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Monday, June 6, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: What Kind of Book IS This?!

A man and woman who appear to be on a date, but they look annoyed and are refusing to look at each other. Image source.
Chapter 2 of Boundaries in Dating is called "Require and Embody Truth," and it's about how honesty is THE most important boundary. "Where there is deception there is no relationship," it says. Which is SO TRUE, I totally agree. But I'm surprised there's nothing about how both parties being 100% committed to Jesus is the most important thing in a relationship.

I was happily shocked by some of the anecdotes in this chapter and how the authors' interpretation was COMPLETELY opposite purity culture's. Here's an example:
Karen liked Matt a lot, but after a few months of dating, she realized that the relationship was not going anywhere long-term. She liked "having him around," but Matt was getting more serious than she was in his feelings for her. He had stopped going out with other people and was beginning to treat her like a real girlfriend.

At first she was uncomfortable with his seriousness, but she tried to ignore the feeling. After all, she was having fun and did not see any harm in continuing to go out. But he was getting more and more affectionate, and there were other signs that he was "getting hooked." The more he did, the more she denied her awareness that she was not being straightforward. "What's the harm?" she convinced herself.

Then one night they were watching late-night TV when he leaned over and kissed her. He said softly, "I love you."

Karen felt her whole body go stiff. But she kissed him back and acted as if nothing was wrong. A little while later, she said she was tired and wanted to go to bed. She bid him good night, and he left.

Matt left on a high. He felt as if they had entered a new level of relationship. He had plans for their future and was a changed man. That night, he fell asleep dreaming of being together.

Where do you think the relationship went from there? There were two options. One was that Karen could call Matt the next day and say, "We need to talk. Last night when you said you loved me, it made me uncomfortable. I don't think we are having the same sort of feelings for each other. I don't think that we are headed in the same direction, and I think we should just be friends."

Unfortunately, that is not what happened. She ignored her discomfort and continued to go out as if nothing was different. He continued to fall for her and she continued to allow him to do so. He took her to wonderful places and events, gave her lots of time and attention, and pursued her, all along the way thinking that they were boyfriend and girlfriend. And she allowed it. She enjoyed being with him, but had to ignore the slow split that was developing inside her betweeen the way she was acting and the way that she knew she was feeling. But, she told herself, "He really is fun to be around. What's the harm in continuing to date?" And she did for a while, until she wanted to move on, and she felt that Matt was somewhat in the way. So, she finally had to tell him that she wanted to stop dating. She was not feeling "like the relationship was going anywhere," she told him.

Matt was devastated. He could not believe it. One day they were an item, and the next they were finished. How could this have happened? Disillusioned, he did not date again for a long time.
This story serves to illustrate the fact that people have to be honest with each other about the status of their relationship, how committed they are. Which is great advice! Everyone needs to know this!

But I'm shocked because this exact same story could appear in a purity-culture book and the interpretation would be very different. It would be "guys, this is the kind of temptress woman you need to watch out for." Or, if the genders were reversed, it would be "girls, all guys are heartless and will totally dump you like this."

The authors of "Boundaries in Dating" add this: "Hurt, and often loss, comes with dating. Losing a love or the hope of love is part of the dating situation. But, while losing a love that one desires is almost inevitable in the dating life at some time or another, losing one's trust in the opposite sex does not have to happen if people are honest with one another." Wow. Because in purity culture, the entire meaning of this story would be "here is why you can't trust the opposite sex."

[Note: wow how strange that they think dating always involves two people of opposite sexes.]

Also, did you notice that this story included premarital kissing and saying "I love you" and it wasn't remarked upon at all? Wow. And the idea that wanting a less serious relationship or a more serious relationship are both fine, as long as you're honest about it. Yeah this is not purity culture.

Here's another story about the importance of honesty:
I was working with a man who was trying to figure out his relationship with the woman he was dating, and he continued to have a funny feeling that something was wrong. It seemed that she was just a little too connected to her work. He had no problem with her loving her job, but there was something strange about her relationship with her boss. He did not think that she was dating him, or having any kind of illicit thing going on with him, but he still got a funny feeling about her work and her connection with her boss.

Finally he found out that his girlfriend had once been engaged to her boss. And there was still some sort of continuing tie between them. But, as far as he had known, it was strictly a work relationship. She had misled him.

He felt horribly deceived, and from there the relationship went downhill. It did not falter because she worked with a former boyfriend, but because she had not been clear about the nature of her former relationship with her boss.
Wow. If this story was in a purity culture book, the message would be "this is why having previous relationships and breakups will ruin all your future relationships forever." But in "Boundaries in Dating," the interpretation is so much more reasonable. Whatever's in your past, it's fine, just be honest with your partner about it.

I mean, I'm shocked. In a good way, I guess. But also really confused because I've never read a book like this.

Another bit that caught my attention, in the section about being honest about hurt and conflict:
If you get serious with someone who cannot take feedback about hurt or conflict, then you are headed for a lifetime of aloneness, resentment, and perhaps even abuse.
Statements like this- warning of dire, life-ruining consequences based on relationship-related choices we make in the present- very much remind me of all the fear-mongering in purity culture. But, somehow, when I read the above sentence, it feels reasonable, it feels like good advice- it doesn't feel like fear-mongering. I think this is because now I'm an adult and I have enough experience to know, realistically, what kind of consequences would arise when people can't be honest with each other about conflict.

Purity culture constantly warned me about not doing this or that because of astronomically terrible future consequences. But it didn't really make sense to me- how, exactly, will holding hands with my boyfriend make me unable to truly love my future husband? What does that even mean, in practical terms? I mean, of course I believed it because that was God's opinion on hand-holding, but... what did it actually mean? More than anything, it was a fear of the unknown- I couldn't really understand why those things were bad, and that made them even scarier.

