Reposted from Pat Praservit’s blog, December 7th, 2016
Love is a game. At least, this is what I learned at the ripe age of six from watching the movie Clueless. With the help of Cher and her lipsticked posse, I learned the game of love has a lot of rules: getting love requires a wide selection of outfits and a plan, you don’t show all your cards, you can’t text back too quickly, shopping heals most wounds, and you only want the people you can’t have.
Of course, I can watch this movie two decades later and enjoy it with much more thoughtful commentary. But some lessons are pretty hard to unlearn.
As a single, twenty-something Christian, I have to sort through a lot of mixed messages about romantic love. On the one hand, I believe that marriage isn’t the end-game of life. I believe that you can live a happy, fulfilling life as a single person (after all, both Jesus and Paul stayed single). I believe that truly fulfilling love comes from God and can be experienced through multiple channels including your immediate family, friends, the Church. And, let’s be honest, getting to decide how you spend your free evenings without consulting anyone (and actually having free evenings) is pretty darn nice.
On the other hand, most of my best friends are married (to some of the best guys I could’ve ever handpicked for them) before the age of 24. I work for an organization that highly values family, in which work conferences seem like a tongue-in-cheek mingling session for singles. I’m plagued with ads for dating apps (thanks Facebook), previews of chick flicks (my guilty pleasure), and #mancrushmonday posts. And personally, I do hope to be married someday.
Tack onto this the different messages about HOW to date: just wait on God’s timing, be open, but don’t be too open, initiate, don’t initiate, wait for the guy who sees how awesome you are, just be awesome and don’t worry about it, text him first, wait three days, don’t be too eager, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable…but guard your heart!!
Picture a robot internally combusting from an overload of mixed programming–because this is what singleness feels like. How can I be a woman who loves Jesus, is content and thriving in life, desires to be married, but isn’t waiting for a knight-in-shining-armor to show up at her door?
Um, when you figure that out, could you let me know?
Donald Miller, in his book Scary Close, suggests that we are all designed with sensitive antennas, receptors designed to receive love, and we often get our signals mixed up and confuse our need for love with our need to perform. He carries on this metaphor to assert that how we detect or receive love is dependent on the experiences that have shaped us, have messed with our antennae. I think how we approach romantic love may be the most telling indicator of the messages we believe about who we are and what love is. After all, romantic love is not the love that is assigned by which pair of arms takes us home from the hospital (although this love in our broken world is not a given, either). It’s not something we crave when we’re learning to walk. But it becomes something, through experiences we have and messages we hear, for which we develop a concept, a belief system, and a strategy.
My belief system about romantic love was influenced by my cultural upbringing, my family history, and my early relationships. I grew up in a culture that, frankly, idolizes romantic love…soap operas preach it, matching T-shirts display it, songs on the radio wail about it. Love is the ultimate prize. In Thai culture, it is not the norm to move out of your parents’ house unless you get married, so there is a lack of that Western independence and pride associated with being a single young adult. Love is freedom and self-fulfillment. Growing up, I saw a culture that idolized loyal, unwavering love, but was permeated with the reality of unfulfilled promises. To take a mistress is not uncommon. Cheating is accepted as a highly likely outcome, a reality that I saw play out in my own family. Winning is when you’re the first to leave.
From my first romantic relationship, I learned similar messages about how you play the game. This relationship ended three times. And while he was a great guy, I recognized this pattern of love being a chase…something that was exciting and captivating until it wasn’t anymore. I learned that the person who cares least has the most power. And I learned that that person usually wasn’t me.
I’ve dated and been in other relationships since, healthier, unhealthier, some I’ve ended, some I didn’t. But each time has been either a confirmation or an uphill battle against those messages I learned all my life.
My relationship with Jesus has radically rewritten the way I see love. But dating has always been the truest test of my theology–because how do you show sacrificial, Christ-like love in a system that seems designed to end in disappointment, with a win or a lose, with the person who cares less being the one who gets to pass “Go” and collect $200?
You have to be okay with losing.
And this has always been my biggest fear with dating: that I am a loser. We learn early on that the loser is the one who “can’t get over it.” When someone rejects us, we retort that we didn’t care anyways. We play it safe, we ambiguously hang out until we are sure our affections are returned. Because somewhere along the way, showing that you care too much, too soon, became terribly uncool. Showing you care more than the other person became incredibly foolish. Because it leaves us vulnerable. So we build up our defenses, we hide how we feel, we shove emotions down, we belt out some Beyonce, we learn not to cry in front of others.
I have been told that I care too much (not just in the realm of romance, but about everything). This isn’t one of those “flaws-turned-into-something-positive-for-a-job-interview” observations, but rather a crippling acknowledgement of one of my biggest insecurities–that even how I love people is inherently broken.
This comes out in a myriad of ways. I feel personally responsible for people’s experiences and emotions (read: bad boundaries). I hold on for far too long after a breakup. Sometimes, I feel an almost irresistible impulse to buy things, bake things, fix things, share things. Usually followed by immediate panic of whether or not I did too much. Because showing your cards means that you’ve already lost the game.
But what if the stakes are much higher than being the last one who texted or the one who says “I love you” first? What if dating wasn’t just about convincing someone to love you because you’re cool and out of their league and a challenge…but what if the stakes are really about the person you become in the process and who the other person becomes as a result of your interactions with them?
Donald Miller writes about performing for love and what drew him to his wife, Betsy: “She said I didn’t have to perform for her. She didn’t have to say that. I knew it was true. Who else do you marry but the person who pulls you off the stage?”
I don’t think we can really win until we are willing to fold, to leave the game and remember that love is much bigger than a power struggle. Otherwise we approach romance with fear, with insecurity, with a need to control and predict, with armor on.
One of my favorite quotes is: “Be the one who nurtures and builds. Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart, one who looks for the best in people. Leave people better than you found them.”
And so what if, as a single Christian woman, dating finds its rightful place under my calling to “go and make disciples”? What if my goal wasn’t to win the game, but to leave people better than I found them–better loved, better experiencing their identity as a child of God, better equipped to love others? What if I was willing to lose, rather than making sure I care less and leaving people further rooted in their insecurities, convinced they need to earn affection, committed to rehearsing their acts and their lines for their next performance? I don’t want to leave a trail of broken people behind me in my quest to win at love.
I’m a mess of distorted beliefs, defense mechanisms, and insecurities. Go ahead and ask the people I’ve dated! But I’m trying to remind myself that I don’t need to live out my singleness in a mindset of scarcity, competition, and fear. After all, my view of love is based on a man who willingly gave up his life to love the very people who had rejected him.
Maybe I lose, but maybe that’s okay.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
– John 13:34
Note: I think there is wisdom in having healthy emotional boundaries in dating, that love is different from obsession, that you shouldn’t voluntarily place yourself in situations where you will be used/manipulated, and that the most loving thing sometimes is letting people go. But that’s another post, for another time.
Patreeya is a graduate of USC and is on staff with Cru, the US ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. She currently lives in Berkeley, CA, where she spends her free time reading more than one book at a time, cooking while watching MasterChef, eating whatever is put in front of her, and exploring what it means to live life as an adventure with God. You can find her article in its original form on her blog.