Jewish Journal

‘Love 101’ from the teachers at Tel Aviv’s dating school

by Orit Arfa

Posted on Apr. 26, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Dr. Ilan Biran and Vered Merzer-Sapir of Tel Aviv's Date School, which teaches people how to be more effective, self-aware and informed daters

Dr. Ilan Biran and Vered Merzer-Sapir of Tel Aviv's Date School, which teaches people how to be more effective, self-aware and informed daters

Michal's story of dating frustration is undoubtedly common among singles living in Tel Aviv, or any major population center of the United States.

"I'd often go out on dates and meet guys hoping to create a relationship. I'm good-looking, smart, fun, communicative, but I'd end up alone," the 44-year-old divorcee said. "Then I noticed something in the system that didn't work. I wasn't doing something right."

The practitioner of Chinese medicine decided that maybe she needed a little education in the field of dating. This led her to Tel Aviv's Date School, the only psychotherapy-based dating program in Israel -- and perhaps the world -- which literally teaches people how to be more effective, self-aware and informed daters.

Date School was developed by the Center for Sexuality in Tel Aviv, a psychosexological clinic that treats couples and individuals who have difficulties developing and maintaining healthy sexual relationships. The weekly workshops are conducted by center director Dr. Ilan Biran and cognitive behavioral therapist Vered Merzer-Sapir, and combine discussions and exercises that implement the center's cognitive behavior therapy approach.

The 10-week pilot course opened in March to nine participants who, throughout the course, are each assigned "professional daters," psychotherapists who simulate dates with the participants so that they can determine and study behaviors and actions that may contribute to their dating failure.

"There are many attempts to teach people how to date," Biran said from the couch-lined room where the workshops are held on the 15th floor of a Tel Aviv medical building. "These efforts fail because ... there is no textbook approach. What works for one may not work for another."

The workshops teach that dating is an art, which first and foremost involves identifying the good in one's self and knowing how to market those assets, Biran said.

"This can only be done with individual treatment. Second, there is no effective learning without practice and feedback, which is achieved best by dating a 'professional dater,'" he added.

To protect the privacy of the participants, the Sexuality Center prohibits journalists from sitting in on workshops. In fact, Biran explained that discretion and anonymity is so vital that he cleared the hallways of patients before our meeting.

The center screens all prospective participants, and Biran notes that they consist of professional, educated and intelligent singles who encounter problems in dating due to factors such as social anxiety, bad past experience, or just plain bad luck.

Michal, the only female participant in the workshop, pinpoints her failures in part to her approach: she would always judge and eventually disqualify men based on superficial qualities, particularly appearance.

"I'm gaining the ability to get to know the soul of a man who can be a person of great quality, but who I wouldn't normally choose because he's bald, has a big nose, or a pot belly," she said.

She also discovered that, in part because of her free-flowing personality, she opens up excessively on the first date, often intimidating men with an overflow of information.
"I've learned to limit myself on the first meeting, and open myself more at later dates," she said.

Biran and Merzer-Sapir don't think there are any magic formulas or tips they can offer frustrated daters, but they point to common pitfalls and misconceptions.

"Many people, especially those who come to us, have a big dream about what they seek to find in a date," Biran said. "Mainly, they come with the vision that they will find the love of their life. On the first date, he is already asking if this person will be the mother of his children. You can't do that on a first date and even trying to do that will necessarily harm your behavior and/or your decision making."

He attributes the unnecessary pressure and disillusionment dating may cause in part to the individualistic nature of today's society. "We live in a society that is more alienated. Concomitant with that is a lot of pressure to find happiness and love without compromising. I think it's a problem that only gets worse -- they are in stress when they go out on dates to find their love, and it doesn't work."

Irena Netanel, a psychotherapist and "professional dater" in the workshop, slams another myth: "Many dates fail because they decide right away that it doesn't work because there is no chemistry."

A date, the professionals emphasize, is about getting to know another person and one's self. Four basic parameters should be checked upon the first date: biographical details, personality, behavior and appearance.

"If a participant says something doesn't work, we have them pinpoint why it doesn't work," Merzer-Sapir said.

Many dates often go no further than the first coffee cup because men and women make superficial assessments and judgments without examining the many facets of the person sitting in front of them.

Michal has recently begun dating someone she met online who she would have normally rejected prior to attending the workshop. While she doesn't like considering a date as "practice," she's already started implementing this rational approach to dating and is pleased with the opportunities now open to her.

"Every person has a 'type' they seek. The guy has to be like this, dress like this, look like that. When you give a chance and don't disqualify a guy who isn't so good looking, but who has a lot of emotional intelligence -- is funny, smart, fun to be with and makes you feel good -- then you see something else, the other side of the soul. You can fall in love with a person like that."

Orit Arfa is a freelance writer for ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.

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