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Three Romantic Errors

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I've witnessed some of the same romantic errors over and over again, very sensible errors made by people with the best of intentions.

In my opinion, there are three romantic errors that basically moral Christian marriage-minded young adults frequently commit. Actually, the very biggest mistake any of us can make is to think that being Christian automatically makes things a whole lot easier. If anything, being Christian makes everything harder (remember that bit about picking up your cross and following Jesus?). Even on a less dramatic level, the ordinary struggles of life are struggles for Christians every bit as much as they are for everyone else, coupled with the necessity of walking by faith, not sight, and rather high personal standards. In the course of my short years on this earth, particularly those that have been spent trying to make sense out of the operating principles of the opposite sex, I’ve witnessed (and participated in) some of the same errors over and over again, very sensible errors made by people with the best of intentions. So at the risk of sounding like a magazine dating column, I think the time has come to draw attention to them. They are:

The Checklist

The Checklist is a particularly pernicious error because it sounds like such a great idea. You spend most of your young life trying to figure out what sorts of things you absolutely require in a life partner and what sorts of things you absolutely can’t abide. You see happy couples and glean the secrets to their happiness, then figure out how to apply them to your own circumstances. You imagine how glorious this yet-unknown person will be. Even if you’re willing to compromise on some things — hair color, for instance, or intensity of passion for the opera — there are other standards that simply cannot budge.

Faith, of course, is paramount (and all the better if said individual shares your specific church affiliation), along with a basic level of intelligence, maturity, sensitivity, interest in marriage and children, willingness to delay certain physical activities until marriage, etc. Maybe there are some details specific to you. I, for one, find nothing so enthralling as a man willing to talk about nothing but theology for hours on end, and have a hard time taking seriously anyone who doesn’t like Thai food. (Yeah, I know. Picky picky.) So you successfully conjure up the image of your dream lover – dreamy in all the right ways, of course, not shallow things like income level or ownership of a particular kind of car. And then one of two things happens.

Possibility number one: you never meet anyone who has a prayer of living up to your Checklist because it is unbelievably exclusive and demanding, so you rule out every real flesh-and-blood person you meet for silly reasons. Your Checklist prevents your preconceived notions from ever being challenged by someone who has a different perspective on life and the world and God and all those good things, and chances are you need a bit of a challenge. (It’ll add zing to the romance anyway.) Then again, I tend to think that anyone who relies exclusively on his Checklist probably isn’t ready to date anyway. In which case the Checklist is good protection against your growing heart, and it’ll be ready to give way when someone worthy and interesting comes along.

But there is actually a worse possibility to come out of Checklist syndrome. It’s meeting someone who meets your Checklist perfectly. Here is where my personal research is worth mentioning. When I got to college I met a certain young man whom I instantly decided was The One. He had to be, because he fit the Checklist flawlessly. Let’s see, exactly right on target with religion, very smart, witty, funny, sarcastic, attractive, and what do you know, he even liked weird food the way I did. I imagine I fit his Checklist pretty well too. So we started dating.

The problem was that we didn’t know each other at all – we just recognized that the other had all the right Checklist qualities. In a way, the Checklist prevented us from getting to know each other for a while, because we both assumed we’d already figured out what we needed to know. Then some time passed. (Time has a way of doing that.) It didn’t take more than a couple of months to get to know each other in spite of our Checklist-driven intentions, and a horrible thing happened. We discovered that our personalities and temperaments were totally incompatible, at least as far as dating goes. In the end, we had an absolutely horrendous breakup, and it took more than two years even to regain speaking terms. (And then two more years of basic civility before we could be friendly.)

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not bad to have some standards about what you want out of your life’s partner. But it is bad to be so in love with a phantom to the exclusion of real flesh and blood. Phantoms may never hurt you, but they never really love you, either.

The Reformation Principle

This is a problem that by no means plagues only Protestants. It does, however, seem to favor women. It strikes those idealistic young ladies whose zeal for religion and reform spills over into their romantic lives. It is the conviction that the sheer force of one’s love alone is enough to win a wayward man over from the dark side of sin to the shining light of the moral day. It is a complete mystery to me why women are, apparently, programmed to be attracted to the wrong kind of guy. Maybe it’s just immaturity that finds danger exciting, both physically and emotionally. At any rate, practically every female I’ve ever known has at one time or another been totally smitten with a guy who either didn’t care at all for her in return, or used her to satisfy some need that could be satisfied by any other woman, or remained lukewarm all the way through, meanwhile committing various deeds that left the female utterly aghast and all the more determined to draw him onto the straight and narrow.

