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Monday, August 8, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Too Fast

A scene from the movie "Cars." Lightning McQueen is racing. Image source.
Chapter 11 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is called "Too Much, Too Fast." It warns us not to go "too fast" in a dating relationship, but this book's understanding of "too fast" is very different from purity culture's.

When I was in purity culture, here is how I understood dating should work: If I have a crush, then I pray about it. And pray about it more. And pray about it a lot. I must never "act on" my feelings until God gives the signal- and "act on" includes any tiny little action that's motivated by my interest in this person- like daydreaming or talking to them for longer than I would talk to other friends. I had to "trust God", that's why I couldn't "act on" it without God's permission. I assumed the guy would have to be the one doing the actual asking-out, but there were things girls could do, like hinting and trying to show they're interested- and I must not do any of that without God's permission. (Later I changed my mind on the whole "the guy has to make the first move" thing.) Then, finally, if God gave us the go-ahead, we could start dating. But the decision to start dating was a super huge big deal. If we break up, we will have lost that purity forever. You shouldn't get in a relationship unless you're pretty sure you probably want to marry this person.

Then you date for a while- and I heard somewhere that you should date for 2 years before getting engaged, so that's what I assumed was right. (I don't know of any official purity-culture rule about this though.) The time from the first date to the proposal is the dangerous time- this is the period of time where you don't know if you're going to break up or not. I figured the best strategy would be to try not to talk about any big issues that might cause conflict until you were safely engaged or married. (OHHHHHHHH MY.) Also, because there is the possibility of breaking up, you need to guard your heart. That means try not to have deep feelings about your partner. Try not to care so much about the relationship- so if you break up, you won't be too sad. But mainly you should always worry about whether you're "too emotionally attached."

And as for the physical part, that should go as slow as possible. I believed that every step in the physical part of the relationship would make you want more and more. It was a slippery slope. First you hold hands, and then holding hands isn't enough, you want to side hug. Then side-hugging isn't enough for you, you want to hug like normal people. Like an addiction. Every new type of physical contact would soon get boring and you'd want to keep going farther and farther- and the highest level was sex. So, as much as you're able, progress from one type of physical contact to another as slowly as possible.

So in purity culture, "going slow" meant not being too close physically or emotionally until you're really really committed. We will see that this is almost the opposite of how the "Boundaries in Dating" writers use the term "going slow." Here are a few excerpts from "Boundaries in Dating", to give you a general idea:
The problem of premature commitment and overinvolvement in a dating relationship is a common one. Two people find that they have strong feelings for each other. In a short period of time, they begin investing enormous amounts of time in the relationship. They suspend or neglect other people, interests, and activities. They quickly start dating exclusively. They feel intense passion for each other, and miss each other deeply when they are apart. They may marry soon thereafter, or they may break up, only to repeat the fast pace with someone else.

...

Or some couples will take the requisite year or two to date, but will have a problem in "frontloading" the relationship: they become deeply committed very soon in the game, and never go through a process of gradually becoming closer over time.

...

Here are some ways of determining if you are committing too quickly:
  • You "know" each other emotionally more than you "know" each other objectively.
  • You find yourself more invested in the relationship than in areas of your life that are important to you.
  • You abruptly stop dating others.
  • You get feedback from friends that this seems to be going quickly.
In purity culture, moving "too fast" is a concern for the physical and emotional aspects of the relationship. In "Boundaries in Dating", it's about the emotional part, spending too much time and neglecting other things in your life, and being too committed. Going "too fast" in a physical or sexual sense isn't really mentioned at all. (Well, kind of? Tangentally? We'll get to that.) It's shocking to me that the "Boundaries in Dating" writers don't warn about the dangers of too much skin-to-skin contact, when that's pretty much THE ENTIRE CONCEPT of "going too fast" in purity land. Instead, they keep coming back to the idea of being very committed very fast.

In other words: "Boundaries in Dating" warns that it's bad to be super-committed to someone before you've taken the time to really get to know them. Purity culture warns that it's bad to take the time to really get to know someone before you're super-committed to them.

Completely opposite understandings of "too fast."

And okay, here's the part about sex:
Why Wait?

