Friday, October 18, 2013

Chronically Single? 4 Reasons You Haven’t Found Lasting Love (Yet)

Ellie arrives in my office for her first session.  She‘s visibly nervous.  As we sit and talk, she places her eyes intently on her feet, breaking away periodically to catch my eyes and smile shyly. 

“What prompted you to come in for dating help, Ellie?”  

“Well, I guess I started thinking about it on my 35th birthday.”  Seeing 40 looming in the not-too-distant future, Ellie'd become terrified that her long-standing singleness might be terminal. 

“I haven’t had many relationships.  I’m not really sure why.  I’m pretty shy, but I would have thought I’d have more experience by now.”

As a therapist who specializes in dating, I’ve heard Ellie’s tune countless times:
  • Little to no dating in middle and high school.
  • Low confidence.
  • Few if any long-term relationships.
  • First dates that never turn into second dates.
  • Resentment, confusion, and hopelessness
  • A deep longing for love and no clue about how to find it.
I assure Ellie that I have some ideas.  I’ve seen clients go from zero relationship experience to happy, committed relationships, including lost virginities and found marital bliss.

Now for the big question: “If you had to guess, Ellie, what stops you from finding love?”

“Umm…I’m not sure, really.  Maybe I just don’t know how to have a conversation?”

1.   You Lack Dating Skills

Ellie continues, “I mean, I totally draw a blank when I’m talking to someone attractive.  I hate small talk, so dates are hard for me.  Maybe I need to learn some conversations skills?”

I reassure Ellie that many singles feel lost when it comes to dating.  Some of us grew up with parents who were so busy or unskilled themselves that they couldn’t give us the guidance we needed to succeed romantically.  And Hollywood/high school/peers certainly didn’t provide much in the way of realistic, concrete guidance or compassionate support.

Ellie and I begin our work by going over some basic dating skills.  We role-play a date.  I offer feedback to Ellie on body language, flirtation, and conversation skills.  I coach her on how move from small talk to intimate conversation, from mind-numbing social scripts --“where do you work?” – to an improvisation of words and embodiment that creates electric emotional connection.

“This is good,” says Ellie, a bit more energized now, “but it’s much easier to talk with you here than it is to talk to an attractive person in real life.  I totally freeze up and my mind goes blank.  I’ll probably forget everything you’re telling me.”

Ah, well that’s another issue entirely.  And a very common one.

2.  You Have Dating Anxiety

I talk to Ellie about Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), which is the crippling fear of being humiliated, embarrassed, or rejected.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, SAD affects 15 million Americans or 6.8% of the population. 

You don’t have to be diagnosed with SAD to experience social anxiety – it’s a common human experience.  We’re not only wired to seek relationships, we’re also sensitive to being cast out of the pack.  And who doesn’t have a memory of being rejected or humiliated?

Dating anxiety is a subset of social anxiety.  It can make you:
  • Draw a blank and get unusually quiet
  • Become overly talkative and have racing thoughts
  • Avoid dating or approaching love interests entirely
  • Tremble, sweat, or blush
  • Feel overwhelmed with fear prior to dates
  • Ruminate and obsess after dates
  • Stop yourself from making a move for fear of offending or being rejected
I explain to Ellie that past experiences can prompt our brain to categorize dating as a life-or-death matter.  This isn’t conscious, of course.  But it sure is effective. 

With dating anxiety, an attractive wo/man walks in the room and our animal brain thinks a tiger’s barreling towards us, claws drawn. 

We freeze.  We flee.  We even fight (sometimes with others but often with ourselves via self-criticism).

Ellie and I discuss ways to overcome dating anxiety: mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy and – a combination of all the above and my favorite– drama therapy.

I emphasize to Ellie that one of the best ways to overcome dating anxiety is to do the things that scare you, gradually, intentionally, and with support. 

I can see Ellie’s anxiety start to rise again.  I feel a  “yeah, but…” coming. 

Anxiety uses all kinds of excuses and arguments to convince us that we can’t actually find love.  And for a good reason.  Remember that lunging tiger?  Anxiety’s commited to keeping us safe.  Problem is, that attractive barista at the café isn’t actually a threat to your life.

