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Background

A few months ago, I met a girl on a dating site. We talked a bit and had our first date. It was great but she mentioned she had quite a heavy backstory without giving out much details. Unfortunately, after this date, she had some family problems and cut contact for two months before we met again.

So here we were, having a second date and enjoying ourselves, when she started to talk more and more about her past. Like she said, she had some pretty bad experiences: one of her neighbours killed himself and she was the one to find the body, her fiance broke up just before their marriage and confessed he was cheating on her with a man, etc...

As she was telling these stories, she was becoming sadder and sadder. Even though I tried to change the subject, she always found a way to tell a sad story that happened to her and which was somehow related to our discussion. In the end, she cried and I comforted her the best I could.

I don't think I have handled this situation well and I am still not sure about how I should have handled it.

  • Changing the subject too much may come off as rude.
  • Making jokes might help to keep the mood light and cheer the person, but it is very hard to do with such sad stories.
  • Listening to her and lending a shoulder to cry on is quite awkward when you are just beginning to know each other. In my case, she felt extremely embarrassed to be crying in front of me.

Question

Let's say the objective is to have a nice date for both the person and you. You don't know each other very well and the person starts getting sad for whatever reason.

What is the best way to handle this situation ?

  • has she contacted you again after this date? – gerl Sep 20 '17 at 15:25
  • I contacted her two days after the date, and she waited several hours to finally answer that we should not see each other for a while, but still keep in touch. One month later, she found a boyfriend. – Belad Sep 20 '17 at 15:46
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The answer obviously depends on what you gain from this date and what you hope to gain from future ones.

If you find that this made you uninterested in the girl you should obviously make a quicker exit, not blatant but excuse yourself earlier than otherwise. Mayhaps you still like her and want to meet her more, then the best thing is to stick around.

That is the first decision to make.

In case you decide to stick around it's a bit trickier; you can't remove the gloom from someone just like that. I've seen it a few times with cases such as people hearing about friends dying while we're out, getting denied for jobs, hearing about relatives getting cancer or just when they are feeling very sad and think about all of the bad stuff in their lives.

The right thing to do is dependent on the person you're speaking to. Some will take very well to deflection, some just want you to be there for them, some would rather excuse themselves or have you excuse yourself from the situation. There are obviously more variants but it all comes down to said individual's personal preference.

You tried valid things, and all of the things you mentioned are actions which I would have suggested. As such there's only one big trick left that I really have to give and that is serving your feelings straight up:

This is clearly making you sad, can we talk about something else?

Simple but not easy. Especially if you don't want to come off as rude.

This does also presume that you can't just switch the location. A change of environment, just taking a walk or moving to another place, can really snap people out of this type of thing.

What's the point here is however that you should try prodding in all of these directions until you feel that you've had enough. Try a light joke about whatever small thing you can think of, try some deflection, go out to get some fresh air by all mains. Do remember though: You are on a date, you're not obliged to listen to her being sad and her sad stories. It's not very nice to leave a clearly sad person but neither is it nice of her to keep piling all of this on you right there and then if you don't want to. This is why it's important to tell her if you would prefer to talk about something else.

So the bottom line is: It depends.

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    If your goal is for the date to go well and to make the other person feel better, then I suggest changing the wording a bit. Something like "would you like to talk about something else" or "should we talk about something else". But that's only a good idea if you're okay with them saying "no, I'd prefer to share this with you, even though it makes me sad." – Kat Sep 5 '17 at 20:20
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In my case, she felt extremely embarrassed to be crying in front of me.

I want to add one more point of view to the previous answers. A person who is so helplessly sad may appreciate it if you "take control". For instance, suggesting to go for a walk, go somewhere else, is excellent. Make the suggestion and in the same time get up and perhaps take her arm, offer your hand, any natural gesture at that stage of your dating. Make sure it is not perceived as "taking advantage" of her momentary weakness, but just "taking initiative".