But now, reading this statement in "Boundaries in Dating", it sounds very good and reasonable and not about a fear of the unknown. I've seen examples of what happens when people can't communicate honestly about stuff, and I wouldn't want to be with a partner like that. It's not because "the rules" say it's bad, but because I actually have an understanding of what that would be like, and it's not a situation I'd want to be in.

Interestingly, purity culture discourages people from getting the experience necessary to actually understand why certain things are bad or risky, and exactly what kind of consequences they can expect. It's all fear of the unknown.

And here's another interesting bit from this chapter of "Boundaries in Dating": there's a section called "Two Types of Liars." The first type is people "who lie out of shame, guilt, fear of conflict or loss of love, and other fears." The second type just lies to manipulate and deceive people. If you're with the second type, "Run, run, run" says this book.

But for the first type, they're not really bad people, and the authors say it's possible to help them learn to trust and be honest. They don't necessarily think this is a good idea- they say dating isn't really the best environment for working on character flaws like that- but sometimes it does work out. So it's a question of whether you want to take that risk.

And then it hit me: something very very significant is missing from this discussion.

It's talking about how to make a choice about whether or not to date someone. In a situation where it could be risky, it could be a bad idea, but also it does work out sometimes. How do you decide what to do?

In a Christian book.

Who can tell me what's missing?

Oh my god. They didn't say ANYTHING about "pray about it."

In fact, this whole "Two Types of Liars" section, which is about one and a half pages long, only has 1 word that even hints at something religious. It's in the part about how dating isn't really the best environment to help someone work out their trust issues. "Rehabilitation should occur in that person's counseling, recovery, discipleship, or some other context." Discipleship. That's it. One word. In a list. No other mention of anything related to religion.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

Wait, wait, wait. Everybody stop. What kind of book IS this? It's- oh my god- it's just secular psychology with a few bible verses thrown on top, for decoration.

Okay, back up back up. I don't even pray about stuff. If I was in that kind of situation, I wouldn't pray about it, I would think about my options and possible outcomes and maybe get advice from knowledgable people, and make my own decision. And yes, I'm a Christian.

So why do I suddenly feel like "this is a counterfeit masquerading as a Christian book"? Maybe because normally when I read Christian stuff I agree with, it presents itself very clearly as "this is Christian feminism, we very much disagree with a lot of things the evangelical church teaches." But "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't make any mention of where it stands in relation to various flavors of Christianity, and it was recommended in my church where I grew up, so I assumed it would be very "good Christian who believes all the proper things." But it's not, it's very much not. And it doesn't explain why.

I think everything in this chapter is SO GOOD. Yes, honesty is the most important thing in a relationship. Everything else is based on that. But... the points that the authors make are entirely based on their actual real-world experience as psychologists. Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend are REAL psychologists- yes, real ones, not the "you have depression because you don't have enough faith" kind. And they're so right about all these things, about relationships, about emotional health- but... it's not based in the bible AT ALL.

And, wow, it's GOOD that it's not "based in the bible." It's based in reality.

Yes, they often include bible verses, but these seem to be an afterthought. It's not "here's a bible verse about honesty. And therefore, honesty is really really important in a relationship." It's "honesty is really important, here are a bunch of examples of what we mean by that. Hey guess what, the bible also says honesty is important, look at this verse here!"

I don't know how to feel about this. My above statement "it's just secular psychology with a few bible verses thrown on top, for decoration"- that particular phrasing is what good evangelicals would say to warn each other about how dangerous and bad this book is. But, in my case, I think "secular psychology" is really really good and healthy. But, like, why bother with including the bible verses? They're not really connected to the rest of the content in the book. (And there are enough of them that I'd imagine it would scare away non-Christian readers.)

Seems kind of dishonest, actually. Like they wrote all this stuff that's really good and healthy for everyone, not based in any particular religion, and then they dressed it up with bible verses so they could sell it as "a Christian book." It's not based on Christianity though. And, again, that's a GOOD THING in my opinion. I feel so weird criticizing this.

What kind of book IS this? Are the authors just faking the Christian part, or is there some variety of Christianity somewhere where it's totally normal to give advice based on real life and then search for a bible verse which conveniently says the same thing?

(I'm not in the business of accusing people of being "fake Christians"- I really want to know if there is a form of Christianity that bases its beliefs on common sense and then throws a bible verse as an afterthought, and has a well-thought-out explanation on why they do this.)

This book. It confuses me so much.

And one last confusing thing I'd like to point out: occasionally, the word "pure" appears in this book. Look at two examples from this chapter:
[from the part about dealing with dishonesty if it comes up in your relationship]

Look at the level of repentance and change. How significantly is the person pursuing holiness and purity? How internally motivated is he or she to get better?

[from the list of "Take-Away Tips" at the end of the chapter]

Be careful to be honest and pure about your intentions at the proper time. To act like a friend when you have other intentions could undermine the friendship.
In purity land, "pure" means "not having sex", but that definition doesn't make any sense in these sentences. Confront your partner about their dishonesty, and then see if they're repentent, working hard to not have sex, and motivated to be more honest ... what? Be clear about your intentions- and those intentions better not be about sex- because if you act like a friend but are trying to make it develop into something more, that might end badly ... what?

Obviously, that definition of "pure" makes no sense here- but what else could "pure" possibly mean? From the context, it seems to mean something along the lines of "honest," I guess? I really don't know what the writers mean by this.

All right, that's all for this week's chapter. In summary, a lot of really good advice, but I can't figure out the context or the intended audience or the relation between this book and Christianity. So... I'm basically just confused.

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A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships

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