Previously I mentioned that my next post on dating would be regarding my experiences with online dating. However, in writing that blog I realized that there are a lot of assumptions and advice regarding dating that I felt I should make explicit.
To summarize my thoughts so far…
I think a lot of my peers (unmarried Christian twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings) are frustrated with the relationship advice we grew up with. The general advice in regards to dating and relationships has often boiled down to the “One day my prince will come” approach for women, “waiting on the Lord,” and/or pursuing exclusive, serious relationships with the direct goal of marriage. These approaches have not worked for us. I, in a sense, feel lied to and I’m pretty angry about it. For my friends who did meet their spouse in college or at Church the advice seemed to have worked. However, the rest of us who are single and want to be married must now learn how to date and in this process we need to unlearn some beliefs that were taught to us. Many of us in this predicament have effectively zero experience in dating. Furthermore, one of our tensions is that we want to marry people with similar values about faith that we are compatible with. The best “dating pools” of eligible bachelors and bachelorette exist in Christian schools and our local churches but these are very small communities that come with a lot of complications.
We are faced with two basic choices. The first option is to complain. We can complain about how all the good ones are married, how there are no good singles in our Churches, how all the ones we like are unavailable and/or uninterested in us, how men do not ask us out, how women expect all the men to initiate and take all the risks, how the Church’s false advice has not worked for us, how singles are second class citizens in the Kingdom (or at least in Churches), etc. There is not a short list of things to bemoan when it comes to Christian dating. Or we can take the second option, which is to take ownership of what we want and work towards it.
I encourage people to take the second option and am writing primarily for such persons. Many of our complaints are legititmate and I believe the general advice regarding dating and relationships in Churches needs to be changed but complaining and throwing rocks at the Church is not going to get me a date. Unless woman like cynicism. (That’s an honest question. Is my cynicism towards the Church hot?)
Sidenote: The treatment of single persons as second class citizens in Churches is a very serious issue that I promise to write about elsewhere. Regardless of what is on paper the culture of many churches essentially idolizes marriage and family to the point that singles are effectively barred from leadership position in the church. For example, the number of prominent Protestant pastors and leaders who are unmarried is completely dwarfed by those who are married.
Over Christmas break I was honest with the fact that I had not been dating, had very little experience in relationships. I was also honest with the fact that I wanted to both experience dating and eventually work towards an exclusive relationship that might result in a marriage and family. I want to date to have fun, get to know myself, meet women and figure out what I want from a spouse. In preparing myself to get into the dating arena, that I will hereafter refer to simply as “The Game,” I thought a lot about what I needed to do and what I think one should do before one begins to date, possibly for the first time, and wanted to share those thoughts here.
First, assess if there is any personal work you need to engage in before you start dating. What I mean by this is there anything you need to deal with in your life that probably should be taken care of before you begin dating again. Are there areas in your life you need to improve to increase your “datability” or things that otherwise are barriers to your future prospects dating. Some areas of personal work are obvious. There are some practical personal and social choices that as a single person you might not have had to worry about but as someone who wants to date you might have to adjust ora t least consider. Do you need to get back into the gym? Do you need to shower more? Do you need to buy some new outfits? Do you need to accept invitations to go out? Do you need to get some dental work done? Do you need to work on making first impressions? Do you need to learn how to flirt, or when you are being flirted with? What, exactly, would you even bring to a relationship? Would you be a fun date? Do you have hobbies/passions to share? Are your finances in order? Some personal work is much deeper and more obscure. Do you need to deal with obvious issues regarding relationships? Do you have a pattern in what type of man/woman you are attracted to you that is negative? Do you find yourself instantly relegated to the “friend” category when you meet others of the opposite sex? Do you have any emotional unfinished business from childhood? What are your goals in dating? What have been your past experiences in dating? What do you want? What do you not want? To increase the effectiveness of this time of self-reflection I would encourage people to do two things. First, ask some of your safest friends for their honest input and work on being open to their constructive criticism, even if you don’t at least initially agree with their advice. Sometimes we are blind to the most glaringly obvious issues that others can see plainly. Second, especially in regards to the deeper stuff, I would encourage any person to read through How to be an Adult by David Richo. This book is a very compact book filled with a lot of wisdom gleaned from David’s career as a psychologist. It is a very short and very profound book on how to be a healthy individual. Reading this book will not fix you, but it will provide ample food for thought and ask a lot of questions you and your peers probably will not ask.
These questions should be asked and any resulting personal work should be worked on before adding another person into the equation. I cannot stress this point enough. You might have so much personal work to do that you cannot even get a date or you might have a lot of personal work to do that will prevent dates from being fun or fruitful. I think you can either deal with these as best you can before you begin dating or you can choose to let them come to the surface when you go out, or try to go out, as the case may be. While I’m sure there will be stuff that you will miss, you might as well deal with as much as you can beforehand. Such an attitude can only be helpful and who knows how long some of this personal work will take.
Second, double-check your attitudes and motivations for dating, relationships, and marriage. I think many people, especially Christians, have unexamined beliefs about dating and relationships in general that need to be addressed or at least understood before one begins dating. Do you believe a partner will fix your problems? Do you think singleness is a curse to be escaped from by dating anyone that will have you? One main example that I want to explore more because of its prevalence and impact is the belief that a relationship or marriage will complete you and that dating is just a stepping stone to that.
