Hallmarks of not having "done the work"?
March 29, 2015 9:48 AM   Subscribe

What are the signs of someone who hasn't pursued therapy and healing and isn't ready for a relationship?

I see this in a lot of online dating profiles for women in their late 30's & older: "I've done the work, I hope you have too." But how do you know? I was divorced 4 years ago and I see that some behaviors and thoughts from then were due to leftover bitterness and regret and anger. I think I'm on a more even keel now, but it's harder to judge the present.

So, what are the telltales for someone with unresolved issues? How do you tease this stuff out for yourself or detect it in others?
posted by morganw to Human Relations (30 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
It really depends on what the initial issues are. Someone who dealt with partner abuse is going to have very different work to do than someone whose partner cheated on them.

That said, probably a warning sign is if they're talking about the ex, how they're talking about the situation. "Yeah, that happened and I moved on" is one thing; "so when asshole cheated on me..." (two hours pass) "...and then when he cheated on me..."
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:02 AM on March 29, 2015 [2 favorites]

One of the most obvious signs is when someone has a disproportionate response to a topic. Like, I mention to a guy in the course of a conversation that I read an interesting article about working moms, and how various women try and balance work and family stuff, and he goes off on a 10 minute rant about career-oriented women neglecting their families or relationship. Or if they bring up an ex all the time and do it with some bitterness. Or if they make a lot of generalizations about how the other gender works: "Women are all so catty!" or "Men just want to be players" etc.
posted by colfax at 10:05 AM on March 29, 2015 [13 favorites]

I'm a woman dating online in that demographic. I've seen a few things that have made me wonder about unresolved issues and emotional immaturity in guys 35-55.

Anything negative in their profile. It should be obvious, but some people still do it. For example, one guy wrote, "if you're not at least an 85% match, forget it!" Try to be open to a variety of people. At the end of the day, it's your interaction, not an algorithm, that will determine your compatibility.

If a guy seems to be using humor instead of sincerity, that's a problem. If he is just looking for new friends or short-term dating, and NOT long-term dating, that can be a problem. Maybe he doesn't want real intimacy.

Mention of a recent divorce (four years isn't recent), saying that you're just trying out the site, mentioning that no gold-diggers need apply, setting your preferred age inappropriately young --- these are all things that would make me pass on someone.

Be a little vulnerable but positive overall. Do you feel ready for a relationship?
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 10:06 AM on March 29, 2015 [9 favorites]

Spotting someone who isn't ready for a relationship is a bit like Justice Stewart's definition of obscenity: "I know it when I see it." I'm not confident there are hard and fast rules. There are countless factors involved.

Also, the world is full of people who were not ready until they met _____________ and then turned around quickly. And conversely, there are plenty of people who seem ready and then choke. I'd probably try and stay away from the pass/fail or skills/achievement method of looking at relationships and focus on good old fashioned chemistry instead. And from there, just keep your nose alert in case something stinks.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 10:09 AM on March 29, 2015 [12 favorites]

Best answer: "I've done the work, I hope you have too."

I can tell you that - $deity forfend - if I ever have to date again, this phrase for me would be code for being a motherfucking grownup.

That you don't need someone to feed you, clean up after you, kiss every single one of your tiny booboos - physical or emotional.

That you know the whole world isn't out to get you, that the cause of most of the pain in your life is you and the rest is just being alive, that nobody owes you shit. That you are not entitled to anything, be it happiness or expensive things or a woman who only does what you want, and that people who do have the things you want didn't take them away from you and aren't stopping you from pursuing them.

It means being polite when someone doesn't agree with you, acting in good faith, always trying to be a better person. Some sort of realization that other people are real and allowed to be real and not under your control.

(But the baseline is just don't be a sad baby-man who's mad at everyone who won't change his diaper for him. There's a lot of men out there just looking for their next mother.)
posted by Lyn Never at 10:18 AM on March 29, 2015 [95 favorites]

But how do you know?

Can you look back and now see what had before been invisible to you? Why was it invisible then? What fantasies, insecurities, misapprehensions stood in your way and how have you moved past them? You never know anything for sure, but you can keep knowing more and more if you want to.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:43 AM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

I find needing a relationship can be a marker of not being in a good space for one.

Also: people still blaming personal failings on the shortcomings of their parents, excessive interest in appearance/"cool," the fantasy that one has been wronged by a great many people without ever having done anything wrong oneself... A general sort of blamelessness and a lack of empathy, I suppose.