Get closer and gently wipe her tears. Even offer a kleenex. Hold her hand. Some people may be more embarrassed to be crying in front/across a table from a relatively new accquaintance, but less so if you sit at the side, don't look directly at their face. Be composed and don't touch more than necessary for such simple gestures. Don't linger in it. Follow with asking: shall I take you home? or propose the walk, or ask if she'd like you to go get her a drink/a kleenex.... in other words, would she like to be alone for a moment?

I will follow with an excellent advice from a book on raising toddlers. Make it clear that you empathize with their feelings (fears of dark, in the case of toddlers), but that you don't share them. That is, don't make yourself the echo her feelings but show seriously and composedly that you acknowledge them and are supportive. I think the book is Your baby and child: from birth to age five by Penelope Leach. (Perhaps the best book on raising little children I have encountered.)

Finally, only SOME persons in SOME situations appreciate it when someone else takes control. (For instance, I wouldn't, but I would appreciate the suggestion of a walk) Be very attentive to any sign that this is not what she wants.

I understand I need to back up these answers more. I am a woman and I have been in similar situations to the OP's date. What helped and was valued: small initiatives like the ones I described. Being asked in a kind but unemotional way: "and what happened next? what did you do?" in other words, when the interlocutor help the story move on. I did not like to be controlled too much (e.g. taken for a walk more or less by force at a moment when I thought that wasn't what I wanted).

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    I really like the part of your answer about making it clear that while you empathize with the person's feelings, you don't share them. You mentioned that it was from a book, if possible could you provide a link to the book in case anyone wants to do some further reading on this? – Rainbacon Apr 29 at 13:05
  • I will try to find the book. Hey! I think I remember which one it is! – yo9cyb May 1 at 5:00
  • I included the link to the book in my answer. I am not 100% sure this is the book though. Is it OK to include it? Shall I put it in a comment instead of the main text? – yo9cyb May 1 at 5:08
  • Yes, I think it's fine to include it with the disclaimer that you've put. It's better in the body of your post because we try to keep the comments pretty clean around here. – Rainbacon May 1 at 12:42
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I was very young when I met my husband. A few dates into it, I did a weird thing that I didn't seem coming and told him every rotten part of my life. I think in hindsight, I already could see how much I really liked him and I think it was my way of finding out if he could "handle" my truth. I've never done anything like that again (25 years later) and in fact, I know there are things I told him that night I have barely mentioned again.

It's really likely too early to say "what she's like". This may have been out of character for her to share so many heavy things like this (like it was for me) or it might be where she is in her life right now (lots of people go through rough patches at some point) or she may be prone to what I call "being an Eeyore" (from Adventures of Pooh).

I think it sounds like you handled it well. Sometimes it is reasonable, appropriate and effective to cheer someone. Sometimes that is really insensitive if what they need is to get it out. I don't know the tone here or what she said so I have no idea how appropriate it is to even try to redirect the conversation.

What you have to remember too is that you have to give yourself grace when a person does this at a time you don't expect. We are all human and it's hard to know what we can do that makes the other person feel any better.

If she shared all that and felt like it wasn't badly taken, she might feel like the date was nice, in that she was able to safely tell you all her junk and not feel like she was made to feel bad for it. I felt a little embarrassed when I did it, but when he called me again, I felt amazing. I got all my junk cleared and he still liked me. That said, I didn't have any ongoing issues. It sounds like perhaps she is still in a difficult time. I just had normal life woes (school, work, bills, etc).

if instead, this date made you think "Oh she is a mess" and start trying to figure out how to exit, then I might say that. I might just say that I can see she isn't up for a fun night out and has some things she needs to come to peace with and perhaps it would better if we called it early and rescheduled when she felt more up to it.

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If she's telling you these stories on your second date, it means she is preoccupied with them and wants to talk about it. She most likely doesn't want you to change the subject or cheer her up, she wants you to listen and give her sympathy, otherwise she wouldn't bring up such topics with someone she is just getting to know.

Some people enjoy the patient-therapist sort of relationship in their romantic partners, at least for certain periods of their lives. I have known people who are attracted to both sides of this dynamic. If you aren't interested in listening non-judgmentally to sad stories and providing sympathy, then this might be a difficult relationship to maintain.

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