Youth specialist Josh McDowell asked that question to millions of teens about saving sex for marriage. The same question applies to the issue of pacing how quickly to get involved in your dating relationship: why should you wait, take time, and become closer in a gradual manner, to a person to whom you are enormously attracted?
Wait, what? No no no no no no, what the "Boundaries in Dating" writers are presenting in this chapter is OPPOSITE the whole "wait til marriage to have sex" thing. They are advising people to take a lot of time to get to know each other before making a big commitment and getting married. The abstinence movement says you can't have sex until you make that commitment and get married. In other words, we have one ideology saying "you should go slow, wait longer, make sure you're pacing the relationship and taking the time to make a good decision about marriage" and the other saying "you should get married faster so you don't have to struggle with the temptation of premarital sex." (And purity-culture advocates would ALWAYS deny that they're saying people should rush into marriage, but when you teach that premarital sex is The Worst Thing Ever and will Ruin Your Life and don't really say much about how it's bad to end up married to someone who's not right for you, then YES, you are teaching that people should rush into marriage.)

So it's really bizarre to me that "Boundaries in Dating" is basically saying "what we're talking about here, about not going too fast, not being committed too fast, is similar to the concept of waiting til marriage to have sex" because NO IT IS NOT. It is a force pushing in the exact opposite direction. Let me ask you this: Is it better to err on the side of rushing into marriage, or having unmarried sex and taking the time to make sure you're really really sure you want to marry this person? The way that a Christian of the "premarital sex is a sin" persuasion answers this question will tell you a lot. And I suspect the writers of this book would answer it differently than the loudest purity-culture promoters would.

And also, this:
First we have to understand the nature of relationships as God designed them. This applies not only to dating, but families and friendships. Relationships grow in a healthy manner only as they undergo experiences, and there is no shortcut to experiences. In other words, we only "know" each other to the extent that we have experience with each other. We can know facts about the person we are dating: their friends, job, hobbies, and so forth. But that doesn't mean we "know" them as a person. That kind of "knowing" cannot come from reading a file on someone. For example, when Adam "knew" Eve (Genesis 4:1, in King James language), he was knowing her in experience, in the deep intimacy that comes in healthy sexuality.
Wait, WHAT?

I was totally on board with this whole thing, nodding along at how healthy it all is, until the "Adam 'knew' Eve" bit. Like, what? The whole point of this section is that there's no "shortcut" to "knowing" someone... so ... just following what I think their logic would be ... for example, having sex with someone doesn't mean you actually know them, and isn't that just an awful euphemism? So I just, like, WHAT? They're claiming that the King James' use of the term "know" as a euphemism for sex somehow illustrates their point that you really have to spend a ton of time with a partner to truly know them?

Ugh, yeah, so I don't know wtf is going on with that paragraph, but the next part is really really good so I'll type it up:
Here are some examples of necessary time-consuming dating activities on the road to becoming committed to someone:
  • Having enough talks to safely open up with each other
  • Entering each other's worlds of work, hobbies, worship, and service
  • Meeting and spending time with each other's friends
  • Understanding each other's strengths and weaknesses
  • Going over basic values of what is important in life to each other
  • Getting to know each other's families
  • Spending time away from each other to think through the relationship, alone and with friends
  • Learning your best style of disagreement and conflict management
Yes. Yes. All of this. (And notice that "pray" is not on the list. No mention of spending significant amounts of time trying to figure out if God wants you to marry this person or not. Or, at least not in a way that involves asking God directly.)

And here's another story that serves to illustrate very well that the authors' concept of "going too fast" is completely opposite purity culture's. The book mentions that sometimes relationships that go "too fast" can be successful, but the reason for success is definitely NOT the fact that they went so "fast":
For example, my Aunt Jonnie and Uncle Walton have been married over fifty years. I have seen his framed proposal of marriage to her. He wrote it to her when they were both in kindergarten! I guess they both knew each other was "The One" pretty early on in life. But I don't think they would attribute their successful marriage to how early they committed. Knowing and observing them all my life, I think they would instead talk about love, the right values, their faith, and being able to go through good times and bad together.
So I read this and I was like "......... wait.... this seems to me like an example of going incredibly slow." They had known each other since they were children, and even talked about marriage in kindergarten- I mean obviously that's not really serious, it's not like it counts as actually being engaged when kindergarteners announce they're getting married- but still, they had always been interested in each other, and then as adults they finally got married... you guys, this sounds like the SLOWEST, most likely to be purity-culture-approved romance there could be. And yet "Boundaries in Dating" presents it as an example of a couple who did NOT follow the "not too fast" principle, who was super-committed really early, but DESPITE that, it all worked out, but it worked out because of their character and love, not because they committed so early.

