Monday, September 5, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Disrespect

A man and woman arguing in a car. Image source.
Chapter 15 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is called "Say No to Disrespect." It starts off with the story of Cindy and Craig. The writers tell us that Craig often "flirted" with other women while he was on dates with Cindy, and Cindy was really upset by it. They call it "flirting" but... I think it's worse than that. Look at this example:
[Craig takes Cindy out to a fancy restaurant]
Then the cocktail waitress, a striking blonde, appeared, and asked if they wanted drinks or appetizers. Craig's face took on a seductive look, and he said, "No thanks, unless you're on the menu." The waitress smiled awkwardly and left. Cindy was shocked and hurt. "You really humiliated me with that comment!" she told Craig. He held up his hands and said, "What are you talking about? I was just making a joke. Stop overreacting."
Yeah, that's not "flirting." That's harassment. The waitress is just doing her job, and she's not really in a position where she can stand up to him and say "no, it's not okay to talk to me like that" because she needs customers to be happy with her and tip well.

It sounds to me like Craig's problem isn't "flirting" but just generally being a creep. And I'm kind of uncomfortable with the fact that the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" don't seem to see it that way- they talk in terms of how Craig's behavior upset Cindy, and Craig should have cared about Cindy's feelings, but he didn't, he disrespected her. (Seriously. When they talk about Craig's disrespectful behavior, they mean how he is disrespectful to Cindy. No mention at all of his disrespect to the women he "flirts" with.) So then, if Craig were single, would it be totally fine for him to harass waitresses? Ugh.

The worst part of it all was Craig's disregard for her discomfort with his flirting [sic]. He did not seem to care or understand how difficult it was for her, even if it were true that it was one hundred percent her reaction. Had he shown some concern for her feelings, she would have been less bothered by the flirting [sic] itself. And, as she kept observing, Craig's disregard for her feelings did not limit itself to the flirting issue. Over time, he became more and more insistent on his way and opinions, and less caring about hers. Whenever she would bring up the disregard, Craig's answer was always to minimize her viewpoint and protest his innocence.
And this, later in the chapter:
People in dating situations need to know that their feelings, needs, and freedom are respected. When someone is uncomfortable in a sexual situation, or is hurt by a sarcastic remark, or becomes angry with a broken promise, that is a signal that something is going on. The other person needs to take those feelings seriously. The couple needs to talk about what triggered this, and solve the problem.
It's not about whether some objective, absolute rule says your behavior is right or wrong. If other people are hurt by it, that matters and you need to care about them.

I've had problems with this. Maybe because of Asperger's, maybe because of evangelicalism's insistence that "absolute truth" is all that matters and emotions shouldn't sway us. There have been times when I believed I had a better way of doing something, and I tried to force other people to do it my way, and I really believed I was right, I had the truth, I had logical reasons why clearly my way was better. But I was wrong to treat people that way- they have the right to make their own choices, and if they like their way better, however nonsensical it seems to me, well that's all that really matters. They like it better. Their feelings matter. Even if I can present a logical argument that "no no no, you shouldn't feel that way, you shouldn't like that better", they still DO feel that way, and that matters. (I'm talking about things that aren't actually objective moral issues- like what order to do a project in, or what name to call something. Things where other people have a right to be involved in the decision-making, despite the fact that they are wrong. Yeah so... maybe it's Asperger's.)

Or, here's another example. There was this guy I had a crush on, long ago. But he would sometimes post on Facebook about how he wanted beer or how he liked drinking and getting "tipsy", and it made me uncomfortable. My parents don't drink so I never really had any experience with it or understanding of what's a normal, healthy amount and what's too much. But I didn't believe it was a sin, in small amounts. So I would hear this guy talk about how he liked drinking, and I didn't like that but I thought, well it's not a sin, it's okay to drink sometimes, so I have to learn to be okay with it and he is still a potential boyfriend.

I was still in purity culture so I was doing all that "praying about whether he's my God-ordained future husband" stuff. And then I realized- or God told me, though I don't know if I believe in that anymore- that the fact that I was uncomfortable with it mattered. That was reason enough to decide he wasn't "God's best" for me. If he's not technically sinning, okay, fine, but that doesn't mean I have to force myself to be okay with it.

