Monday, July 18, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Loneliness isn't bad

A silhouette showing a person sitting, with an empty chair beside them. Image source.
Chapter 8 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is called "Don't Ruin a Friendship Out of Loneliness", and honestly, I don't really get this chapter. It's about the danger of "romanticizing a friendship" but I don't really understand what the authors mean by "romanticizing a friendship." But there is a lot of really good advice about psychology and healthy relationships in this chapter. Hooray!

First of all: What is "romanticizing a frienship"? It's trying to have a romantic relationship with someone who you should really be "just friends" with. But what I don't understand is why. Would you try to start an unhealthy romantic relationship with a friend because you think "we're so good together, logically we should date" even though you aren't actually attracted to them? (This seems to be the definition implied by the first story in this chapter, about Ellen and Ted, who were really good friends, and everyone told them they should totally date, and they tried for a little bit but "the romantic part of the connection simply did not exist" so they went back to being friends. But the rest of the examples in the chapter seem to be about actually having romantic feelings, not just "we're so good together, we should as least try" and then it's just awkward.) If that's the definition of "romanticizing a friendship" that we're working with, I can't really relate to it- in purity culture, dating was something to avoid as much as possible- I would never "try it out" just because it seemed like it could be good. (Err... well, it's more complicated than that in purity culture, actually. Having romantic feelings isn't necessarily seen as a prerequisite to having a romantic relationship. Maybe God told you you're going to marry that person, and if you're not attracted to them, TOO BAD.)

Or would you develop romantic attraction to a friend just because you're lonely? If that's the definition of "romanticizing a friendship", then isn't this the exact same thing we talked about in chapter 4, which was called "Dating Won't Cure a Lonely Heart"? Why are we talking about it again? It's the same situation. I guess in this case it's not just "getting into bad dating relationships because you're desperate and lonely", but "getting into bad dating relationships with a friend because you're desperate and lonely"... but that seems like pretty much the same problem to me.

So a bit confused about this, and therefore I'm not able to really pull out an overarching theme for this chapter. But let's look at some of the details. Here's an interesting bit:
In a struggling relationship, one person can develop romantic feelings for the other out of his own neediness. This neediness becomes "romanticized," that is, it disguises its true nature in romance. The person feels alive, driven, and motivated to be with the other. Yet the need is generally caused by some emptiness inside.
The authors go on to say that loneliness isn't necessarily bad. Humans need to connect with other humans, and loneliness is how "God has designed us" to feel our need for that connection. But, since loneliness is painful, sometimes it's easier to deny it, in which case those emotions manifest in other ways:
As a result, lonely people may not feel like lonely people should, which is lonely. However, they may feel other things instead, such as irritation, depression, addictive drives, and romantic cravings. There are often far more acceptable and tolerable. The problem is, however, that acting on these "false" feelings does not meet the real needs for compassion, care, and comfort.
Hmm, now this has me wondering: could loneliness disguise itself as spiritual hunger? What if someone is lonely because they don't have close enough connections with other people, but they see their problem as "I need to get closer to God", and work on that in the way that evangelicals do, which is by being alone and praying, being alone and reading the bible, etc. (Which, I've said before, is pretty weird, because God is everywhere, right? God is impossible to avoid. Why do "spending time with God" and "getting closer to God" mean only those very specific, individual, religious acitivities?) Coming from a Christian culture where the answer to EVERY emotional problem is "you need to pray more", I can totally see how feeling a need for human connection could be misinterpreted as "needing God", which, as I said, means you need to spend more time alone doing spiritual-looking things. (I, however, believe that you can "get closer to God" by forming deep friendships with other people. People bear God's image. That's kind of how it works.)

