Happy February! Valentine's Day is coming and with it comes a flood of advertisements for Hallmark cards, fancy chocolates, and of course, expensive jewelry. We also get many helpful articles full of advice on the secrets of successful flirting, advice on the best places to go on a first date, advice on how to keep a potential partner's interest, and advice on how to keep a relationship going. Ok...so what happens in REAL life where the commercials are not real and we have to contend with the boogie man of the dating world known as "rejection"?
For all of us it is a very real outcome for those of us picking up the dating playbook and trying to learn the game, dare it be said, art, of dating. For all men, fear of rejection is all too real. For men, especially young men with developmental disabilities, rejection is sadly more common than many want to acknowledge. This is most true for those who are interested in pursuing relationships with partners who do not have such a diagnosis.
I run several social groups for young men with developmental disabilities ranging from Down Syndrome to Prader Willi Syndrome to Autism. Each year as Valentine's Day arrives, the topic of discussion in group invariably swings to dating and addressing self-hate over being rejected repeatedly for a date. Each year these young guys beat themselves up wondering "what have I done wrong?", or worse, "what's wrong with me?" These are questions that know no diagnosis, questions that cannot be easily answered with the easy answer: "Dating is a number's game. You just have to keep trying."
"A number's game....you have to keep trying." Hopefully this post will provide some other suggestions to support your friend or loved one who is dealing with rejection. One of the guys in my group said it better than I ever could: "For me, successful dating is like someone giving me an half-missing instruction manual to build a Maserati and being told to make it happen....I am given tools except I do not know what tool is for what part or how they are even used".
So, why does reject seem to happen more to young men with developmental disabilities and why are they so affected? As exemplified by the group member, so much of dating is based around unspoken social rules. This is especially true with flirting, a potentially extremely troublesome area for our young guys because flirting is so often the first step to determining interest in another person; it is the equivalent of laying a foundation for a building, in our case, a "dating building". However, unlike laying a building foundation, which is rooted in concrete (pardon the pun) science, following strict rules, successful flirting requires the practitioner to build his foundation on educated guesswork. He has to guess and interpret the non-verbal behaviors (eye contact, posture, facial expression, gestures, position of self, etc.) to determine their interest and if the opportunity is there to make an attempt at meeting.
However, unlike an actual building where the tools are set, the processes determined and assured, and there is little room for reciprocal action on their part, the same is not true with flirting. Here we get into what I call human error. Human error exists on the part of the user, but also on the part of the other person involved. Remember that any interaction involves more than one person, where each person is in charge of themselves, but not the other. This means that the other person may not react as may be expected, or may be using duplicitous non-verbal language: their cues do not match what they are genuinely experiencing. The guys in group often say that they saw someone smile at them only to turn them down. Another common observation is that they start a conversation and then do not know what to say and the other person leaves. Here we see an additional face of human error, misinterpretation of signals (duplicitous or not) and misuse of communication skills on the part of the user. Quickly back to the building analogy, if the builder messes up his foundation he can do a calculation to fix the error next time. If a guy messes up on his foundation when flirting by misreading a cue or through misuse of social skills, he can try to figure out what to do different next time, except there is no scientific guarantee that it will work. He cannot control that human error in others whom he approaches, leading to such frustration and discouragement. He will not have the foundation to build a stable dating platform.
Imagine, if you will, that our young guy is attempting to meet someone and trying to use flirting and social skills to get a date. Now imagine, that he continuously messes up somehow and repeatedly meets with failure. Would you not start to think poorly of yourself? To think negatively about your chances for success? Why wouldn't you? Your tools don't work! For many individuals with developmental disabilities, the ability to conceptually think about what is known as "theory of mind" or the ability to think about how someone else may perceive them or what they are thinking in general, is often too abstract and complex to think about. Many individuals are very black and white thinkers, meaning they approach situations very simply, often from a yes or no, good or bad, position. Quite often, individuals with developmental disabilities will have a very difficult to impossible time thinking about all the different pieces involved in the flirting/dating game. They are more likely to focus on themselves and their behavior as their self is easier to understand in terms of thought action fusion i.e. they may be able to more successfully make a connection between their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a flirting situation. Often, such awareness is sadly incomplete. Many individuals with developmental disabilities lack understanding of how their behaviors and control affect others; many may not be aware of what they are doing with their own body (oftne this is outside of their own control). However, the double-edged horror of it all is that they cannot readily understand the responses of the person they approached. Doing so would mean that they have to be in that person's mind, an impossibility! So, how painful for our young guy to try to figure out why (because every person regardless of disability or not, wants to know why someone else acts the way they do toward us) the other person responded negatively without being able to get an answer! The consequence is that he will likely turn the experience on himself and think he has done something wrong.
