Dating Bravely

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I used to think actively pursuing a relationship made me desperate, but I'm discovering how God's love frees me to take relational risks.

What’s the difference between being intentional and being desperate?

As a single woman in my 30s, I often wrestle with this question. I love so many facets of my life — it’s rich and full, meaningful and connected. At the same time, I long to share it with a life partner.

Growing up in a conservative Christian subculture, the main message I heard about romance was this: Wait. Trust. Put your desires to sleep, just like God put Adam to sleep before bringing him Eve. (Talk about confusing to my 16-year-old self!) The only “passion” allowed was passionate prayer, asking God to bring the “right” person into my life.

But this message seems to run counter to the ways Scripture exhorts us to approach other areas of life, such as friendships, education, job, finances and calling. In these areas, we strive to be intentional, steward our time and talents well, boldly seek God’s will, and prayerfully move forward. So why do we discount this mindset in this one area of life — dating?

Many of the single men and women I get to do life with are dreamers and go-getters — changing their corners of the world as teachers, designers, therapists, writers, lawyers, musicians and staff for non-profits. Yet when it comes to dating, many of us are anything but intentional. We may travel around the world, but we often struggle to walk across the room to talk to someone new.

Making an online profile, expressing interest or asking someone out are actions we tend to question. Do these things make us desperate? By actively pursuing the possibility of a relationship, are we failing to trust God to provide? Oddly, not dating at all is sometimes viewed as more spiritual than admitting we like someone.

I have a theory about why so many of us don’t date: I think we’re scared. So we shut down. We hide. After all, dating is vulnerable. It requires showing up emotionally without the assurance of a certain outcome.

The Waiting Game

Certainly love is a mystery and a spouse is not something we can order up off of Amazon Prime. Faith and trust and patience are needed, and God uses times of unfulfilled longing to reveal himself in remarkable ways and shape our character.

However, there are two flawed beliefs that often accompany the wait-and-see approach to dating:

1. I am a passive agent and God does all the work. Experts would tell you that a healthy relationship is mutual and includes two active, committed people who are seeking God. We are our best selves when we are fully alive and present, not when we’re on the sidelines. Could a passive approach to dating be one way we eschew responsibility? We may say it’s all on God, when, in reality, our reticence is fueled by fear of getting hurt or rejected.

2. God’s blessing is narrowly defined as marriage and children. When we believe “the good life” starts with a ring, we can understandably become disappointed, angry and jaded when singleness wears on. Well-meaning mentors and married couples might reassure us, “God will bring just the right man (or woman) for you … all in His time.” But what if it doesn’t happen? That’s something we have to sit with. There are very few guarantees in this life, and marriage isn’t one of them.

Dating as a Relational Lab

Several friends and I have recently been on a quest to pursue greater boldness and intentionality in our relationships. We’re still discovering what this looks like, but it has involved expanding the ways we think about dating to include disciplined spontaneity and thoughtful action. We’ve sought to develop a willingness to be “in the fray” of relational interactions, even when it’s confusing and hard and discouraging.

Why? One, we recognize these moments are growing and stretching and maturing us. Two, dating bravely forces us to consistently remind ourselves — and each other — of God’s steady, unwavering love. Theologian Henri Nouwen brings home this truth:

Long before any human being saw us, we are seen by God’s loving eyes. Long before anyone heard us cry or laugh, we are heard by our God who is all ears for us. Long before any person spoke to us in this world, we are spoken to by the voice of eternal love. Our preciousness, uniqueness, and individuality are not given to us by those who meet us in clock-time — our brief chronological existence — but by the One who has chosen us.1)Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2002), 10.

When I live as a deeply loved child of God, I can go out on a date knowing that regardless of the outcome, God holds my heart. Finding a life partner is no longer the litmus test of my worth, attractiveness or maturity. I’m not searching for someone to complete or validate me.

Since this epiphany, I’ve gone on dates with different kinds of guys — a teacher, a banker, an engineer, a musician, an entrepreneur. Introverts, extroverts, dreamers and practical thinkers. Some dates have been interesting, others awkward. Some have been fun and memorable, while others have made me, for a split second, consider joining a convent.

