M y son recently met a wonderful girl. He likes her and she seems to like him. So what’s the problem? That’s what I’d like to know. They dated to get to know each other. Then to know each other better. Then to see each other in a different setting. And they’re still dating, neither one expressing interest in getting engaged yet. When I press him, my son says that there’s still so much he doesn’t know about her; he doesn’t feel comfortable proposing now. I’d never want to pressure my son when making this critical decision, but I’m also not comfortable with this much dating. What’s my role here? 

Impatient



Dear Impatient,

Young adults today are scared. And for good reason.

They’re dating in a completely different context than their parents did 25 years ago. Back then, divorce and broken engagements were extremely rare. Today they’re very much the backdrop of our teens’ social world.

Much ink has been spilled over why that’s so. My personal opinion is that people stay relatively constant over time. What changes are the social constructs and mores that flow and constrict, providing the parameters of choices available. There was always a percentage of couples with significant marital issues, but you married for life. Marriage was a commitment. Period. As young couples, my cohorts were advised not to even utter the “d-word,” because saying it introduced it into the realm of possibility, and that was unacceptable.

As the world at large becomes more proficient at identifying syndromes and behavioral patterns, we’ve benefitted from this knowledge and are more sophisticated in our capacity to identify, and therefore address, significant social issues such as mental illness, domestic violence, addiction, etc. We have begun to shine a light on issues that were previously taboo.

What does that have to do with your not-ready-to-commit son and the girl he’s dating? I believe they’re scared. There’s a silent but unrelenting murmur that accompanies these young men and women through this confusing trek toward marriage. They’re plagued by self-doubt and fear of the future. He cut me off while I was talking — was that a rude slip because he was passionate about the topic or is that a red flag? She was fidgeting with her napkin the whole time — is she inexperienced and uncomfortable talking to a boy, or does she struggle with anxiety?

When I was dating, nobody came to our classroom to raise awareness about controlling behavior and give warning signs of a batterer. Please don’t misconstrue this to mean that I believe we should go back to those simpler days. Ignorance is not the same as innocence. What I am trying to point out is that with this newfound empowerment comes a terrifying sense of responsibility — one many of our young adults don’t feel equipped to handle.

So they are waiting. Waiting for the “aha” moment where the pieces fall into place and they’re gifted with clarity — which does or doesn’t come.

There’s more. Sometimes daters have an instinct that they cannot verbalize. The heart often knows what the mind does not yet understand. They may have a feeling and be unable to articulate what doesn’t feel right. So they hope that dating longer will crystallize the issue in their mind and then they can make an intelligent decision.

Another possibility is a fear of commitment. Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes that maturity is the ability to close off the possibility of endless options and to choose one. There are many factors that contribute to an individual’s inability to commit and the net result of that fear is paralysis — the individual ends up with nothing.

You don’t give any specifics, so I don’t know if your son has dated seven times or 25 times. It’s therefore hard to gauge if you’re simply impatient or if his indecision is beginning to cross over into worrisome territory. Your role is to provide guidance in the search for clarity, and help your son shape his hazy feelings into coherent thoughts. I remember one of my son’s nursery teachers explaining to the boys that if we didn’t have bones, our bodies would be blobs on the floor. Your son’s mind right now is a blob. You need to help him create the mental skeleton on which to hang his thoughts. If you don’t feel up for the job, find him a dating coach or mentor who can help.

What you should be asking are targeted, open-ended questions that laser in on the issue but also provide room for your son’s thoughts. Instead of, “So, do you like her?” try, “What are the middos you’re most impressed with?” “What makes her different than other girls you have dated?” “Does she exhibit the attributes you most wanted in a spouse?” “Are there concerns you have about her personality, hashkafos, middos? In what ways do they play themselves out?” “What would you need to feel more comfortable in your decision?” Or a different version of the same question: “What do you need to see more of to know she’s right for you?” “What are you worried about — and it might not even be about her. It might be your own issue.”

What you’re trying to discern with these questions is whether he has fears about her or about marriage (and growing up). Have you met this girl yet? Do you have any feedback for him based on your own observations? It’s a huge disservice to our children that we often don’t properly meet their prospective spouses until it’s pretty much a formality. We’ve been around; we’ve learned a thing or two about people. Our input is important. Ask him if that would help.

After you’ve done an assessment, you can plan an intervention. If you ascertain that his fears are based on niggling worries about her, then let him date until he reaches some clarity about that. I understand your discomfort with so much dating. The potential dangers of a growing comfort with each other are very real and it’s important to explain to your son that while he may need more time, that time needs to be productive and compliant with certain boundaries. Help your son understand that the point of dating isn’t to know everything about the person. If she’s the right one, they will im yirtzeh Hashem have a lifetime of discovery for that together.

If you feel his indecision is more about him, set him up with someone who can help him work through this fear and what it means to him.

Wishing you all clarity,

Hatzlachah,

Sara

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 549, Sara Eisemann, LMSW, ACSW, is a licensed social worker and a columnist for inshidduchim.com. She also lectures on topics related to relationships, personal development, and growth. She welcomes questions, comments, feedback, and interaction at inshidduchim@mishpacha.com.