Monday, June 20, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Without using the word "idol"

An illustration of a golden calf. Image source.

Chapter 4 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is about when people get into bad relationships just because they are lonely. This fear of being alone is a problem that must be addressed first, before you'll be able to find a healthy dating relationship. The book says this:
If you must be dating or married in order to be happy, you are dependent, and you will never be happy with whatever person you find. The dependency will keep you from being selective enough to find the kind of person who will be good for you, or will keep you from being able to fully realize a relationship with a healthy person.
I like this chapter. It's really interesting how purity culture also talks about this problem, but in a very different way. "You must get to a place where you are happy with your life apart from a dating relationship in order to be happy with one." That's a line from page 76 of "Boundaries in Dating," but that exact same sentence could appear in a purity-culture book.

But it wouldn't mean the same thing. Not even close.

This section of "Boundaries in Dating" is all about loneliness and our need to connect with other people who can support us, and how it's not healthy to try to meet that need solely through dating relationships. In contrast, purity culture says it's a need for God- your relationship with God must come first, and any other thing in your life that you "put before God" is a idol.

Take a look at this bit from "Boundaries in Dating":
How do you cure your aloneness without a dating relationship?

First, strengthen your relationship with God. Make him your first priority so that you are not trying to get God needs met by a relationship with a person.
Yep, so far this is pretty standard Christian advice. Heard it a million times.
Second, strengthen your relationships with safe, healthy Christians. Make sure that you are not trying to get your people needs met by a dating relationship, or by God. Yes, you need God. But you also need people.
WHAT? What? Christian book say what? There are needs that can't be met by God? WHAT IS THIS BLASPHEMYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

Okay but actually I agree with them. Well, actually I would word it differently- I agree that you need to have connections with people, and you can't get this need met just by sitting alone and reading the bible and doing those individual activities that evangelicals refer to when they talk about "working on your relationship with God." BUT we don't find God only in those personal, individual things. God is everywhere, the source of everything good. I fully believe that God's love is like sound waves- it can't exist in a vacuum. It needs a medium to travel through. You don't just believe some abstract doctrine about God's love- that's not enough. You experience God's love through the good things in life. Through friends. Through cats. Through pleasure. Through living with your awesome boyfriend.

So in a practical sense, I completely agree with the authors of "Boundaries in Dating" in this section here. (The difference seems to be only in how we define "getting needs met through God.") But I would never say we have other needs besides God, because that is a surefire way to guarantee that no evangelical will take seriously anything you say, ever again.

"Boundaries in Dating" talks about this feeling of "needing" a relationship in purely psychological terms. In church, I've always heard it discussed in purely spiritual terms. This is a huge difference- and the psychological approach is MUCH better.

In spiritual terms, the logic goes like this: Everyone has a need for God. God must be first. If there's something else in your life that's massively important to you- more important than God- then that's an idol and you're sinning.

But what exactly does it mean to believe that God is more important than ANYTHING else, ALL the time? Doesn't it mean that, if at any point you believe "I need this thing", then at that moment, that thing is more important to you than God? So that thing is an idol.

And really, this extends to any desire. You want something, you think "if I had this, my life would be so much better." Oh, so you're not perfectly content now, you think you need something else in order to have a better life? You can't just be content with God? Wow, that's an idol.

Because this line of reasoning is based on something so abstract and intangible- "you have to love God more than anything else"- there's nothing reality-based to anchor it so it doesn't go into that extreme where all desires are "idols."

Back in my most "devoted to God" days, I really believed that it was always wrong to imagine "if only I had this thing, then my life would be so much better." I thought in all circumstances, you have equal access to your "personal relationship with God", and nothing else matters. So you should always be 100% content. God is all you need.

Obviously, that's not true. Some life changes really do make everything way better. Getting a new job, moving to a new home, starting a relationship, getting out of a bad relationship, etc- all of these things can cause massive improvements in one's quality of life.

The problem with "if only I had this thing, then my life would be so much better" is when your expectations are unrealistic. If you find a really great romantic partner, you can start a relationship where you love and support each other, and that's wonderful and it will improve your happiness level. But that doesn't mean they can meet all your needs, you don't need to have friends, you should spend all your time with your romantic partner, you're never going to fight, etc.

The problem isn't having a desire, it's when you believe that thing is going to totally change your life in ways that, really, it won't. In that case, you probably have some other psychological issues to work out, but it's easier to just tell yourself that you can get this one thing to solve all your problems, rather than honestly face your issues.

But nobody ever talks about that in church. It's always "if you think that getting what you desire will finally make your life better, then that's wrong, that's an idol, nothing can meet that need except God."

Furthermore, this whole "if you think you need something besides God, that's an idol" makes it really easy for people who already have all their needs/desires met to judge those who don't. I've blogged before about how I always took it for granted that I would get a college education, and I judged my classmates who worked so hard doing homework and not coming to Christian events- they were making education an idol. And this can turn into ableism very fast. Oh, you need to take medication for chronic illness/ depression/ etc? You "need" it in order to live? Well if you were a better Christian, you would believe God is all you need.

But, surprisingly, "Boundaries in Dating" takes a completely different approach- a healthy approach. It's about the need to connect with people. This book does NOT say that if you think you need ANYTHING, then that's an idol and you're sinning. No, nothing like that at all. The word "idol" does not appear once in this chapter. Instead it says if you think you NEED a dating relationship, then it's probably because you're lonely, so you should focus more on your friendships and doing things you love, so you're more emotionally healthy and better able to evaluate potential romantic partners.

This is wonderful. And, of course, shocking.

Here's another interesting difference between "Boundaries in Dating" and purity culture. Check out this paragraph:
Have a full life of spiritual growth, personal growth, vocational growth, altruistic service, hobbies, intellectual growth, and the like. The active, growing life does not have time or inclination to be dependent on a date. The more you have a full life of relationship with God, service to others, and interesting stimulating activities, the less you will feel like you need a relationship in order to be whole.
This exact paragraph could appear in a purity culture book. But it would be about how, before God brings your predestined spouse into your life, you have to wait, and you should spend that time becoming a better person for your future spouse. You know, the whole "don't focus on finding the right person, focus on being the right person." Oh and also, here's how you should use your time as a single person to serve God. The point of having a full, active life while single is to serve God and your future spouse.

But in "Boundaries in Dating", that's not the point at all. It's about your own emotional health- helping you to have a happy life and not be lonely. So you won't be desperate for a relationship, and make bad decisions because of that desperation. The point is to help YOU.

So, mostly, this chapter is pretty great. Totally shocking to me, of course, and I'm still baffled about how this passes as a "Christian book." But this stuff about loneliness and the need for human connection makes a lot more sense than anything anyone's ever said about "idols."


A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (read the introduction post here)

Previous post: In which I roll my eyes so much

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