The Four Stages of The Dating Process
There is a route to dating success that works for everyone.
By Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D. M.Sc.
Part One - Getting the Date
Our years of experience as therapists and dating mentors have taught us that there is a route to dating success that works for everyone. It doesn’t matter if a couple is yeshivish, modern Orthodox, traditional, or secular …the pattern for successful dating for marriage is the same. This four part article will explain the Pattern for Dating Success and how each person can adapt it to their own life.
We’ve divided the dating process into four different stages. A person who understands each stage will have more realistic expectations of how their courtship should proceed from first date to engagement and marriage, and will be able to avoid a number of difficulties that some dating couples encounter.
How to Get the Date
Most married couples say that they first meet when someone – a friend, co-worker, relative, neighbor, or matchmaker - introduced them to each other. Yet, it’s surprising how many singles are having difficulty meeting suitable potential dates. People who want to set them up may not understand what they are looking for, or the dater’s family and friends may not be accustomed to setting people up. If the single is newly observant, they may not know enough people who can introduce them to suitable dating partners. Or, perhaps they are new to the city, or many people don’t think they need help with dating because their family is prominent or because they are “such a great person there are bound to be a lot of people who are interested in them.”
Adina is a 24-year-old accountant who lives in a mid-sized city. She dated young men from many cities on the East Coast, because there were “very few men in this town.” One day, a family friend had a sudden inspiration. Why didn’t Adina go out with Josh, who came from a lovely family from the other side of town? The friend knew both sets of parents and their children, but had never thought of the match before. The suggestion turned out to be excellent, and Adina, Josh and their happy families are working to find a shidduch (match) for the daughter of the friend who brought them together.
Adina and Josh’s experience shows that we can never be sure where a good idea will come from. Each single should have a network of friends, family members, rabonim, former teachers, acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers and even matchmakers who are actively looking to introduce them to potential dates. Most people do not have ready-made networks; they will have to cultivate relationships with people who can help them, let these people know about their goals in life and the type of person they are looking for, and periodically touch base with them. All of us need occasional reminders to look for potential shidduchim , because life gets hectic at times and we sometimes forget to keep our single friend in mind. If a single man or woman is too embarrassed to periodically check in with the people in their network, they should ask a friend or family member to help do this.
Introductions aren’t the way for a marriage-minded man or woman to meet a good person to date. It’s a good idea to explore every venue that is compatible with your lifestyle and worldview. These can include Jewish Internet dating sites, small-scale events such as Shabbatons and get-togethers, Friday night dinners with married couples and single guests, Jewish education classes, clubs, and chesed projects. Same-gender events can be excellent opportunities for networking.
How can you know whether it’s a good idea to accept a suggestion from a relative, friend, or matchmaker? What should you be looking for when you meet someone interesting at a Shabbaton or class? You’ll find some of the answers to these questions in “Getting Ready to Date For Marriage"
Breaking the Ice at the First Meeting
Let’s look at a first date that friends have arranged between Devora and Ezra. They’ve each made an effort to look nice and are looking forward to their meeting. What will make it more likely that they will have a pleasant time and want to see each other again? First, each of them should be realistic about the purpose of this meeting. It is to break the ice, and nothing more. We like to use the phase “airplane talk” to describe the type of conversation that should take place on a first date. This is the kind of informal conversation a person might have with a seatmate on an airplane trip – discussions about hobbies, interesting anecdotes, what we are currently doing with our lives, something notable about our surroundings, or our opinion on a current topic of interest. We stay away from talking about deeply personal matters or emotions - this should wait until a couple has gotten to know each other well. As one single put it, “I am so easy to talk to that men sometimes tell me their deepest, darkest secrets on our first date. It turns me off. I wonder what kind of person would bare his soul to someone he doesn’t even know.”
One of the biggest mistakes Devora or Ezra can make is to think, “I can’t imagine being married to my date.” Of course they can’t; they don’t even know each other. They’ll have to learn how to push this thought away until they’ve dated long enough to know each other well. Otherwise, they may never get past their first date.
