Monday, July 11, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: This psychology stuff is all new to me

Riley's imaginary boyfriend, from "Inside Out." He says, "I would DIE for Riley!" Image source.
Chapter 7 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is called "Don't Fall in Love with Someone You Wouldn't Be Friends With", and it's about the problem of being attracted to the wrong kind of people- people with bad character, people who are physically or romantically attractive but there's no deeper relationship. The authors say they have met so many people who claim there are "two types" of men (or women) in the world: the ones who are attractive but totally shallow and terrible, and the ones that are great friends but there's just no chemistry.

The authors talk about one time they were hosting a radio show, and a caller told them she had observed there were definitely "two types" of men in the world. They told her, "Maybe you are attracted to shallow or destructive guys for a reason. And maybe you block those feelings of attraction for the good ones?"

Wow. This is mind-blowing to me. I always thought that who you're attracted to is innate, beyond your control, and impossible to explain. From a short-term point of view, yes, if I'm attracted to someone, that comes from somewhere deep inside and I can't control that. (I'll just speak for myself here- I don't know if other people's experiences are the same.) But, according to "Boundaries in Dating", if you look at long-term patterns and the experiences that have shaped you emotionally, you will be able to figure out why you are drawn to bad people, and take steps to become more healthy so that you won't have that problem in the future.

And, now that I think about it, if I'm attracted to a guy, it's not just because of his appearance- sometimes a guy says or does things and I'm like "wow that's hot." Or a good-looking guy says or does something that's a really bad idea, and suddenly he's not at all attractive to me. So yeah, I guess it isn't just some unquantifiable "chemistry"- it's based on what sort of personality type I fantasize about. Even if my more rational side knows that that personality type would actually be bad in a relationship, that's still what I'm attracted to, on that deep impossible-to-control level.

(For the record, it feels weird writing about this, being engaged and all- I'm not looking for potential romantic partners, and it's been a long time since I've thought about what kind of person I'm attracted to.)

"Boundaries in Dating" goes on to discuss several possible reasons for being attracted to people who are bad for you. The first is "unresolved family-of-origin issues"- for example, a woman might get into unhealthy relationships that mirror the unhealthy relationship she had with her father. The next is "unintegrated parts of yourself", and I think this one is really interesting. Basically they're saying that, if you can't come to terms with a particular part of your personality, you might be drawn to a partner who possesses those qualities in the extreme. Like the "good girl" who falls in love with the "bad boy"- it's because she was never able to accept the parts of herself that weren't "good." On some level, she wishes she could be more "bad", so she's attracted to a person who is. "Boundaries in Dating" says, "The resolution for this is to become neither 'good' nor 'bad,' in a split way, but real, with both good and bad parts."

Like I said, wow. Wow. This stuff- I never knew about any of this psychology stuff before. I'm really glad I'm reading this book! It's amazing to think that there could be actual reasons for the way that people feel.

Yes, I have heard people talk about "I figured out the reason I think/feel/respond in this way is because of these specific past experiences and how they affected me emotionally" (sometimes in an evangelical giving-your-testimony setting). And I've come to similar realizations about my own psychology- like how one of my phobias is very much linked to the idea of not being able to trust people, and all the past experiences where a particular object was involved in a situation where I couldn't trust people, and that's the reason I'm so afraid of the object.

I've heard these types of stories before, but I thought they were unique, like we were pioneers of psychology, the first ones to find explanations in our pasts. I never imagined that it could just be true in general: unhealthy psychological patterns come from the emotional effects of previous experiences and relationships.

Wow. And I won't even blame the church for my cluelessness on this- American culture in general knows nothing about psychology.