It’s OK with me that none of these dates has turned out to be my husband, because while I deeply desire to share my life with someone, I don’t have to. I’m not going out just to connect with a potential spouse. I’m also learning about myself and discovering the kind of person that I might best be suited to partner with. As psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud points out, every relational interaction is an opportunity to become more emotionally aware and spiritually mature.2)Henry Cloud, How to Get a Date Worth Keeping (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

Going on dates can help us recognize our blind spots and the ways we idealize some aspects of a person, while avoiding others. It allows us to explore what attracts us, what annoys us, and what makes us feel alive. It gives us the chance to move beyond our preconceived ideas of a certain “type” and gain insight into how others experience us.

From this perspective, every date is a success … even if it doesn’t turn into a relationship.

As I’ve taken relational risks, I have learned a lot. I’ve learned I’m sometimes drawn to guys who aren’t super interested in me because it feels safe and less vulnerable. I’ve also recognized that whomever I marry will have to love all of me, even the messy parts. I’ve learned not to apologize for being a dreamer and a thinker, and for wanting to change the world. The man I want to share my life with won’t be intimidated by these things; if someone is, we’re not a match.

I’ve become more confident expressing interest, and not being crushed if it’s not reciprocated. I’ve learned that I can survive a tough conversation, and that I have nothing to lose by being straightforward. I now recognize that I don’t owe a man anything just because he bought my dinner. And more than anything, I’ve learned to trust God in a way I never had to before.

Embracing Uncertainty

If I tried to predetermine whether every potential date could lead to marriage, I would likely never go out. It’s nearly impossible to know who someone really is — let alone whether I want to be in a long-term relationship with him — before spending one-on-one time with him.

Going on dates always includes uncertainty. After all, things might get awkward. The other person might not be interested. I might get my hopes up only to have him “ghost” me. But trusting God with my romantic life frees me to step out and take these risks. I can accept that there will be instances where a date just doesn’t work out for a variety of reasons — whether a difference in values, life direction, personality, or simply a lack of attraction — and that’s OK.

As believers, we are called to wisdom, but to think that we can avoid any rejection, any hint of discomfort or embarrassment? Maybe that’s one of the things that keeps us sitting at home binge watching our favorite TV show and continuing to believe that love is something that happens to us, rather than something we take an active role in creating.

Love stories happen a million different ways, and the way we approach dating is significantly influenced by our personality, background, life stage and even the city in which we live. So I’m not suggesting there is one “right” way to date. But how might our relational lives change if we took a more active role by seeking out environments where we are likely to meet new people? What if we built time into our schedules to connect? What if we didn’t write someone off simply because he or she doesn’t meet all of our nit-picky criteria? What if we acknowledged that attraction isn’t always (or often) zero to 100 in three seconds?

When we grow beyond a passive view of our romantic lives, we can step into the dating fray with more confidence. By not wrapping our identity up in how “successful” we are at dating, but instead in how valuable and loved we are by God, we can explore relationships, whether or not sparks fly. We are free to …

… create an online profile

… seek out new social settings

… walk across the room and introduce ourselves

… host a party or event

… allow a friend to set us up on a blind date

… join a MeetUp group

… ask someone to dance

Making ourselves available or communicating interest doesn’t mean we’re desperate or discontent. It can mean we’re self-aware and maturing into the people God created us to be. If God has put a desire in your heart for a long-term relationship, He may also be calling you to take a step.

Copyright 2017 Laura Captari. All rights reserved.

References   [ + ]

1. Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2002), 10.
2. Henry Cloud, How to Get a Date Worth Keeping (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).

About the Author

Laura Captari

Laura Captari is a psychologist in training and doctoral student at the University of North Texas. Her research explores the interplay of relationships, faith, and culture. Specifically, she investigates pathways to resilience and post-traumatic growth following trauma and loss. Laura previously served on staff with the American Association of Christian Counselors, and is the co-author of Dangerous Christian, Face to Face, Be Rebellious, and Orphan Justice. Laura is passionate about advocating for and serving at-risk populations, including foster/adoptive children, sex trafficking victims, and refugees. Laura is an avid traveler, sporadic runner, and shameless coffee fanatic.

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