We call the first date an ice breaker because it’s a mere prelude to a second date. If Devora and Ezra see some nice qualities in each other, or even if they don’t have strong positive or negative feelings about each other, they should go out again. It may take a few more dates for them to learn more about one another and decide that they like each other well enough to move to the stage of Developing a Relationship.
Part II – Developing A Relationship
Many people get stuck at the next phase of dating, which is developing a relationship . They decide to go on a second date, and they may even enjoy it, but like their first date, the conversation doesn’t have too much depth. They confine themselves to the same sort of impersonal topics that they discussed on the first date. There are some people who can go on a succession of similar dates with the same person, and at the end of six or seven or eight meetings they exclaim, "This is not going anywhere."
On the flip side, there are some people who decide very quickly that a budding relationship has great possibilities, and they introduce deeply personal matters much too quickly. There's a way all of these individuals can learn to strike a balance between these extremes so that they can gradually move through this phase of relationship-building.
Learning More About Each Other
The next few dates is the time to gradually let each other know more personal details about each other. This can include hopes for the future, idealistic aspirations, what makes you feel joyful or sad, different aspects of your life and why you enjoy them and what your spirituality means to you. Over time, you'll also want to talk about your families and friends and your relationships with them, and delve a little more deeply into the kind of subjects you discussed on your first date. No matter how comfortable you and your date feel with each other, don’t drop any bombshells about "skeletons in the closet", bring up the subject of past relationships or go into great detail about particularly traumatic events in your life.
As your relationship develops, the two of should find more topics to talk about, including your shared experiences. (See “Conversations to Explore When You’re Dating”) And those experiences should be varied. You won't see different aspects of each other's personality if you always go out for a walk and a cup of coffee or to a place of entertainment. It's wise to share a variety of experiences; buying a gift together, going on a hike, enjoying an easy sport activity like paddle-boating or bowling or touring a historic site. Occasionally, a couple should go on a longer date to see how each of you react when you become a little tired or spend a large block of time together. Over time, you should be feeling more comfortable with each other and should look forward to seeing each other again.
Not Overdoing It
At this point, some people are so happy with their courtship that they want to see each other all of the time. They may get together four or five times a week, and spend hours on the telephone with each other. Even though it seems like a logical thing to do, in a vast number of cases it leads to the couple's break up. That's because this a very emotionally intense experience and many people, particularly women, don't realize how much "down time" they need to unconsciously process all they are going through. When a woman comes to us, unable to understand why her new beau who seemed so great at first now makes her feel nauseous or anxious, it is frequently because they have been spending too much time together.
She might say to us, "If I'm going to marry someone, we're going to be spending all of our time together, so what's wrong with seeing each other so often?" The fact is that married people don't spend every moment together. They learn to balance their jobs, the errands they have to do, their friends and family and the personal interests that they don't share with their spouse with the time they spend together sharing and building a life. They don't worry that their personal lives are falling in to disarray because most of their spare moments are spend on dates, and they don't spend time thinking, "Is this the right person for me?" or experience the roller-coaster of emotions that people who are dating may go through.
We have found that the ideal amount of time couples should spend together during this phase of courtship is twice a week, interspersed with a mixture of longer and shorter telephone calls and even e-mails. When people have time to integrate their lives with their courtship, they will feel less overwhelmed or puzzled about their future of the relationship than they would if they continued to see each other on an almost daily basis.
You Can Have a Bad Date
Don’t let an unexpected change in the momentum of the courtship unsettle you. After several promising dates, it isn’t uncommon to have a bad date, or a difficult phone conversation, or be hit with feelings of uncertainty. Your mood on a date or your reaction to a telephone call can be affected by other things going on in your life – a cold coming on, pressure at work, a family emergency, even the stress of upcoming Yomim Tovim. Remember that the quality of a relationship isn’t reflected in how you feel at a particular moment in time. Rather, it’s evidenced by how the courtship develops over a period of time.
