“You should date,” Mom said, “so you can learn what you like and don’t like in a guy.”
I was standing in my family’s kitchen, home for the first time from my freshman year of college, and my mother’s words caught me by surprise. After years of telling me that I wasn’t allowed to date because it would distract me from my studies (which did nothing to stop me from obsessively journaling about dudes, talking to them on the phone and IMing them for hours, and talking and IMing about them with my girlfriends for hours more — so much for no distractions), she had abruptly changed her tune when I left for college. When I called home during Welcome Week to tell her about all the fun things I was doing, her first response was, “Have you met anyone?” (What? When was I supposed to learn how to do that? The answer was decidedly no.) But the complete 180 aside, her words to me in our kitchen that evening were perfectly normal advice for a woman to be giving her 17-year-old daughter.
I, however, was having none of it. Because you see, I had already seen the light about relationships: I had kissed dating goodbye. Like scores of other young, impressionable Christians who came of age in the late ’90s, I had read Joshua Harris’s missive against dating before one was ready for marriage and taken it as gospel — and all the more readily because it provided a theological affirmation for what I was already doing at the time, which, thanks to Mom, was not dating. So I received her new advice with what can best be described as amusement at her unenlightened thinking.
“I don’t need to date,” I said, with a combination of pride and condescension that only a college freshman can muster. “I can learn everything I need to know about a guy by observing him in group settings.”
I don’t know how she kept a straight face.
The premise of Harris’s book was fairly simple: The ultimate purpose of dating is to find a lifelong partner. So if you’re not ready for something serious, why are you messing with someone’s heart? That’s selfish. You should hold off on dating until you’re ready to get married.
To his credit, I think Harris had only the best intentions in mind. And he had a point: Many people mess around with people they have no intention of being with long-term, and people get hurt as a result. That’s fair. But his philosophy created another problem: A lot of people took it very, very seriously and stopped dating in high school and college altogether. This was especially true in my Taiwanese American community, where dating in high school was already prohibited and no one, male or female, was considered ready for marriage before they established a career (i.e., before age 25). So a lot of people stopped dating during the period when they could learn how to relate to potential partners with relatively little consequence. Instead, they started learning how to date in their mid-twenties, when marriage was a real possibility — and the stakes were infinitely higher. Now, mistakes that were simply the result of inexperience, ones that would have been understandable in high school — like not calling when you said you were going to — were interpreted as character flaws, red flags, dealbreakers. At 24, many of my peers and I were figuring out things that we should’ve learned at 16, like how to bring up conflict in a relationship, how to communicate to someone that you care about them, and simply how to (non-creepily) ask someone on a date.
I felt these repercussions from every angle. I remember all the ambigi-dating that went on in college: Since we weren’t supposed to be dating, people would just hang out in nebulous, undefined relationships that often ended without warning, since no expectations had been set, and caused their own share of pain and confusion. I remember finding myself in a recurring dilemma, because the only dudes who were clear about wanting to date were ones who didn’t share my faith, something that was important to me in a partner. I remember the sheer panic I felt the one time a Christian guy did broach the topic of dating with me and said that the purpose of dating was marriage, so that was the direction in which we were heading. (I had spent less than 10 hours with him — we met at a retreat and lived in different states — so I think my terror was justified.)
I also remember having the realization that it would not kill me if a boy knew that I liked him — that it might actually be a good thing, because it could expedite the process one way or another. If he liked me, it could move things forward; if he didn’t, I could move on.
I was a third-year graduate student at the time.
Harris may have spared me from heartache, from getting involved with dudes who didn’t take me seriously and misleading guys I wasn’t really into. And that’s not trivial. But because of him, I also missed out on opportunities to learn what it’s like to be in a relationship, to learn how to treat a partner well, to learn how to communicate my feelings in a healthy way — before the potential of marriage amplified the pressure. Instead, these lessons were learned in my early- and mid-twenties with guys who probably did not expect to be dating someone with the relationship know-how of a high school freshman. (Sorry, dudes.)
I’m grateful that this fad has passed, that people seem to have calmed down a little about dating and gone back to seeing it for what it is: an avenue to find a potential life partner, yes, but also an avenue to learn how to be a good life partner for whenever that time comes.