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Dating Maze #347: Stuck in the Dating Desert

November 23, 2011 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

With no match in sight, I'm building resentment.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I’m at my wits end. I have been dating for many years, and I still haven't found my soul mate. (Or maybe I did, but he didn't think I was his.) Either way, I'm still single and very unhappy about it.

I've tried everything. I moved to New York. I got a makeover and take really good care of my looks and my health. I have joined several Jewish Internet dating services and have met with matchmakers. I've looked at my character traits and I have been working to improve those that need strengthening.

My therapist says that as long as I'm doing the right things, that should console me. I think that's crazy. Every time I do something positive, I go to bed feeling even worse. I live a productive life – I have a good job and my colleagues and students like me – but that doesn't stop me from thinking about this… all the time.

I find myself hating engaged people and newlyweds. I avoid them whenever possible. I don't have the strength to wish them mazel tov, and I've probably hurt many people's feelings because of this.

My friends say I should "get back on the horse" and go back on the Internet sites, but I think it’s a waste of time and money. I have no hope. And I don't like what I've become. I pray to God to help me find the right person, but I can't bear it any more. I don't know what else to do. Help!


Dear Michelle,

Your letter really touched us. Unfortunately, this is an issue that affects many. It is so difficult to want to get married but have this major life goal elude you time and time again. We understand your pain and how you face the challenge of trying to live a full life while carrying heavy feelings of hurt, anger and loss.

Sadness, hopelessness, emptiness and a sense of loss feel are normal, common reactions to years of frustration and disappointment. Because these feelings are pretty much universal, it means that we're hard-wired to react this way and there's nothing "wrong" about having them.

You’re stuck in the "guilt cycle" and the "bitterness cycle."

Your problem isn't that you have these feelings, but that they consume your every waking moment. This creates two vicious cycles. One is what we'll call the "guilt cycle." You believe you shouldn't have these feelings, and indeed other people are telling to be happy that you're doing the "right" things and have a full life. You start to feel guilty about having these feelings, which only intensifies your level of distress, and starts you feeling guilty all over again.

The other is a "bitterness cycle." You don't know what to do with these feelings of hurt and anger, and you spend a lot of time ruminating about them. They fester and lead you to feel bitter and resentful, and these become so overwhelming that there's no room for you to feel happy for yourself or for other people. Then you turn that anger inward at yourself, for not being able to share in others’ joy and for hurting the feelings of those you care about.

Breaking the Guilt Cycle

Let's try to look at ways to break these cycles. We'll start with guilt. It's extremely unpleasant to feel as though you're always enveloped in a cloud of negative feelings. You may instinctively try to suppress these emotions, but they keep coming back with a vengeance and keep you from moving forward. Then you get angry at yourself for not succeeding at pushing them away, and the guilt sets in.

We'd like to suggest a different approach. It begins by giving your negative feelings a “voice,” instead of trying to suppress them. Try writing them down to give them a concrete form. Include your feeling that it isn't fair for you to have worked so hard on growing and becoming more "marriageable," yet it still hasn't happened for you. When you've finished writing the list, write down what different events in your life led to your having these particular feelings.

The next step is to understand what occurs when you experience these same negative feelings. Something you do or experience triggers one of those feelings, and suddenly you're on auto-pilot. The intensity of the original hurts come flooding back. Your feelings may be out of proportion to what's just happened, because it isn't the new trigger that consumes you, but the original emotions that made an imprint on your soul.

Understanding this process can help you feel less guilty about having these feelings, and can help you take the step of finding a place to put them so that you don't carry them around all day long.

Instead of letting these feelings run freely through your mind, use a technique called "compartmentalization" to keep them from intruding on your daily living. You can tell yourself: I’m entitled to have these negative feelings, but will only allow myself to experience them, or relive the difficult memories and thoughts associated with them, for a specific half hour period each day.

If these thoughts come through at another time, push them aside until the designated time. With a small amount of perseverance, most people are able to train themselves to do this, so that they spend most of their day in a healthier frame of mind, with a marked reduction in this free-floating anxiety.

Breaking the Bitterness Cycle

When we can't find a way to deal with feelings such as betrayal, anger and disappointment, we allow them to fester and take on a life of their own. We become bitter about our own situation and resentful of people who have something we don't have. Most people who carry this bitterness around don't like feeling this way and wish they could let it go. They may try to hide it, but frequently other people can sense it from their tone of voice, nuances and body language. They'll often go to great lengths to avoid triggering these unpleasant feelings, which is what you do by avoiding wedding celebrations.

It's easy for someone who's not crippled by bitter feelings to encourage someone to change their way of thinking. That's why your friends insist that you should "get back on the horse" and your therapist tells you to be encouraged by everything you do that's "right." The true secret to overcoming bitterness lies within yourself – to find tools that will help you reframe your situation and look at your life from a better perspective. It's a tremendous challenge, but people rise to it every day.

We know of a high school student who woke up one morning and couldn't move her legs. Her parents and doctors were baffled, and spent weeks doing tests before concluding that she had a rare autoimmune disease they didn't know how to reverse. This beautiful 16-year-old, who had dreamed of a career as a dancer, instantly lost her self-image and plans for the future. She had to watch as her identical twin sister, other siblings and friends continued with their lives and had the freedom to achieve the dreams she could no longer even hope for.

She chose to focus on what she had instead of what she lost.

