I’m pretty sarcastic and snarly at the patriarchy most days, but I’ve recently gotten more fed up than usual and we need to talk.

Sit down. Pour a cuppa or a finger of whiskey or a beer or whatever you need to get through this. It’s going to be a little long. And I’m scared to publish this, which means I need to.

Clarification up front: I don’t hate men. (And I don’t plan on writing about dating experiences as a rule.)

But the fact that I feel the need to tell these stories and feel obligated to give that disclaimer at all makes me really tired and angry.

This is not how humans should relate to each other.

***

This is the story of two boys. Two “prospects.” Two evenings of deliberate vulnerability. And no second dates.

Both evenings ended the same: me driving home alone, feeling raw, and maybe crying at stoplights.

But these two dates were very, very different.

***

The first date was one of those dates where you’re not sure if it’s a date, or just hanging out in a somewhat intense and prolonged fashion and you happen to be alone with each other for the duration.

I barely knew this guy, but he had something about him that piqued my interest, and I liked him. I am/was also kinda not into commitment (and heard from a mutual friend that he wasn’t into commitment either), and so the idea of undefined hanging out with the possibility of more and little pressure was also pretty attractive.

I mean, let’s be honest, I haven’t been divorced that long and I’m totally learning how to date for the first time since ever, thanks to being raised in a culty subculture where a “healthy” relationship meant barely talking, never being alone, and having a three month engagement because you have to wait to have sex until you’re married and everyone knows that normal people can’t wait that long, so you just speed everything else up super fast.

So, handsome, smart, and no pressure. This looked good. And we hung out, and had a great time, and then I drove home. Everything went well.

Except I liked him a little more than he liked me, and I was “on the hook” for a couple weeks, waiting around, sending hesitant little texts, emailing him links, suggesting he join me for outings I’d planned with groups of friends, etc. He never responded negatively to any of this, but he never responded enthusiastically either, and eventually I just moved on.

Not a big deal. But here’s the thing to note: I had commitment issues. So did he. But because I knew he had commitment issues, I held back and was never very aggressive about my interest. I played it casual, I was vague and hesitant, and I was unsure of myself enough that I never really told him “hey, I like you, let’s hang out more.” I should have, though. It wasn’t like I wanted any sort of commitment from him; it would have just been an honest expression of interest.

But I never did that because I felt like I was supposed to be sensitive to his (presumed) commitment issues and take things at whatever speed he wanted to take it at, so as not to let him get overwhelmed or uncomfortable. I felt obligated to conform to his comfort zone and to let him initiate if he wanted more.

Honestly, it was poor form all around. I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to protect him, and I should have respected him as an equal, as an adult able to take care of his own emotional needs. I should have been up front and not played these culturally acceptable girl mind games.

Part of that was my own unlearning of codependent relationship habits. But a bigger part of that was fear of the patriarchy, of his social power and standing as a man: I have been acculturated to accommodate the man’s preferences and let his comfort zone be the hard lines around which I am taught to mold myself. My lack of confidence is the result of my own internalized misogyny.

Now, before I tell you about boy #2, I want to tell you a story about my sister.

She’s a freshman in high school—the first of my siblings to attend. She’s making me proud with how she’s transitioning to that environment, and she’s making choices that show a healthy sense of autonomy, boundaries, and self-respect. She’s emotionally and socially mature in ways I wasn’t until I was almost 21, just because she’s been exposed to more and is deliberate about respecting herself.

But earlier this year she called me up in a panic, because she had two female classmates threatening to beat her up, and waiting for her on the bus or at her bus stop or around school to catch her and hurt her.

Why? Because: before either girl started dating their current boyfriends, these boyfriends both expressed interest in my sister and got turned down. Fast forward a few weeks, and the new girls discover that their boyfriends are still in contact with my sister (these boys are stupidly flirty and my sister kept her same position and was ignoring them), and decide to punish my sister for being a “slut.”

