If you were the one without a partner at your family gatherings this season and you weren’t happy about that, you are not alone. A lot of people I talk to are despairing because they have tried and tried, and they still haven’t found a partner. They wonder what they are doing wrong; they wonder if all men/women are just like the last disappointing, unreliable person they dated.
Of course there are many factors that might cause someone difficulty in finding a partner. One problem I encounter quite frequently is unconscious ambivalence – deeply conflicted feelings that are not fully recognized.
I often get astonished stares from people when, after lots of listening and exploring about what is going on with their unsuccessful dating, I question if perhaps they might be more ambivalent about wanting intimacy than they realize. I’ll point out that they have a history of choosing ambivalent, passive, commitment-phobic partners; they have a history of staying with someone too long, even when it didn’t seem right from the get-go; and that they display many other behaviors that suggest that without realizing it, they are making the same bad choices again and again. Then there are the relationships in which both people continually feel like the victim of the other – I’ll save that one for another column.
Working through ambivalence, I will typically explore three areas:
1. Desire. Do you really want intimacy? What were your parents like with each other? What were you like with each of them? Based on your parental models, does intimate relating evoke fears of being smothered? being dominated? being neglected? being expected to be perfect? being constantly on the defensive? Even though you truly want a committed, intimate relationship, there can be another more hidden part of you that fearfully anticipates repeated hurts and disappointment. When these kinds of fears are not conscious, they have an undermining effect on the fulfillment of our desires.
2. Entitlement. If you believe we are all born deserving love as our natural birthright, are you sure you still believe you have that right? If not, what changed? Was your love and affection for your parents welcomed with tenderness, or was it ignored, even rejected? Was love given to you conditionally, begrudgingly, stingily? Were you led to believe that you were never good enough, and therefore didn’t deserve love? Were you expected to meet all your parent’s needs for love, but made to feel guilty about wanting anything for yourself? Now as an adult, when dating, do you make yourself like a commodity, an object to be chosen or rejected? Why aren’t you entitled to choose?
In order to exercise your right to choose, and not remain stuck in the helpless, passive position of waiting to be chosen, you need to flush out the old negative messages and work on internalizing new ones - mesages that support you to believe deeply that you are good enough to have the right to love and be loved. If that reminds you of Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley character, so be it: Stuart Smalley had the right idea (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”).
3. Hope. Do you feel hopeful, confident and optimistic that you will find love? Can you find a way out of discouragement and disappointment, out of fear and anxiety? I recommend you stop thinking that you are being singled out by unseen powers for endless punishment – you’ll never prove it. You are better off working toward developing patience, and the hopeful, optimistic conviction that you have as much right as anyone else to find happiness.
If you are stuck in repetitive, discouraging relationship patterns, don’t give up. I’ve seen again and again that people who are willing to work hard at clarifying their desires, overcoming fears, and building a healthy sense of entitlement and hope, can succeed in finding and sustaining love that lasts.