Next, there's a section about "Often, those who romanticize their friends have a history of not being able to safely and deeply connect to the same sex." And I am very confused about what they're trying to say in this section. I know they're working from the assumption that everyone is straight, but... does that mean they're using "same sex" as shorthand for "the set of people where you find your closest, deepest platonic friends" and "opposite sex" as "the set of people where you find romantic partners"? Are they assuming that one's best platonic friends are supposed to be the same sex? But that assumption doesn't make sense- isn't this whole chapter about how you can have good, deep, healthy friendships with members of the opposite sex, with no romance involved? It doesn't seem like they could make that claim and then also believe that your best friends have to be the same sex as you. Maybe they're trying to say that if you don't have good, healthy friendships, then you're more likely to get into bad romantic relationships out of loneliness, which they've said previously in this book, and really makes sense and is something everyone should learn about. But I don't see how that relates to not connecting with the same sex. Even if we assume everyone is straight, I still don't get how it relates.

But the next part is really good:
Related to this is the problem of thinking that romance is the highest form of friendship. Many people who are "into" romance (watch out for anyone who tells you that!) feel that friendship is a grade lower than romance. Thus, they will attempt to develop romantic feelings with someone that they are friends with, believing they are taking the friendship to a better and deeper level. ...

Romantic relationships are not better than friendships. They are different and meet different needs. Do not get caught in the idea that you are missing out by keeping your friend as "only" your friend.
YES. YES. And also, go tell that to all the church people who think that married people are at a higher level (morally, spiritually, in terms of maturity, whatever) than single people.

Next, it talks about relationships where one person is the "rescuer" or "caretaker", and how this is romanticized. For example, "the man who has been wounded by so many women" and "the woman who believes that her love can repair that hurt man." "Boundaries in Dating" says this kind of relationship is not healthy, because if you're acting like a parent and child, well eventually that child needs to grow up.

I think it's really interesting that they talk about this, because yes definitely that is an unhealthy dynamic, and people need to know about it. But, isn't the parent-child romantic relationship sort of what complementarianism is about? The man is supposed to protect the woman, provide for her, earn most of the money, etc. Many bloggers have talked about how complementarianism "infantalizes" women. And yeah, as "Boundaries in Dating" says, that's not a good thing.

The last thing I'd like to show y'all is this table that compares "healthy romance" and "romanticized friendship." Like I said, I don't really get what "romanticized friendship" is supposed to mean, but the heading that would make sense on this table is "unhealthy romantic relationship driven by neediness."

Healthy RomanceRomanticized Friendship
Desire is based on first being rooted in love elsewhere. Desire is based on empty neediness for the other person.
Other's freedom is valued. Other's freedom is a problem.
Relationship draws in friends. Relationship shuts others out.
Conflicts work out okay. Conflicts threaten the relationship.
Mutual feelings. One person feels romantic, the other doesn't.
Friendship and romantic feelings coexist. All-friend or all-romantic feelings; can't be both at the same time.

Yes. This is really really important, and it's a way of conceptualizing relationships that I've never thought about before. Err, I guess I've heard people talk about how this or that dynamic is unhealthy, but I've never thought about how to generalize it and lay it out so clearly like this.

I wish I had learned this stuff about healthy and unhealthy relationships before. I don't know if it's because Asperger's makes me generally oblivious to the rules of social interaction, or if it's because our culture in general doesn't do a good job of teaching what's healthy and unhealthy. Maybe both. Oh yeah, and purity culture. In purity culture, if God told you to date this person, and you keep the purity rules, then your relationship is good and right. If not, then it's terrible. None of this stuff about dependence, and romantic feelings that come from loneliness, and needing to be able to connect with friends so you don't try to get those needs met in unhealthy ways.

I won't do my whole "but for real, how is this a Christian book?" rant this week. I'll just tell you the stats: This chapter is 12 pages long. The word "God" appears 8 times. There is 1 bible verse.

In summary: I'm still not sure about the overall theme of this chapter, but it does have a lot of really really healthy advice. I wish I knew this stuff about relationships and loneliness and dependency and friendship a long time ago.


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

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