“But it seems like it’s really hard to meet single people. I don’t like bars – they’re too loud and I don’t like to drink.  And online dating doesn’t seem to get me anywhere.”

3.  You’re Drawing from a Tiny Dating Pool

Many singles get fixated on one dating source, typically online dating.  They spend hours creating and looking at profiles, sending messages, and riding the Will-S/he-Message-Me-Back Rollercoaster.  

By the time they get to an actual date, they’ve thoroughly worn themselves out.  Add some dating anxiety and suddenly every date is high stakes. 

“This could be the one…oh, God, I hope this is the one so I don’t have to go through all that again!” An awkward coffee later and no second date on the horizon, they conclude that finding love’s impossible.

In the face of loneliness and discouragement, it’s easy to conclude that “all the good ones are taken.” 

Or “I’m just not attractive/confident/interesting enough.”

Or “online dating doesn’t work, especially for me.”

Maybe.  Or maybe you’ve got to enlarge your dating pool.

Dating’s a number’s game.  You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince/ss. 

If online dating’s the only stream feeding your pool of potential mates, chances are you won’t have as many frogs needed for that final, magical kiss.

I explain this to Ellie and encourage her to start seeing every situation that involves people – church, the grocery store, even BART -- as an opportunity to meet her mate.  Singles are everywhere.

We also talk about getting to activities that singles tend to frequent, such as singles events, classes, and volunteer opportunities.  I recommend Ellie check out, Craigslist, and local event listings to learn about what’s happening in her area.

I can feel another doubt bubbling up.  Ellie’s body seems to wilt a bit and her eyes cast downward again.

“Okay, so I can meet more people.  But I don’t know if I trust myself.  I always seem to date jerks who disappear after we have sex or when I start talking about taking things to the next level.”

4.   You Like & Attract Commitment-Phobes

Ellie describes a typical and painful dating pattern: the Anxious-Avoidant Dance. 

The dance goes like this: you’re magnetized to someone and fall head over heels.  Things seem to go really well for the first date, week, month and even year.  And then disaster strikes.

Ellie’s most recent round of this dance was with Sal, a beautiful and outspoken coworker.  Upon meeting, Ellie instantly felt that Sal was “the One.”

Ellie was on cloud nine when Sal asked her out.  But after a few hot and deep evenings, Sal turned cold, stopped returning Ellie’s texts and calls, and avoided her at work.

Ellie panicked. 

She left text, voice, and Facebook messages.  She spent hours obsessing about what she did wrong.  

When Sal ignored all of Ellie’s attempts to connect and eventually began dating a different coworker, Ellie went into hyper-self-castigation mode -- “I shouldn’t have been so needy.  I should have just backed off.”

The Anxious-Avoidant Dance is set to the music of insecure attachment, a maladaptive way of relating in intimate relationships.  There are two common expressions of insecure attachment – anxious attachment and avoidant attachment.

Anxiously attached people, like Ellie, fear abandonment on a conscious level and closeness on an unconscious level. Vice versa for avoidantly attached (a.k.a. “commitment phobic” or “emotionally unavailable”) people like Sal. 

Avoidantly and anxiously attached people tend to be attracted to one another.  Perhaps because they feel familiar to one another.  They confuse fear for love and immediate infatuation for long-term compatibility.

Heller and Levine talk about this Anxious-Avoidant Trap in their book Attached: The New Science of AdultAttachment and How It Can Help You Find—And Keep—Love, which I heartily recommend to Ellie.

As we continue to discuss attachment, Ellie’s eyes sparkle and her gaze steadies.  “I can’t believe there’s something that explains what I’ve been going through!” 

The Anxious-Avoidant Dance can be stopped with some education, self-understanding, and new behaviors.  I explain to Ellie that through our work, she can:
  • Explore the roots of her insecure attachment, e.g. the difficulties she experienced growing up with a distant, critical mother.
  • Develop a secure attachment relationship with me, giving her first-hand experience and a model with which to compare other relationships.
  • Learn how to detect whether a love interest is avoidantly attached.
  • Identify anxious attachment behaviors and begin developing secure behaviors, e.g. effective communication and self-soothing.
  • Make conscious her own hidden relationship ambivalence, which prompts her to unconsciously choose partners who won’t stick around.
Ellie’s body relaxes.  She smiles, still shyly, but with a new softness in her eyes.  “Thank you.  I’m so happy there might be something I can do.  I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

And you don’t have to be.

