A few weeks ago I was talking with a client about her dating life.
“Another bad one, Rob,” she said as soon as she sat down.
This woman, I’ll call her Kim, is bright, attractive, well-educated and what I would consider to be a good catch in many ways. She’s not into Asian threesomes, nor does she own a liquor store, but I think most men would want to date her. The problem is that she’s a bit rough around the edges and doesn’t always play well with others. She’s strongly opinionated and has low tolerance for alternative points of view. Sometimes both she and I find her quirks humorous, but at times she really needs a little guidance and tutelage when dealing with other people. Shrinks need a fancy name for everything they do, so this type of therapy is known as “Social Skills Training.”
“He really pissed me off by coming late,” she said.
“How late was he?”
“I don’t know. Five minutes, maybe. He’s all ‘so sorry, I got stuck in traffic.’ I told that asshole,” she said, lifting one index finger in front of her face, “Asshole, I don’t care what your reason is for being late. Tardiness is a form of disrespect. My time is just as Goddamn important as yours.”
“Okay, let’s take a closer look at…”
“So I start talking to him about the election and he’s all like, ‘I’m voting for Obama.’ I said,” and again she lifted the index finger, ‘let me explain something to you. Obama is anti-America and Anti-Christian. McCain is what you want.'”
“Let’s analyze that more…”
“Then I told him that, as a Christian woman, I don’t date Heretics and he’s like, ‘well I’m Agnostic.'”
“Is that really fair to label him…”
“I told him Agnostics were people who couldn’t make decisions and he better decide how he likes his steak right now, and if it’s not medium-rare then we should just go our separate ways right now. I hate indecisiveness and overcooked meat.”
“And then what?”
“He was very polite actually. He said that I would make a great wife for a very headstrong man but that clearly wasn’t him. He’s damn right about that. So we decided to part ways before dinner because we clearly were wasting each other’s time.”
“Kim, do you remember when we talked about how aggressive you can be toward men? And how that aggression can prevent you from getting to know someone?”
“Yes, you said it was a way to protect myself from getting close to people who could hurt me.”
“Not exactly. I offered that as a possibility and asked you to consider it. You later said that you agreed.”
“Is this another example of that?”
“I don’t know. I guess so. But that doesn’t mean I know what to say on these dates. Men like strong women.”
“That may be true, but you’re confusing strong and attacking. Why don’t we look at what you said that might be construed as aggressive?”
“Well I can understand your take on tardiness, but it was barely five minutes, and you didn’t give yourself a real opportunity to consider why he was late. You also called him an asshole, before you probably even said his real name.”
“You also immediately went into two topics that are generally frowned upon for date conversation: religion and politics. That in and of itself isn’t catastrophic, but you insulted his position in both of those areas.”
“But he…,” she protested, lifting that finger again.
At that moment Kim’s behavior reminded me of a personal experience, years ago, when I had a date with a woman who kept lifting an admonishing finger at me whenever I said something that she didn’t agree with. It took three glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon to not strangle her. I could feel myself reliving those memories and getting a bit angry.
Therapist Rule # 1: Use your personal reactions (sometimes known as Countertransference) as a therapeutic tool.
“And finally,” I said, my voice getting louder and more manly. Or possibly just higher and more girly. “You kept lifting up your finger and putting it in his face! Do you realize how disrespectful that is?”
Therapist Rule # 2: Try not to yell when applying Therapist Rule # 1.
“Yes! It’s completely invalidating. You’re telling someone, with your finger, to shut up and listen, that what he is saying isn’t as important as what you have to say. You’re also giving the message that screams ‘I’m about to talk at you as opposed to talk with you.'”
She paused. “That’s pretty interesting. We do that in our family all the time.”
Was I just yelling at her?
“If that’s what you and your family choose to do with each other that’s fine, but I think most people, myself included, would be put-off by that.”
“That is worth a thought. Are you an expert on first dates?”
“I wouldn’t say that, but I was interviewed for a book,” I said, feeling a brief moment of pride.
“Did anyone buy it?”
Probably not. The brief pride fleeted even more quickly than usual.
“I don’t keep track of book sales.”
“Regardless, that’s actually some pretty good advice. I’ll try that next time…if he’s not an Obama backer.”
At this point Kim isn’t the world’s greatest conversationalist but she’s made some improvements. For a short while she was sitting on her hands during dates to make sure she didn’t put her finger in anyone’s face, but that problem is pretty much solved now, so we’re making progress.
The lesson learned:
Keep your fucking finger down when you are talking to someone.
It took me only six years of post-graduate education and one horrible date to learn that.