Not the boys. My sister. Who has consistently told these guys to leave her alone.

These girls were afraid to confront their shameless and immature boyfriends, and instead chose to take out their insecurities and fear on my sister.

No wonder everyone still assumes that guys and girls can’t be friends. And no wonder there are so few depictions of healthy female friendship in popular media.

Hold that thought, and let’s move on to the story of boy #2.

This date started very differently. Meeting him was movie-style electric—he asked me out after one of those across-a-crowded-room eye contact moments. I said yes, he said he was making reservations at a nice restaurant, and he’d pick me up that evening.

I was nervously excited, dolled myself up, and off we went. Dinner was perfect, he was flattering and attentive, and the view from our table was breathtaking. The conversation was easy and interesting and skipped around to cover all sorts of things that I loved to talk about.

We went to a scenic spot afterwards, climbed some rocks and talked and kissed. The moonlight and the moment was storybook-perfect. I held my breath a little and memorized it all, and decided that this was awesome, but scary (vulnerability!) and I wanted to take it slowly.

Remember: commitment issues! And he knew about them, too. We’d covered that part of my emotional resume at dinner, and I’m usually really nervous to bring up that part of my story, especially on a first date. But it had been okay, and he hadn’t made me feel uncomfortable about it. So, I thought: good. This is nice. This could be good.

Then he drove me to my car—I’d parked in a parking structure and had a way to go before I got home—and it was 1 a.m. and the moon was magic and we kissed a bit more before I was ready to go.

And then it happened: he asked to come home with me.

Now, please don’t get stuck on this, because that request is not what went wrong.

But I wasn’t ready for that, and I told him so. And I told him nicely.

That aside: he was more into me than I was into him, and I wanted to take things slowly. I’d been burned before, and it seemed like he hadn’t been on the cynic’s end of a breakup yet. If I was going to keep seeing someone as enthusiastic about the idea of falling love as he was, I wanted to ease into it.

There is nothing wrong with his request (although it wasn’t the smoothest move to make), and there is nothing wrong with really wanting to fall in love.

But what happened next was frightening. He was visibly upset, and I asked him what was wrong, and he decided to tell me.

Clarification here: I’m not telling this story to punish him, I’m not telling this story because he was wrong to feel what he felt, and I’m genuinely don’t think he was responsible for feeling the way he did. But patriarchy fucks over dudes a lot and they don’t see it because they’re usually on the power side of it, and this was one of those blind spots.

What he told me was this: He was upset that the evening wasn’t ending like he’d hoped it would. He really wanted to fall in love, and he wasn’t getting much of a commitment from me after a beautiful date like that. He was hurt that he’d opened up to me and wasn’t getting rewarded with an assurance that I wouldn’t see other guys after our date. He was disappointed that sex wasn’t happening, and that dating is hard and unpredictable and he hadn’t met “the one” yet.

Very human emotions, all. But each emotion was underlined with an unspoken assumption, caused by how our patriarchy-driven culture treats love and sex.

  1. The assumption that a girl owes a guy anything (usually sexual intimacy) after being wined and dined. If he picks her and the tab up, if he opens doors, if he says nice things about her eyes…he should get a little something in return.
  2. The assumption that being slow to commit is a reflection on how much someone respects someone (as in: if she’s slow to commit to him, she doesn’t take him seriously).
    1. The assumption that taking something slowly is a sign of rejection (and by “slowly” I mean: without premature commitment and letting trust grow organically and in a non-codependent manner).
  3. The assumption that sex and love are limited resources, going out of style tomorrow—that you can use up all your love by spreading it around too thin.
  4. The assumption that you either fall head over heels and it all works out, or you get your heart totally broken (this is the “it’s better to love and lose than to not try at all” mindset taken to an unbalanced all-or-nothing extreme).
  5. The idea that a woman shouldn’t make her own choices based on experience and experimentation because then some good guy is getting the shit end of the stick. (This is basically an indirect version of slut shaming.)

