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Monday, July 4, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Preferences and Red Flags

A forest of red flags. Image source.
Well guess what. I'm very excited to tell y'all about chapter 6 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships, because it's a bunch of really good advice that everyone should be taught about relationships. The chapter is called "What You Can Live With and What You Can't Live With," and it's about the standards we have in choosing a partner to date.

Here's the beginning of the chapter:
In the book Safe People, I (Dr. Cloud) told the story of being asked to speak to a Christian college group on the topic "How to Pick Someone to Date or Marry." It was a mixed group and a topic that was certainly on their minds. I opened the talk with a question: "What do you look for in a person to date seriously or marry?" Here were some of the responses that I got:
  • Deep spiritual commitment to God
  • A person who loves God's word
  • Someone with ambition
  • Someone fun
  • Attractive
  • Smart
  • Witty
  • A leader in their field
  • Likes sports
"Great list. I like people like that too," I told them. "But let me share something with you. In all my years that I have done marriage counseling, I have yet to meet a couple who was ready to divorce or having significant problems because one was not witty enough, or did not read their Bible as much as the other wished, or was not a leader in their field. But I have met hundreds of couples who are about to end their relationship who say things like this:
  • She's so controlling that I feel smothered all the time.
  • He doesn't listen to me.
  • He is so critical. I never feel like I'm doing anything right.
  • He is so irresponsible. I never know if the bills have been paid or if he has taken care of the things he promised to do.
  • She overspends all the time. She agrees to a budget, and then I get all these bills.
  • He can't connect emotionally. He doesn't understand how I feel.
  • She is such a perfectionist. I with she could just accept herself as she is and not be so down on herself all the time.
  • His anger scares me.
  • I never can believe her after the affair. She lied so much that I have lost all my trust.
These are two very different kinds of lists. The point is, it's good to have preferences and ideas about what kind of person you're looking for- like the first list- but you should also be educated about how healthy relationships work so that you can recognize problems and not end up in a relationship with someone who has very serious character issues.

This is really great, healthy advice. In purity culture, we used to make lists of what we were looking for in our "future husband"- of course, the first item on the list had to be "he loves Jesus more than anything" ("loves God more than he loves me" was also acceptable). It was all dreaming about an ideal, godly man- but they never taught us anything about how to actually get along with someone when you're in a relationship, how to deal with conflict, how to tell if the problems are big enough to be deal-breakers. All I knew was "pray about it." It was way too theoretical and idealized- nothing about what it's really like to be in a relationship with a real live imperfect human being.

"Boundaries in Dating" continues by giving us an overview of this chapter:
There are basically four areas we want you to examine in dating:
  1. Some of your preferences might be too limiting, and you need to be more open.
  2. Some preferences are more important than you might realize, and you should value them.
  3. Some imperfections are minor, and you might have to learn to deal with them.
  4. Some imperfections are major, and you should not ever have to live with them. They are totally off limits.
Sounds great!

The first section is about not limiting yourself- you might as well go on dates with lots of different people, just to try, no commitment. In the process, you'll learn more about yourself and what kind of person you want. And who knows, maybe you'll end up loving someone you never thought you would.

The strange part is that they bring God into this.
We have heard examples like that as people opened themselves up to date people who initially didn't seem to be 'their type.' God showed them that they really did not know what they needed to begin with, and oftentimes that what they thought they wanted would have been bad for them in the end.
This is ... weird. Yes, I've read purity culture books that say this same thing- the whole "be open to whoever God wants to put you with- maybe God knows better than you do." But in purity culture, that means you have to pray a lot and not listen to your own emotions telling you you're not really interested in someone- if some godly guy claims he's prayed about it and God said you're his wife, then you should at least give him a chance. It definitely DOES NOT mean you should go out on casual, no-commitment dates with anyone and everyone- oh dear goodness, how slutty!