I too have been guilty of such a romantic crime, though in a more subtle way, which made it easier to fool myself. After recovering from Checklist Boy (see above), I decided to swing to the other extreme and find myself a man who was totally unlike what I was looking for, just for the fun of it. Then I would not make the mistake of mentally committing too soon, and I would have the beneficial experience of getting to know and care for someone dramatically different from myself. So I found him, and he was perfect. He had a Past with a capital P – things that don’t bear going into – and he’d quit doing just about all of them, but he was still figuring out what he stood for now that he had quit. I conveniently showed up to help him along the way.

To make matters even more exciting, he’d just broken up with his girlfriend of 5 years approximately two weeks earlier. (You know, if this was any one of my friends, I would have advised her in no uncertain terms to get the heck away from him. Why don’t we ever see these things when we’re personally involved?) I remained doggedly loyal because I was convinced that he needed me to reach a higher level of personal and spiritual conduct.

What ensued was, if I can remember the chronology correctly, about 6 weeks of dating, an extremely long, drawn-out breakup, several months of misery and withdrawal when he got back with his ex, flirtation over e-mail as he realized he and the girlfriend didn’t belong together after all, hope when they broke up again, more flirtation, about 2 weeks more of dating, another breakup, and another several months of withdrawal, which finally came to an end when, despite his hints that there was a future for us, I heard through the grapevine that he was intimately involved with someone else. That was enough for me. If you recognize yourself in these symptoms, please don’t excuse the troubles on the basis of what an otherwise awesome guy he is. Trust me, my guy was awesome too. But in this scenario, you can be friends and still fully experience his awesomeness. You definitely don’t need to date.

You see, reforming other people is always a bad idea because you have no power to do it. You can hope for your loved ones to reach some desire to reform bad habits spontaneously, and you can hope (better yet) that grace and faith in God will gradually transform them. But your job as pal or significant other or churchmate or whatever is not to do the reforming. You’re supposed to walk along with them on the way, pray for them, hurt with them and rejoice with them. But not change them. Especially when it comes to making a lifelong commitment that entails decades of close personal contact, shared bank accounts and children; you want someone you can take just as he is, including all his sins and failings. Fear not that such a well-adjusted compatible person in your life will bore you. Subsequently, I figured out that security in a romance is tremendously more exciting than danger. Don’t take my word for it, though. Find out for yourself.

The “Us”

This is a tricky one. I am proud to say, however, that though guilty of two flamboyant commissions of the aforementioned errors I have not myself personally committed this one. I mention it, though, because a very dear friend of mine went through this ordeal in a big way. She got caught up in the grabby tentacles of the “Us,” long before she was able to give it a name, and she and her boyfriend were most certainly good God-fearing Christian people. So it is a problem worth the mention.

In short, the “Us” is when you have a relationship to the relationship instead of to the person. (Incidentally, I hate the word “relationship” and think we should all boycott it in favor of “romance.” If what you’re in doesn’t qualify as a romance, you should probably put it out of its misery as soon as humanly possible.) The sorts of people who take relationships very seriously — like, say, basically moral marriage-minded Christians — are extremely susceptible. They are trained in all the virtues of kindness and understanding and communication. They are willing to forgive and start over. They are excited by the idea that this just might be it at last … and in the process, they completely forget that they are supposed to be loving a person, not a state of being. A variation on this theme is what is called “being in love with love.”

Take, for instance, these friends of mine. They met, hit it off, and started carrying on an intense e-mail correspondence because of a long-distance separation. And, fairly soon, they started talking about marriage. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but the result in this particular situation was that they studied, analyzed and discussed their relationship to determine whether or not it had the makings of a marriage. And all the while they were failing to get to know each other naturally, from which, I would guess, the desire for marriage would spontaneously arise if such a thing were their destiny.

The “Us” might be a particular danger in long-distance relationships, since you are always talking and not just living everyday life together, but it happens under normal conditions too. Have you ever noticed how couples nowadays have to talk about their relationship incessantly? I can’t help but think that if they had a real relationship, they wouldn’t need to talk about it so much. Relationships should just happen, but they can be forced into being and sustained against their will by people who are a little too eager for the relationship at all.

So, to finish the story, over time my friend realized that her boy really didn’t know her very well at all. She also noticed that all of his guy friends were older and all were getting married and he was feeling a little left out. In the end, she had the wisdom to see the pseudo-relationship for what it was and draw it to his attention, and thereby effectively end it. It’s sort of hard to tell now whether he misses her or the relationship more, but either way, I know that she deserves a whole lot better.

And so do you.

Read Part 2

Copyright 2000 Sarah E. Hinlicky. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Sarah E. Hinlicky

Sarah E. Hinlicky was born in St. Louis, but has spent most of her life in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina. She graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne College with a B.A. and departmental honors in Theology and Philosophy in 1998. When she wrote for Boundless, she was a research assistant at the Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the monthly journal First Things.

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