Dating and all that…
What I've learned about relationships, true intimacy, and manhood since my divorce.
Dec. 21, 2008
My wife left me a year and a half ago. I’ll spare you the boring melodrama other than to say that there was nothing I could do to prevent it, that I remained faithful to the bitter end (which apart from her was deeply important to me), and that it was for the best for us both. Today we live a mile from each other and are still friends. And, we’ve been a unified front in caring for our beloved daughter (who in spite of it all is thriving).
Needless to say, a lot of things are different this time around. Today I find myself back in the dating world equipped with 13 years of marital experience. My expectations for the next relationship are a little more realistic (not jaded mind you, just realistic) and I am more centered than I ever was before being married… a time in life when loneliness controlled me more than I realized. And despite my strident insistence to the contrary back then, I no longer live under the illusion that a marital fairy tale will somehow rescue me. What a blessing it is to be able to date without the oppressive burdens of need and cynicism! Surprising as it has been for many of my friends and family, today I am more hopeful about my life, my relationships, and whatever future marital plans God has for me than I’ve ever been.
I was married in 1994 before Internet dating took off, so I never experienced this world, and never expected I would. Yet after 13 years, here I am… After several months of eHarmony and Match.com I’m still a babe in this brave new world, but even so I’ve learned many lessons about myself and online dating in general. Here are a few of them;
Seeking companionship does not mean trolling
It’s no secret that all kinds of people frequent dating sites. Obviously, there are the bottom feeders: Those who are there for themselves only, sporting gilded checklist they keep in their wallets next to the condoms; Those who want to hide in the shadows and act out some anonymous online fantasy without the risk of looking a real woman in the eye; those who are still married (!) and want to indulge their dreams or stroke fragile egos and haven’t got the courage to face their problems with their partners… In other words, people you can count on to run away the second that being with you requires an investment or a loving, sacrificial act of will. Emotional and spiritual cowards like these are beyond contempt, and their actions speak for themselves.
But even for the rest of us genuine intimacy is fraught with problems. Living as we do amidst a consumer culture, it’s difficult for us to think in terms of finding true intimacy with another human soul rather than shopping for a mate. At first blush, this might seem self-evident, but consider how many online profiles read like resumes rather than shared stories. After awhile they all start to sound alike. Is there anyone on this earth who actually isn’t a “smart, pretty professional” looking for “honesty”, “loyalty”, and “a good sense of humor?” Even the monikers people choose can be telling: “misschichiluvulongtime,” “hotcutiepie4u”… (Ok, I’m exaggerating, but you’d be surprised how many I’ve seen that aren’t much better). I don’t doubt the sincerity of profiles like this one bit. And to date I’ve never shunned one believing that it was shallow or purposely dishonest. Rather, I sense that many of us present ourselves like this out of fear, and a belief that if we don’t sell ourselves no one will give us a chance.
For my part, I’ve come to realize that I will never find the kind of relationship I want by selling it to someone. So the profiles I’ve presented at sites like Match.com and eHarmony are there for me to make myself known. Happiness in a relationship is not just about finding the woman who’s right for me… but also the woman that I am right for. I cannot expect to find her without being an open book myself. Not smothering or indulging in emotional vomiting mind you, just in being genuine… the same person on the pages of Match.com that I am in the quietness of my own heart.
I’m still learning how to write a decent profile. I worry sometimes that the ones I’ve posted don’t capture my personality, my sense of humor, and “child’s heart” as much as I’d like. But within the limitations of the few thousand characters most sites allow, they are as true to who I am as I’ve been able to make them, as are my online monikers. At Match.com for instance I’m cscottchurch. Because that is my name. It’s who I am. Last time I checked, my birth certificate did not say “hotguy4u.” ;)
In terms of finding someone, I can’t say whether any of this is drawing women to me or scaring them away. But I do know that it’s the only way I will ever find the kind of love, or even friendships I want, not to mention staying true to my own center. The ever-venerable Lyle Lovett said it best,
“If the stars didn't shine on the water
Then the sun wouldn't burn on the sand
And if I were the man you wanted
I would not be the man that I am”
I cannot offer any woman the kind of love she needs… and the kind I want to give her… unless I am the man God created me to be whether she is in my life or not. If I am to meet her face to face I must have a face of my own… one that is truly mine to give her.
There’s no point in pretending otherwise.
Words are sacred
They have the power to make known, and guard life’s most priceless treasures… and the power to destroy them. Love… Passion… Intimacy… Caring… No matter how sincere we are and how good our intentions may be, when we use words like these carelessly… without weighing their cost, or the value of what they guard… we cheapen them, and erode their power to enrich and protect us. Do this long enough, and soon love becomes mere sentiment, passion becomes lust, intimacy becomes self-indulgent drama… and it gets progressively harder even to tell the difference.
Eventually, the day comes when we can’t tell the difference between love and an emotional $5 roman candle that lasts just long enough for a one night stand, after which we wake up the next morning and find ourselves on the Internet trying to fill the void with another $5 roman candle… And when it comes time to deliver the real thing… we haven’t got the clarity, the centeredness, or the strength of character to do so, and everyone ends up wounded and impoverished.
Every minute we spend glibly chipping away at a sacred language, the meter is running… and when the time is up someone has to pay. Is it any wonder that the Bible makes so much of controlling the tongue?
If I guard my words they will guard me, and the women I date. The things I say will have meaning. They’ll reveal rather than dilute and cheapen the things I cherish most… and, I believe, the things that most women cherish as well.
