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Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Dating Anxieties: Facing The Unknown

Dating can stir up the deepest anxieties. Do you relate?

Dating, by its very nature, is a situation in which two people have not already committed to a permanent relationship. So, for many people, if not most people, dating relationships are experienced as insecure attachments and therefore anxiety producing.

The advertising copy for the popular book, Dating for Dummies by Joy Brown is, "Whether you're young and haven't dated much or older and have been out of circulation so long you've forgotten how to flirt, dating can be intimidating."

Youthful Inexperience or adult lack of recent practice, however, are not the central issues with dating anxiety. The core concerns are about the answers to the questions "Are they going to be good for me?", and "Am I ‘good enough' for them to love me?" Both worries rear not only their ugly heads, but their ugly trunks and legs.

Anxiety about receiving

I just met with a single, dating client who is discovering a special kind of relational anxiety. The person she is interested in seems to be willing and able to meet her deepest needs. You might think she'd be ecstatic at this long longed for situation. However, for her (and she is far from alone) this recognition of expanded possibility is followed by a fear of receiving. For her and for others, having needs met can be fraught with unanticipated pain. "What if I get used to this, and then he leaves me? I'd be devastated! It's better not to let it happen."

So often people burdened with this fear at receiving have a deep belief that they are in fact unlovable. Or rather that they are unlovable unless they give, provide, and take care of the other person. So if someone gives to them, they feel they have lost what is most desirable about themselves.

To give another example of dating anxieties about receiving, one man, for example, was visiting his date and she offered to go and get him a glass of wine. He agreed and within seconds experienced acute anxiety. His self-talk was something like "She's going to resent doing something for me and later be critical of me." For him, recognizing his anxiety at receiving was actually progress, because previously he had just avoided generous and loving women. He had been attracted to narcissistic women who "made everything all about them."

Another woman, as she learned that her date seemed to be a great match for her became convinced that there must be something wrong with the picture. "If it's too good to be true, it probably isn't," she kept repeating. Distrust of him was her first emotional response. Her primary focus towards her date was in checking him out with others, Googling him, and intently watching for any seeming inconsistencies. When he was five minutes late, or had to postpone plans due to work, she imagined that he was dating numerous women.

What makes anxiety about receiving appear?

One idea about dynamics of the anxiety at receiving is that getting needs met in the present threatens to revive early contrasting and painful memories of caretaker's rejection of one's needs. This idea is called the "pain of contrast." Present satisfaction is a reminder of moments of nonsatisfaction.

Another way of thinking about anxiety about receiving is that growing up the experience of being given to was followed by or accompanied by a rejecting attitude on the part of the giver. An example is a mother who buys new school clothes for the child while complaining that getting the clothes for the child means there is not enough money for the mother to buy anything new for herself.

For every person the past experiences and the meanings made of those experiences are unique. But I see some common patterns that regularly show up with the anxiety about receiving.

In the example above, what's the child to feel? Probably guilt for depriving the mother, shame for wanting or needing, perhaps resentment at being burdened by the mother's insensitivity to how this communication would affect her child. And maybe more guilt and shame for having the resentment and more distress because the child senses that the distress cannot be expressed without further rejection.

Another scenario might be a father who gives an allowance for chores done while irritably lecturing that "money doesn't grow on trees", an ‘don't expect something for nothing' or "there are no free lunches." And the child associates receiving with being accused and seen as unworthy. The problem with these communications is not the lesson of non entitlement and the value of work. It's the angry and joyless affect of the parent that the child connects with receiving.

In either of these scenarios the child could develop the idea that s/he must be independent, not need or be obligated to anyone. Later, receiving could bring up feelings of shame for not being independent.

What can be done about the anxiety of receiving now?

1. Name the feelings. A big part of dealing with the fear that a desired person or relationship is "too good to be true" is just recognizing, and naming the anxieties, fears, worries, and doubts. The mere naming our feelings helps contain them.

2. Learn what thoughts and expectations you fill the space of the unknown with. Another step is to recognize that since dating is an exercise of dealing with the unknown, it is useful to come to know your patterns of dealing with the unknown.

Many people just project their fears into to the future, which by definition in unknown. So when you come across a situation in which you "don't know" what will be there later, notice what you habitually fill in that space with. Are you filling that space of the with worry, doubt, and fear? That's pretty common. But you don't have to keep doing that.

2. Recognize that in fact you "really don't know" the future. Another simple but profound way to practice quieting your anxiety is to add "but I really I don't know" to every prediction of the future. Follow the thought "I can't manage this," "I need...," or "I am..." with "but I really don't know." The phrase "But I really don't know" challenges the seeming truth of everything we think. That phrase is another way of beginning to challenge the negative beliefs behind the anxiety.

Repeating the words "but I really don't know" allows us to question tightly-held ideas. Done thoroughly, "but I really don't know" can pull the rug out from under our most cherished limiting beliefs. All too often we don't question our beliefs. And, since virtually every train of thought has some implicit belief, when we question our thoughts, we question these beliefs. This is similar to the lessons in the Course In Miracles "My thoughts don't mean anything" and "I have given the meaning to everything I see".

The above practice of not-knowing is different from confusion and debilitating doubt. Confusion is not enlivening: the confused person is usually somewhat lost and removed from life. Then too, with doubt, the mind is on over-drive or contracted with hesitation and indecision. Both of these emotional states tend to obscure rather than clarify. Besides, confusion and doubt are generally automatic and not chosen. Not-knowing, as a practice, is a choice meant to bring greater peace.

3. Instead, try assuming and acting as if everything will be the way you would like it to be, and that you will be all right no matter what. (Because you will be.) There is a whole body of literature on the "As if' principles that I will write about at a later time.

My hope is that if you find yourself filling in the future with worrisome thoughts about what will happen, if things look too good to be true, that you can take comfort with the humility of knowing that you, or I, or they "really don't know" what is to come.

Please let me know about your dating anxieties and what you have done to help comfort them.

About the Author
Jane Bolton Psy.D., M.F.T.,

Jane Bolton, Psy.D., M.F.T., is a supervising and training analyst and adjunct professor at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles.

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