For many psychotherapy clients, issues with relationships and intimacy are paramount. Typically, individuals seeking help with these issues display insecure attachment styles, usually the result of inconsistent, neglectful and/or abusive parenting – though many other forms of early-life (and even adult-life) trauma may also be in play. Sometimes these clients have turned to an addiction, either substance or behavioral, as a way to cope with the discomfort caused by adult-life relationships. In my practice I have dealt with many such people, primarily sexual addicts and co-occurring sex/drug addicts. For these clients, an integral (and somewhat advanced) part of the healing process is learning how to date in healthy ways. Oftentimes the creation of a “dating plan” is quite helpful.
Of course, it’s not just sexually and/or chemically addicted men and women who struggle with dating and intimacy. Beginning and developing adult romantic relationships is a struggle for anyone with any type of attachment deficit disorder, including relatively healthy people coming off breakups or divorces (especially if the former partner was abusive or unfaithful). Oftentimes these clients have lost confidence in themselves and their ability to bond in healthy ways. They may also, based on past experience, simply find it difficult to trust others. Either way, becoming vulnerable (being completely honest and risking rejection and/or emotional pain) can be a daunting task, so much so that it may prevent these men and women from fully moving forward with their lives. This does not, however, mean they are perfectly happy living alone for the remainder of their lives. For these clients, as with recovering sex addicts, a dating plan can be helpful.
Regardless of the trauma a client has experienced or the counterproductive ways in which that trauma manifests, the path to developing healthy future intimate relationships is pretty much the same. Two basic pieces of advice that may help clients are:
- Take it slow. If a client has come to you with sex/relationship/intimacy issues, he or she is probably fairly clueless about how to create and sustain the kind of healthy intimacy needed for lasting relationship success. A lot of times clients like this tend to meet someone new and instantly elevate that person “future spouse” status, little realizing that long-term relationships build slowly over time. As such, clients should be counseled about taking it easy when they meet someone new, trying to not vest themselves in the outcome of any particular relationship for at least the first few months. Yes, this may seem like common sense advice to you, but it’s likely counterintuitive to your client.
- Don’t jump into bed right away. Many people who struggle with intimacy and long-term relationships experience problems when dating because they confuse sex with love. With these clients it is helpful to suggest that they have several nonsexual dates with a person, getting to know that person fairly well before things get physical. You might also let them know that if sexual intensity is the basis of a relationship, that relationship will almost certainly fall apart when the sex inevitably cools off. You might also suggest that if a particular person makes your client feel ashamed, used, abused or manipulated before, during or after sex, it’s time to step back and reassess, probably calling it quits and looking for someone else.
A Basic Written Plan
For some clients, a formalized written plan for dating can help with the development of new and healthier habits. Obviously, every person in treatment arrives with a singular history and set of circumstances, so every dating plan will be unique. Usually it helps to outline a set of basic goals. Sometimes these goals are the only plan that clients require. You can assign this task in therapy, and clients can develop their plan at home, but the plan should not be implemented until they’ve discussed it at length with you in the therapy room, vetting it for bad ideas, things they’ve not thought about, etc. A particular client might create the following list of goals:
- I don’t want to date anyone I wouldn’t introduce to my friends.
- I don’t want to date anyone who treats me badly or uses me financially.
- I don’t want to date anyone who is actively addicted (to anything).
- I don’t want to have sex with anyone before I get to know that person.
- I want to have a serious, lasting, monogamous relationship.
- I want to be trustworthy and to date people who are trustworthy.
As stated above, a simple written plan like this one will suffice for many clients. Others, however, seem to need more detailed work. In such cases, the more comprehensive exercise suggested below can be quite useful.
Traffic Signals: Red, Yellow, Green
For clients who are really stumped when it comes to dating – what they want, what’s appropriate, when to proceed, when to be cautious, when to end it – a written “traffic signals” plan provides markers that illuminate who is a good person to date and who is bound to disappoint. As with the shorter plan outlined above, traffic lights should be discussed at length before the plan is implemented.
Red lights are characteristics that are unacceptable to your client in anyone that he or she might date. Your client should agree to stop dating or to not date anyone who displays even one red light trait. Yellow lights are characteristics that should cause your client to proceed with caution. Green lights, obviously, are traits that are healthy and desirable in another person. A typical traffic signals dating plan might read as follows:
- I will not date a person who is actively addicted (to anything).
- I will not date a person who is still seeing someone else.
- I will not date a person who lies to me.
- I will not date a person who is unemployed.
- I will not date a person who lives with his/her parents (or an ex).
- I will not date a person who habitually ignores my calls, texts, emails, etc.
- I will not date a person who fails to keep commitments.
- I will be cautious about a person who seems self-centered, talking a lot more about himself/herself than he/she listens.
- I will be cautious about a person who recently ended a long-term relationship.
- I will be cautious about a person who only calls when he/she wants or needs something.
- I will be cautious about a person who expects me to pay for everything on every date.
- I will be cautious about a person who expects me to make all of our dating plans.
- I will be cautious about a person who doesn’t seem to want to meet my friends, or for me to meet any of his/her friends.
- I will be cautious about a person who doesn’t seem to appreciate me as a person.
- I am looking for someone who displays interest in me as a person, asking about my life and my feelings.
- I am looking for someone who offers to help me out with things I am doing, and appreciates it when I do the same for him/her.
- I am looking for a person who surprises me with playful experiences.
- I am looking for a person who has interesting hobbies and displays a sense of creativity and fun.
- I am looking for a person who shares at least a few important interests with me (movies, art, food, sports, exercise, etc.)
- I am looking for a person who returns my calls and texts in a reasonable amount of time, and shows up when we’ve made plans (and is happy to do so).
By outlining positive and negative characteristics in this way, your client is more likely to be alerted to problematic people early on and to continue seeing people who may actually be a romantic fit. Plus, the process of creating a detailed plan in this way may bring to the surface deeper, longer-term issues that can be addressed and resolved in the therapeutic milieu. Best of all, having a solid and clearly delineated dating plan helps your client to not get caught up in the moment, forgetting what’s important in the excitement of meeting someone new. With a traffic signals plan, you client can look at his/her potential new paramour and say, “Hmm, this person is super-hot, but he/she is also unemployed, living with an ex and seeing three other people – all of whom contribute to his/her financial wellbeing. I think I should walk away.”
The simple truth is most healthy people don’t need a dating plan because they have a (relatively) secure attachment style and they intuitively recognize red/yellow/green light characteristics. However, these are not the folks who enter therapy seeking help with their relationships. For clients who struggle with developing and maintaining healthy intimacy, these written and well-defined guidelines – as obvious and overly simplistic as they may seem – can be a godsend. Hopefully, over time, as your clients utilize these guidelines in their dating life, they will develop a more grounded sense of who to choose as a romantic/sexual partner, and they’ll reflexively make healthier and safer choices. Until then, however, a dating plan may be needed.