Monday, October 3, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Conclusion

Pocahontas and John Smith magically have no communication difficulties because she "listened with her heart." Yeah, okay. Image source.
Here it is, the conclusion of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships. In this section, the authors talk about the purpose of dating, and say you should ask yourself the following questions:
  • Is dating growing me up?
  • Is dating bringing me closer to God?
  • Am I more able to have good relationships?
  • Am I picking better dates over time?
  • Am I a better potential mate?
  • Am I enjoying the ride?
These questions give us a lot of insight into the authors' view of dating (and I would say it's a very healthy view). They believe that dating is a process that can be enjoyable and help us grow. Even if a particular dating relationship ends, the process is good and healthy and helps us become better people (if we're going about it in a healthy way, as laid out in the book).

This is so incredibly opposite what I learned from purity culture. I believed that dating was incredibly dangerous and should be avoided as much as possible. And if you date and break up, the less deep that relationship was, the less of a long-term effect it has on you, the better. The goal is to get to the wedding without having changed at all as a result of previous relationships.

But "Boundaries in Dating" talks about dating like it's good to get that kind of experience, it's good to be changed by dating, it's good to not be the most naive person in the world and marry the first guy you ever have a crush on. I cannot emphasize enough how completely OPPOSITE this is from the most basic foundational tenets of purity culture.

So yeah, I really like this view of dating. I personally don't know how realistic it is, I've never tried dating with that kind of attitude. But it sounds really good. (If any of y'all have personal anecdotes, please share.)

Only two things in this chapter that made me roll my eyes. The first was this: "If you do not have the fundamentals of your faith in common, something is wrong." Yeah, okay, whatever.

Here's the second one: "Often when a person begins working on his own growth, the 'right person' seems to come along. Maybe God has preserved that person from your immaturity until you wouldn't wreak havoc with her!" Eye-rolling here, because yeah, that's a pretty common trope in the land of church-y dating advice. Just focus on being a good potential spouse, and then magically, "the one" will just appear. Or, alternatively, I've heard lots of stories of how someone was so obsessed with dating and unhappy because they hadn't found their spouse, but then they turned from that so they could be devoted to God instead. They learned to be content with God and they weren't even looking for a dating relationship, and WHADDAYA KNOW, God brought that one perfect person into their life.

I don't like this genre of stories/advice because it comes across like "Here are the things you can do in order to manipulate God into handing over your pre-destined spouse. First of all, earn it by becoming a better person yourself, and God will give you a perfect spouse as a reward. Also, you can focus so much on following God- if you do this long enough, you'll fool God into thinking you don't even care about finding a partner, and that's when God finally hands them over." As if there's no way for us to make practical decisions that actually have a direct effect on our lives, and can increase or decrease the probability that we meet a good partner- no, we need to perform for the whims of a deity who will only give us what we want if we can convincingly play the part of "good Christian who is totally not devastated by their unfulfilled longing to get married." (And maybe not even then- guess what, you have the gift of singleness and there's nothing you can do about it!)

That's all I have to say about this section, so now let's talk about the book overall. I'm really glad I read this because it had a lot of good relationship advice and it was framed in ways I had not heard before. The majority of this profound new advice directly contradicts what I was taught by evangelicalism/ purity culture/ complementarianism. How we have a need to connect with other humans- it's not true that we "only need God" (this is explicitly stated in chapter 4). And that dating requires "trial and error" and learning from past dating experiences- it's impossible to be great at it from the start, making no mistakes, because you're just so pure and inexperienced and devoted to God. (That's the entire point of purity culture, but that's just so ABSURD.) And there are actual, psychology-based reasons that we may be attracted to certain personality types that are bad for us, and there are ways to change those attractions. And it's not good to believe that the differences between two people, the way they complement each other, should be the basis for a relationship. (This directly contradicts the deepest core doctrine of complementarianism.) And that you should stand up for yourself and make your partner respect your own needs and desires, instead of always submitting to what they want; in fact, if you always submit like a perfect complementarian wife, there's nothing to safeguard you from getting into a relationship with a controlling, self-centered, abusive jerk who doesn't care about you at all. And don't get super-committed really fast- wait til you've gotten to know the person. And if you keep trying to fix your relationship and nothing's working, maybe you should give up hope. Use logic and reality to make a decision about it- there's nothing virtuous about waiting forever for something that isn't going to happen (even though that's how "faith" is often talked about in church).

