Photo by Flickr user Gulan Bolisay
Photo by Flickr user Gulan Bolisay.

I married early in my adult life while others my age were still dating. Then, in my late 30s, my husband died of cancer. Suddenly I was a young widow with two teenagers and a complicated career.

I was a licensed counselor and adjunct professor teaching in a counseling department. The dating world had become a very different world since my years as a teenager. By the time I was ready to date I wasn’t sure what awaited me. My specialty in private practice is intimacy and relationships. Would that complicate matters? Would I over-analyze everything and scare people away?

I found that the same qualities that made me a good therapist were of great benefit to dating. I was no longer in my early 20s, but neither were the men I met. Maturity was part of it, but an even more important factor was my therapeutic training (I had completed my masters and PhD while married to my late husband). I didn’t need to turn that part of myself off to enter the dating world; instead I found it to be very useful to my dating experiences.

Faith Harper and her fiance, Joe, on vacation. Courtesy photo.
Faith Harper and her fiance, Joe, on vacation. Courtesy photo.

I am engaged to be married again, something I had no expectation of ever happening. I truly believe that dating like a therapist helped me find the man I am completely crazy about, and I wanted to share the benefit of these experiences with others in the dating market. I’d like to share some insights with you, and save you the years of graduate school and student loan debt that it took for me to figure it out.

1) Be present. Be engaged. Be authentic.

Most individuals give off certain signals demonstrating interest and availability in a dating environment. I was told by more than one person that I did’t engage in any of them. I didn’t twirl my hair, giggle, or make extraneous physical contact on dates.  One guy told me that at first he didn’t know how to respond to me. He was used to gauging if someone was interested in him by reading these signals, but then he realized that he felt completely comfortable with me because I was focusing all my attention on him.

If I committed to a date with someone, even a meeting for coffee, I was committing my time and attention to that person. Everyone deserves the respect of an engaged and present response. My intent is to get to know the person, not put on a show for them. If someone comes to see me for therapy, they receive my undivided attention whether I find them interesting or likable.  Dating someone should be the same. If I was too busy sending out flirty signals, I would miss getting to know someone in a truly authentic way.

2) Use SMART goal setting.

When writing a treatment plan for a client, I ask the following questions to help formulate goals. Is the goal: Specific? Measurable? Achievable? Realistic? Time-Sensitive?

Dating should be no different. What do you want from your dating experience? How will you know if you are getting that? If you are looking for a life partner how will you know if you are on that path? If you are looking for someone to have fun with, what does fun look like for you?  Don’t waste your time or theirs. Know what you want and how you plan on getting there.

 3) Not all agendas are explicit. Hidden agendas may not have anything to do with you.

When people come to therapy, even willingly, they don’t tell me everything. They are focused on the one problem that they want relief from, but don’t necessarily think that other information is pertinent. Or any of my business. Or they are embarrassed about these other issues and not willing to share with me right away.

Anyone you are dating has their own agenda for their dating experience which may or may not be congruent with your own. They may not even be fully aware of what they want. It is likely not nearly as personal as you think it is. Relationship building takes time. I expect people to be guarded starting out, and I tell them that I not only expect that, I respect it. If anything, dating is even more anxiety provoking than starting therapy.  Give the relationship space to grow. Don’t take everything personally. Be willing to explore the relationship, rather than make immediate demands on it.

4) Be aware of your countertransference.

Faith and Joe. Courtesy photo.
Faith and Joe. Courtesy photo.

Countertransference is a therapeutic word first coined by Freud in correspondence with Jung in 1909.  He defined countertransference as the therapist’s emotional response to their client based on their own history or issues. Freud conceived this as a personal problem on the part of the therapist and something that should be guarded against and tamped down at all times.

More than 100 years later, we think about countertransference much differently. I teach my students that countertransference is entirely normal, and can be beneficial (as well as diagnostic) as long as we remain aware of it when it happens. This means parsing out whether other people have a similar response to this person, or just you. Essentially, the question becomes…is it your stuff or theirs?

This is no different when dating someone new. If their behavior is upsetting or anxiety provoking in any way, listen for cues that other people have the same response to that person. This can lend insight into how they interact with others in general, and help you decide whether or not this is a behavior you want to endure. If it seems to be just YOUR response, then it is important that you do your own work around that, rather than expecting someone else to adapt to your triggers. We all have our own baggage in relationships, but it is important that we take responsibility for carrying it. We can always ask for assistance, but we should always remain aware of what is our responsibility to manage.

5) Know when to terminate.

“Firing” clients is a tough thing for a therapist to do. We struggle with knowing when it is appropriate and how to do so in the best possible way. This is where the SMART goal setting comes in. Are we progressing along the lines that we should be? Are we progressing at all?  Is the agenda becoming more explicit? Can I adapt to the agenda and needs of the person I am seeing? Is the client showing up when they are supposed to and doing the things they said they are going to do?

Can you think of any better analogy to a break-up? I might be biased, but I never could. The late poet Maya Angelou was known for saying, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I tell clients all the time that in the end, love is a behavior. Do you feel respected? Is your time valued? Do you feel the relationship is moving forward? If not, have you addressed these issues and asked for change?

I have told clients, “I don’t think this is helping you and it is important that I don’t waste your time. We either need to find a way to make this work or I can refer you to someone else.” I have had similar conversations with people I have dated. Termination doesn’t mean someone is a bad person. It means you are ending a bad match.

In the end, all of us deserve relationships that let us be our best possible selves, and support us in that endeavor. We need to know what we want, and give our relationships a chance to meet these desires. We also need to know when to let them go, or change the nature of them to better meet our needs. Therapy, in the end, should model what a health relationship can be like.

A therapeutic approach to dating can be a very effective strategy for creating the types of relationships we are seeking. It isn’t your typical smoke and mirrors dating advice. Instead of hiding who you are, I suggest you be exactly who you are — because that is the person you want others to see and know.

 *Featured/top image: Photo by Flickr user Gulan Bolisay.

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Faith Harper is a licensed therapist who specializes in intimacy and relationships in Bexar County.