Mystics and theologians have long and often used romance as a metaphor for our relationship with God. Many of the challenges we face in our spiritual life are reflected in our love lives, particularly in our responses to the other. Some people are uncomfortable with the metaphor or get offended by it, but it has a long history in our faith. Think of the Song of Solomon: What other reason would a wedding poem fairly reeking of eroticism be doing in the Bible? But if it’s true our relationships with God are reflected in our romances, then I grow uncomfortable.
You see, I’m romantically-challenged.
The Dawn Finally Breaks
When a man is in a close yet platonic friendship with a woman, the man often finds she will share with him intimate details of her life — particularly her love life — she wouldn’t ordinarily share with a man she was dating or wanted to date. (I’ve found this kind of trust can fill a “friend zone” with a poignant sweetness that helps compensate for the unrequited érōs.) In revealing these secrets, she can sometimes change the way the man looks at women, at romance, at relationships, and at himself.
Such a moment happened to me recently. The friend revealed some details about her boyfriend, who was doing little more than checking the “companion” box. As I read the text message, I grew uneasy. With the exception of one detail, the man she was describing could have been me (he isn’t, I assure you). Especially the “lacking in basic courtship skills.” I only know this because my last girlfriend left some bread crumbs for me to follow when we broke up. That it took 10 years to realize where the bread crumbs led is a facet of the problem.
There are probably hundreds of thousands if not millions of us out there — men and women who were apparently skipping school when they had the class on Dating and Mating the Opposite Sex. We’re not closet gays; we’re not all asexual; we’re not all asocial or antisocial; only a small percentage of us drift into that pathological sect who call themselves “incels.” Nor do we all remain lifelong bachelors, though we may marry later than the average person. Whether we’re all interested in marriage or parenthood, your mileage may vary. But when it comes to romance, we’re flops.
Wait … There’s a Script?
I’m not talking about people who fall in love with narcissists, abusers, and chronically unfaithful people. We fall in love with people who could be right for us but who decide within a few short weeks that we’re not right for them. And we often don’t know why because some unwritten rule tells the other to either let us down easily or break contact. (Thank God my ex, who’s still a friend, broke the rule.) But it’s not because we were bad or unpleasant people to be around. Rather, there was a script we were supposed to follow, one which we never learned.
Script, in this sense, is a psychological term for a culturally standardized role or pattern of behavior, one we’re supposed to unconsciously learn through socialization — that is, from our peers, our parents, the media, and other cultural influences. In some cultures, social classes, and subgroups (e.g., the military), the patterns are explicit, formalized, and rigid. You almost can’t avoid learning the necessary scripts, and God help you if you don’t follow them when called for. In others, the scripts are loosely constructed, admitting of some variation or improvisation, and transmitted just as informally.
Nevertheless, God help you if you don’t learn or follow them.
Why didn’t I learn the dating script? It’s a long story. Suffice it to say that by 10th grade, I’d changed schools so many times I had enough difficulty just breaking out of my self-pity to make friends, let alone learn how to court girls. While it’s not wise to generalize from just my own experience, I suspect many romantically-challenged people like me had experiences which in similar fashion isolated them from their peers during the crucial years of sexual socialization. Especially those of us who stood on the lowest rungs of the high school social ladder.
Romance vs. Love
So here we are, the romantically-challenged. We’re not bad people. In fact, many of us are the nice people who are repeatedly “friend-zoned.” And we’re “friend-zoned” so often because, whatever else about romance in 2019 that may be different from 1959 or 1979 or 1999, there are still some things women tend to expect from date-worthy men and men tend to expect from date-worthy women to not only get them interested but keep them interested.
And we either don’t know them or can’t see why we need to check those boxes. As I told my ex-girlfriend when we broke up, “I can’t pass the test if I don’t know the metrics I’m supposed to meet.” We didn’t learn the script.