His refrain was: “it’s not fair!” and he ended it by saying “I should have just had my way with you” because (in his mind) it would have been better to have “loved and lost” than to have had a nice romantic evening without sexual fulfillment or emotional commitment. Having sex with me at all costs and then losing me totally was (apparently) easier to deal with than continuing to hang out with me and the post-divorce commitment question mark on my forehead.

That comment (“I should have just had my way with you…”) was scary and sounded very rapey. And we were alone in an empty parking garage at 1 a.m. I sat up and looked at him then, and decided that I needed to wake him up out of his sad good-guy pity party (thanks to patriarchal entitlement blindness) and let him know how that all sounded to me, what it implied.

I knew I was not in any danger of being raped—he was much more sad and vulnerable and confused than scary and threatening, and he’d been a totally gallant, gentlemanly sort of date up to that point—but I also know that the more confused a guy like that gets, the more resentful they become, and I couldn’t just let a speech like that slide.

So, the romance ruined, I spoke frankly. I told him that those comments made me feel unsafe, that no girl is going to be able to respect and trust him if he talked like that, and that he absolutely had to stop treating love like a commodity that could be used up, or yeah, maybe he will die alone. Sex and love aren’t prizes, I am not a catch, and there is no way he’s going to ever be happy in a relationship if he can’t see women as independent and autonomous and whole creatures. And falling in love is a sham unless you are willing to let the other person be fully human and accept them the way they are, not the way you want them to be.

To his credit, he really did seem to hear me and take all that seriously. He apologized, and I left.

But I still felt really shaken up by the experience and not just because he said something so utterly insensitive and frightening, or because I had to quickly respond so and with a feminist rant that required a lot of vulnerability and frankness.

What upsets me is the assumptions. What upsets me is the same thing that upsets me about what happened with my sister and the high school kids. It’s the same thing that upset me when, a few weeks back, I went to a favorite bar for mac and cheese, an amber ale, and some time to sort out my thoughts in a notebook. Once I got settled in, an old man (who was pretty drunk) sat next to me and leaned onto the bar and watched me eat with a rapt expression on his face. I was helpless to get him to stop, I couldn’t find another seat to move to, and the bartender acted like nothing was wrong. I ended up leaving because I was so uncomfortable.

The assumption common to these situations is this: the needs of men are fixed points and the comfort zones of women are not.

Men have desires, needs, comfort zones, and women are to bend and mold themselves to meet them. The problem is not that the old guy was being a pervert, or that the boyfriends were slutty, or that the one guy was bad at communication, or that the other was presumptuous and rude.

The problem is that I was the one who was supposed to defend my personal space, that the girlfriends assumed it was my sister who was the problem, that I was uncomfortable voicing my own emotions, that I had to explain sexual ethics to a guy and be responsible for being the only one attentive to my own commitment issues.

This should not be. Women are people too (which is the oddly radical definition of feminism), and the common courtesy we women are acculturated to show everyone should be something we ought to be able to expect to receive in return. Instead, women are trained to make up for the social slack that men are never made to learn, and it pits women against each other to compete for men, and it puts undue responsibility on women to keep relationships together and the communication flowing.

And then we continue to perpetuate these things and say that dudes are bad at expressing their emotions, that women are more naturally nurturing, that dudes can’t be expected to know what we’re thinking, that we should not expect much emotional attention from them.

We are constantly building our own gender role prisons. And I’m tired of seeing emotional and relational codependency and false gender roles treated like they are healthy benchmarks of normal relationships.

I should not have to apologize for my comfort zones, my needs, my feelings, or my preferences. And if that is what “normal” looks like, it needs to change.


I’ve been quiet here since I’ve been traveling, driving solo from DC to LA, but the other night I had the happy experience of an evening with Sarah and Micah Murray, and we talked a lot about our stories and processing the conservative Christian world we’ve come out of. And I had a flash of epiphany this morning as I drove away, so you’re getting an Immodesty Rail post instead of a happy-Hannah travelogue post.