She felt all of the negative emotions you can imagine. She could have chosen to lock in her anger and disappointment, avoid those friends who could run and dance, and give up hope of ever having a happy life. If you were her friend, what would you encourage her to do? Probably what she eventually decided to do for herself – to focus on what she had instead of what she lost. She is now in university, keeps up a busy social life, has found a new creative outlet, and has new dreams for her future. Even though she accepts her present situation, she and her family continue researching treatment options, going for physical therapy, and hoping that medical advances will enable her to walk again.

Can you become your own friend, and encourage yourself to reframe how you look at your own life? Can you look at the tremendous personal growth you've achieved – not as a way to get married, but as something that made you a better human being? Are you able to identify what's satisfying about your friendships, your job, the way you connect with your colleagues and your students? Can you see how your lifestyle changes have improved your quality of life and health?

There's another exercise that can further help you see your life from a positive perspective. It involves doing the opposite of what we suggested you do with your anger. This time, make a list of the events in your life that enabled you to feel happy, accomplished, hopeful or good about yourself. Write down all the positive feelings you experienced at the time of each event. Then think of experiences in the present that trigger those positive feelings. What else can you do to trigger similar good feelings? Try to incorporate some of them into your everyday living.

More Tools

1) Live Each Day to the Fullest We know that following these suggestions requires a lot of hard work and perseverance. We have additional suggestions to compliment your efforts. The first is that while you're working on minimizing negative feelings and changing your frame of reference, it will also help to focus on living one day at a time. You get up in the morning, get dressed, pray, exercise, eat, interact with people, work, and do something enjoyable. Isn't living your day to the fullest, trying to enrich your life and the lives of others, much more rewarding than viewing every action as a mechanism to help achieve your goal of marriage – and then being disappointed and angry that it doesn't?

2) Practice the Art of Appreciation When we're caught up in our feelings of disappointment, it's almost impossible to look at life from a more positive perspective. But we can train ourselves to do that by finding things to appreciate and expressing that appreciation. You can start by finding two things to appreciate about yourself or your life every day, and two things to appreciate about one other person. Verbalize that appreciation – to yourself, and to the other person. Try this for a month, showing appreciation to yourself and to a different friend, colleague, or student, each day. It will seem a little forced at first, but over time, you can change your mindset so that feeling and showing appreciation becomes second nature.

3) Take a Dating Vacation – Since you've given up hope that continuing to date will never yield any positive results, you should not be dating right now. Your hopeless feelings will become a self-fulfilling prophesy. It won't matter if you move to a different city, get a makeover, or get set up with a dozen people – when you're burnt out, you're not in the right place emotionally to connect to anyone, and your dating partner will pick up on your negativity.

We think you should start dating again only after you've been able to address your anger, guilt, and bitterness. Since you're on a "dating vacation," use it to your advantage. Do more than take a break from dating – all that will do is give you a temporary respite from the frustration and disappointment you feel when you go out.

Decide how long you want your break to be – two or three months works for most people. During that time, try to enjoy yourself as much as possible. Pamper and nurture your body as well as your soul. Take a week or two off from work to travel to an exciting location you always wanted to visit; spend a day or two at a spa with a friend; or host a Saturday night game night. Treat yourself activities you love but don't get to do often – a concert, dinner at a restaurant you want to try, a museum exhibit. Include some enjoyable physical activity – do you like hiking, skiing, skating, swimming, or zumba dancing? Do it! Brainstorm with friends how to turn the next few Sundays into fundays. Tap into your creativity – music, art, dance, drama, cooking, flower arranging, pottery, woodworking, even creating video games. Explore any form of creative expression that you think you will enjoy.

Try to focus on the moment – where you are, what you're doing, how you feel. Don't let yourself think about how this activity fits into the overall scheme of your life, and by all means don't feel guilty about indulging yourself. This is a necessary part of the process to heal your soul, to teach you that nurturing yourself starts with you.

When you're ready to return to the dating scene, we think you'll feel more relaxed and refreshed than you've felt in a long time.

Continue the Momentum – When your break is over, it's important to make time for yourself every week. It can be continuing the creative activity you began, having a regular exercise routine, or enjoying a weekly pampering session. You have to keep taking care of you.

At the same time, if you have become someone who postpones many life experiences because you're waiting to share them with a partner, work on changing this mindset. Missing out on them only compounds the sadness you feel about the way your life has developed. Enjoy those experiences now. Go parasailing, buy fancy china, entertain guests in your home, plan the cruise you've longed to take, or buy a condominium. Don’t worry – when you have someone in your life, you'll think of additional experiences to share with him.

Give to Others – You wrote about praying to God and working to strengthen your inner qualities, which shows that you value spiritual growth. You letter didn't mention whether you take time out to do charitable activities You don't have to be in a relationship to tap into your desire to give. If you haven't made this a part of your life, think about a way you can become more giving to others. Join a mentoring program, become part of a project at your synagogue, or find ways to volunteer your talents.

We can't assure you that if you follow our suggestions, you'll meet a good man and get married. Yet we know a number of people who did not give up hope (even though they struggled with the same feelings you have) and were fortunate to later marry happily, and we certainly hope that will happen to you, too. When that will happen is not in your hands, but you do have the ability to improve the quality of your life right now. We hope that our suggestions help you do just that.

Rosie & Sherry


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