And I don't know that anybody is ever quite finished with 'the work' and I am wary of people who think they are done. There's a name I am not right now able to remember or Google up for the delusion that one will forever feel as one does in the present. A belief that one has it all figured out with a resistance to change is a thing to be wary of.
posted by kmennie at 10:57 AM on March 29, 2015 [22 favorites]

Best answer: Sigh. This question makes me simultaneously angry and sad. It's NOT NORMAL to need to "do the work" (WTF--that sounds like a horrifying reference to the disgusting Byron Katie) or "pursue therapy and healing" in the sense that historically and emotionally it has not been NORMAL to have many broken relationships; the fact that we do (and think we can or should "get over it"!!!) says that something is seriously wrong with society and our attachment systems, not people who have or have not done this.

OF COURSE you have behaviors and thoughts that are due to bitterness or anger from your divorce. It's something that happened in your life and you cannot erase emotional memory.

Grief isn't something you get over.

Jesus. This is absurd. I would run far, far away from anyone who uses the phrase "doing the work," or dating sites where that happens.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:06 AM on March 29, 2015 [86 favorites]

I read: "I've done the work, I hope you have too"


"I'm a raging narcissist; you must rise to meet my own self-regard."

If you've really done the work, then you're humble enough to know everyone's path is difficult in different ways, so try a little goddamn tenderness, willya?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:18 AM on March 29, 2015 [95 favorites]

I agree with violet hour to the point that I say someone who says this Isn't a mature adult, they're a bitter fuck who assumes everyone else has had the same bad experiences as themselves and must need fixing.

I realizing you can read it different ways, but I'd roll my eyes and walk away from someone who says this. It's something that displays the veneer of maturity but is actually quite crappy.
posted by emptythought at 11:20 AM on March 29, 2015 [20 favorites]

+1 violet hour.

I find that phrase to be a more updated version of that awful Craigslist litany "drug & disease free, no games, no drama" ... a suggestion that the person may themselves not be in the best place.
posted by jayder at 11:22 AM on March 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

Pretty much to answer in earnest, as others here have, you must assume the question is being asked with saintly levels of earnestness on their part. Which I just can't. No one is a saint. They're much more likely a Butthead who thinks they are.
posted by emptythought at 11:22 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

So, what are the telltales for someone with unresolved issues?

To me, a big telltale is someone putting in their dating profile -- literally the very first thing that some new person will see about them -- the fact that they have resolved their issues. Everyone has resolved some issue or another -- the ones who are over those issues don't bring them up at the drop of a hat.
posted by Etrigan at 11:24 AM on March 29, 2015 [8 favorites]

Seconding Violet Hour. "Done the work" just reads to me like a creepy buzzword, nothing more. I'd read someone who says that as person who reads lots of self-help books and knows all the "right" phrases to use but actually has no capacity for genuine self-reflection, and no interest in it, either.
posted by holborne at 11:25 AM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

I find needing a relationship can be a marker of not being in a good space for one.

I don't think this is true. (Most) human beings are hardwired to need attachment from birth to death. Yes, need, not want--it's how we survive as a species, and it's NORMAL, not codependency, no matter how much we want to pretend otherwise.

When people say "needing a relationship" is bad, I think what they usually mean is kind of like that Taylor Swift song "Blank Space," where you've got an empty slot but it doesn't particularly matter who fills it, you're not even seeing them as a real person. Yes, that's bad. Needing your specific significant other, warts and all, is not.
posted by Violet Hour at 11:34 AM on March 29, 2015 [22 favorites]

Those of you who find the sentiment so awful: have you spent much time on dating sites, especially as a woman interested in men?
posted by Lyn Never at 11:49 AM on March 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

And I'm asking that question because dating sites have a shorthand much in the way real estate listings do. Like how "cozy" means "look, if you want full-size furniture, you should skip this one", some of these phrases are meant to indicate things like:

- Please don't ask me if I do anal in your first message to me
- I am looking for something more than sex
- Really please no I'm seriously trying to date an actual human being
- No, don't comment on my body either
- Oh god why am I putting myself through this

and using the code, even if it is a broad-brush summary of one's actual feelings, can work as a noise reducer. (It doesn't, of course, because so much of the noise is meant to be hurtful and distressing to read, but you have to try.)

