One of my favorite popcorn films is Confessions of a Shopaholic. The premise is that a shopaholic with thousands of dollars in credit card debt lands a job at a finance magazine where she doles out personal financial advice. When questioned by her best friend about the hypocrisy of her situation, she confidently responds, "I give great financial advice."
So, yes, I'm single and am about to dispense my dating advice. You're welcome. I give great dating advice, even if (especially because?) I'm not married.
Two Mindsets: Shopping vs. Connecting
One big problem with dating in modern society is an extreme focus on evaluation and finding the right one. In Mormon culture, this focus starts in Beehive class, where twelve-year old girls, at the behest of their Young Women leaders, make lists of the qualities they are looking for in a spouse. The lists at this age are more or less identical and usually full of things like "returned missionary," "plays the piano," "temple worthy," "great sense of humor," and "tall."
The list can become more complicated or more realistic with age, but in some version or another it remains in the back of many people's minds (men and women) as they play the dating game. After the fun of flirting and hanging out wears down (or even before this happens), we're inclined to start asking, "What does this person have to offer me? How well does this person meet my qualifications?"
Granted, it's not bad to know what you want or need in a life partner and a successful relationship does depend on a certain level of compatibility and shared values--so some thought about these issues is fair. Some things probably should be deal breakers. The problem enters when we start treating dating in the same way that we'd treat buying a new computer: looking for the right stuff and comparing prices and specs until we find just the right thing for us--we don't, after all, need to ask if we are good for the computer.
This turns the people we date into products and us into consumers. In other words, this approach to dating focuses on "I-It" relations where people are objects to be used or experienced instead of "I-Thou" relations where there is a dynamic, enlightening relationship where neither person is an object and both are whole individuals. (For more on this philosophy from Buber in connection with relationships, read this book. Right now.)
In my mind, the most healthy relationships are relationships where both parties are able to be complete, whole individuals who choose to be together as a result of shared enjoyment, shared humor, shared experience, etc. This kind of connection grows over time as trust builds and individuals are more and more open and vulnerable about who they are. In these situations, good looks, crazy relatives, height, musical ability, adolescent challenges, and family crises aren't on the radar in terms of evaluating the suitableness of a partner. When you know someone's heart, their outer experiences and flaws don't factor into your overall analysis of that person. True Christlike, "I-Thou" love moves past a place of conditions and checklists and into a realm of full acceptance, trust, and belief.
Most of us probably agree that seeing people as people is a good way to approach dating, so why do we still sometimes fall into the habit of putting the people we date into boxes? Of making judgments about them and our compatibility with them too early? Of expecting too much from them too soon?
I've spent enough time in singles wards to know that Mormon singles are sometimes prone to quick judgments when it comes to dating: this could mean deciding to marry someone in a week, deciding we have no future with someone after one date, or deciding that so-and-so is a jerk or a player or a loser after one wrong move and cutting him or her from our list while resenting them from afar.
Sometimes we do it out of insecurity or arrogance or self-preservation or narrow-mindedness or in response to social pressure, but whatever the specific reason, it usually comes back to fear, an emotion that is antithetical to love. And this is the paradox of this kind of thinking--in an attempt to find true love and a successful relationship, we cut ourselves off from the foundations upon which love is built: vulnerability, acceptance, love, open-mindedness, humility. When we let go of fear, we let ourselves and others be who they are and connections and friendships develop naturally.
Okay, so this is what I've learned, my greatest piece of dating advice: let go of your fear because it's a blinder. It prevents you from seeing people as people. When you're free of fear, you can treat others with consideration and sensitivity, even when they don't particularly deserve it or aren't particularly attractive or interesting to you. Isn't this how God first loved us?
How God Loves Us
One thing I love about God is that He takes His time. He lets us putter around here in our clueless and mistaken state and patiently tries to lead us to be better. He doesn't force us or rush us, but He's there, waiting for any chance to show us He loves us and can help us be better than we are.
I'm not suggesting we all turn into doormats and commit to people we don't respect and with whom we won't be happy. But I am suggested we take a step back, admit our own failings and weaknesses, and look for the good in others instead of the bad--encourage them to be better instead of condemning them for being wrong. God isn't a doormat because He sees and works for the divine potential in His children.
God is so full and complete in Himself that He doesn't have to worry about evaluating people in terms of His needs or what they have to offer Him. We offer God nothing, and yet He focuses all His energies on us. The love of God is based in who He is and what He chooses to give us instead of what He expects to receive in return. In fact, the only thing God wants is to see the children He loves be happy and fulfill their deepest potential. And it is this selfless, disinterested, transformative love that converts and makes us fall in love with God.
So what if we dated like this? What if we didn't worry about ourselves, our insecurities, our concerns, our desperation and instead became whole enough to offer love and concern and respect to the people around us, even the people whom we aren't particularly interested in? What if we stopped griping about how women are impossible and needy and men are stupid and blind? What if we stopped harping on what we're looking for and what we need? And what if instead we opened our eyes and saw individuals and loved those individuals and gave out the love and validation and respect that all people need?
What we all need is some slack: trust that the people around you are doing the best they can because they probably are; believe that there is good in the people you're dating even when they seem flawed because there is. If you trust and believe in others (not just the people you date) in this way, you are helping them become their best selves and yet remain themselves. We have to let people be who they are and learn to love them for their individuality.
It might seem somewhat naive, idealistic, silly, or even inappropriate to focus so much on the religious concept of charity when it comes to dating, but I think it's the key successful dating. It enables us to move past all the selfishness, manipulation, deception, and hurt feelings that can often accompany the dating scene. In a devotional on romantic love, Elder Holland asked and answered an important question:
"You want capability, safety, and security in dating and romance, in married life and eternity? Be a true disciple of Jesus. Be a genuine, committed, word-and-deed Latter-day Saint. Believe that your faith has everything to do with your romance, because it does. You separate dating from discipleship at your peril. Or, to phrase that more positively, Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, is the only lamp by which you can successfully see the path of love and happiness for you and for your sweetheart. How should I love thee? As He does, for that way 'never faileth.'"In order to love as Christ loved, we need to have the perspective that Christ has. We need to see others as He sees them. Christ sees people for exactly what they are and exactly what they can become and He believes and hopes and trusts and works for the glorious possibility and vision of their potential He carries with Him.
In dating, we should do what we can to recognize and respect the divine potential of those we date. We should help them feel the love they need to feel in order to be who they need to be. Love transforms people. Lists and expectations do not.
We have to project the love we wish to receive. And if we do this and we still don't find a mate, that's fine. We've still got God and His infinite love that can fill every cranny and crevice of loneliness or disappointment we may hang on to inside. And as God continues filling us, we're continually more capable of filling others.