***

When I started courting, I was hyper aware of how everyone else I knew had done this thing, what the stories in Josh Harris’s books showed as the “godly” ways to “walk out” their courtship in “good faith,” and what was necessary for having a healthy romantic relationship. Or at least, I knew what I thought a healthy relationship should look like and I had a pretty good idea of how to make mine look like a happy, godly thing for others to later emulate. This wasn’t conscious — this was just SGM culture.

See, the overall focus of everything in SGM (for me) was: be a good example for others. Every piece of my teenage and college years was set up in reaction to either 1) what my elders would think, and 2) what those younger than me would interpret as license to mimic if they watched my behavior.

Welcome to legalism.

And my ex, being who he is, was also really aware of what was and wasn’t socially acceptable in these circles. As a result (because, luckily for me, I was also aware that I was dating a person), I was tuned into this, too.

Given what we saw modeled for us in courtship culture (and, honestly, serious/”mature” Christian dating culture overall), his initial behavior as my boyfriend was much like this:

From xkcd

And it seemed like the reason he did this (well, the primary reason), was because of the culture in our Christian community where everyone assumed responsibility for policing each other (accountability) and thus you had to behave a certain way to assure everyone that you were being “above reproach” and “mature” and “godly” with your relationship choices. It was basically dating as social performance art.

Being uber happy with your new relationship — in a verbal performance sort of way, because physical demonstrations were too risky/sinful — was the best way to keep everyone off your back. I think, maybe, I engaged in this a lot more than he did. I’d be aware of the social expectations and talk up the positive things in our relationship and try to gloss over or tone down the negative elements. I felt compelled to talk about things that were too intimate to appropriately share (swapping dirt with your girl friends is one thing, but it’s entirely another to share that stuff with everyone to try to preemptively keep them from being “concerned” about you), and it drained me a lot. I felt like I was always on the defensive, needing to justify my relationship and my choices.

I’m not actively assigning motives here, but after all of that I tend to wonder a bit about why courting (or newly dating post-fundy life, or even newlyweds from this background!) couples tend to frequently feel the need to spam social media with announcements of how happy they are, how grateful they are for their bf/gf, how blessed and undeserving they are in/of the relationship. And I don’t really care about PDA if it doesn’t seem like a performance to make a statement.

But that all brings me to the problem with this defensive reaction to accountability in a legalistic atmosphere. Your simple motives aren’t good enough, and you are forced to second-guess yourself and over-think things to the point of cultivating insecurity and codependency. Decisions are made by committee — you talk yourself blue in the face telling everyone you know about your decision dilemmas, and ask endless questions about motives and fears, and then take steps based on where you are at the end of the accountability gauntlet. And advice from mentors and peers and parents is great, but this isn’t that. It’s losing yourself and appropriate sense of boundaries and privacy for the sake of fear, and you often forget to enjoy the ride of a new experience because you’re so afraid you’re doing the wrong thing.

I missed a lot of the joy in various “firsts” because I was so busy over-thinking everything and tense and afraid of doing the wrong thing. And that’s just silly. Dating is supposed to be about learning, not getting everything right the first time.

Why are Christians so afraid of making wrong choices and learning through mistakes? If we’re a practicing a faith that’s centered in grace and redemption, we shouldn’t be obsessing over having the Instagram-perfect, thoroughly “accountable” relationships like in the glossy courtship books our parents handed us. We should be enjoying learning about the beautiful things that can be had in community and learning about ourselves and each other, without fear.

***

All that said, I doubt I’ll ever recommend a relationship book to anyone ever again. Instead, I’ll shove a copy of Daring Greatly in their face and grin and say “this will change your life.”


