The Danger of Dating in Your Mind
- Carolyn McCulley Author & Contributing Writer
- Published Sep 21, 2005
Here’s a typical conversation between two single women:
“So how did it go with [insert guy’s name here] the other night?”
“Oh, it was great! It was just the two of us. He picked me up, treated me like a queen. We really clicked. It felt like a date! We had a blast.”
It felt like a date. That’s a phrase that should set off all kinds of alarm bells among single women. If it “feels” like a date, then no one has said it’s a date. It’s just two friends hanging out, but one of them wants more. In this scenario, the problem is that while the man may be clear in his own mind about his intentions (“just friends”), the woman is not. She’s hoping for more or “dating him in her mind.”
This may seem like a harmless distraction, but it’s really not.
I have a friend who once observed that our interactions with men should be like a peanut butter sandwich. No one likes to eat a sandwich where the peanut butter is all clumped up in one corner. We like our peanut butter to be evenly spread around. “So, honey, don’t get all clumped up in one corner, distracted by one guy,” she said. “Spread yourself around! Let him get clumped up around you!” We had a good laugh at that, but there’s much truth in this homespun advice. Because our churches often provide the context to get to know single men as friends, we women can start investing more significance in these interactions than is wise. We get all “clumped up” around one guy -- until he says something or does something to make us realize he’s not going to pursue. Then comes the disappointment.
In our defense, I have observed when men go through all the motions of dating without declaring their intentions. I’ve seen men “try on” certain women and then fade away if there wasn’t enough spark to attract them to pursue. I’ve seen men hang out with women for years as extremely good friends, seemingly oblivious to the potential there, while the women struggle to guard their emotions and expectations. While I think we can become wiser about evaluating the men in these situations (which we’ll look at next time), all things start with our own hearts. Because I’ve been “clumped up” far more often than I’d like to admit, I’ve learned to discern the symptoms of this tendency in my life. Here are some questions I ask myself whenever I think I’m starting to “date someone in my mind”:
- Do I talk about him a lot to other people?
- If these other people don’t share my enthusiasm, and even caution me to not cultivate expectations, do I feel deflated and resent their input?
- Am I going to this event or meeting primarily because he will be there?
- Am I distracted in church or small-group meetings because of his presence?
- Do I break other commitments because he’s invited me to do something spontaneously?
- If he doesn’t talk to me or single me out at events, do I go home disappointed?
- Am I jealous of the women he does talk to or serve?
- If he declines one of my invitations, am I tempted to feel rejected?
- When he does pay attention to me, am I so oriented to him in a group setting that I don’t consider the needs of others around me?
When we get stuck in a man’s orbit like this, typically we’re laying claims and forming attachments that are deadly to our spiritual growth and witness. Because these attachments are one-sided, when the relationship doesn’t occur in the way or time that we want we usually respond sinfully.
Paul Tripp, author and biblical counselor, explains the pitfalls of this continuum in this way – desire leads to demand, which re-labels itself as a “need” and leads to expectation of fulfillment, which, when unmet, leads to disappointment, and thus ends in punishment. As he writes, “The objects of most of our desires are not evil. The problem is the way they tend to grow, and the control they come to exercise over our hearts. Desires are a part of human existence, but they must be held with an open hand. … The problem with desire is that in sinners it very quickly morphs into demand (‘I must’). Demand is the closing of my fists over a desire. Even though I may be unaware that I have done it, I have left my proper position of submission to God. I have decided that I must have what I have set my heart on and nothing can stand in the way. I am no longer comforted by God’s desire for me; I am threatened by it, because God’s will potentially stands in the way of my demand. … There is a direct relationship between expectation and disappointment, and much of our disappointment in relationships is not because people have actually wronged us, but because they have failed to meet our expectations.”
When I first read that diagnosis (in his book "Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands"), I was stunned. That’s exactly what happens when I “date someone in my mind”! One sentence in particular screamed from the page: “There is a direct relationship between expectation and disappointment, and much of our disappointment in relationships is not because people have actually wronged us, but because they have failed to meet our expectations.” These are self-induced dings to our hearts! Even more seriously, these acts are seeds we are sowing to future conflict in our own marriages. No husband will meet all of our desires, so we should learn to protect our own hearts and minds in Christ Jesus by not indulging this cycle of idolatry.
So how do we change? Here’s something I’ve been meditating on over the past year. The secret is in the worth of a woman with noble character. The Bible says she is “more precious than jewels.” Jewels aren’t out on the store’s front counter for every passerby to carelessly handle. Precious jewels are guarded in the vault, and are only brought out for consideration by a buyer who has demonstrated serious intentions and the wherewithal to purchase. Costume jewelry attracts casual inspection – and lots of it – by its cheap presentation. But because it’s not seen as valuable, it’s not treated as such.
We don’t have to put our affections and ourselves on display. We can trust our heavenly Father to ward off the casual shoppers and only bring those with serious intentions to consider us. But you need to know that this will mean some “vault time.” While you’re in the dark, wondering when -- and if -- you will have a chance to sparkle for an appreciative buyer, you’ll be tested. During this time, keep in mind these three reminders:
- Prayer: Take your petitions to God, for He’s the only one who can change a man’s heart, and this brings His peace to guard our own hearts.
- Pursuit: It’s not our job as women. Instead, we should have the joy of being pursued.
- Prevent Disappointment: Check yourself before you head down the slippery slope of desires, demands and expectations that Paul Tripp outlined. When you find your fist closing over good desires and making them demands, stop. Open that clenched fist and hold that desire up in prayer (see point one again).
We have to be very careful about guarding our own hearts. This is a wisdom issue. More importantly, it’s a worship issue. The real motivation for guarding our hearts is not to be able to hand our husbands a relatively unscathed heart on our wedding day, as important as that is. The real motivation for guarding our hearts is to preserve our trusting dependence on God with a peaceful spirit, whether we get married or not. It’s to keep a Scriptural imperative: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
Carolyn McCulley handles church and ministry relations for Sovereign Grace Ministries and is a member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD.
This column is adapted from her book, "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred." (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.gnpcb.org). Carolyn welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit her website (www.carolynmcculley.com) or blog (solofemininity.blogs.com).