Now let's take our young guy, who, like many other young guys with developmental disabilities, has a much harder time grasping the nuances of human interaction in flirting, and has a limited capacity to understand others' behavior in relation to his own, and tell him he has to take that single negative experience and learn from it. He has to generalize, take information and apply it to other situations appropriately, the rejection and keep trying with other people. This is very hard for someone with limited ability to think about broader situations in the context of temporal experience and future planning. Even for individuals without developmental disabilities, conceptualizing about the future and the notion of other random situations and circumstances is next to impossible, but we can at least make some plans to deal with the situations when they come. For us, if we were rejected by someone because they were having a bad day, we might plan to be more wary about approaching someone who looks ruffled. For our young guy, it may be more like giving him an answer to A+B=C and expect him to figure out how to rework the equation to create a suitable answer for the next random situation, which happens to be D-X=F. Our guy would likely get hung up on the fact that previously the person he approached had a bad day and that was reflected in their facial expression then (if he even found out). The next time, he approaches someone the information gained about approaching someone who looks ruffled, may be discarded because that previous experience was with a different person and this person is different, they are not the same. The message of not approaching people who look ruffled would likely not be generalized. This is a very simplistic example, but hopefully it serves to illustrate how difficult it can be for individuals with developmental disabilities to think in fluid manners in social situations as is required by the world we live in.
Regardless of the science behind the actual workings, failure at flirting and rejection leads too often to the individual turning the result inward. They blame themselves and over time, as they keep trying to build that foundation by achieving flirting success, they repeatedly fail, that blame increases with devastating impact on self-esteem. So yes, flirting and dating can be a numbers game, but it is one that requires tremendous support for our loved one.
So what can we do to help our young men deal with rejection? Well, normalization can work, but it is very hard for individuals with developmental disabilities to understand parallel examples such as "When I was dating..." or "This is normal for everyone..." For young men regardless, these sentiments may be more difficult to hear if given by a parent because the parent does have a relationship, or did at one time if they are the biological parent. Why broad concepts of cause and effect may be tough for individuals with developmental disabilities to grasp, they are very successful with understanding basic cause and effect; often times too successful to the point where they are overly rigid. Also, bear in mind that the experiences of others, successful or not, often have little impact on the individual with disabilities due to their predominant self-focus as point of understanding everything that happens around them.
As parents, we need to remember that we are in a complex position of having to teach and guide our young men differently than we might if they did not have such diagnosis. Consequently, we often have to work harder at reinforcing socially appropriate behaviors, especially around interacting with others, particularly strangers. This is very understandable, especially given the vulnerability of these individuals and the very real safety threats in society. With a great tendency towards impulsiveness, lack of awareness of self and others, and critical thinking abilities, planful thinking and generalizing is more difficult. It can also be more dangerous and as parents we tend to be quick to jump on any situation and use it as a teaching moment or opportunity to deliver consequences. We need to be very careful that our efforts to teach them how to engage people when flirting or asking them on a date, does not lead to shaming. We also need to be very aware of how our own internal reactions come across in our responses. There have been numerous instances with young guys I work with where we have to do a great deal of work on repairing their self-esteem in the aftermath of a well-meaning parent's reprimand for approaching a woman.
Validation of our young men is so powerful and it does so much to build support between them and those who care about them. A simple validation of their desire to have a relationship is so helpful, and it does not require you, the parent, to do anything amazing except send the message that you care. Remember that people with disabilities experience emotions and want to experience them with other people; they want relationships like we do. Knowing how your young guy expresses his emotions and care is critical because you can work with them to find appropriate ways of expression. Validation boosts self-confidence and reinforces self-worth. That is critical! Take time as a parent to focus special time on building their confidence through activities they enjoy, setting up get-togethers with friends, and supporting their interests and/or work efforts. Celebrate the whole them! Don't just celebrate the parts of them that are what first impressions often, unfortunately are made of, their appearance. Reinforcing confidence will also help your young man avoid shut down and self-hating if he has a lifeline to some positive self-power after a rejection. Validation is not blind support and sympathy for your young guy. Rather it is a show of empathy and understanding, which can open the door for teaching opportunities, especially those where a consequence or severe response is needed.
We, as parents, also need to be aware that our young men often will make mistakes, like anyone else, but may not be aware of how their actions contributed to the negative outcome. This takes some finesse so it does not seem like they are being targeted or shamed. Remember it is very easy for people to ruminate on negative information, especially if they believe they messed up; individuals with developmental disabilities will likely engage in self-rumination more in the attempt to get information for next time. Use failures as teaching moments by combining validation first then teaching after, using your young guy as a reference for social education. For example: "You thought that girl was so beautiful you needed to walk right over to tell her. Do you think you would like someone to interrupt your conversation to talk to you?" Wait for a response and then validate and reinforce for their contribution before offering the teaching moment "It is fine to want to compliment someone. You can compliment them when they are done talking". Being gentle is just as important as validating; these young guys want to succeed and they want to please themselves and you!
As a final note, rejection does occur with greater frequency in different situations and in different environments. As generalizing lessons learned from rejection across such differences can be a nightmare for our young men, you as the parent can do them a great service by finding "safer" opportunities and ways to meet people rather than randomly in public places. Organized dating events, social gatherings in the community, faith groups, and special interest groups are some examples of "safer" environments. Also remember that they do not think that time is on their side and waiting is really hard, so you will need to stay strong and resilient as well each time they verbalize their frustration. You are there to support them and they will know it based on how you react. I hope this has been helpful and thank you so much for reading!