When one of my friends starts dating someone exclusively, I like to ask questions, to capture in my head not just the story of how he asked her out or how she warmed up to him, but to understand the essence, the thingness of what makes their new relationship attractive to them. What do you like about him? Why’d you say yes to a date? What about her makes you want to spend time with her?

I’m a collector of stories, of people, of ideas. I soak it up. There is so much to the world and I want to understand things.

I get some really interesting answers to these questions. And I’ve given some really interesting answers to friends asking me similar questions, too.

One thing that gets me a lot, that makes me feel a little hollow inside and worry, is when I hear a man or a woman bragging about their significant other unduly much, and when I hear him or her saying things like “s/he’s just so good to me!” whenever he or she talks about the person they’re seeing. 

I promise I’m not just being curmudgeonly. I promise I’m not thinking of anyone in particular. And I promise, that what I’m about to say is not a universal thing. But I have noticed some trends, and I think it’s worth talking about it.

You see, when you’ve grown up in the conservative Christian world and hope to save your first everythings for your forever other, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. To not get your heart broken. To push through hard things as a couple and make it work, dammit. I have good taste in men, really. He just needs to grow up. She’s not always like that–she’s really good to me! Just trust me. I’ve got this. We’re happy. 

Once you have this pressure on yourself from yourself (maybe you got to third base with this guy and you are ashamed and just want to marry him so it can be okay and romantic, instead of Potential Mistake And Regret For Lost Purity, or maybe you’re just afraid of heartbreak and being alone), it sets you up for codependence. Or it can, if both parties are subscribers to this way of thinking.

Codependence thrives on fear of loss. This is my realization of the week. Codependence has to have the potential absence or loss of the enabler, the person you’re dependent upon for emotional stability. You don’t notice your codependency until the security blanket is threatened. Once it’s threatened, you feel manic, naked, offended, and you may become possessive and jealous, or you may become cold and aloof and self-sustained, passive-aggressively determined to make the other miss you and make them come back to you.

I’ve played both sides of this game. I’ve seen it modeled for me over and over when I was growing up, and I’ve been slowly loosening the claw-grips of these emotional habits from my head and heart. Facing my deepest fears this year, against my will, was my personal Eustace-the-dragon moment. I couldn’t pick off scabs of codependency thoroughly, because I was afraid of how much it would hurt, and when my ex ripped himself out of my life in a matter of days, I was suddenly on the other side and codependency (what little was left after trying hard to unlearn it for two years) wasn’t something I could wean myself away from anymore. I had to quit, cold turkey.

And then I realized something. Yes, I loved him. Had been in love, still am working out the fact that you never really stop loving someone even after it’s over, and it was real, for me at least. But it was also childish in a lot of ways, and there were things that I had grown accustomed to about our relationship that were cramping me in unhealthy ways. Not in the sense of “he cramps my style,” because he didn’t. But there were things about who I am that literally had no place in our relationship. Things that defined me for ages before I met him, things that were always going to be part of me, but things I neglected to “fit” him better. I don’t mean this in a cheesy-finding-myself-better-off-without-him way at all.

What I mean is: I wasn’t done growing up when I met him, and started dating him, and did the Hard Thing and Made Things Work and sacrificed a ton to be there for him and be the right sort of girl for him. Initially this was smothering, and we talked it out and I learned how to not trip-fall-run all over myself to bring all these subservient and codependent emotional habits I thought were good things that would make him feel loved and make us closer. Our relationship had some really good times, and the best of these were when I was taking care of myself, not trying too hard to be there and be everything he needed, and when we treated each other like equals, with respect. When our relationship was at it’s healthiest, there was no sense of possession/possessing/being possessed by the other. There was give and take, but we were most whole and united because we were individuals being open with each other, as individuals. Without being afraid of loss of companionship or love, or autonomy and personal voice. But the thing is, it never lasted. It wasn’t safe like that most of the time, for either of us, for lots and lots of complex reasons.

