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Dating Maze #305: Shift in Trajectory

March 17, 2010 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Their intense courtship unraveled with head-spinning speed.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I am an "older," mid-40s single Jewish female who is dating for marriage. I'm well-educated, gainfully employed, considered attractive, kind, warm, generous, compassionate, funny, helpful, etc. I’ve had a few setbacks in life, but I am healthy and living life every single day!

Here's my situation: A man (divorced for several years, no children) contacted me via an online Jewish dating site. I liked his profile, and we began corresponding. According to our profiles, we're very close in age and seem to share values, goals, level of religious observance, wanting to make the commitment of marriage, and some interests. Even though we live several hundred miles apart, from the beginning of our correspondence he stated that he knew he would likely have to move to find his soulmate. We cautiously began a correspondence, and eventually decided to speak on the phone. Both communications went very well. We swapped stories about growing up, our families, our lives, etc., and developed a comfortable rapport.

He perked up at a billboard for a luxury men's watch.

At his suggestion, we planned to meet about one month after beginning to correspond. We were both very excited (but nervous) to meet since we liked what we knew of one another and there was a strong sense of simpatico between us. I decided to fly to meet him since I had prior travel plans that would allow me to stop along the way. We met and spent some time together in the afternoon and then went out for dinner. It was nerve-wracking, to be sure, since we already really liked one other from all our phone and email contact – the frequency of which was at least once daily, if not more. In fact, our communication was quite intense and had reached a fever pitch. We got along well in person and there seemed to be a comfortable chemistry. In short, we had a wonderful time! When he drove me to the airport, we passed a billboard for a luxury men's watch. He spontaneously commented, "You can get me that watch for our engagement..."

We agreed to see one another again. It seemed all good up to this point, but after this wonderful meeting everything seemed to unravel with head-spinning speed.

Here's how it went: Communication from him came to a virtual standstill; he was in respondent mode only. True, some extenuating work and health circumstances occurred, but he had always found time to write/call up until that point. He finally assured me, in writing and over the phone (when we spoke very briefly) that he wasn't giving me the brush-off but that we "needed to talk." Fast forward a few days: He says that he definitely wants to see me again, is not interested in meeting anyone else, and that he thinks what we have is "very special" but that he would like "something more conventional." This, he explains, means that he would like to be in contact, via email and phone, just less frequently than before, and with less intensity.

I can't for the life of me see how one can build a relationship with less communication, but I agreed to try this arrangement as a way of accommodating his wishes. This feels so wrong on so many levels! I am deeply hurt by what I perceive as his rejection of me (even though he says it's not) and am left with more questions than answers. If he's "not that into me" – why not just sever ties and say goodbye?

So my questions are – what is this behavior? Is it a lack of chemistry and he doesn't know how to tell me? Or could it be that the pace of our communication and the way our relationship unfolded was too much, too fast, and he needs to step back? Or could it be that although he claims to want to find his soulmate, having found someone who is available and who he seems to truly like, is not what he wants after all? Why the sudden silence from him? And why the retreat from what showed such immense and intense promise? I have found this all so very painful – I had begun to trust in the possibility of this relationship, that he really liked and cared about me. What should I do now?


Dear Renee,

We are glad that you decided to go along with this man’s suggestion to lessen the intensity of your courtship, and at the same time ask a somewhat more objective third party to help understand your situation. You could have easily gone with the feelings of rejection and doubt you're experiencing... but that could have led you to end something that sounds like it may still have promise.

First, we'd like to assure you that the questions you've asked are all reasonable and the sense of rejection is a normal reaction to what happened in the days following your first meeting. But where dating for marriage is concerned, the feelings you have at any particular point in time don't necessarily reflect what's really going on. You feel rejected because you were comfortable with the intense momentum of the early part of your courtship, and thought your e-date would continue along this trajectory. You're afraid that his backpedaling is a sign that he's having second thoughts about entering into a relationship with you, or that he talks about wanting to get married but is afraid to move forward. And if either of these are true, you feel that he's misleading you because he can't be honest with you about his feelings.

He wants to slow things down from overdrive to normal speed.

Any of these scenarios may be true, but you can't know that at this point in time (more about that later). However, it seems to us that there is a far more likely reason why the man you are dating wants to slow things down from overdrive to a normal speed. The early part of your courtship, both via email and in person, was far too intense, and he wisely realizes he needs to slow things down so that he can process what's happening.

We also see the same phenomenon occurring with some couples who date conventionally. They connect very early in the dating process, and start to see each other as often as they can, perhaps four or five times a week. The days they don't go out together, they have lengthy telephone conversations. In the beginning, it feels great, and often each date reinforces the dater's feelings that "This might be It." But at some point, whether it's after a week or two or several weeks of this intensity, one (and sometimes both) of the daters starts to feel overwhelmed, and perhaps even ambivalent. That's because they haven't had enough time to process what they've been experiencing. They need to step back a little to process their thoughts and feelings on both a conscious and on an unconscious level. These daters need to understand that the feelings of being overwhelmed, or "this is moving too fast," or ambivalence ("I like him but the thought of going out a fourth time this week is making me nauseous") are normal reactions to "over-dating." The antidote is slowing down and adopting a more measured pace, so they can feel less anxious about how things are progressing.

You and this man have engaged in a version of this type of over-dating. He was insightful enough to realize what was happening to him. We suspect that it took him a while to tell you this because he had to figure it out for himself. That could be the reason he was in response-only mode and didn't initiate any correspondence for several days after you met. Or he could have been scared that he blurted out that remark about the watch far too soon in your courtship, and didn't know how to handle it. Yes, he could have handled the situation better, but people do make mistakes.

It's also possible that this man is engaging in something called "approach-avoidance." On one hand, he wants to get married and believes that your relationship has good possibilities. At the same time, he may need to work out some issues, and so he waits for you to contact him and then asks to slow things down to buy himself time to work out those issues. It's very frustrating when one person continually engages in approach-avoidant behavior, and if the relationship is to have a chance, it's crucial for the person having difficulty to address what's holding him back. In your situation, however, we only see one incident, rather than a real pattern of approach avoidance. That's not to say that it won't emerge over time. However, we think this scenario is less likely, and instead this man is simply trying to slow the intensity to a more normal pace.

Actually, that's precisely what the two of you should be doing now. You’ve had only one day together plus a ride to the airport. We’d like to see how your courtship can develop more conventionally, by arranging to see each other in person a few times over the course of a couple of weeks. This would mean that one of you should try to take two weeks off from work and travel to the other's city. Optimally, go on 5 dates in that period for 3 or 4 hours each time. In between, each of you should be busy with your lives – the visitor can tour, visit people, or work online. Choose a different venue for each date, and do something enjoyable each time. Try to think of this as dating the way you would if you lived in the same city.

Afterward, you can decide if you want to continue dating long distance. If yes, you could plan to meet again over a long weekend in another month or so, and in between talk on the telephone and email at more comfortable intervals. You still need to learn a lot about each other. Think of yourselves as doing what other couples who think they may be right for each other are doing – enjoying time together, building a history, and hopefully laying the foundation for an enduring relationship.

We wish you success in navigating the dating maze.

Rosie & Sherry

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