It's kind of surprising to me that I came to that epiphany- that my emotions mattered even if he wasn't breaking any of "God's laws"- while I was still a good evangelical and good purity culture girl. Well, it was more along the lines of "God wouldn't want me to be this uncomfortable with a guy's character, therefore God must have a better plan for my future husband" rather than "my own desires and emotions are intrinsically important" but hey, I'll take it.

Anyway, the point is, if you don't like something, that's a good enough reason to justify your choice to not do it. You don't have to explain why you don't like it and then allow other people to judge whether your reasons are logical or not. When it's a decision about your own personal life, your boundaries, your body, etc, your emotions and opinions matter more than anything else. (This idea definitely has a lot of applications in the area of dating. If your boyfriend wants to come to your house, and you say no, and he asks why- well, it's fine to ask why, people want to understand the reasons and get to know each other. But if you tell him why and then he explains to you why that's not a good enough reason to justify your decision, wow, that's a red flag. It's not up for debate. You're not required to present an argument that a jury of your peers would judge to be reasonable- no, it's your home, your body, your life. Your choice. If somebody doesn't agree, TOO BAD, it's not their decision.)

Or, in the specific case of Cindy and Craig, Cindy was really upset by Craig's, uh, "flirting" [being creepy to other women, right in front of her], and Craig told her she was overreacting and he was just joking. Ugh. I hate when people say that. Really he's saying her feelings are wrong and her feelings don't matter. He doesn't care about her, he only cares about presenting reasons why his behavior should or shouldn't be interpreted in a certain way. He only cares about proving that he wasn't trying to do anything bad. That's not okay. Your romantic partner should care about how you feel.

So what happened with Cindy and Craig?
Cindy began not only confronting Craig's inappropriateness, but she also began taking action. When he would flirt in her presence, she would quietly pick up her purse and go home, leaving him to explain why she had left. She told him, "I won't be there to experience your immaturity and my humiliation, even if you don't think that is what's going on." This finally broke them up. Cindy was heartbroken, as she really liked Craig. But she couldn't see being married to someone who was great when they agreed, but ran over her feelings when they didn't.
Good for you, Cindy! And because this isn't a purity-culture book, it doesn't say one word about how Cindy lost purity by dating him or how the failed relationship decreased her future potential to find love. Nope. Nothing like that here.

Next, there's a section where the authors talk about the importance of respect and empathy in a romantic relationship:
Respect is a necessary element for any couple to grow in love. Each person needs to feel that they are respected by the person they are getting to know. This involves having esteem or regard for all aspects of the other. Respect is different from empathy, though any relationship needs both to be hand-in-hand. Empathy is the ability to feel another's experience, especially painful ones. Respect is the ability to value another's experience.
Notice anything weird about that excerpt? Specifically, when a Christian dating book talks about the importance of respect and love in the relationship, usually they talk about something else that's suspiciously missing from "Boundaries in Dating"...

Any guesses?

I'm sure some of you know what it is...

What is it? GENDER ROLES!!! Typically, the "Christian" advice I've heard on respect and love in a dating or marriage relationship is "men need respect, women need love." The man has to be the leader and his wife respects him and obeys his decisions- although this "obeying" was never very clearly-defined for me when I believed in complementarianism. And the woman, oh you know, she's more weak and emotional, she needs to know her husband loves her. Men need respect more than anything, women need love more than anything.

Of course, that's total BS. Both partners need both respect and love. So I'm really glad to see "Boundaries in Dating" doesn't say anything about gender when they talk about respect and empathy in a relationship. Actually, there hasn't been any advice in this entire book which is gendered. Not a single sentence about "if you're a woman, you should do this, which is different from what a man should do in that situation." So I'm really happy about that. (Unfortunately, "Boundaries in Dating" assumes that everyone is straight. Grr.)

So they had that really good bit about respect and love, but then why they tried to give an example, it didn't go so well...
For example, a guy may restrain himself from pushing his girlfriend sexually for either reason. He may feel deep compassion for the dilemma he is putting her in. Or he may restrain himself because he respects her right to make her own moral decisions.

Uhh, yes, a guy should have both empathy and respect for his girlfriend. And if he has those things, then he won't pressure her into doing sexual stuff she doesn't want. But... you don't really need impressive amounts of respect and empathy, you just need to NOT BE A RAPIST. This is bare-minimum-of-human-decency level stuff. This is a really really weird example to give if you want to illustrate how to respect and care about each other in a relationship. As if it's normal and expected for guys to try to pressure their girlfriends into sex, but the ones who are great role models of respect won't do that. Oh come on. We're talking bare-minimum-of-human-decency here.