Join Jessica Engle, psychotherapist, drama therapist, and dating expert for an upcoming workshop or individual therapy – contact her at or 408-622-1000.


  1. For anybody who's reading this and is currently going through something like this. I have been there and this type of therapy works. I knew deep down that I had a lot to offer, but I would always freeze and have these awful thoughts that "I am going to be alone forever", or "this date might be my last chance to find love" putting so much pressure on myself in the process. It became a self fulfilling prophecy. Eventually I had enough and went to seek a therapist. We went through my thought processes and began to train my brain how to think more rationally about dating. After going on a low dose of anti-anxiety medication, and about 2 months of therapy, I began dating again. I went on 2 dates, with 2 different women. Both did not go well. But I knew that these dates didn't go well simply because we were not compatible with each other. I knew that these dates were not a sign of impending doom, and that I was still capable of making the right person happy. Eventually I went on a date with a 3rd woman, and we just clicked. There was no fear, there was no second guessing myself, like had happened in the past, and after 5 months together we are in a really strong, committed, and very loving relationship. My advice is to make sure you find the right therapist. Just like dating, you will have better connections with some therapists over others. I did not like the first therapist I had an appointment with, but the second one was perfect for me. If you are willing to seek help and work on yourself, you fill find love.

    1. Greg, what a wonderfully inspiring story you have. Thanks so much for sharing! Wishing you all the love you could ask for.

  2. This article fails to realize that the older you get, the harder it is to date, no matter what your dating skills are. 40 is a big turning point. Also if you don't drink, it's nearly impossible. People go out with each other under the influence of alcohol.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Anonymous. Yes, dating at and after 40 is a whole different ball game, as life circumstances, plans, and values shift majorly at that life stage. Same goes for dating at and after 60. My clients find they're better able to engage with romantic interests at these ages once they've acknowledged and worked through what being in relationship means in mid-life and beyond.

      And boy, you're not alone in feeling frustrated about dating revolving around alcohol. Our culture provides little support for dating and social anxiety issues aside from self-medication. Though harder to find, sober and self-aware singles events and platforms are out there, so don't lose hope.

  3. I'm sorry, Jessica, but I can't agree with you on number four. Sometimes, attracting the wrong people comes at zero fault of our own. It's just the way it happens. I can't count how many times I've put my best self forward -- after making several strides of self improvement -- and dates with flaky women still go nowhere. Of course the natural reaction to someone vanishing is mild panic; when you've already invested energy and time in a specific person, do you expect people to just "Drop it?"

    The fact is that many attractive, intelligent, interesting, fun, yet chronically single people find themselves in their unfortunate situation because of external factors beyond their control.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Anonymous.

      By the very nature of fear of intimacy, those with an avoidant attachment style (a.k.a. commitment phobes) tend to stay unattached and thus make up a majority of the dating pool.

      Indeed, you are not to blame if your date shows up late, cancels last minute, or dumps you inconsiderately by text. And of course this can leave those of us looking for a deep and lasting relatioship resentful and heart-weary.

      My intention here isn't to find fault or suggest daters should just "drop it" when they get hurt by commitment-phobic dates. Rather, it's to empower those who find themselves stuck in the anxious-avoidant dance.

      We are each responsible for our lives -- when we look at our unconscious beliefs and behaviors, we have the power to change the part we play in painful patterns.

      To sum up, take good care of that heart in times of flakey daters and know that if the flakes keep coming, you have the power to change your actions and beliefs such that you meet the kind of partner you're longing for.

  4. Hey there Jessica. I am grateful to have come across this article because it makes me feel like there may be hope yet. I have been single and celibate for eight years. For five of those years I did go out and tried to put myself out there. I went dancing once a week , I spent a lot of money for a dating agency, and I even tried the singles group at church. But every year that passed with no success made it that much harder to keep it up, so I just stopped. After all, why should I have to pay a cover charge just to be ignored or rejected, sitting there all by myself? I decided to spend my time with my dog and trying to grow by going to therapy . Despite the progress I have made, I still feel lonely and increasingly anxious about being alone forever. I don't know if I have the energy to go through it all again.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Anonymous. It's a brave thing to put our hearts out there again and again. I'm glad you're getting support and reaching out for resources like this article. I'm holding highest hopes and warmest wishes for you.

