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Dating maze #281 - Negative Father Image

May 8, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

She never respected her father, and now has trouble respecting all men. Help!

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I am a 25-year-old woman. I started dating for marriage when I was 21, because a good opportunity came along. In the end things didn't work out. Since then I've dated many different guys, but whenever things would start to get serious, I'd get really nervous. I'd feel like the guy was an annoying burden, and I would find a convincing reason to break things off.

This went on for a few years, until one guy I was dating asked me straight out, "You seem to be here at the date physically, but you don't let your heart in. You make physical eye contact, but not emotional eye contact. You seem very uncomfortable. You cut our phone conversations short. Why do you do that?"

I was stunned at his honesty. Then I thought about what he said and realized he was right. I did act that way, toward practically every guy. I also realized that every time I acted that way, I'd say to myself, "Guys don't have feelings and he won't notice this." I was so surprised to find out that he noticed and that it bothered him.

My parents are not supportive or respectful of each other.

At this point, I took a deep breath and did something I had never ever done before: I talked about things in my family that bothered me. Through tears, I told him that my parents don't have a great marriage. Neither is unstable or physically abusive, but they argue frequently, and are not supportive or very respectful of each other. It's not a great model for me and I am very resentful about this whole situation.

With this discovery about the connection between dating and my parents, I decided to see a therapist. This helped me acknowledge that through my relationship with my father, as a young girl I learned that all men are distant and self-absorbed, and yell at their wives. It took me many therapy sessions to realize that it's not my father's fault that he is rather self-centered and distant, and I was able to be more forgiving.

I've come a long way toward forgiving my father and feeling that a man can be warm and caring. Recently, I dated someone I really felt connected to. Our dating didn't work out for a few other reasons, but I knew that I'd come a long way over the past year-and-half. However, occasionally I still get angry and think doomful thoughts like: "All men are this way, marriage is terrible, men don't care, men are self-centered." I know that this is not true, but it's hard to shut those thoughts out completely.

I also still worry from time to time that I may make some of the same mistakes that my parents made. I've seen other couples that seem to have marriages that are a lot more harmonious and respectful that my parents', and I sometimes wonder, "Am I going to know how to have that?"

So even though I've made a lot of progress, and in every other area in my life I am happy, these two areas still worry and upset me. I want to grow, heal myself, amend my emotional scars, and ultimately find my true life partner. Can you help?


Dear Shana,

When we read your letter, we couldn't help but be impressed with the guy who saw that you weren't putting your heart into your dating, and called you on it. That took both insight and guts, and saved you years of unproductive dating. And fortunately, you were able to hear what he had to say, think about it, and be honest with yourself. That took a lot of fortitude. A more typical response to his comments would have been to become defensive and deny what he was saying.

You began to explore your feelings and realized that your parents' unharmonious relationship had an impact on your ability to develop a connection with men. What further impresses us is that you became proactive, trying to find out more about yourself and how to deal with this realization, so that you would be able to have a healthy relationship with your future husband. You very wisely decided to put your dating on hold for a while and to work with a therapist.

Some people are afraid to take a break from dating because they're afraid they'll lose valuable time and that they may miss meeting the right person for them. Fortunately, you realized that unless you understood yourself better and addressed whatever issues were holding you back, you wouldn't be able to have a meaningful relationship with anybody. You couldn't do that without really looking into yourself, and therapy helped you do that.

Home Life

Children learn a lot from their parents. If a parent is emotionally distant, has a bad temper, or is irresponsible, the child may assume that all parents act like that. As she grows up and sees more of the world, she realizes this isn't true, but may nevertheless have a hard time changing her internal view of what a parent is like. One way to change the perception is to observe different types of parents and notice the qualities that she admires and wants to look for in a potential spouse.

Another thing children learn from their families is how parents interact with each other and with their children. A child may wind up copying negative behavior, simply because it is familiar. Someone who grows up in a less-than-ideal home situation may want to change her own behavior to a way that is more healthy, but she may not know how to do this. Sometimes, she may secretly be afraid of getting married because she's afraid she won't know how to have a relationship that's better than her parents' marriage.

Now look for couples who interact like you'll want in your future marriage.

You've taken two important steps in your growth process. One was to work through your anger toward your father and realize that, even though you love him, he doesn't have the qualities you would seek in a marriage partner. The other was to ask how you can have a healthy relationship with your future husband, when you didn't have enough examples to emulate when you were growing up. We think that your crucial next step is to look for role models of married couples who display the empathy and emotional involvement you want in your future relationship.

But to do that, you need to find a role model. Popular culture isn't very helpful -- most of the families on television certainly aren't examples we'd like to emulate. The answer is to find real, live families who relate to each other well, and can be experienced in real time. We suggest that you find a family -- be it a neighbor, a friend's parents, relatives, or someone in the community who enjoys hosting young people -- who you respect, enjoy being with, and feel you can learn from.

As you develop a friendship with them and decide there are many aspects of their relationship that you'd like to copy, ask if they would be willing to be your mentors, so that you can talk to them from time to time. This is the way to become close to another family and observe the kind of interactions that you can emulate for your own future home. If they are agreeable, you can spend a lot of time at their house -- join their family for Shabbat, help them with babysitting, holiday preparations, etc. The goal is to reach the point of connecting to the family like an "adopted child." Then you will truly absorb the values they possess.

There are other ways for someone who grew up in a less-than-ideal home environment to acquire the skills and tools that will enable them to have a healthy marriage. Pre-marital and newlywed workshops help almost every couple build a strong foundation for their marriage, but they're even more beneficial for individuals who want to learn better relationship skills than they've acquired through heir own life experience. Some people prefer to develop and enhance these skills by working privately with a well-trained coach or a therapist.

Dating Future

Now let's talk about your dating future.

In the time since your epiphany, you've grown tremendously. You've gained clarity about what you want your marriage to be like and you see men in a more positive, balanced light. While it's true that sometimes, your old ways of thinking find their way back into your mind, this is not something to become anxious about. It's normal, and when this happens, you can use the skills you developed in therapy to confront those thoughts and feelings and replace them with more positive ones. Over time, hopefully, those negative thoughts and feelings will occur less often.

It could be that you might benefit from additional therapy in the future, when your finances allow for it. Even so, there's no reason why you shouldn't continue to go out. It will be a good idea for you to find a dating mentor who can serve as your sounding board and a source of emotional support. Talking things over with her, and using some of the tools that benefited you in therapy, can help you a great deal and you may find that your growth will continue in a positive direction.

You found the ability to relate to someone on a meaningful level.

At the same time, we'd like you to understand that the dating process is difficult for many people. It often takes a while to meet the right person. And we think that if you look at your dating history from a new perspective, you'll see that your personal dating process isn't as lengthy as you had thought. As far as we're concerned, you've only been dating for about 18 months -- from the time this guy helped you understand that you had a barrier to overcome and you began to work on yourself. That's when you developed a healthy understanding of yourself and what you're looking for, as well as hope that you could find it in someone.

And even though things didn't work out with the man you recently dated, there's a different way to look at this that might be helpful: You found someone to connect to! Yes, you are able to relate to someone on a meaningful level. And since he wasn't the right one for you, this means that the man who is right is still out there.

We hope that our suggestions are helpful, and we wish you success in navigating the dating maze,

Rosie & Sherry

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