(Ai yo, this book. It alternates between "wow this is really really good advice that goes against everything I learned in church and I'm so glad someone is saying it" and "wait, I have a huge problem with what they're saying in this bit.")

Next, the book gives examples of how disrespect can manifest in a relationship. But I'm a little confused- the examples they give aren't all uniform in terms of one party being in the right or in the wrong. (Is it reasonable or not for one partner to expect the other to do certain things? Maybe there's no "absolute truth" on this, the two partners need to talk to each other and decide what their expectations are?) And are these examples consistent with their other advice about boundaries? Here's one:
For example, a woman might want to go out with the girls on a night that her boyfriend wants to be with her. While he doesn't complain, he also doesn't call or talk to her for a while. He is showing her that he doesn't respect her freedom.
How is this "disrespectful" behavior different from the advice, elsewhere in "Boundaries in Dating", that if your partner doesn't treat you right, you "set a boundary" and don't see them for a while? I guess the most important difference is that if it's a "boundary", you communicate about it. You tell them clearly "I don't let people treat me this way, therefore I'm not willing to see you for 2 weeks." Whereas in the "disrespect" case, it's more about emotions and trying to "punish" the other person and make them feel bad.

But are the two situations different because in the "boundaries" case, the bad thing they did was definitely bad, but in the "disrespect" case, the girlfriend didn't do anything bad by going out with her friends? Ehhh, I'm not necessarily sure we can say that. People have different ideas about what's "normal" in a dating relationship- for example, how much time the partners should spend together- and there's not really a "right answer" about it. Certainly we can think of extreme examples which would definitely be NOT OKAY- like if one partner didn't want the other to ever talk to any other friends- but within the space of all healthy relationships, there is a huge range in how much time they spend together vs with other friends. Still, that doesn't mean that just because one point in the range may be good for one couple, it's by definition healthy/doable for all couples. What I'm saying is, if one partner has a certain expectation about how much time they should spend together, and it doesn't match the other's expectation, it's not the case that one person is being reasonable and the other is just wrong. They just need to communicate about it and compromise.

Are boundaries just for cases when someone is treating you in a way that's objectively immoral, or are they also for preferences? Can you set a boundary about something that's a perfectly fine component in other people's healthy relationships, but you personally don't like?

And another thing about preferences and compromising- yes, people need to compromise when they're in relationships. Both parties give and take, but no, that doesn't make everything equal. Both partners are coming into the relationship with certain ideas about what's "normal", which are, more than anything else, based on their own culture and backgrounds. They have certain assumptions about what's reasonable to ask of the other person and what kind of compromise they can negotiate to.

For example, Samantha Field has written about how, when she was in purity culture, she was very worried about "the wedding night", where she would be expected to have sex for the first time. What if it hurt? What if her body wasn't ready to go from 0 to vaginal penetration in one night? She hoped she would be able to talk about it with her hypothetical husband- her ideal situation would be for them to not have sex on the wedding night, to go slow instead- but purity culture says you have to have sex on the wedding night, that the wife owes it to the husband. So she doubted whether it would even be possible to find a man who would "compromise" on that. Her cultural background (also shared by the hypothetical husband) shaped her ideas of what's "reasonable" in marriage, and had her believe that she would be the one asking for something abnormal, by asking her husband if it would be possible to not have sex so soon.

Similarly, I've heard people say that it's totally not okay, in a dating relationship, for one partner to try to coerce the other into having sex- but that at the same time, one partner might see sex as really important, and they are well within their rights to end the relationship and go find someone who is willing to have sex. And honestly, back when I was in purity culture, this idea terrified me. I wanted people to say "no, it's wrong to expect to find a girlfriend who will have sex with you, that's just not reasonable"- I wanted that to be what society sees as "normal." Otherwise, there would be no guarantee that I could find a guy who would be willing to wait til marriage.

ANYWAY I've gotten way off-topic, but my point is, each person has their own ideas about the following three topics:
  1. What's normal in a dating relationship
  2. Their own preferences/ their idea of an ideal relationship
  3. How far they can reasonably expect a partner to compromise away from "normal" and toward their own personal preferences
and all three of these are so so so completely rooted in and influenced by culture.

