Everyone I know has a bad break-up story. Even those people who have never dated seriously or had to make that more or less awkward exit from a committed relationship have still stumbled into one or two “emotional dating” fiascos.
Guys and girls share the blame for “emotional dating.” No DTR–defining the relationship—ever happens. No official status ever reaches the broader community. No clear promises are made or kept.
The guilty party will try to escape the social ramifications and mitigate the emotional consequences of emotional dating with the most popular vagary of our era: he or she will say, “We’re just hanging out.” When asked by smirking friends why he and Margaret have been spending so much time together, Archie waves away the question like a buzzing mosquito, “Oh, she’s just a friend.”
Really? Does she know that?
Does she send a dozen text messages a day to other of her male friends? Doe she pour out her heart and discuss in ornate detail her absentee father, alcoholic mother, and the dueling fears of abandonment and being alone that her cheating ex-boyfriend left like two reeking sacks of garbage in her broken heart?
No, of course she doesn’t. Archie is deceiving himself.
Girls don’t start marathon text conversations with guys they find unattractive. This is just one of the rules of the universe like gravity and cellulite.
This, my friends, is emotional dating, and it is particularly common among Christians who often confuse honesty with candor and intimacy with emotional binging and purging.
Take Rupert, for example. At a conference one October, he told Sadie, who has missionary parents and grew up in Zambia, that he felt called to the mission field. They began to talk about traveling and spirituality, and six hours later, at 4am, they took communion together in the empty commons at his college.
They both left with the belief that something profound has occurred. They both missed an important truth: spiritual vulnerability and spiritual modesty can and should coexist.
Confession: earlier, when I said “Rupert,” I was talking about myself.
I once took the Lord’s Supper with a girl I barely knew at 4am in Bison Square at Lipscomb University. It was just the two of us. I’m sure we both felt a powerful connection because I spent the next twelve months pursuing a romantic relationship with her.
We talked on the phone. We exchanged prayer requests. We swapped emails stretching pages. I told her things that I’d never told my best friend, and when she finally checked to make sure we were “on the same page,” I felt a hot, trembling anger.
I forced the issue: “Tell me you’re not attracted to me.” She couldn’t say no, and I realized that regardless of her true feelings, buried underneath all that indecision and fear, her tumultuous family life and ex-boyfriend made it impossible for her to commit to anything, or even be honest with herself. In words of Mumford & Sons in “White Blank Page,” she “desired my attention, but denied my affections.” Man, and woman, is indeed a giddy thing.
Physical attraction is no guarantee of emotional clarity or honesty. This discovery made me smolder for months before I finally severed the relationship by telling her exactly how felt—that I must have been in love with her.
I hear that “Just wanted to make sure we’re on the same page” from the females and that “Oh, we’re just friends” malarkey from the males, especially adolescent ones, the least likely candidates for building a mature, truly platonic relationship with a woman. My too-plentiful experience in this arena has confirmed my suspicions that one or the other of these “friends” has romantic feelings. To camouflage his passivity, the teenage male will often excuse his behavior with this lie: “I don’t want to ruin the friendship.”
Of course he does.
He wants to ruin it straight into a steamy make-out session in her bonus room above the garage. He wants to crush the soft curves of her body against his. He wants to invite her on his family vacations. He wants to pose with her for prom pictures and let his imagination leap, if just for a moment, to another realm of tuxedos, gowns, and rooms filled with friends, cakes, and camera flashes.
He wants to outgrow his tendency to fabricate excuses to catch her up in long hugs. Part of him knows how pathetically transparent his desire for touch really is.
Beware the friend who wants to hug more than twice during any interaction. Once at the meeting and once at the parting is enough. After all, affection is one sign of flirtation, and there’s no better way to confuse a “friend” than to hug that person five times in thirty minutes. Side hugs count.
Romance is messy. Emotional dating break-ups can be even messier than the ones suffered by people who acknowledged the relationship. After all, how do you break up with someone you weren’t officially dating? How do you respond when a “friend” tries to break up with you?
You can’t use the classic Let-Her-Down-Easy line:
“I just want to be friends.”
You’re already just friends, so to be anything less, you’d have to be acquaintances. And you can’t very well go back to being acquaintances after that many Meg Ryan movies and harmless back massages, now can you?
No, emotional dating break-ups are painful because during the transition, especially during the transition, one or both parties must pretend nothing ever existed. It’s like talking about tearing down an imaginary house.
“What are you talking about?” she asks with a sour look on her face.
“It was right here, I promise!” you reply with growing panic. “We listened to Ray LaMontagne, and you put your head on my shoulder. It was right here!”
So the time when she asked you if you’d ever wear a Speedo because her ex-boyfriend Jay wore a Speedo and she didn’t think it was funny, well, she wasn’t testing the waters, she was merely using bathing garments as a kind of litmus test for friendship. And the time when she asked if you’d ever cheated on one of your girlfriends, and you said no, and she got all close and cuddly the rest of the night, well, that was your fault for reading too much into it. She’s just an affectionate person, and you were seeing what you wanted to see. And the time she asked you what your deepest fear was, and you had an hours-long conversation about divorce and marriage and what you were both looking for in a mate, well, there was no denying that the two of you shared a deep spiritual connection but that didn’t mean she was imagining herself at the altar with you.
“Have you imagined yourself at the altar with me?” you ask, your heart trapped like a hot, fluttering bird in your throat.
“Of course,” she admits.
”Girls do that kind of thing all the time,” she says.
“With just about every guy we meet,” she lies, to hide from herself the immaturity and selfishness of her behavior. She wanted all the benefits of a boyfriend without painful side-effect of having to address the fears and wounds that would have eventually surfaced like so many Loch Ness Monsters in an honest relationship.
Christians love emotional dating. It is a self-protection mechanism that creates an illusion of safety. It is a deck of fortune-telling cards that provides an unreliable means of figuring out whether that beautiful black-haired, blue-eyed girl that you made eye contact with eight times at Frothy Monkey Coffeehouse is, in fact, your soul mate before you have even spoken with her.
You flip them over in your mind, one by one.
She has a MacBook Pro. Check
She is wearing cowboy boots. Check.
She has nice boobs. Check.
She has narrow hips. Check.
She doesn’t wear too much make-up. Check.
She has a Bible and a journal. Check.
She was drinking her coffee black. Check.
She resembles Audrey Hepburn. Check.
She chats amiably with the people around her. Check.
She has no ring on her left hand. Check.
She has several Hebrew characters tattooed on the inside of her right wrist. Double check.
“Why don’t you quit being a coward and go talk to her?” your poor, unredeemed non-Christian friend asks.
What a dummy. He just doesn’t understand this business about God dropping the right woman in your lap.
“I’m not scared,” you say, feeling smug with spiritual authority, “I’m trying to give God my whole heart.”
What you meant to say was this: “God gives merit badges to men who predict the future and find a wife without getting hurt in the process.”
Christians love emotional dating almost as much as they love bad theology. Both seem to be safer than the alternative. Both give you heartburn and logorrhoea.