And so, I see in my own story, that sweet teenage, godly girl bragging on her first boyfriend, “he’s so good to me! he got me this thing I needed when I had a rough day!” and I hear that young Christian guy talking about how wonderful his sweetheart is in all the right ways and how he never wants to lose her, and I feel sad. What if their story is like mine? What if they’re afraid of getting it wrong, so they force the first one to be the right one? What if they settle for someone who’s good, because they don’t know what they’re missing because they’re afraid to lose what they have?

This agonizing existential question is what my ex chased after, leaving me behind. It’s a real question, and it’s worth asking. But being afraid to ask it when you’re dating, when you’re engaged, when you’re so infatuated with the newness of everything sexual–this is the coward’s path. You feel the stakes are so high because they are emotionally so high.

But the mean little secret is: breakups suck, but you’ll live and it gets better. Being afraid of these questions isn’t worth stuffing them deep down in the back of your internal emotional landscape until they become so pressingly real and you can’t ignore them anymore, but you’re married and it’s too late.

Ask the hard questions. Do the harder thing. Don’t force it to work; face your fears instead. Don’t keep dating her because she’s a godly Christian girl and fits the list. Don’t say yes to him because he’s good enough and you don’t have any other options.

Being single isn’t that awful of a fate. Being married isn’t a heaven that will erase all your tensions and private lonelinesses.

[and please, if you’re single and lonely and reading this, don’t take this too much to heart. you’re held in Love’s arms. don’t tell me i wouldn’t say this if i knew how lonely it is to be single and face those hard things on your own. i know. we’ll be okay.]

 

 

 


Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized story blended from a couple different real events in my life. All the guys who inspired this are good and well-intended men who grew up a lot afterwards. The point of this is not the guys themselves, but the ideas they assumed to be true because of the Christian culture in which we were raised.

We sat on the scrubby carpet of my dorm room floor, the door halfway open behind him. I held my mug of tea tightly, using the pressure to channel all my anxiety into the warmth and firmness of the mug.

“Mike” had IM’d me just 20 minutes earlier, when I’d just walked in from dinner. “Can I come over? We need to talk.”

I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to avoid this conversation. “I only have a few minutes,” I replied. “Come over and I’ll make a cup of tea. But I have to be somewhere with friends in 45 minutes.”

So he came over and there we were, sitting cross-legged on my floor, avoiding eye contact.

***

Dating at a conservative Christian school where everyone has read and seriously prayed about Josh Harris’s dating books is a complicated, dramatic process. Everyone takes everything too seriously, too soon.

After being isolated from male friendships by either coincidence or strategic parents (still not sure which) and my own insecurities around boys (after losing a really delightful friendship with one guy at 14 to a cross-country move and comments like “oh this makes me so happy! I’d hug you if you weren’t a girl!” me: Whaaat?), I got plopped down in the middle of one of those conservative Christian colleges where the primary campus traditions involve engagement hazing and a mad race to get hitched in May after graduation. And I was the naive INFJ who liked listening to people and felt horribly guilty saying no to anyone. By sophomore year I was in over my head.

So that evening, when I met to talk with Mike, a lot had happened already. He had scoped me out for a couple of months (I think we’d talked, one on one, maybe three times?), emailed my dad to ask permission to date/court me, gotten an non-committal “we should correspond and explore this, tell me about yourself” response, assumed he was going to be dad-approved, somehow found a stupid “husband qualities” list I had made early on in high school from an old blog, saw he matched a lot of them, and asked me out. I told him I’d think about it, but observed that I didn’t know him very well. (Reality: he was a good person, but I wasn’t “feeling it,” but I thought that I should give him a shot because…I didn’t know how to say no or feel like I had a right to turn him down).

In the month that followed I spent a little more time with him, but didn’t do anything outside of group events. He never asked me out to dinner, I never invited him over for a movie. Because, you know, conservative ex-homeschooler problems.