Yeah. This only vaguely relates to "Boundaries in Dating." (Oh dear.) Basically what I want to say is, in many of their examples of one person feeling wronged by the other and responding with disrespect, it's not clear-cut whether the first "wrong" was actually, objectively wrong. People have different ideas of what a relationship is supposed to look like, and they need to communicate about that. Instead of disrespecting each other.

Okay, moving on. I really like this part, so I'll type it up for y'all to read:
Respecting someone doesn't mean that you agree with them. Nor does it mean that you will comply with what they want. It means that their feelings matter because those emotions belong to a person who matters. Listen to, understand, and try to help the situation.
Wow. Amen to all of that. "their feelings matter because those emotions belong to a person who matters."

Later in the chapter, there's a list of "things that will not cure a pattern of disrespect." One of them is compliance:
For example, suppose you are dating someone who has a hot temper. When he gets angry, he gets mean and critical with you, disrespecting your need for safety and security. You may comply with his rages, calming him down and taking responsibility for his anger. This may soothe him temporarily, but it will not cure the character problem with which he is struggling: "A hot-tempered man must pay the penalty; if you rescue him, you will have to do it again" (Proverbs 19:19). A good source for more information on compliance with disrespect is our book Boundaries.
Well, this is much much better than what I read last week about how if a woman's husband has "rage" problems, "the only way it will resolve is for her to figure out what she needs to change" [that is an exact quote from page 209] which sounded a lot like blaming an abuse victim, in my opinion. In this chapter, however, the advice seems to totally contradict that. The writers say compliance won't help anything. You have to stand up for yourself and let the other person know it's not okay to treat you that way.

Also, they say "complaining without consequences" will not help the problem, and this is a really important point. If you don't set limits and enforce them, the other person might just keep being awful and feeling like they can totally get away with it.

The next section is "what does cure disrespect." Basically, it's about confronting the problem early, communicating clearly about how it's not okay when your partner doesn't respect your feelings, standing up for yourself, and getting support from friends. Here's one part that I found very VERY interesting:
Get to Know Your Date in the Context of Other Relationships

Sometimes you may wonder if you are overreacting and being too sensitive. For example, your girlfriend may be inconsistent in when she says she will be somewhere, and you find yourself waiting around forever for her. Yet she may say you're being picky and controlling. This may be true. So get around her and her friends and family. Find out what those who know her say about her habits. They may say she's never been flaky. Then again, they may say she has no concept of time, and it drives them crazy too. This isn't spying. It is how people get to know someone. Dating should not be done in a vacuum.
First of all, this goes back to what I said earlier about culture and how people all have certain assumptions about what's "normal" and acceptable in a dating relationship. I'd like to point out that, even if her family and friends say there's nothing wrong with her behavior and you're overreacting, that doesn't mean they're right and you're wrong. It could be the case that you and your girlfriend are coming from different cultural backgrounds, with different ideas of what it means when you say you will be somewhere at a certain time. Neither of you are "right" or "wrong", but you need to communicate and understand each other or else you'll have problems. (Source: I'm getting married to a Chinese guy.)

But really, what I want to talk about is the concept of "get to know your date in the context of other relationships" as it relates to purity culture. Purity culture loves "group dates." Purity culture says dating one-on-one is bad, because it's an artificial environment, the person is on their best behavior, you can't see what they're really like in a real-life situation, the way a guy treats his mother is the way he's gonna treat you in the future, and MOST IMPORTANTLY, TEMPTATION. If we never let couples go off alone, then there's no opportunity for them to passionately be all over each other and lose their purity.

In other words, purity culture teaches that "group dates" are superior to regular one-on-one dates. In the most extreme forms of purity culture, the couple always has to have a "chaperone" and they're not allowed to ever be alone together until after the wedding. To anybody not in purity culture, the problems with this approach are BLATANTLY OBVIOUS. There's no privacy- how can you ever open up to someone and really get to know them if you always have a "chaperone" listening in? But purity culture advocates are so terrified of the possibility of someone becoming "impure" that that idea of marrying someone you barely know seems like a much smaller risk.