Yes, if you sat down for a long talk with someone and they refused to expand beyond the phrase "done the work" then yes, that's weird and offputting, but using it as a "fools please move on" tag in your profile is not the same thing as embracing it as a life philosophy.

(And I'm told if you actually use the phrase "grown up" you get a bunch of misogynist hate messages about only being interested in a man's money, and you ought to settle for whatever you can get, you dried up old bitch.)
posted by Lyn Never at 12:02 PM on March 29, 2015 [13 favorites]

So, what are the telltales for someone with unresolved issues? How do you tease this stuff out for yourself or detect it in others?

Flee from people who make statements like "I will never again date another short person/plaid shirt-wearer/accountant!"

We're notoriously risk-averse when it comes to people and having our hearts broken, so we're quick to draw these sorts of conclusions and mistake salient, noticeable cues (red hair, tattoos, profession) for the actual, underlying issue: emotional immaturity, inability to compromise, commitment issues, etc. Issues involved in interpersonal relationships are deeper than the surface and when people stick to those noticeable traits, it means that they haven't figured out what the underlying issue is that they're likely to repeat.

People are motivated to engage in thinking that promotes having a sense of environmental regularity, and we prefer information that confirms our existing beliefs; hence, we're skeptical of Fox News but take The Nation at its word. So we see an accountant with a plaid shirt, and latch onto any evidence that makes him seem like a cheater. This is how people develop types - "she has to have blonde hair, wear a Pixies shirt on our first date, eat waffles, and HATE Chapstick" - that are actually 100% removed from the actual issues that remain unresolved.
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:46 PM on March 29, 2015 [6 favorites]

I agree with what some of the others are saying - it's a crappy, judgmental phrase that seems to assume damage.

BUT I imagine there are some women using it as a short-hand for "have your emotional shit together." In that case, a few things that pop into mind:

- Don't make your baggage or bitterness or whatever your partner's problem. We all get sad or angry or whatever sometimes, but someone who has their emotional shit together will not make it their partner's problem to solve.

- Be appropriate with how quickly things move. Sometimes couples get close really fast, and that's great if it's what they both want, but it's a red flag if one person seems to be pushing for a level of intimacy or commitment that the other person isn't ready for yet. Read your partner's signals and if you're not sure, ask.

- Try to deal with the other person in the moment, at face value, without leaping to conclusions about their behavior based on past relationships. For ex., just because your ex used to say passive aggressive things about your clothes, it doesn't mean that you new girlfriend buying you a shirt for your birthday is trying to do the same thing.
posted by lunasol at 1:07 PM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

So, what are the telltales for someone with unresolved issues?

Sweeping statements, about yourself or other people, and anything really negative about any ex, especially in a "it was ALL THEIR FAULT" kind of way. You should not engage in such statements and you can probably safely blacklist anyone who does.

That's what I do. The second some man starts talking trash about "the ho" or "bitch" he used to be with (and how everything wrong with their lives was all her fault), I make a mental note to never, ever have anything to do with him romantically because you can bet dollars to donuts that, sooner or later, he will also be referring to me as "the ho" or "bitch" and blaming all our problems on me. The question is not if, it is when -- as in "Will he wait until after we break up to refer to me like that? Or just until he thinks I am out of earshot, 5 minutes from now?"

However, as others are saying, everyone has "issues." I am 49 and I have done a helluva lot of work to put down baggage from my childhood. Yet, I still have baggage, it is just more recently acquired (and I think it is a lot less toxic). So don't expect yourself to be perfect or other people to be perfect.

Don't jump to conclusions about people and don't accept it when they do that to you. People who jump to conclusions about you usually are a bad bet. They tend to hang on to those inaccurate assumptions, those assumptions are very hard to correct, so they tend to be difficult to deal with. They just want some catch-phrase to define you so they can stick you in some little mental box so it is less work on their end to relate to you -- which means, no, they aren't really up for a real and intimate relationship with another whole person, who is guaranteed to be complicated and not fit neatly in most mental boxes.

I have one foot in the camp of "just don't message people using that terminology in their profile" because, on the face of it, it sounds kind of crappy to me. However, I don't do the online dating thing (and don't expect to ever do it). So I don't know if that is bad advice for that venue.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 1:43 PM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: "Done the work" just reads to me like a creepy buzzword, nothing more.

Me too, mostly.

