Three (More) Romantic Errors

May 29, 2002 |Sarah E. Hinlicky

Ever pursue romance against the odds just because that seems, well, romantic? Take Sarah's advice: Don't.

About two years ago I wrote a piece for Boundless called “Three Romantic Errors.” That was the shortened title; in my mind it was more like, “Three Romantic Errors That Basically Well-Meaning and Well-Adjusted Christian Young Adults Are Likely to Make.” It was the culmination of all too many years of first-hand research into relational disaster, as well as a pledge to myself to depart from my erring ways into a better mode of being and dating. So, two years later, I have successfully shucked off those three romantic errors; however, I have also perpetrated some brand new mistakes and observed yet other mistakes in friends and acquaintances. Thus once again chastened and committed to sharing my hard-won wisdom with others, I present for your perusal three more romantic errors — and hopefully, some tips on avoiding them.

The Mystique of the Insurmountable Obstacle

I place all the blame for this one squarely on the shoulders of Shakespeare. My high school and college acting career took me through two productions of Romeo and Juliet; how could I not have been sucked in? It’s just so alluring: star-crossed lovers, feuding families, secret plots, a passion that triumphs over all impediments. They’re the world’s most famous couple, so every couple ought to emulate their example to some extent.

That’s exactly the logic that leads you into what I like to call “the mystique of the insurmountable obstacle.” What better way to prove the genuineness of your love than to vault impossible hurdles in order to secure it? It gives the most ordinary of relationships that flash and dazzle of a Hollywood chick flick. It couldn’t be easy —that wouldn’t be very romantic — and the struggle to stay together against the odds would forge an unbreakable bond. All the world would be forced to acknowledge that you must really love each other if you go to this much trouble to make your relationship work. (And the melodramatic italics appear so naturally in every sentence you speak!)

For me, this error has most often manifested itself in the form of foreigners. Let me say at the outset that there is nothing wrong per se with dating someone from another country. That’s not my objection at all. But in my case, it has been entirely the mystique of the insurmountable obstacle at work. (I confess, the cute-accent phenomenon has played some role in it as well.) The insurmountable obstacle hasn’t been the problem to be solved; it’s been the heart and soul of the relationship itself. I can’t even count, and would probably be horribly depressed if I could count, the number of hours I have devoted in my imagination to creative and inevitably self-sacrificial ways of surmounting the insurmountable for the sake of some cute-accented foreigner. Am I really so attached to my native land? I would ask myself severely. Couldn’t I learn the language in a year or two? Isn’t there some well-paying job that would handle the plane ticket problem? Is a shared cultural vocabulary really so essential after all? Is a shared religious vocabulary so essential? How much of me can I sacrifice to prove that I really love him?

You can easily see what a dangerous line of thought this is. It is a worthwhile thought experiment to see just how much common territory is necessary for a successful relationship, but at some point the sacrifices have to stop. You are you, after all, and if you give up everything that is you in order to overcome the obstacle, you won’t be the you that the other fell for in the first place. Don’t get caught in the snare of sacrifice. Most of the time, it’s about avoiding the real issue. The insurmountable takes the place of all the things you should be dealing with. This is the rest of your life you’re considering, and it’ll present plenty of obstacles on its own. The one place you don’t want to create more problems for yourself is in your marriage.

And if you find yourself weakening, just remember how Romeo and Juliet ends!

Misplaced Charity

So you’ve been friends for years. He’s like a brother (or she’s like a sister) to you. And you’re both at that age. And you’re both lonely. And no one else is coming along. And you start to get a little calculating . . . OK, so there isn’t much of a zing there, but it’ll come with time, right? He’s a great guy. Really he is. You can’t do much better. So you might as well.

Or maybe it’s like this. He really, really likes you. I mean, he’s devoted and it would make all his dreams come true if you loved him back. It’s kind of touching, the way an eager puppy is. He isn’t exactly your ideal, but then anyone who’s seemed like the ideal has turned into a monstrous jerk with alarming speed. It would be kind of nice to spend life as the object of another’s almost-but-not-quite-idolatrous worship. You’re not overly attracted to him, but the other perks are worth it.

Or then again, maybe it’s like this. To put it bluntly: he’s not a good-looking man. Maybe someone would think so, but you certainly don’t. And you feel terrible for this harsh judgment against him. He is a good person, after all. How could you be so cruel as not to date him? What kind of a person are you, anyway? You’d better date him just to show yourself that you’re not so shallow that good looks are all that matter to you.