And if I am patient enough to wait for a woman who will do the same I won’t be disappointed.
You don’t know anyone until you’ve spent time with them in person.
Most dating sites are careful to protect the privacy of their members. For obvious reasons, this is in everyone’s best interest. We all know about the bottom feeders I referred to earlier, but even for the rest of us sometimes anonymity can bite back.
After joining Match.com I corresponded for several weeks by email and phone with a woman who lives 3 hours away. We clicked right from the beginning, and being transparent and tender-hearted by nature, it didn’t take me long to open up to her. We shared very deeply about each others’ lives, hopes, dreams, and fears. I felt safe with her in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. She told me that I was the only man she was corresponding with. She even said she was irritated at the other overtures she was receiving from Match.com, which she saw as interruptions to our budding friendship. Eventually I came to believe that when we met in person I would fall in love.
However, there was one very big warning sign… one that my trusting, tender-hearted soul didn’t heed. She wouldn’t agree to meet me.
There were numerous opportunities… play dates for our daughters (who were about the same age and very similar… another compatibility point), opportunities for visits (3 hours’ drive is nothing for me if a promising relationship possibility is involved). Even 30 minutes at a Starbuck’s over coffee was off the table. She said that for now she was “comfortable” with email and phone. Her parents had recently died and she needed to close out their estate to finish the grieving process. She told me that as soon as that was done (a month or two) she’d be willing to meet.
Then one day, completely out of the blue… she announced that it wasn’t “working” for her anymore. Her reasons? Our phone conversations, she said, “weren’t what [she] was hoping for,” and she wanted someone who was “more interested in sports” (she was a hockey fan). She said that she had met another guy on Match, a random Daily 5 contact (so much for me being the only person she was corresponding with! ;) ). He clicked with her right away… apparently without any investment of time, prayer, and deep sharing of the sort she and I had built over several weeks. He was a great phone conversationalist, and a hockey fan, she said.
As if that weren’t enough… she then said that her fascination with me had been nothing more than “physical” (she thought I was good looking, and the romance in my writing got her going… writing that for me was entirely from my heart and hardly about mere lust).
And that was that…
What I had imagined to be a God-ordained connection of heart and soul, and the intimate sanctuary and tenderness that I long for… was not. And several weeks of writing, prayer, sharing our hopes, fears, and dreams with each other, investing the best my heart had to give… All of that was wiped away literally in a single afternoon… for no better reason than because another guy was, in her mind, a better phone conversationalist and a hockey fan.
Today I know better. You don’t really know anyone until you’ve spent time with them face-to-face. Anyone who isn’t willing to do this… to stand before you, hold your hand, and look into your eyes without blinking… has no right to the treasures your eyes would reveal.
Rejection isn’t what it seems
You see legions of people looking at your profile (most dating sites allow this to be tracked) but few if any people respond to you… You email others repeatedly and never hear back from them…
In the world of online dating few things come more naturally than to take this sort of thing personally. But in fact, there is little truth in it. First, it’s easy to forget that no matter how good your profile, no one really knows you until they know you… so it’s hardly like you’re being rejected. If anything, you may need to come up with a more revealing profile (not as easy as it sounds, I’m finding).
Second, studies have shown that on average, women receive far more initial contacts than men. It’s not unusual for a woman to receive 10 emails per day requesting correspondence, and even if you’re the one she’s looking for it’s going to take time for her to wade through them all and respond to yours. Studies also show that, 21st century values aside, women are still reticent about making the first move. Most want the man to initiate contact and will wait for him to do so after having viewed his profile (which again, he will see that she’s done).
Third, we all would do well to remember that men and women choose partners for all sorts of reasons… and many of them are bad. When rejection makes us feel undesirable, it’s because we’re assuming that men and women tend to choose wisely in relationships. The fact is that at least as often as not, when someone rejects you it’s probably the highest compliment he/she could bestow. Granted, I’m speaking as much to myself here as to everyone else. Like everyone else, I’m hardly a stranger to rejection (my wife left me after 13 years of marriage for heaven’s sake), and a cynic would argue that I’m just trying to make myself feel better. But well-characterized dating/relationship studies and divorce statistics support this. If anyone thinks I’m in denial about rejection here they’re welcome to send me reliable data that says so. ;)
Dating is supposed to be fun
Love, relationships, communication… history is strewn with the wreckage of those who were careless about these things. But that said, dating is also supposed to be fun. Getting to know another person, the spark of chemistry, the joy of getting to know someone… laughing with them, playing together, experiencing new things together … these are among life’s greatest delights. And few things will kill this fun faster than never-ending morose introspection… “she loves me, she loves me not… she loves me, she loves me not…”
“How do you feel about our relationship?...”
“The same damn way I felt about it when you asked me 10 minutes ago…” ;)
Don’t get me wrong! Intimacy, honesty, vulnerability… nothing is more important between a man and a woman.
But at the same time, there is a “vulnerability” which is little more than limp-wristed, metro sexual, existentialist drama. Gag!... How 60’s! True vulnerability is strength and centeredness. And true strength is vulnerable. This kind of strength will always be anchored in honesty and genuine self-identity… well enough that the anchor won’t need to be timidly checked every 5 minutes, thank you. ;)
So… lighten up everyone! Be patient and let the dating process handle itself. And try to have some fun along the way. Let the day’s own evil be sufficient for the day (Matt. 6:34), and leave the drama for Dr. Phil.
And on that note… back to work. ☺