DEAR DR. JENN,
I’m a textbook serial monogamist who’s had one boyfriend or another ever since I was in high school. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve been in a “good” relationship. How do I get better at choosing? —Bad Picker
DEAR BAD PICKER,
I think it’s time you take a dating detox. That’s right — you’re going cold turkey on love for a while. I’ve suggested it to more than a few celebrities who’ve come on my show, VH1 Couples Therapy with Dr. Jenn, for advice. Not everyone has the emotional discipline or strength to step away from their dating apps. If you are someone who is dependent on the validation of romantic partners, this will be particularly challenging for you. That said, those who I have seen in my private practice were able to do this, completely turned around their bad selection behavior. I have seen people take time away from dating for self-exploration and come back to make very different choices that have ultimately lead to long-term love.
I think it’s time you give the dating detox a shot, too. Here’s why I know it works:
1. It helps you let go of bonds. First of all, let’s talk about why the number-one person you should detox from is your ex. When you fall for someone, especially when you’re having regular sex with them, the two of you bond. The greatest and most cumbersome emotional task after a break up is to let go of that bond. Often, women (and millennial ones specifically) tell me that after they’ve split with an ex, they either backslide or intentionally decide to hook up with their ex, simply redefining the relationship. Resist the urge. It’s important to not have any contact with your ex after a breakup. Every time you talk to them, text them, spend time with them, and sleep with them, you reinforce that connection that you’re actually trying to melt away. It’s like picking at a scab when you’re trying to heal a wound. You cannot move on and have a healthy relationship with the (right) new person while you’re still picking away at your ex — and that connection will also keep you from attracting emotionally available partners with which to form healthy relationships.
2. It gives you the ability to grieve. The end of a relationship is a loss. Often a major one. It’s the death of a connection, a friendship, and your idea of your future. This requires some grieving. I always say you can’t go around the pain, you have to go through it to get to the other side. If you party, immediately start dating someone new, jump into bed with someone, drown your sorrows in Ben & Jerry’s, or do anything else that allows you to avoid feeling the feelings, you’re just postponing the inevitable. In my clinical experience, I’ve found that the feelings that get swept under the rug only get bigger and more intense over time. Let yourself cry it out and feel your feelings so you can get through your grieving process most efficiently.
3. It forces you to stand on your own. Being in a relationship can be wonderful. But people who go from one relationship right into another tend to lose their ability to be on their own. All too often, I see people who do not have experience going a significant period of time without a boyfriend or girlfriend stay in unhealthy relationships because they are afraid of being by themselves. Knowing you can thrive as a single person is a crucial foundation that allows you to hold out for a truly great relationship.
4. It helps you reevaluate your dating patterns. Taking a step back from dating and avoiding the distraction of new romantic partners gives you the space and objectivity you need to take a good, hard look at your dating patterns. Take the time to look at the people you have dated and the ways you have dated — and what the commonalities are. What have been healthy choices for you and what have been harmful ones? Take the time to read books that give you insights about healthy relationships, how to choose good partners, and how your childhood has impacted your romantic choices. I recommend that everyone commit to at least one year of weekly therapy. This is a great time to start.
5. It strengthens your support system. We sometimes get so consumed by our relationship that we neglect the other relationships that make up our support system. Friendships are such an important way to nurture ourselves and find comfort. Spend time reconnecting with people you love and may have lost contact with, and if you find that your network is narrower than you’d hoped, spend time making and nurturing new friendships. Make sure to honor your friends who have been there for you during difficult times — and be there for them during their own. One time, after a particularly rough break up, I threw a dinner party for all of my girlfriends who had been there for me during those tough times. It was a memorable and wonderful event they still thank me for.
6. It allows you to focus on you. This is a great time to do all of those things that you keep meaning to do but never got around to when you were in a relationship. Take that art class. Try yoga. Actually go for hikes. Experiment with new activities, and see what you connect with. You may find new passions and activities you connect with. It’s a great way to nurture your soul.
If you are someone who has gone from partner to partner, or find yourself in unhealthy relationships repeatedly, a dating detox is for you. Here is what you need to do.
Cut off contact with any exes completely. That’s it.
Do not date. Take yourself off the apps. Do not accept set ups; rebuff pickup lines. I recommend a one-year detox for people who have not spent any time in their adult life without a romantic partner. For those who have gone from relationship to relationship, six months will usually do the job. This also includes hook ups. Sex is a distraction from the work you need to be doing on yourself right now.
Increase your support system. Focus on building your platonic friendships, and bringing meaning to those relationships.
Do your work on yourself. Explore what may be behind your unhealthy dating choices through therapy, journaling, reading books on the topic, meditation or anything else that gets you thinking and doing inside work.
Fill your calendar. Keep yourself busy while you detox. This is important for your well-being, not to mention, nothing attracts a healthy partner like a person with a full and satisfying life.
Accept that you are going to go through a grief and loss period … but it will get better. Let yourself grieve the loss of your last relationship and the time spent with unworthy partners. Allowing yourself to grieve will help you to pick better people in the future. Or, at least, to learn to focus on the best person of all: yourself.