However, the church did teach me there are a few situations where one's past experiences affect them psychologically FOREVER. Here they are:
  1. If you're gay/lesbian/bisexual, it must be because you didn't have a close relationship with your same-gender parent when you were growing up.
  2. Girls always end up with a man who's similar to their father. You guys, I remember a long time ago, I read a blog post where the writer was unhappy with a post she'd seen on facebook, about how girls with good fathers have high standards because they know what it's like to have a man treat them well- this blogger was very much NOT OKAY with the idea that a woman is fated to have either good or bad romantic relationships based on her father. And I was SO CONFUSED when I read that post, because I thought it was just a true statement: Women end up in relationships with men who are like their fathers. That's just the way it is. It was baffling to me that anyone would argue that a basic rule of the universe was sexist. (LOL that was back when I had just become a feminist- I have since learned that many things presented as "a basic rule of the universe" are actually misogynist crap.)
  3. If a girl has sex, then she'll believe she's worthless, so she'll end up having sex with anyone and everyone because she'll think it doesn't matter.
But there's an important difference between the "you feel this way because of your past" in the above church teachings and in this chapter of "Boundaries in Dating." The ones I was taught in church were much more, umm, ominous. Like you've been affected by the way you grew up, or mistakes you made about sex, and you're doomed. You'll never be healed. But in "Boundaries in Dating", these writers are psychologists. Their job is to help people get better. They believe, if you really want to overcome these issues, it's totally possible. You can do it! There is hope! (And once again, nothing in this chapter about praying and God helping you overcome these problems. What the hell kind of Christian book is this?)

AND OKAY we just gotta say something about reparative therapy here. The whole "you can work on it and change what kind of people you're attracted to", plus the fact that I just mentioned the whole "parents, you ruined your kid by not hugging them enough, now they're gay"- yeah, can't not mention reparative therapy here. So. That's not what this chapter is about, at all. It's about how to get out of a pattern where you're drawn to unhealthy relationships- but there's nothing intrinsically unhealthy about having a same-sex relationship. Reparative therapy, which tries to make people straight, is abusive, causes psychological trauma, and doesn't work. (This is all coming from Perfect Number- the book "Boundaries in Dating" is 100% heteronormative, unfortunately. But it doesn't say a word about reparative therapy in this chapter, that's not what it's talking about when it tells you how to change the type of person you're attracted to.)

Just a couple more things I'd like to point out about chapter 7 here. Check out this part:
If you spend a lot of time with a growing relationship and never feel any passion or sexual attraction, then either something is wrong or this person really is someone that you should keep in the "friend" category.
Hmm. Hmmmmmm. So you should feel sexually attracted to someone, if you're becoming more committed and maybe heading toward marriage. (Note: if people want to be in a committed/marriage relationship but not have sex, for whatever reason, like maybe they're asexual, that's okay too- though "Boundaries in Dating" says it's not.) When I was in purity culture, I heard advice like this, but it was hard to know what to do with it. Lust was a sin- and any "sexual thoughts" were lust- but at the same time, we were advised that something was terribly wrong if we were planning to marry someone we weren't sexually attracted to. Soooo... how's that supposed to work? I'm interested to know if the "Boundaries in Dating" writers have a view of sexuality where this advice actually makes sense. (Well, we already know it doesn't include asexual people- but other than that, maybe it makes sense?)

Also, this: in one story in this chapter about a woman who falls for the wrong guys, the woman says, "Well, there is a lot of romance and that kind of thing. Not that we are sleeping together, but a lot of physicality in the relationship. And I have a lot of 'falling in love' feelings. But there is not a lot more than that when I really look at it." Hmm. I really think that "not that we are sleeping together" bit was put in there so that the good Christians reading this book wouldn't be nervous. Don't worry, it's okay, they're not- gasp!- having sex. But I don't know what "physicality" is supposed to mean, then. In purity culture, any skin-to-skin contact with a romantic partner is a big huge deal, "a lot of physicality", which must be prayed about extensively, and have clear rules set before it happens. I'm curious about where the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" draw "the line."