Wow. I don't even know what to say about that. Other than, yeah, if you didn't notice before, the authors of "Boundaries in Dating" DEFINITELY think being super-committed really early is not ideal.

Then there's a section called "Why We Don't Wait." The first reason is loneliness, and that's pretty much been covered in previous chapters, so we'll move on. The next reason is "difficulty in leaving home" and WOW YOU GUYS, this one was mind-blowing to me.
Sometimes a couple seems to "couple" very quickly because they have not finished the task of emotionally leaving home. They are unable to navigate single life and find that it is not working well for them. Thus, they are opting more for the marriage state than they are for the person.

One of the descriptors of an adult is a person who has effectively left home. It has to do with moving out of dependency on one's family, and becoming autonomous and responsible for oneself. Everyone needs a transition period in early adulthood in which they gradually take what they have gleaned from home and create a life for themselves away from home. This is why the college and early twenties years are so important: they provide a context to learn how to live life on one's own.
In other words, these writers believe that normally, the way it's supposed to work, is that people grow up and move out of their parents' home and live single and independent for a bit, and then eventually get married.

Wow. I thought "the way it's supposed to work" was the exact opposite. I thought the ideal scenario is that you get married immediately after college, so you never have to live alone.

I believed that because my parents got married right out of college, so I thought that was what everyone does. As for purity culture, yeah it definitely puts pressure on kids to marry as soon as possible, so getting married at 22ish is seen as totally normal. However, the flavor of purity culture I followed was very big on "God will bring your spouse into your life at the right time, who knows when it could be, you could be, like, 50. You have no choice, you just have to wait, God has planned for you to never experience romance until then." It was very important to me to live a happy, single life, devoted to God, not like I had to just "wait" and do nothing, as if my life couldn't start til I got married.

I guess these are 2 competing ideas within purity culture, though I never realized it. (At the extreme, you have the "stay-at-home daughter movement", which says women shouldn't go to college or get jobs, they should just do cooking and childcare at their parents' house until it's time to switch over to cooking and childcare at their husband's house. But I never heard about this in any churches or Christian groups I was part of as a good evangelical.) At any rate, I really did believe the best-case scenario was getting married immediately after college, never living alone. Sometimes "God's plan" was something other than that, but ideally that's how it should work.

And I remember as a little kid, wondering if I'd be married immediately upon reaching adulthood, or if I'd have to live alone. My main concern was, what if there's a spider in my house? I really need to get married so I'll have someone to kill the spiders for me. For real you guys, when I moved to China by myself, the #1 reason I wanted to get a cat was so the cat would protect my home from scary bugs. Turns out I don't need a husband, I just need a cat.

Anyway, back to "Boundaries in Dating." It's ASTONISHING to me that these writers believe it's good and normal to NOT be married straight out of college, that spending a few years single is an important phase of life that people go through. I always thought being a single adult- even when you're still in your twenties- is a kind of "plan B."

The book doesn't necessarily say that it's always bad to get married without having that "single adult" stage of life. In my opinion, it's totally fine to get married "young" if you happen to meet a really good partner. The unhealthy part is when people feel like they NEED to get married. If you choose to get married young not because you've found a really great partner but because you can't imagine living life as a single person, THAT'S A PROBLEM. (And also, all of this advice only applies to cultures similar to the US. In China there are very different norms about adults living with their parents and the extent to which parents and their adult children are dependent on each other.)

The rest of the chapter is pretty much other stuff that's been covered before, like how one's inability to sustain friendships is a really bad reason to date. And then there's some advice about about how you should "slow the pace" and evaluate things if you realize your current dating relationship is going too fast. Yes. Good advice. Do that.

So. Overall, this chapter was surprising to me because they warn about a relationship going "too fast", but their concept of "too fast" is almost exactly opposite purity culture's concept of "too fast." And also, the stuff about "leaving home"- the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" believe it's healthy and normal to spend a period of time in early adulthood living single and independent. In purity land, at worst that means there's something terribly wrong with you, at best it's a back-up plan.

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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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