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Dating Advice #199 - No Surprises!

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

When spouse-hunting, how to ensure that what you see is what you get.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I was recently divorced after an abusive marriage that lasted for six months. I would like to get married again, because I know that there are good people out there, but I am afraid of making another bad choice. What should I look for when I start dating once again?

It turned out that my former husband had a long history of mental illness that went back to his childhood, and this fact was well hidden from me by his family. When we were dating, I was impressed by how gentle and kind he was, but I was concerned that he sometimes acted controlling and became emotional very fast. It wasn't until after the wedding that he became physically and emotionally abusive. I felt trapped and thankfully I had the help of special people who helped me escape the nightmare I was in.

I have a very loving, supportive family. I enjoy my job, and have a great social life. Now that I am starting to date again, I really could use your advice.


Dear Esther,

In terms of your emotions, appreciate that you are starting from a very healthy place - you have a highly positive attitude about life, and this will help you in all aspects of your life. People with a positive outlook radiate a more attractive appearance, perform better at work, and seem to be easier for others to talk to. There are a lot of reasons why your feelings are so positive, including the temperament you were born with, the high self-esteem you developed as you grew up, and the continual love and support you receive from your parents and family.

Some "survivors" of abusive, short-term marriages don't have these blessings. Their self-esteem may be low, and they may erroneously feel that they were somehow responsible for their spouse's abusive behavior, or that they'll never be able to have a healthy marriage. They may not have developed coping skills, and may not have the support system to move forward in life.

Fortunately, these individuals can do a great deal to change their outlook on life and their environment. If their family cannot provide them with the emotional support they need, they can look outside the family. Often, friends who are also in their 20s do not have the life experience to fill this need, but organizations such as the Shalom Task Force and the National Council of Jewish Women can help victims of abusive marriages find a support group with which they can identify.

It's also important for a survivor of abuse to build self-esteem. This is a process that will take time, but can be begun with the help of a therapist and/or with a self-help program such as a Dale Carnegie course. We also recommend volunteering for a charity or community project as a way for an individual to enhance her belief in her ability to make a positive impact on the lives of others and, by extension, on her own life.

Pre-Screening Process

Regarding returning to the dating scene, we've found that most people with similar experiences feel guarded as you do, and with good reason. Their trust was betrayed by their former spouse, by his or her family, and by other people who could have alerted them to a potential problem. Intellectually, they know that most of the people they will date in the future will be emotionally healthy individuals who are capable of building enduring, happy marriages, but they cannot help thinking that if they were duped one time they can be duped again.

We have a number of suggestions that can help you choose a good prospective dating partner and obtain an accurate picture about who he really is before you consider marrying him.

It's always a good idea to find out information about a prospective dating partner before going out. This is one way to discover if you two have common values and goals that will lay the foundation for a successful relationship. It is also a way to screen potential marriage partners for suitability in other ways, such as background, lifestyle objectives, and general personality traits, including whether a potential husband or wife is emotionally healthy and has appropriate coping skills. We think that this is a practice that should be adopted, and adapted, by all marriage-minded people.

Some people labor under the false hope that "wishing" a good marriage will make it so.

Unfortunately, some people labor under the false hope that "wishing" someone to have a good marriage will make it so. Your husband's family probably hid his emotional problems from you because they mistakenly believed that with the support of an emotional stable wife, he would "straighten out." Undoubtedly, your husband also hoped that his marriage to you would succeed, but he wasn't healthy enough for this to happen. In all likelihood, his family so desperately wanted him to have a normal life that they fail to consider the fact that in his current condition he could not be a functional, stable spouse. Or they may have attributed outbursts and erratic behavior to typical adolescent behavior that he outgrew.

It is true that the pre-screening process has some problems. Some people are so concerned about ruining another individual's chance to get married that they will not reveal accurate information. Another problem is that someone who checks out a potential dating partner doesn't always go to the people who are in the best position to give an answer. Someone may be eager to help but may not know enough information.

