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Dating Maze #242 - Unproductive Patterns

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

Whenever a relationship should be turning serious, she hits a brick wall.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

Thank you for your fine work. Your advice is always enlightening and meaningful. I look forward to reading how you solve other's problems. Now I am hoping that you can help me, too.

I haven't been in the dating scene too long, but already I see a problematic pattern: Whenever a relationship should be turning serious, I tend to hit a brick wall. For example, I dated a wonderful guy for five months. He fit "the list" perfectly, and there certainly was a chemistry. But despite talking daily and seeing each other constantly, it just didn't move forward. Those "serious" conversations that couples are supposed to have never arose. So although we were having fun, we recognized that something was wrong and we broke up.

I understand today that that particular relationship wasn't destined to work. But what's scaring me is that serious conversations never arise with any of the guys I've gone out with. I'll date a guy for two months, and we can discuss life, family, goals and found things to be clicking on all those cylinders -- and yet never felt the "big click." Who can I turn to for guidance on these topics? Or am I maybe a more closed person than I realize. Or even though this issue has come up a few times -- perhaps it's not me, but them. What do you think?


Dear Becky ,

You can't imagine what an impact your short letter to us is going to have on many people. It isn't just because the situation you describe is something that affects a lot of people. More important, it's because you had the courage to seek advice even though you've only been dating a short while. When you saw a recurrent unproductive pattern, you had the foresight to say, "Something isn't working for me, and I don't know how to change it on my own. Maybe I should turn to someone else for help."

Many daters believe that asking for guidance is an admission that something is "wrong."

There are all sorts of addresses to turn to for help: a dating mentor, a workshop on communication skills, a therapist, or a self-help book. Unfortunately, many daters are reluctant to ask for guidance, because they believe that doing so is an admission that something is "wrong" with them. It can take them a long time to come to the realization that successful dating (just as with like driving a car, using a computer for the first time, or baking a souffle) doesn't come naturally to most people, and that many people benefit from a few "tutorials." While it's never too late, the earlier a person seeks guidance, the faster their dating can become productive.

You've already done some of the "homework" that we give people when they come to us for advice. We ask them to examine their dating history to identify recurrent unproductive patterns. For one person, it could be never getting past a first or second date. For another, it could be choosing dating partners who are clearly not interested in marriage, or who are charming but shallow. Another person could bolt from courtships as soon as she senses they are becoming "serious."

You've identified an inability to develop emotional intimacy -- the sense of friendship, trust, and emotional connectivity that dating couples want to have as they move their relationship forward.

Your next step is to figure out how that pattern manifests itself when you are dating. To do that, we encourage you to think about what goes on over the course of your courtships, and to write down your thoughts. Don't try to analyze what you're writing. That will take place later. For now, think about these questions:

  • Have you felt an emotional connection with any of the men you've dated? (Even if you realized that he was wrong for you because important areas like goals, values, or lifestyle expectations were too far apart.) What did that connection feel like? What was the difference between that and the courtships in which you were trying too hard?

  • When you date someone who seems "right on paper" -- who has much of the background, goals, lifestyle expectations, and personal qualities you're looking for -- but you don't seem to be connecting on an emotional level, what do you do? How long do you keep trying before you realize it isn't working? Is it possible that you're trying too hard to create chemistry where it simply doesn't exist? (It's entirely possible that this is the heart of the issue.)

We've all heard the expression, "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet your prince." While it's true that many daters have to experience their share of unsuitable dates before they meet Mr. or Ms. Right, it's also true that many people have to go out with a number of dates who are "almost right" before they meet a person who is just right for them. It's frustrating and disappointing to know that your dating partner has the right "qualifications" and is someone you really would like to be able to connect with, but try as you might it just isn't happening! You might wonder if there's something wrong with you, when the truth is -- it just isn't the right match.

In spite of the disappointment you may feel, something good can come out of a date with someone who's "almost right." The experience tells you that even though this person wasn't right for you, there are living, breathing men who are in the ballpark, and it is just a matter of time before you meet the right one for you.

Because you've been dating for a relatively short period of time, it could very well be that you just haven't met the right person. Many people are on the dating scene for two, three, even 10 years, meeting both "frogs" and "almost rights," before they meet the person they will marry.

It's important to remember that God will send the right person at the right time, and that this timing can be influenced by our own efforts to help ourselves achieve our goals. We can do this by:

  • Honing our networking skills and doing a good job of letting others know who we are and the qualities we are looking for.
  • Learning to recognize when a courtship isn't working, so that we don't spin our wheels and get nowhere.
  • Re-examining how we choose dating partners our style of dating.
  • Broadening our own horizons; improving our character.
  • And of course, asking God for help .

Questions to Ask

Even though there is a strong likelihood that you just need more time to meet the right person, we think it's a good idea to also explore the possibility that you haven't been able to develop emotional intimacy with a dating partner because some internal factor is blocking you from doing so. If that's the case, then you'll keep encountering problems until you deal with the blockage. To help you understand if something could be blocking you, there are a few questions we'd like you to ask yourself.

Do you have trouble opening up to people in general, such as close girlfriends or family members? Are there any personal "secrets" you keep even from the people who are closest to you? If you have difficulty revealing who you really are to a good friend, it's not surprising that you can't open up to a dating partner.

Alternatively, perhaps it takes you a long time to feel comfortable or safe enough to confide in another person. So, you could be open with your friends but hold back with your dating partner, even after you'd been dating for a number of months. Or, something could be going on in your life that's inhibiting you from letting your dating partner "in." Perhaps there is a crisis in your family, or you aren't really sure where your life is headed, or your family life has been in turmoil for a while.

Are you afraid to reveal too much, too soon?

In what ways is it hard for you to open up to someone you are dating? Are you able to express your emotions, tastes, inner thoughts about topics that are appropriate to discuss at your stage of dating -- such as what were some of the dynamics of you coming into your own as an adult? Are you able to talk about what you thought, how you felt, what you looked forward to, what frustrated you? Do you cover all of the "right" topics but only on superficial levels? Is it possible that you never developed any depth in your conversations with dating partners?

Could this be because you don't know what's appropriate to talk about and what isn't? Or that you're afraid to reveal too much, too soon? There's a difference between holding back because you're unsure if it's the right time to talk about feelings and thoughts, or because you don't want someone to know how you think or feel, or because you're afraid that you'll be hurt if you reveal these thoughts and feelings.

We hope that as you answer these questions, you'll discover where you're getting stuck. A dating mentor may be able to help with issues of the "mechanics" of dating -- i.e. becoming more conversant with your dating partners and furthering the emotional connection. You can also look at Dating Maze #164 about good topics for dating conversations. But if it's still difficult to open up, we'd recommend considering short-term therapy to understand and address why you're blocked.

We wish you success in the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry


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