Now, boys and girls, what are the operational principles in each of these scenarios? Certainly not anything like love. Respectively, these relationships are about despair, pity and guilt, and it doesn’t take an advice columnist to know that these are not good emotions on which to base a romance. But, more importantly, what these all have in common at the root is a lack of sexual desire.

It is an unfortunate thing that talk of eros makes so many Christians so uneasy. But when contemplating a lifelong relationship that is distinguished from all others by its sexual content, it is crucial to talk about it. There is nothing shallow or shameful about requiring physical passion in this kind of relationship: It’s supposed to be that way. You can be friends with every single person you meet. But with only one of them you’re going to share a bed. This is a significant distinction.

Why exactly is this component so often overlooked by nice religious folk? I’m not sure I can speak for all cases, and it is entirely possible my theories pertain more to women than men. But here’s my guess.

On the one hand, it might be due to our cult of “niceness.” It isn’t nice to reject someone because he isn’t desirable, and if he’s nice then he ought to be desirable. This flies in the face of sexual attraction, which is notoriously indifferent to matters of niceness. Nice is a good thing, of course, and attraction alone is not enough to make a lasting marriage. Separating the latter from the former is not going to guarantee good results, though.

On the other hand, I suspect there is some basic fear of sexuality at work. Making love means unbelievable vulnerability and self-giving. If you’re with someone for whom your desire is less than total, you can still reserve a bit of yourself and keep safe. You can get the physical pleasure without abandoning your heart and soul to your partner. But if you’re in danger of being swept away by your passion, who knows what might happen, what barriers might be broken down? It’s an understandably scary prospect.

What is even scarier, though, is the thought of another person coming along several years into your less-than-passionate marriage for whom your passion is suddenly and uncontrollably absolute. Who knows what you might justify to yourself then, and how much damage you’ll do yourself and at least two others? Better to bite the bullet, maintain your standards, and wait it out now. Dating is the wrong place to employ disinterested charity.

Confusion of Conditions

For two millennia now, Christianity has had a heck of a lot to say about marriage, but hardly anything at all about how to get there. This is, of course, due largely to historical and cultural conditions: Dating as we now know it is a fairly recent phenomenon, and we’re still trying to figure out how it works. Before, there was a limited pool of potential spouses in the village, or arranged marriages, or economic considerations overruling everything else. Now we have a lot more freedom in choosing spouses — a good thing, I should say — but the freedom could stand some guidelines. The recent resurgence in “courtship” is a good example of a search for parameters, and although I openly confess my skepticism at the project, I appreciate the basic impulse at work.

Without instituting courtship rules of my own, here is what I would like to say: Dating is not like marriage. This is so glaringly obvious as not to appear an immediately useful observation. Allow me to spell out what exactly I mean.As Christians, we all know that marriage means first of all an approximation of agape — the unconditional love that God shows us, persevering through thick and thin, sickness and health, for better and for worse — and second of all a great deal of forgiveness. You can’t live with someone day in and day out for decades without knowing all of his or her flaws intimately; and without a strong commitment to forgiveness, the outcome is going to be either divorce or murder. All marriages should be based in love and forgiveness, not just Christian ones, and it is our responsibility to model this for the rest of our society.

However — and this is a big however! — the same logic does not apply to dating. It’s hard for us to give up on the agape thing because it’s so ingrained in us, and in general that’s a good thing. But like I said in the previous section: You can be friends with everyone you meet (translated: you can show agape to everyone you meet), but there’s only one person with whom you’re sharing a bed.

In a nutshell: Unconditional love and forgiveness do not belong in dating. Shocking, but true. The whole purpose of dating, as we have it now, is to determine whether or not the boy/girlfriend is suitable marriage material. It is too soon for unconditional love, and some things ought to be forgiven Christianly but not romantically. If your beloved repeatedly betrays you, steals from your bank account, and insults your parents, you are more than welcome to exercise Christian love, but to maintain the romance is more a mark of stupidity than spiritual virtue. The engagement period is the appropriate time to start moving into the values and standards of marriage, but marital values are likely to cause dangerous blindness and premature commitment when employed in dating.

Fear not if your romantic history thus far abounds in errors of these kinds or others. There is plenty of forgiveness available to you too. Just hang on! The best is yet to come.

Copyright 2002 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.

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