So much good stuff, and it was mind-blowing because I had never really seen this advice stated so explicitly. So reasonable, healthy, and logical. But here's the problem: I'm only able to accept their advice, recognize it as healthy, and learn from it because I'm a feminist and I've already done the hard work of unlearning all the evangelical teaching about how my own needs don't matter and I should always put others first. I've spent years thinking about Christianity and mental health- even going to a psychologist to get treated for depression that was directly caused by purity culture. And my psychologist told me I need to accept myself. And I still have such a hard time articulating how completely wrong that is from an evangelical perspective, and at the same time, how it's so good and so true and it's exactly what I need. I've come a long, long way, and I'm only able to learn from the healthy advice in "Boundaries in Dating" because I now believe things that my old, evangelical, on-fire-for-God self would see as completely blasphemous.

In fact, the very concept of boundaries is completely opposite to the Christianity I learned. "Boundaries" means that I can protect my own emotional and mental health by limiting my interactions with people who don't treat me right. It means I "selfishly" prioritize my own feelings above the demands that others unfairly make of me. It means I tell people "no"- because that's what's best for me, not because I'm a tool for God to use and I won't be as effective if I'm all stressed out. It means when people sin against me, I don't submit to it in the name of evangelism or sacrificial love or "dying to self" or  "turning the other cheek" or "you're the only bible they'll ever read." It means my emotions matter, and that if I don't like something, that's enough of a reason to refuse to do it, regardless of whether I can find a bible verse to back me up.

In other words, the book "Boundaries in Dating" would be incomprehensible nonsense to someone who subscribes to the worldview taught by purity culture/ evangelicalism. Throughout the book, the writers give example after example of how boundaries can benefit you and help you have healthier relationships- do they realize this is completely meaningless to a good little evangelical (like me a few years ago)? IT DOESN'T MATTER if something benefits me. All that matters is putting God first, preaching the gospel, sharing God's love, saving people from hell. That's literally what I used to believe, and I would have seen this whole "look how much better it will make your life if you have boundaries" as dangerous teaching threatening to lead Christians astray, take our focus off God, deceive us into a life of selfishness and misery. Yes, it all sounds good, but you know satan masquerades as an angel of light. That's the problem with our modern secular culture- we follow our own unreliable emotions and try to use God as a self-help tool instead of dedicating ourselves- whatever the cost- to the absolute and unchanging word of God.

But there's an even bigger problem- one that relates to culture and language. I very much believe that communication is only possible when the speaker and the listener share some common beliefs. I'm not talking about big beliefs like religion- I mean much more basic than that. For example, if you are in the US speaking English to a stranger, maybe doing something as simple as buying a donut, you have to assume that this stranger has years of experience speaking English and understands the meanings of the words you're using in essentially the same way you understand their meanings. Come to China and try to communicate in the exact same way and you'll get nowhere. Even if you find someone who speaks English, they probably don't share your understanding of what a "donut" is. In order to communicate, you have to assume the other person agrees with you about some things- at the very least, they need to agree about what the words mean.

Another example of this is "Christianese." When someone uses a term like "the lost", they have to assume their listeners believe "non-Christians are to be pitied, their lives must be so sad because they don't believe in Jesus, we need to help them." If someone doesn't know that's what "the lost" means, they will have no idea what the speaker is talking about- it's like they're speaking a different language. And if an ex-evangelical like me hears it, well I know what it means and I'M ANGRY ABOUT IT because just by using that term, you're spreading nasty ignorant lies about non-Christians.

Even something with no obvious "Christianese," for example "can you pray for me because I have a physics test tomorrow?" still relies on non-trivial shared beliefs. You need to assume the listener believes in the sort of God who frequently intervenes in people's lives to help them with something as mundane as a physics test, and that this intervention is more likely if many people pray for it to happen. Without those underlying assumptions, the sentence "can you pray for me because I have a physics test tomorrow?" is completely incomprehensible.

Language and communication are all on a spectrum. There's no sharp division like "do you speak English or not?" It's all about the extent to which you have a shared culture and shared understandings of what the words mean, the concepts behind them, and why those concepts are important. And even if you don't agree with the other person's beliefs, you need to at least understand what those beliefs are, or else communication is impossible.