Like I said last week, this section shows how "Boundaries in Dating" was written for adults. When you're a teenager or in college, it's easier to make friends and meet people- you don't have to actually go on one-on-one dates in order to get to know a potential romantic partner. But as an adult, honestly I'm not really sure how dating is supposed to work- it seems like you'd have to be a lot more direct and intentional. You'd have to be pretty clear about "let's go on a date" because it's not like you just happen to always hang out in the same place as potential friends/partners and get to know them without really putting in a ton of effort.

It seems that this is the definition that "Boundaries in Dating" is working off of- that "dating" starts out with no commitment, you just go out together and maybe you also go on dates with other people, it's no big deal, and then if you like this person enough, the relationship develops into an exclusive thing and then you're boyfriend/girlfriend. (Or girlfriend/girlfriend or whatever other combinations. "Boundaries in Dating" is so heteronormative, but this blog is not.)

Like I've said before, this is unintelligible nonsense to someone who believes in purity culture. How on earth could it be a good thing to go on dates with lots of different people? All romantic experiences erode parts of your heart- which is supposed to fully belong to your future husband. (Or future wife, but who are we kidding, it's the girls who get most of the "you'll be damaged goods" warnings. And purity culture thinks everyone is straight. How strange.) And if you have any skin-to-skin contact with a member of the opposite sex in a romance-related context, wow, you just lost some of your purity. Better hope your future husband is kind enough to forgive you.

Ugh, this book continues to frustrate me, because it's SUCH GOOD ADVICE, but COMPLETELY USELESS to anyone who buys into purity culture. Seriously, what would happen if you're a good purity culture girl and you read "we suggest you be open to casually dating anyone of good character" [an actual quote from "Boundaries in Dating"]? You would be HORRIFIED. It's too terrible a thought to even consider- all the danger that comes with dating- and to imagine that you would do it multiple times, with so many different people, and get your heart all torn up... Oh what an awful thing, quick, just skip past it, let's not think about that. Such terrible and terrifying advice.

They would just block it out because it's too scary. At best, they would be incredibly confused at how a "Christian book" could advise something so impure- and "Boundaries in Dating" offers no help in resolving that confusion.

Like, if you want to actually convince a purity-culture follower that it's good and healthy to casually date many different people, you're going to have to start at the very foundation of purity culture- the idea that experience is impurity and decreases your chances of having a good marriage- and work your way up. "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't do any of that. It assumes that its readers don't see romance as a horribly dangerous thing, with the potential to tear your heart into tiny pieces that can never be healed. It assumes that its readers will readily accept statements about how dating can be fun and is a good way to grow- that such statements are pretty unremarkable and don't need much explaining.

Ai ya. All right. Let's continue.

So then there's the bit about how some of your preferences are actually important, so don't pretend they're not. Specifically, it's essential to have common interests, common goals, and common values with the person you're in a relationship with. It's surprising to me that this section doesn't say anything about "the most important thing is that you're both totally devoted to Jesus." I mean, we did have a whole chapter about that, so maybe they figure they've talked about it enough? Ehhhh, from an evangelical perspective, this is really suspicious though. Looks like they're treating the spiritual component as separate- like, it just goes in its own chapter and then we never mention it again. If both partners being 100% devoted to Jesus really is the most important thing in a relationship, shouldn't it keep coming up, over and over, in every aspect of relationships that gets discussed? (Apparently, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" DON'T believe that both partners being fully devoted to God is the most important thing. How scandalous.)

Seems kind of like the old stereotype about people who go to church on Sundays but then don't care about God at all for the rest of the week.

To be clear, "Boundaries in Dating" does have some Christianese in this section on common interests, common goals, and common values. Little phrases here and there, like "Your goals will affect where you live, what career you choose, how you spend your time and money, and even how you develop your character and walk with God." Like, definitely written in the context of Christian culture. They even have a bible verse- Matthew 7:18, "a bad tree cannot bear good fruit", to tell us how character is really important. But nothing about "THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is you both love Jesus."