Nevertheless, pre-screening is an important first step. The key to making it work is to figure out who to talk to and what to ask. Try to speak to people who know him from different frames of reference - as a roommate, employer, former teacher, neighbor, co-worker, rabbi. To ascertain whether someone knows him well enough to be informative, ask questions that have to be answered in a narrative format, rather than by a yes or no. How long have you known him? How would you describe your relationship? How often do you see each other/ talk on the telephone? What do the two of you do when you are together?

Try to speak to someone who has known your perspective date for a long time, even if they haven't been in touch lately and even if his lifestyle has changed since they were close. At least one reference should be a current friend, neighbor, or mentor.

Investigative Research

Remember that checking out a potential dating partner is not a hunt for negative information. If you hear something negative, don't rush to pass judgment. You may receive incomplete or inaccurate information from someone who doesn't know the person or the situation well enough. It is also possible that you may speak to someone who has unrealistically optimistic standards. That is why we recommend speaking to a few people, especially if you hear or sense something negative. You do not want to reject or accept someone based on incomplete or misunderstood information.

Some questions are more appropriate for roommates and close friends, others are better asked of mentors or teachers. Here are some ideas to adapt:

  • What is it like being around him?
  • Describe his personality.
  • Is he dependable? Independent? Can he take charge of a situation?
  • How patient is he?
  • How does he react when a friend or family member has a problem?
  • Have you ever seen him deal with an emergency or crisis? How did he react?
  • Does he have friends? Does he have close friends? What are they like?
  • Does he really open up to people?
  • Do you think he is a loyal friend/study partner/roommate?
  • How does he show appreciation?
  • Have you ever seen him deal with frustration or disappointment? Describe what happened and how he dealt with it.
  • How does he deal with his responsibilities?
  • When he is a guest for Shabbos, does he help out? Does he pay compliments?
  • Has he ever gone through an emotionally difficult period in his life? When? How did it resolve itself?
  • What qualities can he bring to a marriage?
  • Do you have any concerns about his ability to be an emotionally healthy marriage partner? What are they?
  • What is his family like?
  • How do the parents get along with each other? (You can ask this even if they are divorced.)
  • What kind of relationship does he have with his parents? His siblings?

Although those who are not accustomed to the "checking out" process, may think that some of these questions are too probing, they are a good precautionary measure. We no longer live in small villages in which everyone could observe each other's strengths and shortcomings.

Questions to Ask

Pre-screening is only the first step in the process of learning about a dating partner. Dating is your opportunity to listen and observe. In addition to talking about each other's jobs, studies, interests, hobbies, political opinion, tastes in music, and ways to have fun, we suggest that you ask questions that will give you more insight into your date's interpersonal skills, consideration for others, attitudes about family life, ways of dealing with problems and conflict, need for power and control, and coping skills. Dr. Lisa Aiken suggests a number of questions that can give you insight into the character and interpersonal skills of a potential dating partner. These include:

  • What was it like growing up in your family?

  • What is your idea of the kind of relationship you would like to have with your wife?

  • How did your parents relate to each other? Do you want a marriage that is similar or different?

  • How were you disciplined as a child? Do you agree with this?

  • How would you like to discipline your children when they lie, or when they misbehave or make a mistake?

  • When do you think a spouse of a parent should use physical force? When is it appropriate?

  • How did your parents express anger, affection, disagreement? How do you?

  • Did anyone ever throw things or hit when they were angry?

  • How did your parents spend time with one another? With you?

  • What do you feel were the most difficult times in your family? How did they affect you?

  • Have you ever seen someone with a great marriage that you would like to emulate?

  • How do you feel when people criticize you and how do you respond to the criticism?

  • Who do you get along with? Who don't you get along with?

  • How do you react when someone angers you?

  • How do you get along with siblings and parents? How do you respond when they argue with you or hurt your feelings?

  • How do you deal with conflict? Do you explode? Withdraw?

  • How do you expect each partner to handle money in your marriage? Who will pay the bills, use the checks and the credit cards, decide the budget?

  • What is your attitude to a wife working? Are there any jobs you wouldn't want your wife to have? Will you be supportive of a spouse's plans to finish school or obtain an advanced degree?

