Dating is a roller coaster. Whether you’re looking for a casual situation or hoping to settle down, dating comes with the ups and downs of anticipation, rejection, exhilaration, infatuation, boredom, and burnout, to name just a few emotions.
On top of that, dating can be a challenging life transition for those who are entering the scene post-break up, divorce, or widowhood. I have worked with many clients who came to therapy hoping to work through some of the blocks that were holding them back in love. In therapy, we were able to shed light on the emotions and mental scripts that were getting in the way—and to revitalize their experience.
You’ve probably seen therapists who describe “dating and relationships” as one of their treatment specialties. Have you ever wondered how exactly therapy can make a difference in your dating life? Read on!
For some, dating is complicated because they are not quite sure what they’re looking for. Our culture, community, family, and social media feed might put certain expectations on what dating is supposed to achieve, but those ideas can zap the joy out of dating and make it feel pressured instead.
Therapy can be a space to unpack the source of those expectations and to reflect on how much they do (or don’t!) align with your own personal goals. On a deeper level, a therapist can guide you in exploring your own values and emotions, and in understanding any ambivalence or fears that might be holding you back.
There are plenty of internet quizzes out there to tell you what your favorite noodle says about your style of love. While pasta preference might not provide the most helpful dating insight, it is true that we each have a relationship style. Therapists use the term “attachment style” to describe the very real and very powerful pattern of relating to others that each one of us starts to form when we are just babies. Our attachment styles are shaped by the way love and care was provided in our families.
Research shows that our early attachment style tends to predict our relationship style in adulthood, often without us realizing it. Therapists who specialize in psychodynamic, relational, and schema-focused work can help you bring these patterns to light. This, in turn, can help break the cycle of dating the same kind of partner over and over that just isn’t working for you.
What can be more vulnerable than dating? Putting yourself out there for the scrutiny of a virtual stranger, offering your heart, and maybe letting someone know everything about you (eep!).
The prospect is daunting for anyone, and all the more so if you already struggle with self-esteem. A therapist can work with you to understand how your own “self-talk” (the way you relate to yourself in your mind) is affecting your self-esteem, and to grow your self-worth so that you find partners who are worth your while. Therapy is also a place where you can learn about your “locus of control,” which is psychologist-speak for the degree of agency and power you feel in your choices.
Therapy is a great place to boost your confidence because the very act of pursuing therapy is a practice in valuing yourself.
Remember when we said that dating is vulnerable? It is also an exercise in intimacy and loss on a rapid cycle. Heartbreak is painful. Rejection is painful. Being ghosted is painful. Of course, this pain is compounded if you are back on the dating scene after a death or broken relationship. Or you might be aching for something or someone you never had but wished you could have.
Sometimes, you might hit a wall in dating because there is grief that needs to be addressed and processed. A therapist who works with loss, separation, and grief can guide you in working through your emotions, properly saying goodbye, and opening your heart to someone new.
For many people, psychological issues like generalized anxiety, major depression, manic episodes, or post-traumatic stress make the process of dating a real challenge. It is hard to make dinner plans when you are having trouble just getting out of bed or trying to deal with panic attacks.
You are not alone. Therapy that actively targets these symptoms can reduce your suffering and expand your bandwidth for dating. As just two examples: cognitive behavioral therapy can effectively reduce symptoms like obsessions/compulsions and panic, and trauma-focused therapy can reduce PTSD-related memories and flashbacks.
You know when someone has great “game”? They have the set of skills that make them a great dater: putting together an attractive profile, starting and holding a witty conversation, being attentive, and following up just the right amount.
Dating, like any other pursuit, comes with its own set of skills. The thing is, we don’t learn those in school. Working with a behavioral therapist or skills group can be a helpful way to learn and practice the key skills of making conversation, keeping on top of plans, and understanding nonverbal cues, to name a few.
While our society has become more comfortable talking about sex, the conversation is still mighty narrow. For most people, sexuality, sexual pleasure, sexual functioning, and everything in between are sensitive to discuss and often shrouded in secrecy. Finding a therapist you trust can help you explore your sexuality, body image, sexual identity, and sexual functioning.
For those living with functional conditions like vaginismus, erectile dysfunction, or premature ejaculation (which often have a mental and emotional component), a sex therapist or somatic therapist can guide you in effective treatment. And for everyone, a body-positive therapist can help get you in touch with your own body and pleasure so that you feel more confident embarking in a sexual relationship.
If you’ve gone on what feels like hundreds of dead-end dates, you may feel resentful, bored, or disappointed. Or maybe you continue to meet nice-enough people and feel…nothing at all. A therapist can help you to understand and deepen your emotional connection with others.
Sometimes we experience an emotional block because there is some discomfort we are trying to keep at bay, or because we don’t want to get too invested, or because we have trouble recognizing our own emotions (what psychologists call “alexithymia”). In therapy, you can build a richer texture to your own emotional experience which carries over to your relationship with others. Therapy is ideal for this because it’s a relationship like no other: your therapist is there to be empathic, honest, and nonjudgmental as you explore and express those emotions.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but just a handful of ways that therapy can truly impact—and improve—your dating life. While you’re out there seeking and swiping, remember that you don’t need to handle it all on your own! Therapy may just be the investment in yourself that changes the game.
Nikki Press, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in New York who provides individual and group psychotherapy, supervision, and professional consultation. She is passionate about providing effective and compassionate treatment to people struggling with anxiety, relationships issues, and self-esteem. Dr. Press integrates humanistic and CBT approaches to help her clients achieve deep insight and meaningful change in their lives. She is a faculty member at Columbia University and Yeshiva University. Please contact Dr. Press at [email protected], or visit her website at: drnikkipress.com.