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 Meetup.com, 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.
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.