Part III - Building Emotional Intimacy
As a man and woman continue to go out, they should begin to feel a change in their attitude toward each other. They gradually feel more comfortable when they are together and when they speak on the telephone, and look forward to and enjoy sharing time together. As they develop a shared history, they start to be concerned for each other's welfare and feel affection toward each other. Two people who seem to get along very well from the first date will get to this stage much faster than the couple who first feels lukewarm toward each other but begins to like each other after three or four dates. Frankly, it doesn't matter if two people are on the "fast track" or if they are moving at a slow but steady pace. What matters is the end result – they develop what we call "emotional intimacy."
What’s Emotional Intimacy?
Emotional intimacy is a vital quality for every happy and enduring marriage, and we believe that it is important for couples to develop this aspect of their relationship while they are dating. But, what is emotional intimacy? It is a feeling of deep friendship and mutual caring, much as two very good friends of the same gender might have, but on deeper level. A man and a woman who have a strong emotional connection will want to discuss all sorts of subjects with each other, whether it is something funny or interesting that just occurred, a distressing experience, or their deepest thoughts and feelings. They can comfortably talk about such a wide range of mundane and in-depth topics because they feel "safe" disclosing almost anything to each other.
Someone who shares emotional intimacy can reveal a vulnerability to their partner and feel secure that it won't be turned against them. They know that the other person wants the best for them, and the feeling is mutual. They look forward to doing nice things for each other and often can't wait to see the other person's expression when they open an unexpected gift or are at the receiving end of a kind gesture. If a crisis hits, or if they are upset, the first person they will turn to for emotional support is their partner in emotional intimacy.
When Ari and Dalia walked by a gift shop one evening, she pointed out a beaded necklace in a window display and commented how beautiful the beads were. Since Ari was an occupational therapist who often used crafts to help his clients with motor skills, he had occasion to frequent a do-it-yourself craft store that sold many types of interesting beads. He decided to search for some special beads that Dalia would like, and surprised her with a beautiful necklace that he made for her.
How Does it Develop?
How does a couple get to this point? The key word is "time". Emotional intimacy takes time to develop. Two people who sense an instant connection on their first date and feel like they have known each other all of their lives don't have emotional intimacy. They may be able to relate to each other very easily, but they haven't developed enough of a history together to be able to rely on each other's past behavior to anticipate future behavior. They won't be willing to turn to each other in a crisis, trust the other person with an embarrassing secret (or hear the secret), or ask them to go out of their way to help them with something they can't do on their own. These actions require mutual trust and a willingness to rely on each other and be relied upon, all of which have to evolve over a period of time.
The evolution takes place as a couple shares experiences, thoughts, feelings and ideas, and gradually reveals information to each other that they consider to be very personal in nature. There are some people who find it difficult to relax and converse freely with the person they’re dating, and this can keep them from moving from a superficial level of courtship to an emotionally close relationship. We often recommend that people who have trouble opening up ask a good friend or a dating coach for help. Together, they can think of interesting subjects to talk about and ways to lead into more personal topics of conversation. They can also "role play" dating conversation, which often helps the person with difficulty feel more comfortable when they are out with their dating partner. Other times, we have suggested that someone who is uncomfortable opening up to a person they have been dating and have started to like can ease into a deeper level of conversation by confiding that it is hard for them to talk about personal subjects.
Emotional intimacy doesn't develop in a few dates – that's just a warm-up period. Through our many years of working with dating couples, we have learned that most couples need a minimum of six weeks of seeing each other twice a week, and telephoning each other in between dates, to truly solidify their relationship. We understand that many rabonim encourage couples to make a decision about engagement after fewer dates, but we continue to feel that most couples who are very focused on moving toward marriage do best by solidifying their emotional connection before they become engaged. A less focused couple, as well as someone who has trouble "opening up" to their dating partner, usually needs an additional period of time to develop the level of emotional intimacy that they should bring with them to marriage.
The emotional closeness that a couple develops while they are dating is just a prelude to the future. It can develop to a certain point, but it is only after a man and woman begin to share the ups and downs of life as a married couple that they realize how emotionally close two people can become. At what point should a man and woman feel secure enough about their relationship to take that leap of faith to become engaged?
