I found out first hand that not all dating advice is created equal.
I spent two years after college single, working in Washington, D.C., and commuting an hour each way to and from work. Listening to the radio was the most obvious way to pass the time. Usually I switched back and forth between NPR and Christian talk radio, wanting to be up on the news of the day, but not wanting to be overwhelmed since most of it was negative. I'll never forget the morning I flipped to the Christian station to hear the hostess introducing her guests — all single. They were talking about strategies for dating. This ought to be good. I thought. I'll take all the help I can get.
One guest in particular — a man — stood out. Hmm, I wonder how one goes about meeting such a guy, I mused. He was talking about taking a woman to dinner. Not afraid to ask a woman out. Sounds more bold than most of the guys I know. I turned the radio up a little.
He went on with his story. "I was having dinner with this woman and halfway through the meal, she started talking about marriage." Yeah, way to go, I thought. I'd love to have the opportunity and the boldness to be so straightforward about my dreams, too.
He went on, "I mean, all I wanted was a plate of spaghetti."
I felt chastened.
Note to self. Don't talk marriage with potential mates.
This advice wasn't new, just unexpected. For years Cosmo and other women's magazines had been telling young women to never broach the subject of marriage with their man lest they scare him away. But to hear it from a mainstream Christian program was a bit of a shock. I know Ecclesiastes says there's a time to speak and a time to be silent, but roping a topic as important as marriage off limits seemed a little extreme.
If it was faux pas to broach marriage during a date — the social convention that was once the prelude to matrimony — when were you allowed to admit a hope for a family of one's own?
Breaking New Ground
Since I didn't date during my time in D.C., I forgot about his advice. It wasn't until a few years later that his words, and everything else I'd heard and read about dating, came into play. I was best friends with a guy named Steve. We met in our graduate program and quickly found we had a lot in common. We went to movies together, read the same books and even started an online webzine for our school. To our friends, it looked like we were dating. The problem was, we weren't. It was a problem because I was falling for him, but also because the way things appeared, no other guys would ask me out.
As much as I loved being with Steve, I wanted more than hours and hours of hanging out with him. I wanted to be married. I hoped that was what God was calling me to and didn't want to waste my most marriageable years with a guy who saw me as "just a friend."
All that dating advice I'd heard and read was of little help. I had to break new ground.
Though I didn't take the lead, I did ask Steve to. Knowing I could trust our friendship to absorb a little shock, I asked him what his intentions were. I guess in another day and age, my dad would have asked him that question (and considering my dad would have asked it a lot sooner in the process, maybe the father's involvement wasn't such a bad convention after all). But I didn't live at home — I hadn't for eight years. I didn't even live in the same state with my parents anymore.
Thankfully, Steve accepted my challenge to be honest about our relationship and had the courage to make it official. Six months after that conversation he asked me to be his wife. If I'd done what the books suggest — enjoy the friendship, follow his lead, lower my expectations, avoid the M-word — we'd probably still be just friends.
Permission to Run
Thirteen years after hearing that radio interview, such advice persists. "Christians seem to approach dating so seriously it's immobilizing," said one editor for Today's Christian Woman in aninterview. "Women especially seem to be contemplating marriage on the first date — men sense this and run for the hills."
Still trends among singles — later first marriages, pre-marital sexual activity that mirrors the un-churched, the belief that marriage is something worth doing someday — suggest this advice is as unreliable as ever.
Now I'll admit there are some things you shouldn't ask a guy during those first few hours of conversation. "What color tuxedo do you prefer?" and "How do you feel about changing diapers?" are best reserved for later, like when you have a diamond on your finger. That said, however, there's something troubling about telling women they shouldn't even be "contemplating marriage" on the first date. Why not? What's the purpose of dating, after all? If, as has traditionally been the case, dating is for finding a mate, then shouldn't the possibility of marriage at least be forefront in your mind, if not on your tongue?
Thanks to advice like that from the radio guest, and observations like the one from the Today's Christian Woman editor, we've gone from noticing how marriage talk affects some men to a universal expectation that it petrifies them all. And in that expectation lies the permission men need to run.
Some of my single female friends have been dating seemingly great guys to no intentional end. Concerned than any marriage talk is premature and might scare their man away, they settle for relationships marked by low expectations, recreational affection (if not more) and little to no momentum.
In our anti-marriage culture, it's more important than ever to be intentional about who you date and what the goal of dating is, and not settle for a stalled buddy relationship. Talking marriage is essential.
Let the Conversation Begin
It's odd I'd even remember that broadcast — and that guest's comment — after all these years. I'm not sure why, but what he said was bugging me the other day. I was telling my husband about it, and after I repeated the line, "All I wanted was a plate of spaghetti!" he responded without missing a beat, "So why didn't he just take his mother to dinner?"
That's it. That's what was bothering me; what I couldn't put my finger on. That guy wasn't being honest. He asked a single, available, no doubt attractive woman to dinner, then blamed her for treating it like a date. He followed all the conventions that led her to believe it had the promise of something romantic, but when she started to follow his lead, he changed the dance.
I also felt defensive for that poor woman. There she was, having accepted an invitation to spend an evening with this man, quite possibly struggling to make conversation while he focused on his pasta. If she'd said she hoped to be a lawyer or a Peace Corps engineer or a writer, he'd no doubt have applauded. But because she expressed a hope to be a wife and mother, he was offended.
Getting married is part of growing up. It's a biblical responsibility we're asked to take on — a calling. Talking about it is just the beginning. If you're with a man who's scared away by the mere mention of marriage, it's time to take your conversation elsewhere.
Copyright 2005 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.