And then, he IM’d me and asked to talk alone. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him no — I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a friend. I didn’t know how to tell him “I’m not attracted to you” in a [conservative Christian] socially acceptable way. And the last time I had tried to tell a guy that things weren’t going anywhere, he ended up telling close friends that we were “unofficially a thing, but just working some details out” afterward. I was sure I had told him no! So I really, really didn’t want to make that same mistake again.

The conversation was brief and awkward. I remember we were both trying so hard to be kind and polite. I remember feeling flushed and restless the whole time. I remember that he was skittish about making eye contact.  But I was so proud of myself. I told him I didn’t see anything beyond friendship with him and I was as clear as I felt I could be while still being sensitive.

He was quiet for a long time. He finished his tea. He fidgeted with the mug. He put it aside.

“But God very clearly told me that you’re the one. How can he tell two people two different things?” It was sincere. He was hurting.

The perpetually impish side of my mind detached from the situation for a moment and snarked: “What the heck? Did he just say that? For REAL?”

But he was looking at me for an answer, and he was my friend. “Um,” I stalled. “Um, well, maybe God just hasn’t told me yet? Maybe he will? I’ll pray about it and I’ll get back to you if he tells me something different from what he’s been telling me so far. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying to me.”

***

I recently read a post by Allison Vesterfelt called “God told me to break up with you” and I laughed.

This idea — making God out to be the agent for starting and ending a relationship (“God told me you were the one”) – -starts in a theologically okay place (God has a plan for your life and it’s really good to pray and feel at peace with a decision before making it), but it really twists his role in relationships and puts too much pressure on sincere Christians to over-spiritualize everything about dating.

I remembered Mike and his sad, serious question, and the drama it caused that year. And I got to thinking about this. It was more than just a symptom of a problematic over-emphasis on the  charismatic type of hearing-from-God/knowing-God’s-will (which is a common concern in both charismatic and reformed circles — a sincere, but misguided anxiety to do everything correctly causes a skewed understanding of how God reveals his will to believers). This was a huge part of it, and it remains a huge problem. But there was something else that bothered me.

In a later conversation (where I had to tell him no again), I felt pressured (not just by him, but by my own understanding of how to “do right by him” and by my dad’s probing questions about why I didn’t like this guy) to have lots of rational reasons for saying no. I had to come up with a list in my head beforehand. I remember I wrote the list down on an index card and pulled it out to go over on my way to “end things.” (“Things,” which never existed.) I felt like I had to prove why we would never work well as a couple, and my game plan was to find something about myself that I knew he would accept as a deal-breaker and let him down with that revelation so he would be sure to never bother me about this again.

Why did I feel like I was obligated to do this? To have two or three conversations with guys to tell them “no” as kindly as possible? To have a list of “rational” reasons why we wouldn’t work? Why was the burden of proof on me? Why wasn’t it okay for me to just say “no, I’m not interested,” and leave it at that?

From my current feminist perspective, now I see a lot of cultural assumptions about women that I was going along with which made me feel this unnecessary pressure to “prove” that my reasons for not dating this guy were valid.

1) Men grow up being told by media and culture that they’re entitled to a pretty girl and if they go through the motions of being a nice guy and woo her, they’ll win the game and get the girl. [see this expounded more here]

2) Courtship movement teachings promote the idea that emotions are deceiving and that being attracted to someone isn’t important in the long run in a godly marriage.

This is pretty messed up — emotions do matter, and attraction is important. Love isn’t all about choice. Love also isn’t sexual desire or infatuation. It’s much richer and more beautifully nuanced than that! But I believed that my lack of attraction to this guy and lack of emotional “click” were not valid reasons. [This is usually only a girls’ problem in these circles, because guys are supposed to initiate, and can therefore choose to initiate a relationship with whoever they are attracted to. Girls are only supposed to respond. Again: messed up. But because of his privilege and his feeling of attraction to me, I had to defend to him my reasons for saying no.]