  5. I don't know if you're still responding to this threat or not but I've been 'dating' this girl for about 4 months now. The only problem is I always initiate the dates, I plan them, I pick her up, I pay for them, and I refer to them as dates and she doesn't correct me.

    I've asked her to try asking me out a couple of times, but that always leads to group hangouts with 2-3 of her friends. I don't hate that, however I feel like it's a cop out to just ask me to hang out with her friends. I'm normally a very logical person who doesn't let things get to me but I'm at my wits end with this. I feel so emotionally distressed and I don't know what to do. :/

    1. Thanks for sharing, Anonymous. This is a situation many of my clients have encountered.

      If you haven't already, I'd ask your love interest how she's feeling about your relationship. Transparent, assertive communication is the cornerstone of healthy relationships and the best way to determine whether or not your wasting your time.

      Wishing you all the best!

  6. Hi,
    Having read the above article I can recognise many traits that seem to apply to me in there. Up until my early 20's I was single and alone and not very confident about myself, however I learned to improve my confidence and I slowly found over time that I was very relaxed on dates and I seem to be my natural, fun self which always seemed to win ladies over.
    I then met someone who I ended up marrying and enjoyed five wonderful years with, however at the end of last year we decided to get divorced and since then
    I have been suffering from low confidence.

    After about four months I decided that I was lonely (probably a big mistake as
    you will guess) and missed the security that I had had for the previous five years
    and I decided to go back to online dating as It had worked well before. I had
    no problem at all writing a good fun profile and contacting people and after a short
    time I went on a date with someone I seemed to get on well with.

    However on the actual date itself it hit me that I was feeling very nervous and I made the terrible mistake of talking about my ex and my past which I know is never a good idea. I then realised that I had gone back to dating before I was ready
    and after that date I found myself in a very negative frame of mind, it seemed very possible that I would now never find anyone as I expected every other date to go the same way.

    However before I had finished on the site in question I had one person reply to my messages and having talked for over three weeks and discovering that we have so much in common I have said that I will meet her. I have never been so scared in all my life, she really does has everything I could possibly want in a woman and we have so much in common. I am just terrified that I am not ready and I will scare her away and regret that I did not meet her when I was more ready.

    I am worried my mind will go blank and I will freeze up just like last time round.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      You've shared openly a situation that many singles experience; thank you for the giving others the gift of your story. I hope your date has gone well. Know that dating anxiety is certainly something you can overcome (as you have experienced previously!) and that anxiety tends to increase in periods of transition such as post-divorce.

      Wishing you the absolute best in love and beyond.

  7. Your chances of finding love in the old days was certainly much better than today the way our family members had it which it really came very easy for them. Too bad many of us weren't born back then which we could've been all settled down by now with a family too, even for us men.

  8. Thanks for this blog post Jessica. I found it very educational. Do you have any advice for my situation? I'm a 25-year-old guy who has been single since birth. I go on a lot of dates actually and have a decent social life, and I'm increasingly more comfortable approaching women, but I rarely make it past the first or second date. There's no romantic spark or chemistry with anyone, even after years of first dates. Is this an unusual scenario? Have you had any clients like this?

    1. Hi Anonymous -- you're not alone, certainly. I recommend working with a dating professional, either a therapist or coach, and getting honest feedback about your dating skills, appearance, first impression, etc. You may also need to do some deeper work on issues such as confidence, sexuality, and self-worth. Wishing you luck!

  9. I am a 35 year-old virgin man who has been rejected by women all throughout my schooling: From elementary school to post-grad. In elementary and high school, people made made fun of me if they found out I liked a girl. I have always been rejected by women, be it in social events, work or in public. I have tried many dating strategies and nothing works: Playing it cool- rejected; being interested- rejected; combination of the two- rejected; being myself- rejected.

