A dating strategy for getting past bitterness over past failures

I have been writing a series of blogs on dating practices. Sometimes I make recommendations. Some people respond by telling me about a success they have had; but the greater number of comments argue against my suggestions, and against the prospect of dating altogether. What has struck me reading these remarks is how angry and bitter they are. These responses, and other similar comments I have heard from patients, divide unevenly into two groups:

People who blame others for their dating failures

Most of these men and women, many of whom have responded anonymously, state plainly that all of the people they have dated are miserable human beings. “Men HATE and FEAR confident women.” “Men only want beauty queens.” “All men want is sex,” (this from a 60-year-old woman,) “Women just want a meal-ticket,” “Women like to ridicule men and make them feel small.”

“I have been internet dating for 8 years. It’s a cesspool,” said one woman. Can we believe her? I don’t mean, can we believe that all men are rotten human beings, the kind of thing you would find in a cesspool. Of course not. Probably no generalization about men and women, favorable or unfavorable, would be entirely accurate. There are decent men and women who behave decently. Many of the people we know seem to fit comfortably in partnerships that do not require one person to be berated or belittled by the other. What I mean is, can we believe that this woman is really telling us what she believes? Would she really continue dating for 8 years under cesspool-type conditions?

I saw a woman, Thelma, in psychotherapy twice a week, on Monday and Thursday evenings. I don’t remember exactly what symptoms brought her to treatment, but one of her problems was repeated difficulties in dating relationships. One particular Monday evening she was especially distraught and angry. She spent the entire session railing against the shortcomings of all the men she had ever known. They were superficial, loud, insecure, interested only in football and sex, in that order, and threatened by any strong woman who came along. I sat quietly listening to this harangue. I had previously challenged Thelma’s assertions about men, “all men, Thelma. Really? All men want to dominate women?” with no effect. She explained now in detail, with illustrations from her past, their various defects, which, as far as she was concerned, characterized all the other men in the world too. It was like listening for forty-five minutes to someone playing a broken piano. Still, I sat still. I try to listen respectfully.

When she came in Thursday evening, she was in a cheerier mood. She had become engaged, she told me, to somebody she had met after our previous session! In the space of that little time, she had contracted to marry someone she had just met!

“What about all that superficiality,” I said, trying to contain myself. “What about his trying to dominate you?”

“I know,” Thelma said, a little sheepishly, “but this guy is different.”

Many men and women who have dated unsuccessfully become cynical, yet continue to date with the shrunken hope that there may be someone, somewhere out there who is an exception, who is worth knowing and loving. But, from what they say, they really know better. There is no one out there for them.

I think they are often angry because they suspect someone listening to them may think that the problem is not with the entire opposite sex, but with them. They are ready to fight.

People who blame themselves for their dating failures

The other group of people who comment on my blog state flat out that the problem is with them. “I really have nothing to offer. I can’t see why anyone would want to marry me.” “I feel disgusted with myself.” “I am undesirable.” “I feel inferior to every single person I meet.” These are only some of their comments. I have heard similar remarks over the years. I listen to them and imagine what a first date would think listening to them express (despite their efforts to contain themselves) thoughts of this sort. Most people do not want to date a loser, let alone someone who considers himself/herself a loser.

Sometimes these opinions come out slowly during the course of a relationship. Someone says to a lover, “I’m not good enough for you.” (No kidding, a number of people have repeated such remarks to me.) At first, the lover may be flattered. When he/she hears it a second and third time, it becomes annoying. In a way that person’s judgment is being slighted. Repeated still again, that opinion becomes convincing, and the lover becomes an ex-lover. The person left behind has another reason to feel undesirable.

Every once in a while, a reader writes in to remind me that it is possible for single people to live happily. I know this is true, but these others whom I am writing about do not wish to remain single. They say that they are or have been dating, unsuccessfully. Presumably, they want to meet someone someday and fall in love—and enter into a long-term relationship. But for the reasons they give, they have lost hope.

A winning dating strategy

The problem with these all-encompassing views—both sets of views—is that they permit no strategy for fixing the dating problem. If every one of the opposite sex is contemptible or contemptuous of those they date, there is no way of finding anyone suitable. There are no suitable partners.

Similarly, if someone is so unattractive and unappealing and unworthy that he/she feels “inferior to every other person,” there is no way of presenting oneself in a way that would seem appealing or desirable. Such a person becomes invisible.

I would like to state here explicitly what everyone really knows: most single men and women want exactly the same thing. They would like to meet some interesting, worthwhile person who admires them and who comes to love them. They want to respect—and to have the respect of—that other person. They want to make a family where they belong and can feel safe. They want a partnership where both people are pulling together to accomplish goals they both share. They want to be in a trusting, lovingfriendship.

Most of them do not want to dominate someone else, ridicule someone else or use them to their own purposes at the price of injuring them. Most of them are not vapid or cruel. Most of them are not playing out a drama from their past in which either the woman or the man comes out on top. They want to feel that they are so closely tied to someone else that what one person feels, the other one feels also; and what the other person achieves is their achievement also.

If a person who has been disappointed over and over again can accept this obvious truth (after all, other couples come together) it is possible to think about what that person is doing wrong. It is not that something is wrong with him/her; it is that that person is doing something wrong. The most common mistake is to hesitate to reach out systematically to others who are themselves interested in meeting someone. Then, of course, they have to make an effort not to suggest immediately that they suspect this next person has just stepped out of a cesspool. Then, if things go wrong systematically later in the relationship a serious, non-judgmental attempt should be made to discover and fix the problem.

The second group of unhappy, lonely men and women must also come to understand that there is nothing wrong with them, but, very likely, plenty wrong with the way they go about dating. Dating is very like certain otherstereotyped situations—going on a job interview, learning how to study for a test, learning to be away from home for the first time—which are difficult at first, but less difficult with experience.  Of course, what is most appealing in anyone exists somewhere in everyone. This is friendliness, kindness, concern for others, and a willingness to share a life and to love.(c) Fredric Neuman.

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Fred Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Treatment Center. After serving as Associate Director for 21 years, Dr. Neuman assumed the directorship in 1994. Educated at Princeton University and the NYU College of Medicine, Dr. Neuman specializes in the treatment of anxiety disorders. He is the author of the following books: Caring: Home Treatment for the Emotionally Disturbed, Fighting Fear: An Eight Week Guide to Treating Your Own Phobias, Worried Sick?: The Exaggerated Fear of Physical Illness, and Worried Sick? The Workbook. Dr. Neuman is also the author of numerous magazine and newspaper articles on the efficacy of Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Neuman is a member of the American Psychiatric Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Science. Dr. Neuman is also the author of the following novels: "The Seclusion Room," Viking Press. "Maneuvers" Dial Press "Come One, Come All," "The Wicked Son," "Detroit Tom and His Gang" "Superpowers." All these books are available from Amazon.