(To be clear, the purity culture I was in didn't actually enforce "group dating"- I heard people talk about how it's more healthy to do it that way, but at the same time, it was very normal to see Christian friends go on dates one-on-one. I did not believe in "let's have the parents control everything and then everybody's emotional and physical purity is completely untouched up until the wedding." My brand of purity culture was more like "in order to get the information I need for the marriage decision, I'm going to have to get close to the guy and therefore lose some of my purity. Emotional and physical purity is the currency I use to buy information. Every single transaction must be carefully calculated and prayed about and the risks must be weighed.")

In contrast, "Boundaries in Dating" starts from the assumption that going on regular, one-on-one dates like a normal person is totally fine. But, they say, it's good to supplement that by also spending time with your partner's friends and family. So healthy, I love it.

And then there's this part...
[content note: victim-blaming]

Own Your Own Part

Remember that you might be making disrespect easier, and take the plank out of your own eye before removing your date's speck (Matthew 7:3-5). Your part may be several things:
  • Not saying anything, which can imply consent
  • Treating it lightly or as something cute or funny in your date
  • Vacillating between doing nothing and having rage fits about it, which conveys a confusing message
  • Making it all your fault and problem instead of your date's
Take ownership of the issue. Change what you need to change. But require that your date treat you respectfully. In our experience, when you do this, one of two things tends to happen: you get more respect from those who have it to give; and you get left by those who don't have it. Both results are good ones.
Uhh, yeah this sounds like victim-blaming. So as a feminist, I'm a little uneasy about that. But... I guess there could be some cases where one person really didn't know their behavior bothered the other; it was behavior that is totally fine in other settings and there was no way for them to know it would hurt this person. In that case, it's not their fault, so the hurt partner does have a resonsibility to explain what's wrong, if they want the relationsthip to continue. (They're also well within their rights to decide they don't want to be in the relationship.)

And in a practical sense, there may be things you can do to address the problems in the relationship, even though the problems aren't your fault. In a practical sense, people should know about these things so they can protect themselves and not end up in unhealthy relationships. But how do we make sure we're saying "here is healthy advice that people should be educated about" rather than "well there were things they could have done to avoid this problem, therefore they're not really a victim and no injustice has been committed here"?

Or maybe, we're just talking about disrespect here, nothing as serious as abuse, so maybe it's not the kind of thing where we label one person as "the victim" and aren't allowed to ask what they could have done differently? It's a pretty run-of-the-mill problem that comes up often in dating relationships and you should know how to respond and how to solve it, even though it's not your fault. Yes, but... Seems like an abuser might first test the waters by seeing how much disrespect they can get away with. When they move on to more evil things from there, you don't want people saying "well why didn't the victim confront and deal with the disrespect when it first started?"

Victim-blaming is a tricky thing. Society would be much better off if people were educated about what's healthy and what's not healthy in a relationship- then abusers would be much less able to get away with it. But in advocating for better awarness and education about relationships, we don't want to say the victim "should have known better" and should have gotten out earlier... In my opinion, the real reason behind this paradox is the fact that, in a strict, logical sense, it is true that there are things an abuse victim could have done to avoid/ get out of the situation. (But, sometimes that means the abuser just would have chosen a different victim. Which doesn't really help anything.) But when people talk about what the victim "could have" done, in the context of laws and police reports and justice, it implies that the abuser's actions weren't that bad, that no real crime has been committed, that the victim is mostly to blame, that they don't deserve any help. And that implication is NOT OKAY.

(Maybe the key question is, what is the goal? Are you trying to educate people so they know how to reduce their risk, repair a relationship, or advocate for justice for victims? Each of these goals requires completely different approaches.)

Yeah, but like I said, this section of "Boundaries in Dating" isn't about abuse. So maybe I'm wrong to be talking about it here. Still, though, I'm very bothered by the victim-blaming in that excerpt.

But I really really like that last line: "Both results are good ones." When you stand up to the person who disrespects you, in most cases they will either start respecting you, or break up with you. It is very very important to teach people that breaking up can be a very good thing. Purity culture, however, teaches that it's The Worst Thing Ever. That keeps peple in unhealthy relationships. That teaching is evil.

All right that's the end of the chapter. In general, I agree that to have a healthy relationship, it's very important that you know that you deserve to be treated with respect, and you deserve a partner who believes that your feelings matter. I cannot state enough how important that is, and how it's not something that I was explicitly taught by Christians when I was growing up. But at the same time, this chapter had a few exmples that seemed kind of rape-culture-y and victim-blame-y, so I'm a little creeped out by that.


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

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