When I was in college I started consciously switching from saying “when I get married someday” to “if I get married” whenever the subject came up. Growing up in the South, it came up pretty often.
“When I get married, I’m going to have an awesome band like this one at the reception.”
“Aw, how sweet! I hope it’s my story is as romantic as theirs when someone proposes to me!”
“When I get married my colors are going to be pink and pink, too, just like in Steel Magnolias.”
I remember sitting on my bed with my cousin when we were about twelve writing out our wedding plans. Mine went a little something like this: bridesmaids would be my sister, two of my cousins, my best friend, and then my fiance’s sisters if he had any. He could pick the groomsmen, but I wanted my brother to be one of them. And my little cousin would be the flower girl. I wasn’t great at math, so I didn’t realize that she would grow up and be a teenager by the time I would be old enough to put these plans into action. Notice anything else I seem to have overlooked here?
Gold stars for all of you who said, “Who’s the groom?”
That was a minor detail. It didn’t matter who the groom was–he was just a stand-in to make sure I could get the wedding and the marriage and the kids I would obviously have when I grew up. Once I did grow up a little though, I recognized that this was probably not a healthy way to look at a relationship, so I made the change from when to if in my vocabulary. I wasn’t banking on a wedding with whoever I could find to fit the part anymore. I started to recognize that we all come into this world single as our natural default state. Sometimes we meet people we find so completely delightful that we decide to get married and share a mortgage and a bathroom and all the other unglamorous things make up a life together. And sometimes we find a lot of people we find delightful and we indulge in deep and meaningful relationships with them that enrich our lives, but we decide to keep our bathrooms and our mortgages to ourselves. For me, letting go of the need to find someone to marry and just being open to getting to know people and let life unfold was incredibly freeing. For the people who heard me say if instead of when, though, it was apparently very distressing. Some even corrected me.
“Oh, no. You don’t mean that. You’ll find someone!”
“What do you mean ‘if’? You’re a catch! Don’t give up on marriage.”
“That’s so sad! Why would you say it like that? He’s out there, you’ve just got to keep looking.”
With a few very refreshing exceptions, most people heard this simple preposition change as a total lack of self-confidence and a resignation to loneliness. They seemed to think I didn’t feel like I was good enough to get married. It was a totally foreign concept that I just didn’t want to plan a whirlwind romance with a hypothetical human being.
This reaction is by far the strongest among my Southern Christian friends and family. Somewhere along the way in the church in our neck of the woods, we started to idolize marriage and dating, putting the ideas of these things above the actual people involved. When we do that dating becomes more like an audition casting the role of bride and groom rather than a chance to get to know someone you think you would like to spend time with.
At my Baptist university, it was particularly bad–probably because most of us who grew up hearing about the joys of marriage were told that college was where we were most likely to meet that special someone who could fill in the blanks on our wedding seating chart. The Bible Belt mentality that good Christian boys and girls should find other good Christians girls and boys and get married and have good Christian babies pervaded the coffee shop conversations and college ministry sermons and late night dorm room chats we had with each other, and ring by spring (the idea that you should be engaged by at least the second semester of your senior year if you didn’t want to end up an old maid) was epidemic. In fact, when I Googled the phrase “ring by spring,” one of the first results was a list of articles on the subject from my very own college paper. I can’t make this stuff up.
So the whole marriage question was always there under the surface of all the other fun and challenging– and yes, occasionally educational– things we had going on over the course of our four years there. In the back of our minds in even the most casual interactions with each other was the question of whether this one might turn out to be the one, and the way we went about figuring this out always seemed a little backwards to me. There was a process: you meet someone, decide if they’re the kind of guy or girl you’d like to marry (this phase often occurred without any actual input from the other person and sometimes without any other interaction except for being in class or Bible study together), then– with the end game of marriage firmly established in your mind– you might ask them out on a date. By the third date, you should have either confirmed your suspicions that yes, indeed, this one is marriage material with a DTR (that’s a Define the Relationship conversation for you non-Baylor grads), preferably while sitting on one of the green and gold swings hung from trees around campus unofficially designated for this purpose, or you decided to let them go. If you couldn’t definitely establish that you wanted to marry this person by date three, it was really best to stop wasting everyone’s time and cut them loose. After all, the clock is ticking so if this person doesn’t fit your vision of the role of bride or groom, they should be free to audition elsewhere. Anyone else getting hives at the thought of this? This is what led a boy I went on three or four dates with over the course of two weeks in October to decide that he wanted to spend Christmas with my family and to pick out names for our (non-existent) children. Uh, no pressure.
Obviously this is an extreme example, and it definitely doesn’t reflect everyone’s experience at Baylor (lots of people found perfectly well-adjusted, wonderful partners there or elsewhere and plenty of others found passions and careers and friendships that are every bit as fulfilling as a romantic relationship), but it was a very real part of that culture. And bits and pieces of this have made their way into some of our mainstream perspectives on this too, both inside and outside of the church. We have a lot of formulas and blogs and rules about what it takes to meet and keep “the right person.” We’re willing to jump through a lot of hoops to make sure we get the relationship we want, and most of those hoops involve things we should or shouldn’t do to attract a hypothetical mate. They’re not about actually getting to know another real live human being. The thing is, you only need those things if you are focused on the role (boyfriend, girlfriend, partner…) instead of the person.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Y’all, relationships are hard enough when you’re just doing what feels right. Why add any more pressure by trying to fit into an artificial formula about how long to wait before calling someone or what circumstances constitute a “real date” versus a “casual hang out”? Nobody writing any of those advice blogs (this girl included) actually knows you and the person you want to date (or don’t want to date despite your grandmother’s insistence that you two would be perfect together). Why would you trust us to tell you whether you need to be the one to make the first move or if they should? (Side note: please particularly ignore any advice about this based entirely on the gender of who gets to initiate a date). How the hell should we know what it means if she offers to pay for dinner?
You know you does know these things? YOU! You and the person you’re dating (or “talking to” or whatever us kids are calling it these days).
You are the ones living with these decisions. You are the one who knows that even though he seems like a perfectly nice guy, you’re just not interested. Don’t worry about any rules telling you that you are obligated to accept a date to avoid being rude (I have actually been told this) or that you should be “putting yourself out there.” If you’re not into it, just let it be what it is and avoid an awkward dinner. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t actually have to have a partner to be happy and social and an all-around kick-ass individual. Not now, not ever. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself about making something happen, especially not based on some generic timeline about growing up and settling down. Enjoy getting to know people in whatever capacity is fun and fulfilling for you right now, and if something romantic starts stirring, great. Cross that bridge if you come to it.
And if you are interested in someone in particular, don’t let all the silliness out there psych you out about how your relationships should look. To quote the absolute best life advice I’ve ever received: “don’t let other people’s crazy get to you.” If Matthew had waited the obligatory three days before calling after our first date went so well, we would have missed out on our lazy Saturday brunch-turned-dinner second date where we lost track of time and ended up sitting at a cafe talking for eight hours. I wouldn’t trade that day for anything in the world. It was so perfectly us, whether it was what we were “supposed to do” on a second date or not. When you are getting to know someone, trust yourselves enough to make your own decisions about how to go about it. You two get to decide what this relationship looks like and where it’s headed. That is so much more fun that trying to follow the rules to make sure you get a wedding just because you always thought you’d have one.