This is a sick belief fostered by a lot of bad romance stories, anecdotal stories from real life and occasionally scriptures stretched to their breaking point. First, while I am a romantic at heart, and hope romance is part of my future, I no longer believe (contrary to a lot of what I’ve been taught) that there is “special someone” who is the only person capable of and responsible for my wholeness. It just does not work like that in real life. You can have romance and not stake your identity as a person on someone else. Secondly, Jesus Christ was single. Regardless of any verse brought to bear on the merits of marriage or the experience of loneliness that is at times experienced in singleness I doubt any Christian would suggest that Jesus died incomplete. While it is not good for a man or a woman to be alone, I think these verses in Genesis that are sometimes used uncritically to advocate for marriage, unmitigated by God’s words regarding singleness are about our inherent need for community not marriage. This need comes from the fact that we are created in the image of a Trinitarian God who exists in three persons and always in community. Without relationships I think humans are incomplete, but this is not the same thing as saying with a relationship (dating/marriage) one is incomplete.
Everyone should be a whole person (or as whole as they can be) before they start dating. Hoping a relationship is going to complete you sounds a lot like co-dependency and fantasy. You are setting yourself up to be dependent or addicted to another person to make you okay to live in this world. Do you really think that there is some magical person out there who, by dating or marrying you, will fix all your problems and heal all your wounds? If you believe this or are otherwise not whole as a person before you start dating you are most likely destined to be disappointed in your dates because they don’t live up to your fantasy, or worse you will get into a serious relationship that you have to have in your life (no matter how destructive it is) because you come to believe they did fix you. This dynamic is often why people stay in abusive, destructive or futile relationships.
Furthermore, a lack of wholeness often indicates some sort of deeper woundedness one would like to deny or simply has never faced. For me the gaping hole in my life, the one I tried to fill with many things (including my addictions, performance, and my ex’s) was the self-hate that was a consequence from the abuse that went on in my home. I have come to learn that expecting a relationship to heal me was a foolish assumption that was unexamined in my life. I had no business dating anyone before I dealt with my past because relationships do not provide healing. They can, ideally, provide love and support as you heal, but other people are not a balm or a band-aid. You should not use someone, often unwittingly, to work out your issues with your dad or your mom, or your ex, or your lack of direction in life, or your need for affirmation, etc. Everyone has their crap, deal with as much as you can as best you can before you start dating.
Third, ask yourself one last question (two if you are an addict). Obviously no one is ever done growing or healing as a person, has their finances 100% in order, is the ideal date they think they should be, and so on, so how do you know when you are ready to get into The Game?
I would suggest as a very rough gauge is your answer to this question: Do you accept yourself for who you are, where you are at?
This might seem counter-intuitive because I have just asked people to examine their life, most likely finding things they need to change. What I am talking about here is not the recognition that there needs to be some improvement, changes or sanctification in your life, but self-acceptance as a person. Are you comfortable in your own skin? With all the self-awareness you can muster from your season of self-reflection, are you okay with you? If you cannot accept yourself as a single then your self-worth is most likely ultimately in the hands of someone else, presumably the person(s) you hope to date. If you are not “enough” by yourself, you will add way too much pressure to The Game, which has risks of its own already. Consequently mistakes, rejection and/or the loss of a relationship in dating (which are almost inevitably bound to happen) will be far more powerful and painful than they should be. If you are okay with yourself as a single person, not dating, not in a relationship, not married, you will be able to navigate the dangers, risks and ups and downs of the Game healthily. I have not until recently begun to accept myself as a person for who I am where I am at. The consequences of dating before this have been sever. A very short relationship, that was only official for two days, devastated me and was part of the reason I did not date for the next six years. Obviously I am a special person and an extreme case, but I hope you get my point.
To my fellow recovering addicts there is far clearer line in the sand and that is the second question: are you done with your Fourth Step?
The general rule of thumb regarding addicts and dating is no relationships until after your Fourth Step or you at least have a year in recovery. Many of you will not listen to me and you will simply switch addictions from heroin/cocaine/sex/alcohol/your ex to your new drug named Jim or Jill or whoever. Switching addictions happens all the time and many people switch from easily identifiable immoral and/or illegal drug to something far more subtle and far more celebrated but no less harmful: romantic relationships. You will use people like you used to use drugs and you will not deal with your issues. In doing this you will ultimately short-circuit your healing, your sobriety, and end up hurting yourself and the person you are dating in the process. Sponsors regulate on your sponsees. Sponsees listen to your sponsors.
Recovery is a very difficult process and it is very tempting to justify dating early because it is nice to have someone there for you. The rooms and the groups are there to be your support, you do not need to be dating to have community. I personally think every addict should get sober first, or at least be able to understand what this means for them in their program, before adding another significant relationship to their life.
When this is all said and done I think the first thing for many of my peers to do is to expand the size of the dating pool you are in. As I have argued elsewhere online dating is a glaringly obvious choice that many people are not taking for some reason or still have a stigma with. As I have put my money where my mouth is I will begin talking about my experiences in online dating in the next post.