Because, they don't comment at all on the "physicality" here. It's just used as an example of what it looks like to fall for someone who's not good for you. It's just here to emphasize the unbalanced nature of the relationship, how it's actually very shallow but the woman has a lot of romantic feelings. There is NOT ONE SINGLE WORD of judgment about how, if you get into that kind of relationship, you're ruining your purity, and you should feel bad for how you're hurting God and your future husband.

Seemingly, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" don't have any problem with "physicality" in a relationship, as long as you're not having sex- even if that relationship is a shallow one that won't last. They believe it's an unhealthy situation because the woman is attracted to a man who is not good for her, NOT because she's losing her purity. This is... wow. The "physicality" stuff is not commented on at all. All they care about is her emotional health, and trying to help her recognize the pattern so she can work to change it and not make the same mistakes again. No shame, no "now you're not good enough for a godly husband."

That's so healthy. I'm shocked.

And one more interesting bit:
Whatever the issue, there are countless people who have denied parts of themselves and are drawn to problematic situations as an attempt to work out those issues. As Proverbs 4:23 says: "Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life." Whatever is in your heart is what you are going to find yourself dealing with, in one way or another. Guard your heart and make it healthy so you will not be attracted to the wrong kinds of people.

What. WUT.

HOLY CRAP, an interpretation of Proverbs 4:23 that's not "don't let any boys in, don't let yourself have feelings of attraction." Because, yeah, in purity culture, that's what it meant. "Guard your heart" means "you should be really really worried whenever you have a crush, because if you get too emotionally attached, you will lose a piece of your heart and you can never get it back." "Guard your heart" was all about NOT feeling your emotions, NOT being honest about who you are and how you feel, shutting down all parts of you that are related to sexual or romantic desire. It's astonishing to read that "Boundaries in Dating" interprets this verse in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT way. Apparently, in this book, "guard your heart" means you should examine how you feel, you should be honest with yourself, be a healthy person who's not denying any part of their identity.

I'm shocked, I'm just totally shocked. It's like... do these writers not know what "guard your heart" means to all the good girls who grew up in purity culture? They think their interpretation is fairly obvious and straightforward, requiring only 3 sentences of explanation? I mean, yeah obviously they don't know, right? They don't know how completely revolutionary this all sounds to me- and how completely unintelligible it would read to someone who is currently in purity culture.


All right that's basically everything I have to say about what's in this chapter. Now let's talk about what's not in this chapter.

Nothing about praying. Nothing about asking God to help you change. Nothing about it being sinful to get into unhealthy relationships. Nothing about purity. Nothing about future consquences that will haunt you, even if you do eventually find a good partner and get married; instead, the concern is for people's present- right now you are drawn to unhealthy relationships, and that's bad for you right now, but in the future you can change and be totally over it.

All of the (incredibly good and healthy) advice in this chapter comes from the writers' psychology expertise. It's not based in Christianity. They threw in a couple bible verses, but just as an "oh by the way, the bible also says the same advice we're giving here, look at this verse, which we will pretend says the exact same thing we just said." Like, why does this have to be a Christian book? Honestly, it's really not. They should just remove all the bible verses, all the Christianese words like "discipleship." They would not have to change anything else- the book doesn't rely on those things at all (with the exception of chapter 3[]). I can't understand why this is a "Christian book." It's just good, solid relationship advice, with a couple bible verses thrown on top, unnecessarily.

Is it because Christians are suspicious of psychology, so they're purposely dressing it up with bible verses to give it more cred with a churchy audience? But if you're the type of Christian who's suspicious of psychology, you're also the type of Christian who will see right through the whole "this is totally a Christian book, see, it has BIBLE VERSES" thing.

Ugh. I don't know what to even do with this book. I'm really glad I'm reading it- like I said, the stuff in this chapter about how there are reasons for the way we feel is really eye-opening to me. I want to learn more about psychology. But, like I've said so many times in this book review series, I really have no idea what sort of Christianity this is supposed to be.


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

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