost" courtship often prepares an individual for readiness when the right person actually does come along. We have seen this happen more times than we can count; a promising courtship comes very close but does not lead to an engagement, the man and woman each mourn the loss and move on, and within a matter of several months each meet and marry someone who is much more suitable to their personalities and life goals. So if this courtship does not work out, don't get discouraged. Your soul mate is out there.

All the best,

Rosie & Sherry

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