Weird. I mean, obviously I agree- I very much DO NOT think the most important thing is that you hold a particular set of religious beliefs- but... how is this a Christian book?

The next part is about your partner's imperfections. Some imperfections are minor, and you learn how to deal with them and keep the relationship going. But some are huge, destructive problems that you should never have to put up with.

Well y'all are going to be shocked at the complaint I have in the next section...
Here are the traits of someone who demonstrates the ability to work on their imperfections:
  • A relationship with God
  • Ability to see where one is wrong
  • Ability to be honest
  • Ability to see the effects of the wrong on the other person
  • Ability to empathize with those effects and be truly sorry for the other person as opposed to just feeling guilty for themselves
  • Motivation to repent and change
  • Ability to sustain repentance and change
  • Commitment to a path of growth, a system of growth, and the involvement of other people in the growth process
  • Ability to receive and utilize forgiveness
[cue Sesame Street music] One of these things is not like the others...

Ironically, I'm about to complain about how "a relationship with God" is on this list, even though I just got done complaining because it wasn't mentioned in the previous section. Really, I wish they would just pick a side. Either put in all the Christian supremacy, like all the other advice I heard in church, or don't put it in and PLEASE TELL US WHY. I just cannot figure out what kind of Christianity this book represents, and as a former evangelical, it reads as very fake to me. Like people who call themselves Christians but basically just do their own thing- they live in Christian culture, so they use the language, they reference bible verses and mention having a relationship with God- but it's not the central force driving them, it's not fierce devotion that motivates everything they do, it's not an obsessive love they can't stop talking about. It's just something they mention sometimes, but mostly they just live a normal life and give common-sense advice that's not really rooted in Christianity at all.

Now that I'm a former evangelical, it's very important to me to never accuse people of being fake Christians. I'm not saying they are- really, I'm just really curious. What type of Christianity is this? How does it justify not coming across as super obsessed with God? And I would like a better explanation than "that's too extreme" because I strongly believe that "extreme" is not a bad thing in and of itself. It only becomes bad when going too far in one area causes problems to arise in another area. And I guess that's what I would say, for why I'm a Christian who's not "coming across as super obsessed with God"- because I used to live that way and now I know the problems that it causes.

Ai. Anyway let's get back on track. So they talk about the minor imperfections which are okay- things like being a little impatient sometimes, or a little disorganized, or having trouble opening up about your emotions- and then they talk about the huge red flags that you should never have to put up with in a relationship.
But not all sins are in the yellow category. Some are bright red- as in stop! I have often heard people say, "All sin is sin." If by this they mean there is no difference among sins, nothing could be further from the truth, and that is not what the Bible teaches. It does teach that all sinners are equally guilty before God, and that we all stand in the same state of guilt before him, but not that all sin is equal. Some sins are more damaging than others. As Jesus said clearly, there are "weightier" aspects of God's law, and those are the ones that destroy relationships and hurt people, things like the lack of justice, mercy, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23). These sins are inherently destructive, and are more hurtful than the "yellow" sins. (Being messy or impatient with someone can hardly be compared to lying about an affair.)
YES. THANK YOU. This is SO important- and I've actually never realized how Jesus' use of the word "weightier" there means that some sins are worse than others. Excellent. (But I wonder if they believe that we all deserve to go to hell, and that's infinitely worse than anything in this world- if so, they can't really make a logical argument that the difference in earthly consequences of sin actually matter... Add that to the list of things I'm confused about concerning their flavor of Christianity.)

It's really really good that they talk about this. They give examples of the "yellow" kids of sins or character weaknesses, and then examples of the "red" ones. Don't be in a serious relationship with a partner who has the "red" problems- like dishonesty, being controlling, being unwilling to admit their own problems, etc.

And that's all I have to say for this chapter. Overall, really good advice. Be flexible about your preferences. But also be aware of what kinds of behaviors are massive red flags that are completely unacceptable in a dating relationship.

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

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