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The Role of Trauma for Zero-Gen Daters

Examining the impact of ‎trauma on dating ‎among refugees and immigrants.

Key points

  • Zero-gen struggle from unhealthy attachment styles that have been instilled in childhood.
  • They are often suspected of marrying to get a green card.
  • Zero-gen face racism, Islamophobia, and discrimination.

Coauthored with Gretchen Martens

Dating can be one of life’s most stressful endeavors for single people of all ages. Now imagine going to a speed-dating event, asking someone out, or having a conversation about sex or commitment, after growing up in a culture where genders are segregated, and with no opportunity to practice flirting or casual conversation. Widening the gap, marriages are typically arranged by parents, who have no concept of romantic love. Add to that the confusion of trying to ‎meet a potential partner’s unspoken Western ideals around romance, after growing up ‎in a toxic culture ‎‎where feelings are never validated, and love was not a recognized emotion. Underneath this, imagine carrying deep trauma from growing up in a war zone or a refugee camp, ‎where ‎safety is endangered daily.

And finally, as immigrants in the United States, hoping for the fullness of the American dream, zero-gen daters have had a track record of failed courtships and ‎relationships that eventually manifest as learned ‎helplessness and social withdrawal. Zero-gen daters hail from precarious and often ‎socially conservative ‎environments. They come to America with an understandable burden of unhealed trauma. They ‎‎come to America hoping to build a better life. They are young and have goals to fall in love, marry, and start a family. Yet ‎their experiences are ‎often defined by ‎repeated ‎defeats and retraumatizing events. ‎

Three primary traumas influence zero-gen ‎daters, and perhaps many other immigrants and refugee groups, ‎when dating in the U.S. ‎It is important that therapists, coaches, and professionals understand their needs. And it is helpful if the people in their social circles and potential partners understand where they come from.

Attachment and Trauma

First, many zero-gen daters never receive ‎words of ‎affirmation or validation from their ‎‎families during their formative years. The phrase “I love you” is foreign ‎to many of them. It’s not that they weren’t loved, but love is a cultural concept with important psychological implications.

This first challenge speaks to an attachment that goes back to trauma in their first year of life. Attachment focuses on how infants form relationships with a primary adult caregiver; it lays the groundwork for healthy, or unhealthy, adult relationships in work and life. Secure attachment occurs when the caregiver is perceived to be a source of safety and security; insecure attachment occurs when the caregiver is inconsistent or absent. Given their childhood environment, many zero-gen daters likely have insecure attachments because their caregivers were not emotionally available or affirming due to their unhealed trauma.

In trying to date, they may have trouble reading social cues, expressing and regulating their emotions, or having empathy. It may be extremely difficult to be ‎vulnerable ‎‎when interacting with a potential partner, so they come off as closed or distant. They ‎are not ‎forthcoming about their emotional ‎‎experiences because they often cannot label their emotions. Lacking self-esteem, they may either seem insecure or aggressive.

When they have an anxious attachment style, zero-gen may become overly anxious trying to figure out a date’s behavior; they may be overly sensitive to rejection and begin to feel inadequate, misunderstood, disrespected, or even betrayed. When they have an avoidant attachment style, they may dismiss or ignore social cues, avoid or misread their or others’ strong emotions, keep their problems to themselves, or deny that relationships matter. When they have a fearful attachment style, they can either become afraid of finding love, pushing others away, or hypervigilant, analyzing everything their dates or partners do and say. Since only 55 percent of people in America grow up with secure attachments, one can only imagine the challenge for zero-gen daters in America.

Building Trust and Trauma

Second, and more pragmatic, many zero-gen daters find it hard to build trust with prospective partners given that they are almost always in the U.S. on visas. Stories abound dramatizing marriage scams to get a green card, but these cases are actually quite rare, especially in light of the larger challenge of dating scams. Nevertheless, for zero-gen daters, their efforts to build a ‎‎relationship are often ‎‎misinterpreted as a ruse to get a green card. Complicating the challenge is the inconvenient reality that their lives would be easier if they were married and could get a green card. However, this does not mean that most, or even many, of them would fraudulently pursue a relationship.

When their honest intentions based on genuine attraction and interest in a prospective partner are met with suspicion, zero-gens often find themselves on the defensive. Feeling misunderstood, they try to explain and justify their ‎‎basic needs for finding a partner, which can make them seem desperate or dishonest. This issue of building trust early in relationships can also trigger attachment issues. Being misunderstood, judged, and mistrusted can deepen their issues of low self-esteem and low self-confidence, causing them to become more closed. Given their difficulty expressing emotions, zero-gen may manifest their frustration as anxiety or anger. Inside, they feel rejected, betrayed, and even more inadequate. They feel unworthy of love or become too afraid to fail one more time. And often this lack of trust feels like bias or even racism.

Race, Implicit Bias, and Trauma

Third, many zero-gen students face overt racism and subtle ‎discrimination grounded in implicit bias. There is robust literature on racism and there is no reason to believe that race is more of a factor for zero-gen daters in America. Furthermore, the intersection of race and national origin is complex; more relevant is the role of implicit bias.

All people have biases or prejudices that influence their thoughts and behaviors when meeting new people. Overt bias, or racism, is a conscious expression of bias based on race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, economic status, and other factors. Implicit bias is unconscious, often rooted in long-forgotten experiences or traumas. Negative implicit bias is particularly potent for zero-gen daters from the Middle East.

The situation is complex for zero-gen daters from the Middle East, especially following September 11. Many zero-gen daters and their potential Western partners are millennials in their twenties and early thirties. There is a growing body of literature documenting the lived trauma of millennials who grew up in the shadow of September 11. Children and young teens who lived in the New York City and Washington DC metropolitan areas were direct witnesses to the events of September 11. As a generation, millennial adults were exposed to significant fear messages about the threat of so-called radical Muslims, with subsequent psychopathologies. This subconscious fear and implicit bias show up when zero-gen daters from the Middle East try to begin relationships with American partners.

Supporting Zero-Gen Daters

These three primary traumas significantly influence zero-gen ‎daters, and perhaps many other immigrants and refugee groups, ‎when dating in the U.S. ‎There are concrete ways to support zero-gen in finding a way forward.

Medical professionals can pay more attention to the experiences of zero-gen clients, especially with their social lives and adaptation to American culture. This is especially important if they mention being stressed, having trouble sleeping, or frequent digestive issues which may be rooted in stress. They may need a referral to a therapist or coach.

Therapists, mentors, and counselors can educate themselves about the trauma and attachment issues unique to refugees and immigrants: both to understand the zero-gen better, so that they don’t see themselves as fundamentally inadequate, and to help them normalize their experiences in America in the context of trauma and the refugee or immigrant experience, and to teach them about the American society and culture.

Friends and partners can educate themselves about the lived experiences of refugees and immigrants: to build bridges by including them in social plans; act as their wingman or wing-woman; observe how they interact with Americans; and give them constructive feedback to adapt their behaviors to make meaningful connections.

Gretchen Martens, MA, received degrees from Cornell University and the University of Michigan.

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