“My Date’s Having A Crisis!”

How should you react when someone you’ve just met really needs someone to lean on? Do you get close…or back off?

By Stephanie Davis

o, you’ve just started dating someone great and then something big happens… his relative dies, her pet falls ill or he gets fired. Do you try not to mention the tough topic because it has so much emotion swirling around it? Do you dive in with a counseling session? If you’re interested in the person, you need to do something, even when you’re feeling helpless. “There are ways to be supportive without forcing an artificial intimacy on the situation,” says Brian Rzepczynski, MSW, psychotherapist at Personal Victory Counseling, a gay-relationship coaching center in Chicago. “Your human desire to help kicks in, but you also don’t know the person well enough to know how to respond.” To strike the right balance, follow these dos and don’ts.

Don’t try to fix what you can’t
Though you may be tempted, it’s not your place to offer a solution. “My girlfriend was in law school when we met and told me she was feeling so overwhelmed, she was
Too many people worry their kindness will be confused for commitment and back off.
considering dropping out,” says Stephanie S. of New York City. When someone’s trying to make a huge life decision (“Should I change careers?” or “Should I get this tattoo?”), it’s best to let the person figure it out on their own rather than shape a choice that may well outlast your relationship. “Try to avoid intervening,” says Rzepczynski. You could appear controlling, judgmental, or inappropriate. “I told her, ‘I’m here, I’m proud of you and I’m not going anywhere no matter what you decide,’” says Stephanie. “After weeks of struggling with it, she stayed in school, and we’re still together.”

Do listen
The best thing you can do is keep quiet and listen. Rzepczynski advises showing you care by being available to your date without offering feedback or opinions unless asked. Demonstrate empathy (“I’m so sorry you had to experience that”) and validation (“You must be very confused—it’s a hard choice you have to make”) through your words if you can or at least keep eye contact and be all ears.

Don’t actually do too much
These are strange waters to navigate. Your dating relationship is so new that you haven’t established much intimacy. “I had been seeing someone for a month when he lost his job,” says John B., 30, of Minneapolis. “I kind of went overboard and immediately started calling on contacts that could help, scanning job sites and trying to pump up his self-esteem.” It’s not only fruitless to try to change a person’s life, but it makes you seem like you’re trying to rescue him or her. You can also become so invested in the outcome that you feel unable to bail on the relationship later if you discover you’re not a match. “It can be easy to get sucked into someone else’s problems,” warns Rzepczynski. “But you risk becoming part of the issue.” Be supportive, but don’t make the problem yours.

Do offer to take him or her out for something fun
“When someone is going through a tough time, it’s important that they have as much of a normal routine as possible,” says Rzepczynski. As a new dating partner, you can offer solace by taking your date to do something as fun and relaxing as he or she can tolerate. And if he or she declines, respect the person’s need for space.

Don’t say things like “Everything will be OK” and “That happened to me once”
Crisis clichés feel comfortable, but resist tossing them out there. “These statements
Just be there, be accepting and patient.
provide false assurances and can come off as fake, artificial and even uncaring,” says Rzepczynski. “You’ll be uncomfortable, but don’t feel pressured to say anything. Just be there, be accepting and patient.” That’s enough—and better than saying that a loved one’s death was “supposed to happen” or minimizing unique pain by comparing it to something else.

Don’t give up
While the experience may bring you closer together than you would have otherwise become in the timeframe, the crisis may also delay the development of your relationship. “Shortly after a great first date, my new guy had a friend die in a car accident,” says David M. of Denver. “He didn’t return my phone calls for over a week, and finally I just quit calling. Then he called back, we started dating, and we’re going on five years now.” Give your new prospect time to process his or her feelings. “People forget that there will always be a problem-solving stage, so being patient is critical if you decide to continue seeing the person,” says Rzepczynski. If you get radio silence, feel free to follow up in a month if you’re still interested — your date might assume you felt rejected during the drama and that he or she missed the window to date you.

Do show you care
Too many people worry their kindness will be confused for commitment and back off. But it’s only — and always — classy to let someone know you’re thinking of him or her during an hour of need. “My grandfather died on the same day as a first date with someone I was really interested in,” says Katie B., 28, of Atlanta, GA. “My mom convinced me to go anyway to take my mind off things. I was a complete wreck, but my date was really understanding. The next day she sent me flowers. We dated for a few months and then it ended, but I will always think highly of her for that.” Flowers, cards, an offer to help with errands — even just a nice email — all show not just that you’re a good date, but a good person.

Stephanie Davis is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.
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