Tell me if this sounds familiar to you: You start to date someone. At first you’re all excited, counting the minutes ‘til you see each other again. A little voice starts whispering in your head that this could be “the one.”
And then, gradually, another voice starts whispering. It says, “What if there’s someone even better?” You start to wonder. And you kinda start to look around. If she’s tall, you start to notice short girls. If he’s blond, you start to notice dark-haired guys. This person’s opposite suddenly seems fascinating to you. And so, you conclude that this person couldn’t possibly be right for you, and therefore the Christian thing to do would be to break it off immediately, because you obviously don’t care enough about this perfectly nice person who might get hurt.
Happened to you? Welcome to the human race. It happens to all of us.
Last month I wrote about how we nice Christian kids have a difficult time with dating, because we don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. And since the drainage ditches alongside Dating Road are constantly clogged with crumpled little hearts, we aren’t entirely sure how we’re expected to behave. We’re starved for answers. So starved that there were those among you unwilling to wait even a month for the next installment.
But the magazine only comes out once a month and I only get around 1000 words each time. Dating, as we all know, is a big topic. And there are a lot of nuances I don’t want to miss. I’m thinking we’ve got enough material here to spend several months chewing on those answers.
So let’s forge ahead.
We can start with the scenario above, which I touched on briefly last month. It has — of course — happened to me. It happens to all of us. I just talked to a good friend who’s dealing with it right now.
And then I read about it in John Gray’s book Mars and Venus on a Date. (Which I highly recommend, provided you can look past the decidedly un-Catholic advice on sex.) He says that when we meet someone we really like, we naturally go into what he calls the “uncertainty phase,” where we start to question our original attraction. Apparently it’s normal – because who could live with all of the heart-thumping infatuation for long without suffering a coronary event or an aneurism or something? That first attraction phase is riddled with un-reality. It’s all about daydreams and visions and perfection and stuff like that. When that inevitably wears off, we’re left with reality. And, if we’re at all prone to issues with commitment (which of course couldn’t possibly be true for any of us, right?), we’re left with reality plus an undefined fear that can sometimes border on terror.
Welcome to the uncertainty phase.
Apparently the more someone is really suited for us, the more intense this phase is likely to be. Probably because of the whole fear thing. Because as much as we may say we long for marriage, we’re all well aware that forever is a really, really long time. There would probably be something wrong with us if we weren’t a little scared.
The problem is that we’ve bought into the decidedly modern notion that our emotions are the only real true gauge of whether we belong with someone or not. Granted, our emotions play a role – you wouldn’t want to marry someone you have no feelings for just because a computer printout said you were compatible. But many people somehow expect to exist on Cloud Number Nine at every moment of their perfect relationship, and if their euphoria slips for a day or a week or a half-hour, they see it as a “sign” – a bad sign.
Human emotions just don’t work that way. Our emotions don’t offer command performances. They often show up when we least expect them. And they leave just as quickly. C.S. Lewis, in his autobiography Surprised by Joy, wrote about how emotions like joy and love generally appear when our attention is focused somewhere else – like the object of our affection. When we shift our gaze inward and try to analyze or “find” our emotional responses, they disappear.
Combine that with the Christian phobia of hurting anyone, and we find a lot of would-be suitors prematurely heading for the hills.
So what are we supposed to do? The problem is that most of us, when we’re in this situation, tend to think, “I either have to get out now or I have to decide to marry this person no matter what.” I know, it seems silly right now. But I swear, isn’t that what happens? Dave Barry wrote one of the most hilarious articles of all time about this very subject, and the men who take off after a good date because they “know” the only option left is marriage and they can’t possibly risk another date because they might have a nice time and then a clergyman would suddenly appear and aaaaaaugh!!
The thing to do when you’re in the uncertainty phase is to, as a good friend once told me, “lean into it.” You don’t panic and run. Nor do you put our common sense on hold and decide to ignore any real red flags because you’re committed, dang it!
Just keep spending time together. Remember you’ve got plenty of time. Get to know each other. Don’t focus on your feelings. Focus on this person. Learn the truth of who he or she really is. That truth – the real truth – is only revealed with time. If you see things that trouble you, don’t talk yourself out of them. Watch. Pray. Discern. And then end it when and if a real deal breaker comes along. Sometimes that’s clear on the first date. Sometimes it takes a few months to emerge. Either way, that’s when you end it. Not because your feelings took a break for lunch.
I know this means ignoring the “but what if there’s somebody better?” voice for while. That isn’t always easy. Nobody is perfect, everyone you date is going to have flaws, and you’re going to be curious about people who don’t have that particular flaw. But they’ll have other flaws, and then you’ll wonder if there’s someone who doesn’t have that flaw . . .
You need to remember that everybody hears that voice, and if you keep listening to it, you’re never going to be able to spend the time it takes to discern whether the person in front of you is the one God has in mind for you.
I also know there’s more risk of hurt this way. And we all hate that. Of course that risk can’t be eliminated. But we can mitigate it.