At the same time, when you're a woman looking for men in the online dating world, trying to figure out if people are single and online dating because, like I have been, they are between relationships and/or spend a lot of time online, OR if they are single and online dating because they are impossible to please, have a very particular kink or relationship requirement, are actually super bitter or fixated on someone else and somewhat undateable, or haven't gotten in touch with the fact that all their past relationships ended because of something about them. So, like, it's shorthand for "Hey you're somewhat reflective about your own strengths and weaknesses and realize that change has to come from within. You tolerate imperfection in others and realize that the journey is, in some ways, the destination"

I think it also means that you have relationship experience (so aren't, say, out of a 12 year marriage that ended for no reason you can fathom") and aren't going to try to fit a new relationship into the mold of the old one (either "You are so much like my ex" or "You are nothing like my ex" in either good or bad ways) but try to be authentically yourself in your attempts at dating.

So like I said, I would not put this in my profile but if I saw it in someone's profile I would assume they were at least somewhat thoughtful about themselves and/or their relationships. I might also think that they might be a little too therapy/healing oriented for me, but not everyone has to appeal to everyone.
posted by jessamyn at 3:31 PM on March 29, 2015 [5 favorites]

People complain about interpersonal things that they personally have a problem with. The hallmark of a person who causes a lot of drama usually has "can't stand drama" in their profile. Someone who talks about gold-digging or preemptively complains about greedy people is someone who is focused on money or has a complicated and under-investigated personal relationship with money.

Someone complaining about "doing the work" is someone who has relationship baggage that they don't currently have the insight to fix or understand as a personal responsibility Never date anyone who uses this phrase. You should not have to state that you're looking for a healthy relationship-- it should be assumed that that's what you're shooting for.
posted by blnkfrnk at 3:58 PM on March 29, 2015 [7 favorites]

So, like, it's shorthand for "Hey you're somewhat reflective about your own strengths and weaknesses and realize that change has to come from within. You tolerate imperfection in others and realize that the journey is, in some ways, the destination"

See, to me, saying "I've done the work, I hope you have too" is the opposite of all that. Just the phrase "done the work," with a definite article as though there's only one type of work someone needs to do, is silly -- as though there's nothing further to be done. There's no one in the world who can say that. Saying that and actually believing it denotes, at best, someone looking for certainty where there can't possibly be any, and that's bad news, full stop.

I get that in online dating, you have to use shorthand to a certain extent, but there's no shorthand in the world that can actually signal to me or anyone else whether you're reflective or thoughtful or genuine; the only way I can know that is if I actually talk to you (and even then, I won't really know it for a while). If someone thinks that saying they've "done the work" is meaningful in any way at all in a dating profile, then that's someone I pretty much know not to waste my time with because he's probably not going to meet me halfway.
posted by holborne at 4:07 PM on March 29, 2015 [4 favorites]

10 Characteristics of Harmonic People:
Let’s say a person goes through an arduous therapy experience over a period of years and works through all of his or her issues. If that person became fully “therapised,” what would that look like? Over the years, not only psychologists but also philosophers have speculated on the nature of a fully “healthy” or “normal” person.

Building on these writings, I have come up with some attributes of what might be considered fully therapised individuals. I call such people—theoretical people—“harmonic” because they are in harmony with themselves and the world and are able to function without self-consciousness and therefore in a fairly effortless manner.
He lists self-contained, spontaneous, realistic, open-minded, self-respectful, non-judgmental, honest, creative, insightful, and non-defensive as healthy attributes (and goes into more detail about each of those aspects); he also points out that it's doubtful any one human being has achieved perfect "harmony" in all those areas but that working toward such a state is a reasonable ongoing goal. It's certainly a subjective list, but I think it's a good one.
posted by jaguar at 4:36 PM on March 29, 2015 [11 favorites]

I may not be picking up on certain cultural significants related to that phrase, but (as someone with an active Zen practice who's got two currently-active-daily-check-in-with-a-practice-partner-exercises going on) I'd find the past tense in "I've done the work, hope you have too" off-putting.

No, I haven't done the work. I haven't owned the ways in which I'm fucked up. I'm currently trying to do that personal work and to own my shit, but past-tense? No. Not done, not owned, not finished.

