Dating and Group Process

Christine Carpenter, PsyD, CGP

Dating Sucks. Well… unless you’re twenty with no desire to settle down or unless your dating efforts regularly lead to satisfying relationships. But if you haven’t had a “Leave-It-To-Beaver” childhood, relationships in general and dating in particular can be a struggle. Across the range of challenges early in life, some of the biggest casualties of a less-than-optimal childhood are long-term, stable love relationships.

People who have grown up exposed to detrimental patterns of relating tend to repeat unhealthy patterns as dating adults; that is, if they can muster the ego to get in the game in the first place. Individual therapy is instrumental in resolving much of the developmental trauma people bring into adulthood but it can be a big leap to go from a safe one-on-one dynamic to putting yourself out there on the dating scene. Group therapy is particularly suited to bridge this gap. Working in a group of one’s peers helps people examine old interpersonal patterns, develop and practice new ones and has helped so many of my clients improve their quality of life.

But one thing I have noticed in many of my single clients, is that no matter how comfortable they become setting healthy boundaries, expressing needs and deepening intimacy with friends and family, romantic relationships are often experienced as a completely different animal. Dating has a unique ability to activate our biggest insecurities. This makes it more difficult to translate new relationship skills to the dating realm. It occurred to me that something more was needed to help this subset of clients overcome their fears of dating and romantic intimacy. Noticing similarities across their stories, the seeds of an idea started to sprout about how I might fill the need for that something more.

Over time, it became evident that my dating clients all seemed to share the same frustrations, be plagued by the same questions and grapple with the same insecurities. Common elements included difficulty “selling” themselves on dating profiles, personalizing unsuccessful encounters, relying on the bare minimum of information to draw significant conclusions about self or others, overgeneralizing experiences to all men, all women, all engineers (yes, I have heard this) and overanalyzing pretty much everything. I wondered what would happen if I got them all in a room together to talk and share and possibly gain a new perspective. My vision was to get an equal number of men and women (thought I’d better start with what I know) of similar age together in a room and utilize group therapy principals to challenge misperceptions about self and others that might get in the way of successful dating. Because singles always have so many questions that rarely get answered in truncated or short-lived encounters, and because it is such a profoundly helpful aspect of my therapy groups, I also wanted to incorporate a healthy dose of honest feedback between members.

With these goals in mind, I sat down one Saturday and created a workshop that was a balance of organic interpersonal interaction, structured feedback and experiential exercise. I came up with five 90-minute group meetings, each with a goal for the meeting, the structured exercise that would bring the concepts to life and the materials I would need in each meeting. Thus, in February of 2013, Dating Boot Camp was born.

What I Have Learned

Having run roughly one DBC workshop a year, I have found that group process is actually quite helpful to those struggling on the dating scene! The most immediate benefit is that participants enter the space and, by the end of the first meeting, they learn that there are other perfectly regular, very likeable people out there struggling with the same things they are. Groups have a way of leveling the playing field around things that make us feel different or separate from most of the rest of the world. Daters in particular are acutely aware of their friends’ changing relationship statuses, marriages, pregnancies and births. They often feel like there is something wrong with them since “everyone else” seems to travel this journey so seamlessly. Being in a group with people who are living their same reality is very comforting and normalizing. Once that level of comfort is established, deeper exploration can begin.

By the fourth meeting, participants have had several opportunities to confront their own projections, challenge deeply-rooted belief systems and process feedback from others. They begin to understand in a very concrete way that, by nature, we tend to make unconscious judgements about ourselves and others through the filters of past experience. They start to grasp the heavy influence these filters have on dating choices. They recognize how differently they see themselves compared to how others see them. This is quite eye-opening. To have a here-and-now encounter with a group of peers that completely contradicts old narratives is transformative. This, to me, is one of the most powerful experiences of group therapy and one of the biggest benefits to those navigating the dating world.

Another hallmark benefit of working through relational issues in a group is the element of support. The atmosphere of DBC is very positive and encouraging; a foreign experience to many of those working through developmental trauma. Those who do come to DBC with good support networks, often find that they are seeking reassurance or advice from those who have already successfully navigated the enterprise of pairing up. It can feel like they just don’t get it. Talking through the challenges and getting to ask all your questions to those on the other side of the “table for two” is invaluable. But the support really comes in handy around the week-four assignment of DBC; the “Go-On-A-Date” assignment (ominous music plays as thunder crashes and lightning strikes).

This is a pretty intimidating experience for those who haven’t dated much – or at all – and a way to practice doing it differently for those who don’t have a problem getting dates. There is no pressure to complete the assignment but it is very useful to have the group there to help process through all that comes up around it.

I have found that applying group principles to a dating-focused workshop makes a lot of sense. It stimulates new ideas about how to approach a somewhat mystifying process. In a very short amount of time, DBC participants gain a new understanding of themselves and how they see the world. They are introduced to a different way of thinking about and “doing” dating and they have new insight about how their histories influence their current interpersonal style and relational choices. They get some real-world practice that can be processed in a supportive setting. And hopefully DBC members feel less personally flawed and more like a part of a community of people who face similar challenges for very clear and understandable reasons. Just as group therapy is helpful to clients working through their emotional/relational baggage, I have found the group setting to be an ideal place to navigate the trials of the dating scene for those longing for meaningful romantic connection.”