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Heavy Meddle: How Do I Keep Dates From Becoming Therapy Sessions?


A woman wonders why her first dates keep devolving into counseling. (André Robillard/Unsplash)
A woman wonders why her first dates keep devolving into counseling. (André Robillard/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I work in health care and am, by nature, a caring person and a very empathetic listener. My patients often share with me some of their most painful experiences. I genuinely care. I love my job. I am a single woman in my mid-50s.

After a divorce and some time working through my issues, I felt energized to get out there and start dating. I have done the usual online dating and even tried speed dating which at first seemed fun actually.

My problem is that on first dates the men I meet invariably start talking about what a drag online dating has been and how they have met people with baggage, etc. Or they will tell me that they just want to meet someone special, but end up talking about their exes. I try to shift the conversation back to more neutral topics and even went so far as saying to one man, "Gee, I’m out on a nice evening with a good looking man. The last thing I want to be thinking about is my divorce and my ex. Let's talk about favorite restaurants or ideal vacations." That worked for a bit but sure enough, we were soon back to talking about how his ex had done him wrong.

Halfway through each date, I find myself sliding into empathetic listener mode and feeling like I'm being put in the friend/big sister/therapist zone...

I have become so discouraged with it all. Halfway through each date, I find myself sliding into empathetic listener mode and feeling like I'm being put in the friend/big sister/therapist zone... and sadly for me, any flirty romantic thoughts I might have had at the beginning of the date evaporate and I go home feeling like I have just been with patients, people I care about — but not romantically.

How can I either remind them that we are on a date, and this is our time to be having fun — flirting and getting to know one another? How can I stop myself from sliding into my work empathetic listener mode? I’ve even joked to friends that dating must be cheaper than the co-pay for a good therapist!

Thanks for listening.

Signed,

Your Date Not Your Doc

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Dear Your Date,

My wife happens to be an extremely empathic person, and a great listener. (Let’s please just hurry past the fact that she would have to be a great listener to marry a loudmouth like me.) Her experience correlates — at least roughly — to yours. Which is to say: the world is made up of people desperate to sing their woe, to tell their story, to unload their baggage. If you send signals that you’re a sympathetic ear, you can pretty much count on that ear getting filled. This is part of what makes you such a great nurse, and a special person. But it’s not what you’re after on a date. You want a path to romantic intimacy, not therapeutic camaraderie.

I’d start by recognizing that conversation is a collaborative act. It’s something you create together. If you don’t want your dates zooming into over-sharing mode, you need to grow more comfortable talking about yourself, to be a bit more pro-active in steering the conversation. I say this because what you’re describing isn’t a single incident but a pattern. And that suggests to me that there may be ways in which you are consciously — or unconsciously — falling into the role of the “good listener.”

There are other measures you can take. The first would be to do a bit more screening. Speed-dating and online dating can be fun, but for obvious reasons, initial encounters tend to be info dumps. The participants feel they have to “tell their stories.” Wounded men no doubt pick up on your ability to hear them out. And let’s face it: when you’re in the middle-aged dating demographic, your potential partners are going to be showing up with some baggage.

I’d start by recognizing that conversation is a collaborative act. It’s something you create together.

So I’d recommend doing a little more due diligence on potential dates. You don’t have to go so far as to announce, “No baggage please” in your profile. But you can seek out men who seem less haunted by recent romantic or marital failures. And you can spend some time getting to know them via email and phone before you meet with them in person. This way you don’t wind up trapped in a “romantic scars info session” when you want an actual first date.

There are other ways to signal that you want to look forward rather than backward. For instance, rather than settling for a meal, choose an activity for a first date — swing dancing or a lecture or a movie. That way you have an experience in common to connect around. There are, of course, more obvious ways that you can signal that you don’t want to be relegated to the “sister zone.” Wardrobe and makeup, for instance.

What’s most important here is that you face your own intention. I think it’s a great that you spoke up recently and steered your date away from his wounded heart soliloquy. But the ideal would be for you to create dating experiences that are focused on the present and future, and testing basic compatibility. Part of that will be each of you talking about your past experiences — but within the context of getting to know each other as potential lovers.

Send that signal as clearly as you can, and don’t beat yourself up if men aren’t returning it. It just means you haven’t found the lucky guy yet. You will.

Onward, together,
Steve

Author's note: One book I forgot to mention, which my wife and I both found revelatory, is “Quiet” by Susan Cain, who we talked to on Dear Sugar Radio a few months ago. The book is about how cultural attitudes toward introversion and extroversion have changed. It’s big picture stuff but brilliant and relevant here. Okay readers, something tells me some of you are feeling Your Dates pain, so let’s hear your advice in the comments section below. And hey, send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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