I've already explained why "Boundaries in Dating" is incomprehensible to Christians of the "Jesus first, others second, yourself last" persuasion. I see this as a failure of communication caused by cultural differences. One culture believes that saying "no" to people because you need to prioiritze your own mental health is a good thing, and the other culture believes it is selfish and bad. "Boundaries in Dating" does nothing to bridge this cultural gap; indeed, members of both cultures (including the authors) are probably unaware that there exist people who would disagree with them about something so basic and "obvious." (Though Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend might address this cultural difference and explain their beliefs in a way an evangelical audience can understand in one of their other books?)

Similarly, readers who hold a purity-culture worldview would find "Boundaries in Dating" impossible to understand. The writers' understanding of the word "dating" is completely different from purity culture's, and they never explictly define it. As a result, purity-culture readers would read the word "dating" in this book, assume it means what purity culture defined it as, and then be very confused about why the terrifying danger of dating was never addressed. Why didn't this book warn us about lifelong consequences of emotional impurity, how even going on one date makes you less than perfect, unworthy of a pure spouse? Why did they talk about learning from past relationships but not talk about how much damage is caused by break-ups and how God wants you to avoid them altogether? Why on earth would they advocate something as reckless as going on dates with a lot of different people before deciding to be in an exclusive relationship? (All of these concerns are inseparable from the very definition of "dating" in the context of purity culture.)

Of course, these questions are never addressed because in the authors' understanding of "dating", these questions make no sense. But without addessing these qusetions, the book is useless for readers who believe in purity culture.

I no longer believe in "always put others first" or in purity culture, so I was able to understand what "Boundaries in Dating" was saying when it argued from assumptions that we don't believe those things. But there was still a big cultural difference between me and the writers, which prevented me from understanding certain aspects. Specifically, I have no idea what variety of Christianity they subscribe to. It's certainly not a variety I'm familar with. I grew up in the white American evangelical church (conservative Christianity, purity culture, culture wars, all that), and I now believe in Christian feminism (or progressive Christianity). I have no problem understanding people from any of those backgrounds when they talk about Christianity. But I'm not familar with the subculture of Christianity that this book comes from. Their belief system includes Christian supremacy- they say Christians shouldn't date non-Christians and they use the term "spiritual growth" when they seem to be just talking about character growth that's applicable to everyone regardless of religion. Yet at the same time, the vast majority of their advice is not based in the bible or religion at all- it's based in reason and their real-world experience as psychologists. Most chapters have a bible verse or mention of God, but you could easily remove those and you wouldn't need to rewrite anything (with only a few exceptions). I've called it "just secular psychology with a few bible verses thrown on top, for decoration." Also, throughout the book, there are statements that would be shocking to purity-culture readers, but it's written as if the authors have no idea they've just said something completely controversial. Same thing for complementarianism- contradicting the most basic, foundational doctrines behind complementarianism, and yet the authors don't even seem to realize that's what they're doing. It's like they don't even know what purity culture and complementarianism are. And yet there's a whole chapter about why it's always wrong to have sex if you're not married. And- get this- I can only remember one instance where they advised us to pray about a decision. "set consequences prayerfully"- that's it. A whole entire (Christian) book about how to make good decisions about dating, and barely a mention of PRAYING ABOUT IT. Instead, all their advice is based in logic and reality and what's practical and actually going to work. Their advice does NOT involve figuring out- through prayer and bible study- what God wants you to do, and then sticking with it no matter if the whole world says it's ridiculous.

Somehow, the writers of "Boundaries in Dating" belong to a subculture of Christianity that encompasses all those things. I literally have no idea how that's even possible. (Readers: If any of you understand it, please help me out and try to explain- but remember, your answer will only be helpful to me if it's worded in a way that an evangelical or Christian feminist can understand. I'm fluent in those.)

To summarize: I'm glad I read this book. There was so much very very healthy advice, presented in clear and helpful ways I had never heard before. But it would all be useless for readers who buy into purity culture or the flavor of evangelicalism that tells us our own emotions don't matter and we should always put others first. I'm serious: USELESS. The writers of "Boundaries in Dating" obviously believe dating is not inherently dangerous and that your own mental health does matter, and the whole book is written with those things assumed but never actually explained- therefore it is incomprehensible to people who don't hold those assumptions.


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

Previous post: Some Practical Things

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