September 24, 2018

The singles crisis: Let’s support singles for relationship success

We are now facing a genuine singles crisis. Lara, a successful 37-year-old chemist from San Diego, is concerned that her dream of marriage and a family will elude her. She rarely meets anyone for more than a few dates, and her only serious relationships have been long-distance ones. Jeremy, a 42-year-old good-looking accountant from Boston, has dated more than 200 women over a 25-year period and has just broken up with his fiancee after panicking for fear he had chosen the wrong one. For many singles, the best chance they have of coming home to someone else is if they have just had a burglary. Tens of thousands of Jewish singles in the United States are struggling to form and secure lasting relationships. Many are distressed and demoralized, further pressured by worried parents and grandparents. Jews, it seems, are not marrying. The former British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has noted that nonmarriage is now more of a challenge to the viability of our community than interfaith marriage. According to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Jewish marriage rates in the U.S.have fallen to a new historic low. I cannot imagine another cause of this magnitude that would receive such a tepid response.

[Five questions you may want to ask yourself if you are single]

Many singles experience a huge amount of pain and frustration as they struggle for years to achieve their most important objective of getting married and having a family. The deep sense of frustration many singles experience is compounded by a community that they feel judges and blames them. A communal rabbi recently provided me with his verdict: “I’ve come to the conclusion that most singles don’t really want to get married, or they’d find a way.” Knowing that this rabbi had a child with educational challenges, I responded: “Like telling a child with dyslexia that the reason they are struggling to read is because they cannot be bothered, for if they cared enough, they’d figure it out.” It’s true, some people are single because they do not wish to be married, or are disinclined to make an effort — which is their prerogative. However, the vast majority of singles I meet try enormously hard to find a life partner, throwing toward that effort inordinate amounts of time, effort and money. To tell these people that they don’t want it enough is ignorant and hurtful. They need our understanding and support, not our judgment and criticism. Blaming singles for their struggles just adds insult to injury. As Bella dePaulo, an expert and author on the topic who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, has argued, disparaging singles — what she terms “singlism” — is about the only form of discrimination still deemed acceptable in our postmodern era. 

What many singles need most is not someone else to meet, but to meet him or herself.

The truth needs to be told: Singles are generally trying their level best to succeed in relationships, but it’s not working out for many of them. So what to do? Let’s start by understanding the issue. Finding the right person is half of the dating challenge; being the right person is the other half. As a relationship coach, I am often asked, “Can you suggest someone nice?” as if meeting someone “nice” is likely to make the difference. The person who asks has almost certainly met dozens of “nice” people, so meeting one more is unlikely to resolve the issue. Many singles — and those whom they turn to for advice — are unaware that, most likely, some internal barrier is holding them back. Simply meeting a bunch of new people won’t wish that away. Arranging social events and providing matchmaking or dating services, while necessary, is nowhere near sufficient. Many people who attend singles events, though grateful for the opportunity, return home disappointed that it did not result in a meaningful chance at a relationship. Matchmakers, whether formal or informal, will tell you how frustrating it is making suggestion after recommendation only to be told that something or another is wrong, or doesn’t work. For someone who is struggling with some internal barrier, attending another singles event or being introduced to one more date is typically just another chance to experience failure. 

What many singles need most is not someone else to meet, but to meet him or herself. Most of the singles I meet are highly successful and attractive people who are high-functioning in pretty much every other aspect of their life, but for some reason are falling down in this most crucial pursuit. What they need are the awareness and skills to successfully manage the internal resistance or limitation that is holding them back from enjoying relationship success. As long as the issues that are at the heart of the relationship struggles remain unaddressed, continued disappointment is far too likely. 

A man approached me in a restaurant: “I’m looking for a beautiful, good Jewish girl; what advice can you give me?” In response, I quipped: “Try starting by being a beautiful, good Jewish boy!” So many people would have you believe that their problems are outside of themselves, and that if only Mr. or Ms. Right would show up, wedding bells would ring. If only it were so. Some of the people I work with have dated hundreds of people, and it is implausible that all of them were unsuited. We need to use education and coaching to encourage people to be Mr. or Ms. Right. Singles should know that while, of course, we don’t blame them for their difficulties, they can play a crucial role in improving their own chances for success. 

When I first discovered this issue, I contacted two of the most important relationship organizations in the English-speaking world and asked them what they could offer singles. The response: “We are a relationship organization, so we focus on people who are in a relationship.” In other words, if you are married and your relationship gets into trouble, you have a relationship problem. But if your issue is that you are having trouble getting into a relationship in the first place, you are fine, because your relationship is not in crisis. This would be hilarious if it were not so tragic. 

Determined that something had to be done, I became a relationship coach. I completed a doctorate and published a book on coaching psychology. Together with my brother Zevi, I established Jewish European Professionals, to provide high-quality events around Europe that would not only enable Jewish singles to meet, but also would provide valuable relationship education and coaching. Ever modest, I now provide relationship coaching under the banner of “The Singles Guru.” My practice and research with dozens of singles suggests that most people who are struggling to succeed in relationships are being hindered by a single key issue, of which they are generally unaware. With raised awareness of the nature of the issues and with support to devise personal strategies to cope with them, many people would be able to dramatically enhance their chances of relationship success. My learning from this journey is now the subject of my recently published book, “Relationship Coaching.” 

People are often unfairly labelled “commitment-phobic.” Jonathan, a 39-year-old graphic designer from London, had a history of entering into relationships and breaking off when things started to get “too” serious. Then he started dating Debbie, who everyone insisted was ideal for him. Jonathan, however, was experiencing his usual misgivings: “There are some things about her that bother me; I can’t go through with this.” The reasons were flimsy at best, and by Jonathan’s own estimation, Debbie more than met his key requirements. Jonathan questioned, if she was so perfect for him, why is he so resistant to marrying her? Debbie was ready to quit, having put up long enough with Jonathan’s endless prevarications. 

I helped Jonathan understand why he felt compelled to withdraw from suitable relationships — it is called “avoidant attachment orientation.” For various reasons, a person may develop an unhealthy relationship orientation, which sometimes manifests itself in an extreme fear of attachment. People who are fearful of attachment are ambivalent, desperately wanting closeness on the one hand, but afraid of it on the other hand. Thus, their relationships exist in a manic state of drawing close and pulling away. To their partners, this type of person appears highly inconsistent and unreliable, seemingly unable to stick to a relationship without escaping, often for contrived reasons, behaving as what psychotherapist Randi Gunther called a “relationship saboteur.” Jonathan was caught up in this cycle and was unaware of the madness that is running amok in his mind. 

Until a person is aware that this is happening, they are largely powerless to help themselves. However, once a person becomes aware, the matter often can be easily addressed. On their next date, Jonathan required three attempts over an hour and half, but he finally did propose! They are now happily married with a child. The problem for most singles is not that they are picky — they are stuck. If we are serious about making an impact on this issue, we need to help them become unstuck. It’s that complicated and that simple.


Rabbi Yossi Ives is an experienced relationship coach based in London, focused on helping singles find relationship success. He is the author of “Relationship Coaching” (Routledge, 2014) and is the co-founder of JEP, a European singles organization. Ives wrote this piece while visiting L.A. to set up a singles project in the United States. He can be reached at yossi@singlesguru.co.uk.