3) Saying “God told me” is a way of playing the complementarian spiritual hierarchy card. If a man is supposed to be the head of the house, spiritually, and women are not to teach and to submit to male spiritual leadership in the church, then a guy saying he’s heard from God and “hey, babe, you’re the one for me!” puts her in a difficult position. Even though he’s not yet married to her or her spiritual leader, he has a position of greater spiritual legitimacy and authority, and so if she thinks differently, she has to first question his spiritual authenticity and then question the validity of complementarian hierarchy to defend her own spiritual discernment of God’s will. Most girls won’t think this through and will either go with their gut and shut the guy down, or realize they’re up against a system where their spiritual voice is less valid, and go along with dating the guy for a while to “give it a shot” and see if maybe God’s actually in it.

This is utterly inappropriate. A girl should be allowed to say no without playing the God card, and if she has to play the God card, it should be valid independently of “gender roles” in the church and which gender is supposed to lead and initiate.

[Where this line of thinking leads: What if a girl is dating a guy and they’ve talked about engagement and plan to get married, as long as things keep going well, and he says that God told him that should have sex. He says it’s okay because they’re going to get married anyway. He also argues that, since Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and that was considered the same as being married in the Bible, it’s biblical! So then the girl goes along with it and has sex, even if she’s not ready/doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with it, because he “heard from God” and he’s her “spiritual leader,” since they’re “unofficially engaged.” This is basically manipulation, devaluing her comfort zone and her spiritual authenticity, and pressuring her into sex. And I’m not making this up — it happens.]

4) Girls are constantly given cultural messages that their feelings and opinions are always questionable because they might be “irrational.”

My first problem with this: this is a post-enlightenment concept which privileges reason over intuition. This is fine in the sciences, but the whole universe of human interaction doesn’t work on the basis of logic and we really can’t treat it like it does.

My second problem with this: If a girl who is sensitive and kind seriously desires to honor God, she will feel very pressured to avoid following her emotions or gut instincts on something. Because of this, I felt like my reasons (which were: I wasn’t attracted to him, I didn’t have any romantic interest in him) weren’t valid because they were intangible, intuitive gut feelings. He was perfect for me “on paper” — he matched the silly list I had made up once upon a time, my dad liked him, he had a solid career plan and no college debt, he was disciplined and spiritually mature (relative to my experience at that point),  etc. But I had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t pursue it, and I couldn’t explain it because God hadn’t “spoken to me” and I didn’t have a rational, deal-breaking reason to give him.

This is a false gender stereotype/expectation. People are rational and emotional. Reasons for relational boundaries are valid whether or not they make complete sense, are wholly emotional, or are wholly logical. People deserve respect, whether or not we agree with their reasons. But I couldn’t stand up for myself in this, because I was still buying into the idea that my reasons were invalid because they weren’t logical.

If you want to have biblical support for this idea, look at the teachings of Paul, where he urges believers to care for each other’s weaknesses and not make them stumble. He urges the Corinthians: if your brother is uncomfortable with the origins of the meat you’ve got for dinner, respect that and don’t serve it to him. It’s not wrong according to the gospel, but it makes him struggle in his heart. Be kind.

Likewise, if she doesn’t feel comfortable dating you, leave her alone. Don’t turn into a stalker like every chick flick male lead and “pursue her” until you’ve finally worn down her defenses. Let her be. Let her feel safe. Boundaries are healthy. Love her where she’s at: not okay with dating you!

***

I’m really glad that most people I know have matured and grown past this silly idea  that it’s okay to tell someone “God told me to date you/break up with you/marry you.” I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to actually act that way, but it’s highly unlikely, given a quick survey of his history of acting in the course of human events. Yes, your love life and decisions are important to him because you’re important to him. But they’re probably not of such earth-shattering, instant significance that he’s going to you “look, she’s the one” without bothering to tell her that you’re the one for her, too.

Even if we don’t like someone’s reasons for saying no and feel they’re irrational, it’s not our place to push them into something they’re uncomfortable with.