  • Has a doctor prescribed medications for you in the past three years? For what condition? What do they do? How long will they be needed? How often are you supposed to take them? How often do you take them?

Red Flags

During both the pre-screening process, and during dating, make it a point to follow up on any answers that cause you concern. Consider it a red flag when someone avoids your question or gives an unresponsive or incomplete answer.

Even the best of us can have a bad day and may even display anger when sufficiently provoked, and dating partners who are well-suited to each other may sometimes disagree and even have an argument. However, there are certain red flags that can indicate that a dating partner has difficulty with self-control or a more serious emotional problem. These include sudden mood changes that appear to be triggered by something minor, a seeming difficulty to control outbursts of temper, or an outpouring of verbal abuse. Someone who engages in any form of physical violence (pushing, shoving, hitting) when angry or frustrated displays an obvious red flag, even if he or she later apologizes and acts contrite. These behaviors tend to escalate as time goes on. Most of us are on our best behavior when we are dating; someone who is unable to control temper or emotions during courtship has a larger problem.

The way your date treats others, is the way he'll eventually treat you.

A narcissistic personality - arrogance, thinking too highly of oneself, or thinking oneself is above the law or better than others - is another red flag. So is showing disdain for and disrespect toward people who are engaged in service jobs such as taxi driver, parking attendant, waiter, doorman (this is the way you can expect to be treated when your date is no longer on his or her best behavior), or speaking toward you in a way that indicates lack of respect or even contempt.

Controlling behavior is also a red flag. Some people who have controlling tendencies are nevertheless able to engage in healthy give and take with the person they care about. A controlling personality becomes problematic when a person displays possessiveness, efforts to isolate a partner from friends and family, jealousy, dictating what the other person should wear, checking up on the other person several times a day, insisting that the other person limit her education or ability to work, and limiting her access to money, her daily activities, and even the books she can read. The controlling person will rationalize all of these behaviors, and will have difficulty accepting your refusal to meet his demands. As time goes on, he can react in anger and or violence if his demands aren't met.

Dating Advice

It's also important to find out if your dating partner has someone he looks up to as being wise and knowledgeable, someone he can respect and turn to for guidance. It's a red flag when an individual isn't humble enough to acknowledge that someone can be wiser than himself, or cannot take advice.

Another red flag is someone who cannot bear the idea of someone being better than him - he always has to have the highest score at a game, or be right and the other person wrong. Such a person always has to be the "winner," which also means that a spouse will inevitably be the "loser."

Because a dating partner who is mentally unstable usually also has many good qualities, many people may be willing to overlook or dismiss the red flags they observe. They'd like to believe they are overreacting to someone who is likeable or comes from a good family. Nevertheless, this is an area in which it is important to trust one's instincts. Someone who gets a feeling that something is "weird" or out of place, or feels uncomfortable about an aspect of their dating partner's behavior or personality, should ask more questions and look deeper.

One more factor to bear in mind when you are dating for marriage is that all of us are on our best behavior during the early part of the dating process. As we get to know each other well and feel more comfortable in each other's presence, we tend to let our guard down and act more like our true selves.

Vary what you do on a date.

We suggest that people vary what they do on a date. Enjoy some proactive activities - cook a meal together, buy a gift for someone, plan a surprise outing for each other. Go on at least one date that is seven or eight hours long, so that each of you can see how the other acts when you are tired.

Believe it or not, it can actually be helpful to make a small mistake or do something to annoy your date, which will elicit a reaction. You might forget something you need and ask to turn back, get lost on your way to a restaurant or event, etc.

It is also a good idea to spend a date or two in the company of other people you know, such as each other's friends or family.

We know that we've given you a lot of information that will take time to digest. It may seem to be excessive, but in our opinion it is simple common sense. Our world is more complex than ever before. There are many great potential marriage partners out there, but there are also a small number who are not suited for marriage at this point in their lives. Our suggestions will help you make the distinction. We wish you the best of luck and a great future.

Rosie & Sherry

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