    I have friends, but they are all men. Many are married. All think it's hopeless for me. I've tried being friends with women- all women, both attractive and unattractive and I don't have a single female friend. No female co-worker wants to do anything benign like getting a coffee or going to the mall to get something. Everything is blown out of proportion.

    As a result, I always make sure my behavior is not harassment of any kind. I treat people with kindness and respect. I make jokes. I volunteer and help people and animals; no women ever flirt with me, or show any interest. How do I know this? No one ever asks me any questions about me, or my interests. No one ever suggests getting together.

    I have an excellent career, I own a home and I have financial freedom, yet this cannot attract a woman. I have come to the conclusion that I am hideous looking to women (well, I was told I was ugly all throughout school). I have tried changing my fashion and nothing works.

    I exercise every morning just to keep myself happy (exercise releases feelgood chemicals in the brain) and I take cold showers to shock the sadness out of me. It largely works. Because I deal with the public daily, I have been told by many that they prefer to deal with me. I also do public speaking, and I can make a crowd laugh. My coworkers respect my professionalism and skill, but they are not romantically interested in me (and why should they be? Being good at one's job does not mean I merit their affection).

    I am unwilling to have plastic surgery in order to make myself more attractive- I like myself, warts and all. Any woman who would like me after plastic surgery would make me feel worse about myself, because I knkw they would have never liked me the way I naturally looked.

    From speed dating to meetups, from classes to social events, from chance encounters to volunteering, to endless hope with online dating, I cannot get a date.

    The view from here as a 35 year old virgin male is stark. I will not pay for an escort because I value women and I have morals. I feel so impossibly alone, and what I realize is that I crave touch of some kind- even just a pat on the back or a hug. At this point in my life, I am willing to settle for just that, but that seems to be asking for too much.

    I should note that I have gone to therapy (CBT) and others but nothing has worked. In fact, it reduces me to tears. I find some of the strategies okay like controlling the thought and labelling it, but that doesn't help me get a date, a pat on the back or a hug.

    To be a man with zero female experience at 35 years old, feels like I am staring of the precipice into oblivion.

    1. I'm in the exact same boat as you except I'm 23 years old. Just don't ever give up on yourself or on love. You'll find her eventually.

    2. I'm not a dating expert, but here's a few things:

      - There is no reason to think that your looks is the reason #1 that you can't find a partner. As a woman, I can tell you that 1) what we consider attractive can vary *a lot* from one person to the next, there's nothing we universally find attractive or repulsive in somebody's appearance; and 2) to quote a friend: "I'm not looking for beautiful guys, I'm looking for interesting guys". Looks are just a part of what makes a person attractive: there's attitude, behaviour, openness,... Whatever thing in your appearance that you think makes you look unattractive, you can forget about it.

      - The fact that you have no female friends might be a clue to why you don't have a partner. It might be a good time to ask yourself how you view women in general. Your beliefs about people influence the way you interact with them, the way you build relationships with them, and it can do you a disservice. Besides appearance, how would you describe the women in your life -family, coworkers, friends' wives-? What can you tell about their personalities, their aspirations, their drives, their opinions? How curious are you about these things when you talk to a woman? I'm saying this because it might be that you are trying so hard to find a girlfriend that you look at women primarily as potential dates, and not as the complex human beings that we are.

      - Or maybe you are so focussed on finding someone to date that you are not fully yourself, not fully there, and you're not enjoying the ride when you interact with a woman. It's a thing I sense from your list of "strategies" and assets: you're listing on the things you do and possess that you thought would attract women, but I think you're missing the point. What matters is finding a way to connect with someone you find interesting on a personal level, and that won't happen if you're constantly watching yourself and wondering if this or that could make you look or sound more attractive.

      - And finally, simple question: when you meet a woman, you like her, do you actually ask her out? Do you tell her you've enjoyed talking or spending time with her, and ask if you could meet again? Maybe you're expecting people to pick up the signs and come to you spontaneously, and often it doesn't work.

      Maybe you're not helped by external factors, like the size of the dating pool, but my suggestion is for you to rethink your dating situation: not to view the things that you have to do or possess in a check-list manner, but more in terms of what it means for you to have a relationship, what you expect from it.
      It can also be a good idea to ask your friend why they think you can't find a partner: they may see things in your behaviour that you don't notice, and which ruin your chances.