Were I looking for a partner, I'd be looking for someone sending messages like "I'm trying to do the work in my everyday life" or "I'm working on owning my shit, although I do fail regularly". YMMV.
posted by Lexica at 5:10 PM on March 29, 2015 [13 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of men can get very bitter and angry about relationships that didn't work out in the past and by not working through it in a healthy way, they end up treating a date with a woman like a free therapy session. They talk about everything their ex did wrong and how the ex wronged him, all the while judging how the date is reacting to it, as though it's appropriate to dump on a stranger because she's a woman so she should be sympathetic.

He's usually asking to be saved or is, I don't know, warning the woman (who has to sit there politely) in this bizarre way that she better not be like his ex in any capacity or try anything like that on him because he can spot it and call it.

It's insane behavior, but it's common because some guys just burst emotionally and haven't taken steps to deal with their anger or sadness from a failed relationship so he ends up emotionally vomiting over this poor woman who just wanted to meet a nice guy to go on a date with and have a good time with.

So I can see how it's kind of necessary to stave the guys who pretend they're laidback and cool and "positive" people "enjoying life" off so as not to have to once again endure a happy hour or dinner date playing sympathetic therapist to this emotionally pent up and angry/hurt guy.

I think it's just a way of saying she's moved on and expects you not to drag your baggage in and taint a potential new relationship.
posted by discopolo at 8:13 PM on March 29, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: When it comes to your own development, I think a good way to test yourself is to put yourself in situations that you know trigger old issues for you, and observe your own reaction. For example, if you still talk to your ex, you could give him or her a call and see if you still have the same bad reactions you did in the past.

We all have unresolved issues though. No one's ever going to be perfect.
posted by sam_harms at 12:37 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I believe the phrase "the work" comes from a specific self-help book. I thought it was "The Secret" but a little googling tells me it actually comes from a book called "Loving What Is." From what I gather it is not unlike the Landmark Forum style of radical self-examination, or you know, garden variety CBT.

However.... I had at one point crossed paths with a woman who was super into "the work" and I agree with the highly favorited comments above, that phrase is an instant red flag. The followers seemed profoundly superficial, and equated success in "the work" with material success and thus were also incredibly judgy-judgy. No guy was good enough. I can find holes in everyone but of course I've cleared all my blind spots now. No room for error or humanity (as adjudicated by them of course). Perfection perfection perfection.

In the sincere form I suppose what they want is a self-actualized person, someone authentic who owns their shit, aka an adult. It's just that those who quote "the work" specifically are kind of cultish and looking for a very specific type of person, with very specific (superficial) signifiers of being such a person, whereas real adults are more flexible and accepting and don't have to protest so much.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:45 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A lot of men ...end up treating a date with a woman like a free therapy session.

Since the OP is male (and presumably hetero): I have read things that indicate that men tend to not have deep emotional relationships of the sort where you can vent and cry on their shoulder except with whomever they are sleeping with. So, when a primary relationship ends, women tend to suffer financially, but they have a network of friends to turn to or they know how to make new friends to help them cope with the emotional piece. In contrast, men are more likely to be okay financially, but they tend to have a helluva time dealing with the emotional fallout from the end of their relationship.

I have also seen real world examples of that: When I was getting divorced, I knew at least a couple of men who were also divorcing. They desperately needed emotional support. They were emotional messes and could not seem to cope on their own with it. In contrast, I was not desperate for that kind of support and bleeding all over people I barely knew about my divorce. I was okay emotionally and had friends to talk to when I needed support. The thing I was freaking out about was the financial piece, because I had been a homemaker for two decades and had no idea how I was going to support myself.

So maybe be mindful of that? If you really need someone to dump on, go find a way to do that and don't just save it all for your dates? If that is something some women are using this phrase to try to guard against, then, hey, don't be That Guy. Journal or get therapy or whatever works for you, but don't use dates as a chance to vent because your life as a man is set up such that there are no other shoulders to cry on. Or, perhaps more accurately, be mindful that you are human and thus you have emotional needs and don't ignore them most of the time and then expect some woman to fix it as part and parcel of working out a romantic relationship. That's the kind of behavior that makes a lot of women go "Yeah, I am not your mother. You are basically looking for a mommy. NEXT!"
posted by Michele in California at 9:35 AM on March 30, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm not the best judge of the emotional health of others. But. I've learned to pay a lot of attention to behavior, not just words. And a friend reminded me yesterday of a dream I had right before my unwise marriage. Check in with your subconscious if you can. You cannot know someone from their profile, other than to avoid obvious signs of incompatibility, so weed them out and meet people.
posted by theora55 at 4:43 PM on April 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

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