Part IV – Taking The Leap Of Faith
Many people have little difficulty navigating through the first three stages of the dating cycle, but find that they cannot make the leap of faith that is needed for them to make a commitment to their dating partner. This sometimes affects older singles who have been dating for a period of time, but even younger men or women may find themselves plagued with doubts that seem to emerge just at the point where they should be talking with their dating partner about engagement.
How could something like this happen? Often, a couple will be dating for several weeks, and their relationship is slowly blossoming. They enjoy each other's company and look forward to seeing each other. They share a similar outlook on life and their goals appear to be moving in the same direction. They may have even met each other's families, and they have probably have talked about marriage in general terms, using words like, "someday…" Now, however, the time has come to get serious, and one of them brings up the subject. However, the response they receive is not what they expect. Their dating partner is less than enthusiastic, or wonders why they rush, or changes the subject. Secretly, though, the partner may be starting to panic.
Filled With Doubts
He or she may think, "This relationship is fine for now, but I don't know if I want to be with this person for the rest of my life. They are too bossy/passive/outgoing/reserved/neat/messy." None of these personality traits bothered the single before the subject of marriage came up. Now, however, they seem to be an issue. Or, the single may suddenly be filled with doubts. "Is this really the person for me? Do I really want to be with this person 24 hours a day? What if I am making a mistake? How do I know that that we will have a good marriage and won't get divorced after a few months or years? If this relationship is really headed for marriage, why do I have these doubts?"
There are any number of reasons why someone in a promising relationship may be worried about making a commitment. They may never have come this far along in a relationship and may be unsure of themselves. They may have a difficult family background; lack of shalom bayis (family harmony), abuse, loss of a family member, or divorce, and they may be afraid that this will happen in their own marriage. Other people may be puzzled because their emotional connection to the person they are dating has developed slowly or gradually, while some of their friends "knew" they had met "the one" on their first date. They wonder if something is wrong because they never felt the "fireworks" that modern culture tells them to expect.
An older single might wonder, "My life, apartment, job, friends and finances are so organized – is this the person I want to change them for? How do I know there isn't someone better around the corner?" Another person's single friends may "advise" them that they should be thinking about the person they will marry 24 hours a day and miss them when they aren't together. Someone who doesn't feel this way may think their relationship isn't what it should be. Still others will say, "Our relationship isn't perfect – why should I settle for less than perfect?" And almost everyone asks themselves, "So many married people are miserable – how do I know that we'll be happy?"
All of these concerns have one common denominator – a misunderstanding of what a relationship requires to succeed over the long term. It doesn't need fireworks or perfection. What it does require is a good foundation as well as the desire and ability to make one's marriage a priority.
A Good Foundation for Marriage
We find that couples who are fortunate enough to have some degree of all of the following qualities have a good foundation for a future marriage:
1. Compatible values and goals
2. Mutual Respect
3. Admiration of some of each other's qualities
4. Physical Attraction
6. Emotional Intimacy
When we counsel a single man or woman who feels that each of these qualities is present in their relationship, we encourage them to get engaged. Of course, we explain that foundations must be built upon, and marriages don't run on autopilot. If a couple is willing to nurture all of these qualities throughout their marriage and is open to developing the skills that will enable them to do so, they can have a long and happy marriage, even with the ups and downs that life in general entails.
So, what should someone who is dating keep in mind as they ponder whether the person they are seeing is the person they can share the future with? First, their relationship should have each of the qualities we have listed. They can expect that some will be stronger than others. Next, they should confide in a happily married person whose judgment they trust. This person can answer their questions, give them encouragement, and give them a balanced perspective about married life. Third, they can be aware of the fact that during an emotionally intense period such as this, it isn’t uncommon to have ambivalent feelings about even the best relationship.
Earlier in this article, we explained that the quality of the relationship has little to do with the emotions you may be feeling at a particular point in time. It’s normal to feel a little panicked, and to want to be sure you are making the right choice. It’s also normal to have a bad day, or an argument. Ultimately, it is the overall quality of a relationship that is important. Try to put everything into perspective. If the two of you have all of the qualities we have mentioned, and well as the willingness and open-mindedness that can help you build on the foundation you start with, the two of you can enjoy an enduring and loving life together.
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