Sunday, January 07, 2007

I've tried dating. Now what?

With Christmas tunes playing on a portable radio in the background, the revolt began.

Good Connections, a three-year-old dating and friendship service for people with social disabilities, was holding its first holiday party. Some 15 members dined on pizza in the fluorescent-lit basement of the Framingham Civic League, their eyes fastened on Good Connection founders Steve and Marcia Rothenberg.

One man slowly raised his hand. "How come nothing's happening?" he asked. "It's been a year ... How come we're not at that dating point yet?"

Several others at the table nodded in agreement. They had paid their $360 membership fee. Why hadn't they found romance?

Two women talked about their frustration with other dating services. One had posted on a Jewish website, but no one responded. The other had tried speed dating on several occasions, but to no avail. And now Good Connections wasn't working, either.

Marcia Rothenberg calmly explained that Good Connections did not guarantee anything. She said she and her husband were there to foster relationships and coach members in their social lives.

But although the Rothenbergs didn't show it, their clients' comments had hit a nerve.

The Framingham couple, both full-time professionals in the field of social relationships, already had been questioning the mission of their nonprofit organization. Can a dating service work if its members lack the fundamental social skills needed to maintain a relationship?

"What I got out of that party was that they needed more than just linking up with each other," said Marcia, a 52-year-old social worker who previously did art therapy through the Holliston public schools. "They would go out on dates and not know what to do."

So the two have decided to disband Good Connections and instead create a support group for those who have trouble forming friendships.

They plan to serve the same clientele, people facing challenges from social anxiety to Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.

When they founded Good Connections, their colleagues in the social services and support field had warned them it wouldn't work. Some of them had tried to launch similar endeavors, though not on as ambitious a scale as Good Connections. The Rothenbergs were pioneers; they knew of no successful model to follow.

"We reached out to people who had nothing in their lives," said Marcia, "people you pass in a coffee shop and they're sitting alone."

"We thought that because of our passion for helping people develop relationship skills, we were in a unique position to offer help," said Steve, a 54-year-old psychologist who has conducted therapy groups for people with social challenges for 15 years. "We wanted to level the playing field."

They did so by playing matchmaker. They made DVD recordings of interviews with new clients, encouraging them to open up about their interests. Members could browse through the DVDs and select people they wanted to meet. The Rothenbergs would provide the introduction, but only if they felt the couple had enough in common.

At its peak, Good Connections had 30 members. The majority were male, and the average age was in the mid-30s. Most had part-time jobs, with their parents paying their membership fee.

They joined thinking Good Connections would be a "magic cure" for their relationship woes, Marcia said.

"The wish to have a relationship is so strong, and the fantasy was that we would provide the relationships without the work," Steve said.

As it turned out, the work was too much for Marcia. "She was spending 30 hours a week on the phone" counseling and reassuring the clients, her husband said. This on top of her regular job.

The Rothenbergs had hoped that the holiday party would serve as a get-acquainted session. They conducted a round-robin exercise with the members, having them spend 30 seconds asking the person next to them to reveal something about themselves. Afterward they were encouraged to mingle, but instead, most darted to the dessert table in the back.

Steve said many clients had neurological disorders that kept them from picking up on social cues, such as facial expressions and body language. They had trouble reading others' feelings.

"Say a guy and a girl meet for dinner, and the woman keeps looking around the restaurant, looking at her watch," Steve explained. "You or I might think, 'She's not interested in me.' Most people without a social disability would pick up on that. Someone with a social disability would not pick up on the subtleties."

He cited an example of a client whose date arrived late for dinner. By the time she arrived, he had ordered and eaten his meal and was on his way out. "No one had told him otherwise," Steve said.

The Rothenbergs say their new support group will include lessons on picking up nonverbal signals and role-playing sessions.

"It's based on our belief that the more you help people to learn different ways of interacting that wouldn't necessarily come naturally to them, that it helps to actually facilitate new pathways and connections in the brain related to social functioning," said Steve.

So far, few Good Connection members have signed on for the support group.

"We're providing a service to a population with social challenges," said Steve. "We're not expecting the same response you would expect if you were offering a service to a different population."

Marcia said one of their goals is to help lay the groundwork for the future. They believe a group similar to Good Connections could be successful given the proper resources.

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