I don’t write my own headlines.
This is important to point
out, because sometimes I find more wisdom in the headline that I didn’t
write than in the article that I did write. Last month was one of those
As you may recall, I wrote that article all about the little
voice in our dating brains that asks us “what if there’s someone even
better?” I said that, if it’s a promising relationship and there are no
real red flags present, we need to ignore that voice long enough to get
to know this person and discern whether we have a future together. All
true. Good advice, if I do say so myself.
Then I saw the headline, which was “Ignore the Voice: There’s
Always Someone Better.” And I thought, “That’s the point I didn’t
make!” I was headed there, but didn’t quite arrive. And dear Dan
Flaherty somehow knew that, and finished it off in a single sentence.
It’s important enough, however, that it needs more than a single sentence. And that’s my job.
true, isn’t it? There is always someone better, if you’re only looking
at a single trait at a time. If you’re looking at intelligence, there
will always be someone smarter. Beauty? It fades, and the next hottie
is always just around the corner. Holiness? Well, Mother Teresa is
gone, but there are still a whole lot of saints-in-the-making on this
earth, and I seriously doubt any of you are going to run across the
very holiest of them all in your limited dating lives.
The problem is that when we move into that “uncertain” place
in dating – the part where we see things going well and we get scared
and our protective instinct subtly encourages us to sabotage the
relationship – we start to pick apart those individual traits and
notice anyone and everyone who is “better” in any one area.
The basic truth is this: dating isn’t about looking for the
person who is the “best.” It’s about finding the person who is best for
us. The person God has in mind. Dating isn’t so much about shopping or
sampling or dabbling. It’s about discernment, and discernment takes
some effort, some prayer and some serious searching for God.
That person God has in mind for you, the person who is going
to help you get to Heaven – that person is going to have flaws. There
are going to be things that get on your nerves. There will be ways –
little and big — in which you will have to die to yourself. You’ll
probably have to give up your dreams, your “picture”, of what your
perfect marriage would be. God may not have the same picture. But He
has a much bigger screen with a much, much clearer, more complete image
than our puny little human imagination could ever comprehend.
Unfortunately, most of us in this day and age aren’t taught a
lot about discernment. We aren’t taught about how to go about seeking
and following the will of God. We tend, instead, to divinize our own
feelings. We assume that if we feel a certain way, it must be God
speaking infallibly to us. I find that many, many people talk about
something being “God’s will”, when it’s clearly only their own will
with holy water sprinkled on it.
When it comes to dating and discernment, the mistakes go in
two different directions. (Don’t they always?) In both cases they
involve divinizing our own feelings. The first happens when enter the
uncertainty phase and we start to feel uncomfortable because we see a
flaw in our intended, or we realize that continuing this relationship
will cost us something of our dream or our comfort or our current
lifestyle. We assume that discomfort must be God’s signal to us.
We covered that one pretty thoroughly last month, so let’s move on to the next mistake.
The other extreme is when we mistake our feelings of attraction
for God’s will. Don’t get me wrong – real attraction is a gift from
God. But because of the whole original sin situation, it can become
convoluted. And then it starts to mess with our minds.
The problem is when attraction co-exists with real red flags
in a relationship. The temptation then is to overlook the red flag and
to take the strong feelings of attraction as a sign from God. This is
where I see the most creative “holy-water sprinkling,” particularly
among women. Let me tell you, a Christian woman who knows the jargon
can make any troubled loser seem like a delivery straight from the
hands of the Almighty. “His brokenness has led him to turn to
pornography and random sexual encounters, but the Lord has led him to
me, to be filled with His Spirit in the sacraments of the Holy Church,
through my good example and constant, incessant nagging . . .”
Let me be clear here: nothing I have written over the past
several months about “ignoring the voice” should be construed to mean
that you should ignore actual red flags in a relationship. Dating is
not about remodeling someone into the image and likeness of your
perfect spouse. It is about discerning who this person actually is, and
whether that person “as-is” would be the kind of spouse who would help
you to Heaven, the kind of spouse God has in mind for you.
I have a saying with my friends. “Salute the big red flag.”
When someone comes to me all excited about a new relationship, and I
start to hear little rationalizations creep in, I pay attention. “He’s
got this ex-girlfriend who always hangs around, but they’re really just
friends.” “She’s sort of demanding, but that’s just because she’s had a
difficult life.” “He’s not as far advanced in the faith as I am, but
he’ll give up the porn once he starts going to Mass with me.” “She
drinks kind of a lot, but . . .” You get the idea. When you see a red
flag, you salute it. You pay attention to it. If it’s a big red flag
(abusive or difficult personality, blatant substance abuse, extreme
narcissism, serious mismatch in values, etc.) you leave. If it’s just a
little flash of red fabric (the ex who’s always hanging around, subtle
self-absorption, the consistent “a couple of drinks too many” at
parties) you can stick around for a while to see if you’re seeing a
tiny flag, or just the corner of a really huge flag. But don’t be
daydreaming or planning the weddings or choosing curtains for your
first home together just yet.
“But what if this is the person God has in mind for me?”
Probably not. More likely you’re just feeling your attraction and
furiously sprinkling holy water onto it in the hopes that God will
magically show up and make everything right. Maybe this person is
someone God would have had in mind for you, had this person not made
the choices or turned in the direction or hoisted whatever red flag
you’re seeing now. At any rate, dating is not the place for
evangelization, or rescue, or any other kind of drastic human
Those kinds of problems are central to discernment. They are, most likely, God’s way of telling you to look elsewhere.