Abusive Dr. Van EppIn my work as a therapist and relationship educator the most frequently-recurring issue I see among single adults is the belief that all of the good men/women are already taken. Many seem stuck in a pattern of abusive, controlling, neglectful relationships that they desperately want to escape. Others have heard the horror stories of their friends and are understandably reticent to enter the dating scene themselves.

Fortunately, there is a way to avoid getting into negative relationships and develop healthy ones instead. Dr. John Van Epp, a counselor with decades of experience working with single adults, has developed a research-based program, charmingly titled “How to Avoid Falling in Love with a Jerk” (based on the book of the same name) that offers essential tools for dating well.

As a certified instructor of this “No Jerks” class, as well as a marriage and family therapist who was single for years, I’m well aware that it’s a jungle out there. Allow me to offer four keys to help the never-married, the divorced, the widowed, and the struggling to date with confidence and caution, but without fear.

Don’t allow your level of touch to exceed your level of commitment.

Don’t trust someone more than you actually know them.

Be the type of person that you want to attract.

Live a life worth living on your own.

 

Let’s dig a little deeper on each of these:

Don’t allow your level of touch to exceed your level of commitment.

In popular media we frequently see couples entering very early into a physical relationship; the decision to enter (or not) into a committed relationship often comes much later, if at all. This seems to work fine on the page and screen, but remember that those are fictional destinies, determined by authors and screenwriters instead of by reality. In real life, explains Dr. Van Epp, early physical involvement creates a false sense of intimacy. In other words, you think that you’re more in love than you actually are.

This is because physical intimacy triggers the release of bonding hormones that make you feel intensely attached to the other person. Of course, if you don’t really know the other person and haven’t developed a pattern of reliably meeting each other’s needs over time, the sensation of “love” is actually a mirage that may or may not actually materialize. The other person may not be dependable, they may not be who you think they are, or they may be lying to you. A breakup after physical intimacy is usually far more painful than one where things didn’t go as far.

Don’t trust someone more than you know them.

Dr. Van Epp describes trust as the mental image you have of the person, i.e. who you “think they are.” We don’t trust others, we trust our idea of them, which may or may not be accurate. This is why, when someone betrays our trust, we say “You’re not who I thought you were!” Early on, we gather bits and pieces of a person’s identity from what we observe and what we’ve heard about them. If we’re not careful, we may rush to fill in the gaps with what we hope they are or who we assume them to be, based on limited information.

What’s more, they may be, at best, trying to make a good impression or at worst actively deceitful. This is why it’s important to take time to get to know somebody before entering into a relationship. Build a friendship. Talk frequently and observe them in a variety of situations. See if their actions match their words and if they are who you think they are. Watch carefully how they treat other people. It generally takes at least 90 days for true behavioral patterns to reveal themselves.

Be the type of person that you want to attract.

I once had a client in my office for therapy (story shared with permission) who told me that he’d probably never marry because his standards were too high. When I asked him what those standards were, he offered to bring me a list he’d prepared, which he did in the next session. The lengthy list of traits required of his “perfect woman” went on and on. With each requirement this dream female was sounding more and more like a cross between Mary Poppins and Wonder Woman. I took my client’s list, turned it towards him, pointed at it, and said: “Here’s the thing. The woman you describe here… what her list look like?”

The man looked like ice water had been thrown on his face. He realized that he wasn’t living up to the standards that he had set for his mate. He had to be the type of person that he wanted to attract, and if he expected her to embrace and tolerate his imperfections, he’d better be prepared to embrace and tolerate hers. If you want an honest person, be an honest person. If you want a loyal partner, be loyal. If you want someone hard-working, work hard. If you don’t want to be pressured into a relationship, respect the right of others to make their own choices as well.

Build a life worth living on your own.

It’s fine to want someone to hold and to make memories with here and now, but as soon as that want becomes need, you’re likely to get hurt. Why? As soon as you need to have a man or a woman in your life right now, you’re in love with the idea of being in love. That’s when you scare people away by coming across as desperate. That’s when shady characters can use your neediness to manipulate and use you.

I look at it this way: if you aren’t able to swim on your own, if you’re afraid of drowning in loneliness and despair, you’re going to cling to whatever piece of slimy driftwood comes floating by. The best way to combat this is to build a life worth living on your own. You can still love your life by helping others, developing your relationships with friends and family, and pursuing worthwhile goals. This will make you less desperate, less needy, more attractive to others, and more able to swim on your own. That way, if you end up with someone, it will be because you choose to be with that person, not because you need someone right this moment or you’ll fall apart.

You don’t have to be in an abusive relationship ever again. If you need extra support to avoid bad relationships, please let me know.

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