Crash and Burn

Sep 16, 2011 |Candice Watters

A totaled car drives a long-distance couple to think soberly about their sputtering relationship.

Who is this person? Kelli wondered. She had just spent the day with Brad, the man she'd been getting to know for months. But she felt like she hardly knew him. Their relationship was budding through email. And now that they were together for the weekend, Kelli was having second thoughts.

* * *

In another day, most people married someone they had grown up around. My parents, for example, were friends in high school long before they started dating in college. Even if they didn't know one another as children, older couples likely knew one another's families, pastors, teachers and friends before marriage. Of course there was the occasional "mail-order" bride or other special circumstance.

But today those special circumstances are becoming more common thanks to technology. Pew Research estimates that "about 16 million people say they have gone to an online dating website or other site where they can meet people online."

As a result, women today often lack an image of a man based primarily on what his family and friends say about him. Instead they're left to paint a picture based on what he chooses to share with them — in email, over the phone and in letters — and how they choose to interpret it.

For good or bad, one of the features of dating in our time is technology. Lots of my friends met their future husbands online. But their relationships weren't guaranteed to end in marriage — far from it. They required a lot of on-the-fly learning in the midst of the strange new dynamics created by computers.

Whether on a matching service or through email, relationships begun from behind computer screens are different from the in-person kind. They have unique pitfalls and require extra effort to nurture to marriage. Many of the people I talked to said meeting in person after getting to know someone online was a letdown. But a seemingly equal number praised the experience, telling of meeting their mates, fiancés or current love interests online. What makes the difference? Is there anything you can do to make it more likely that your first time together in-person will be a success?

* * *

Kelli and Brad's story of moving from a good online connection to real life romance is one of the most dramatic, and instructive, I've heard. During their second day together, things almost fell apart. They were veering toward the just friends conversation when BAM! — Kelli was driving, the other car came out of nowhere, and before she could blink, her car was totaled.

The moment of impact changed everything.

Here's Kelli, in her words:

Boundless: What were you thinking before the accident?

KV: I was wavering back and forth between, "Am I ready for my life to change completely by committing to this relationship" or "Do I want to stay comfortable where I am?"

Boundless: Why was it so difficult being together in person?

KV: The first day of his visit we had to get used to the flesh and blood of this person whose soul we knew pretty intimately. Body language is such a huge part of communication, so in its absence it's easy to misinterpret what someone is saying. In writing (like emailing) that's even more true. I actually thought to myself, Who is this guy and what happened to Brad? It wasn't that Brad had misrepresented himself (which of course is a whole other possible pitfall), but I had created a personality for him from my own interpretations of his emails and phone calls.

Strange as it sounds, it took a couple of days to get used to a body going along with his words. I had to get used to his mannerisms and his delivery style as opposed to the video I had created in my head of him.

Boundless: How did the accident change things?

KV: The weekend had been a bit awkward up until the wreck. I knew that weekend was going to decide whether or not the relationship was moving forward; we couldn't be "pen pals" forever.

When we wrecked, several things happened: I saw Brad take charge in a crisis situation and realized how deep and mature he really was. It was a physical confirmation of what I'd already seen in his writing. Secondly, I saw how scared of commitment I was and how close I almost came to pushing away something so good. The wreck literally brought me to my senses and put things into perspective for me. I wanted marriage; Brad was marriage material. I was crazy about him but comfortable in my life as it was and not quite ready to take the scary leap of commitment. The wreck helped me see that life is unpredictable. What's comfortable today cannot be depended on for tomorrow. It was time to take a leap of faith and love.

Boundless: Were there any good things about starting your relationship with Brad long distance?

KV: It allowed the relationship to progress slowly and without the interference of physical affection.... Long distance dating puts the focus on communication, because there is nothing else to fall back on.

Boundless: But what about the danger of too much emotional intimacy?

KV: The temptation is to reveal too much of yourself too soon. In the same way that a normal relationship has to establish physical boundaries, a long distance relationship has to establish emotional boundaries. This is true for both types, but I think it's especially tempting to cross the line in a long distance relationship. It's much easier to be vulnerable in writing or on the phone than it is face to face. Before you know it, you've revealed every nook and cranny of your life and heart, and there's no taking it back. In the right stage of a relationship, that's appropriate, but not from the beginning. The desire to be known is so strong, but it's critical to not rush a relationship with emotional vulnerability.

Boundless: How did you avoid that temptation?

KV: I shared some of our early emails with my family. They loved Brad's heart and wit that showed through his words. My parents held me accountable in areas such as emotional vulnerability, and it was important to both Brad and me that we met each other's families before either of us moved to be near the other. Engagement came quickly on the heels of living in the same town.

As in any relationship, the blessing of elders should speak loudly. If parents or other respected mentors in your life are opposed to the relationship, examine their concerns.

* * *

Thankfully, totaling your car isn't the only way to get clarity about the potential of your relationship. While there may be a good number of disastrous first meetings, I've known as many that have led to strong marriages. And whenever a relationship can lead to the formation of a new Christian family, it's worth working through the awkwardness.

Copyright 2007 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.

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