I think it helps if we distinguish romance from love. Love is a choice and a commitment. Romance, on the other hand, is the quest or pursuit, the trials you will undergo to win that choice and commitment. In a sense, those trials test your own degree of commitment. They prove you deserve the choice. And in the Western romantic tradition, quests aren’t supposed to be easy. Part of the challenge is figuring things out for ourselves, which is why our partners rarely if ever tell us what we’re doing wrong or not doing at all.
In classical romantic literature, the authors often portray the roles of pursuer and pursued, the seeker and the grail, as filled respectively by the man and the woman. In more recent literature, the roles are often reversed. But in real life, you must not only respond to the other person’s signals as a worthy pursuer but also send out your own signals that you too are worthy of pursuit, that you’re desirable not only as the seeker but as the grail of the other’s quest.
And if you’re sitting there muttering to yourself, “I’m not playing any [expletive] games or sending any silly [expletive] signals,” you’re saying you expect the other person to do all the work. Good luck with that.
What Does “Nice” Mean?
One thing I’ve belatedly learned about romance is that, while women do want a nice man, nice doesn’t mean passive-aggressive. Or worse, passive. What they mean is a man with a judicious blend of assertiveness and sensitivity. They want someone who will take their needs and desires into consideration; but they still want someone who will lead and take the initiative, not someone who’s indecisive or a spectator to life. While they don’t want to fight or get hurt, they’d rather deal with a man who’s open with his anger rather than one who’s either sullen and silent or a doormat.
These are generalities, of course. There are women who unconsciously select for men who will dominate and abuse them, while there are others who select for men they can dominate and abuse. In either case, you’re better off not passing their tests. And while self-sacrifice is part of the Christian ethos, you can put others’ needs and desires first without giving the impression that you’re passive.
The same generalities apply to men: Nice doesn’t equal helpless. Men may prefer to lead, but they also tend to prefer women who engage by contributing ideas, making their needs and desires known, and occasionally taking the lead themselves when it’s important to them. Men prefer to feel needed, but they also tend to prefer women who can manage things on their own initiative and resources. And while they don’t want to fight either, they prefer to face a woman’s naked wrath than to suffer a string of subtly denigrating comments or the silent treatment.
Again, your mileage may vary. Some men do want doormats and punching bags, while some are attracted to damsels in perpetual distress. You’re better off not passing their tests.
The question here is not “How do you become Mr./Ms. Right?” Only God knows that answer. The kind of people we think we want aren’t always the kind that will do us good, while those who have flaws we find hard to deal with can challenge us to grow in ways we never expected. The point is that romance is an activity, not a passivity. You have to do more than just show up, smile, and whisper sweet nothings. The question is, “Do you really, actively contribute anything positive and constructive to a relationship, or do you just check the ‘companion’ box?”
“Involuntary Celibacy?” Not Really
All this may be obvious to you, Dear Reader. My point is, it wasn’t obvious to me. And there are many, many others out there to whom the scripts of postmodern dating are as obscure as Celtic runes, though you think them obvious as a Valentine’s Day card. Many of the signals we romantically-challenged people put out, we can’t help sending because of the way our personalities developed through the mix of genetics, parenting, social influences, and individual choices.
Some romantically-challenged people are lucky: they meet the right person or get the right clues. Others become frustrated enough to seek the answers they need. For others, though, “waiting for the right person to come along” becomes a mode de vivre and an excuse for not changing our ways. We expect others to suit us, but we don’t do them the courtesy of trying to suit them. But we’re not entitled to érōs; even to merit friendship, we have to put in some effort. Our celibacy isn’t really involuntary after all.
Again, we’re not bad people. We may make very good husbands and wives. But it takes extraordinary lovers to bring the best out of us, and they can’t (and often won’t) do it without our cooperation or willingness to change. We’re not worth the effort unless we make some effort ourselves. That’s not just how some people end up perpetually in the “friend zone.” That’s how some people end up in Hell — God the Lover won’t impose His transformative love on those who don’t want it enough to make some effort.
Yes, we’re romantically-challenged. But romance is by its nature a challenge. The question is whether we rise to meet it or not.