What Does 'Intentional' Mean in Dating?
In a recent post on Resurgence titled "5 Notes on Dating for the Guys," Mars Hill Church Everett executive pastor Brandon Andersen seeks to help guys think about what it means to be "intentional" when talking to or dating a girl. He lays out seven situations and prescriptively delineates the attitude a guy should have in each one.
For the most part, Andersen's piece spoon feeds us the same folk wisdom we've been hearing in the church since everyone freaked out when that first guy asked the first girl on a one-on-one date to get ice cream (I think the same folks are still freaking). I am disappointed that we haven't modified our thinking about a cultural practice that has evolved immensely in good ways and bad. We are stuck dealing with the most complex, dynamic relationship situations by applying clunky and awkward dating categories that are entirely unique to a historical setting at least 50 years ago in our small subculture.
Contrasting Intentionality and Unintentionality
Andersen describes "the intentional man" as one who "repeatedly and constantly goes first and takes on all the risk of rejection. He always lets the girl know where he stands so she feels secure and isn't left guessing. (On the other hand, don't weird her out by talking about marriage on the first date.)" To paraphrase: Always be one step ahead of her emotionally and take on emotional responsibility for her. Don't let her feel insecure or weird. When you read the advice that way, you realize this is an impossible (and even unbiblical) standard. I'm not supposed to let a girl feel insecure or weird on our first date? What world are we living in? Those are the only emotions either of us will be feeling for a big chunk of the initial time we spend together.
Andersen gives examples of what his definition looks like in practice. The intentional man, clearly a godly, articulate scientist of his own heart, says, "I'd like to take you on a date," and "I had a great time tonight and would definitely want to do this again. I will give you a call this week." The intentional man also says (if things are going well), "I think you are a godly, beautiful woman, and I have [a] great time with you. I would like to pursue a relationship with you."
The unintentional man, a pitiful and unschooled antagonist, says things like, "Wanna hang out sometime? My roommates are all gone this weekend." The unintentional man goes dutch (thereby communicating that a woman is worth only half the meal). After a date, he says, "I'll call you sometime." When things are going well in a relationship, the unintentional man says, "Soooooo, what do you think about us?" or "I am not sure where I stand. What about you?"
Andersen's language makes the "intentional" guy sound obviously intelligent, while the unintentional guy can barely put together a sentence. That contrast confuses the nature of the issue so that it is difficult to see Andersen's point. In fact, I don't think he is contrasting intentionality and unintentionality at all. He is talking about certainty and uncertainty. He creates a utopian connection between intentionality and certainty (and, I suppose, a dystopian connection between unintentionality and uncertainty) that does not necessarily exist. Relationships in general are not so black-and-white, and they are far less so in the context of attraction and romance. Yet he says that if you don't act black and white, you're falling short of your responsibilities as a man. This contrast misses altogether the intentional guy who's uncertain about his feelings for a girl he's getting to know. Guys need to understand they should not necessarily feel guilty for uncertainty.
Andersen writes, "The intentional man repeatedly and constantly goes first." How does he go first, exactly? How do you reconcile Andersen's exhortations "don't weird her out" and "he always lets the girl know where he stands"? You can't do both! Not initially in the dating process, anyway. You can be intentional from the beginning, but let's define Christian intentionality this way:
Self-consciously bringing my own plans, purposes, and preferences, within the boundaries of reasonable foresight, before Scripture.
Scripture doesn't demand relational clarity from day one. Eventually, a clarifying conversation should come, and the girl rightly expects it, but maintaining crisp romantic articulateness at all times will most likely weird her out (and if it doesn't, it probably should).
Guys can't be expected to know how to answer these questions at all times:
(1) What is this relationship?
(2) What are your intentions?
(3) How are you demonstrating those intentions right now?
Andersen summarizes, "The big idea is this, men: Don't keep her guessing. Let her know exactly where you are at all of the time. It is a risk of course, but better on you than her. Own it" (emphasis mine). Such an absolute dictum forces relational growth into something mechanistic and awkwardly coordinated, rather than natural, with some breathing room and uncertainty. Uncertainty is not a loss of masculinity but an ownership of humanity. Relationships are organic, and the heart is not so easily classified in terms of three simple questions. Of course, the questions should be answered at some point, but not necessarily at every point.
Hard-and-fast rules about intentionality could very easily be used by a guy as an excuse for trying to control the relationship, or for forcing a girl to come to terms with and articulate her feelings too early on in the relationship. That's unhealthy. In fact, it's more than unhealthy. It's untrue to life as it really is, and it will most likely suffocate the relationship and drive a person away (or draw an unhealthily insecure person closer).
Andersen takes shots at guys who slack (which is probably needed). But there are just as many guys who creep, and a theology of dating that's only anti-slacker will, unintentionally (no pun intended), become pro-creeper. Slackers are sub-intentional. But guys can just as easily become hyper-intentional, and neither mindset is loving or life-giving. The former is a vacuum, the latter is the bottom of the ocean.
I appreciate what Andersen says about friendship, putting the needs of others before your own, and even intentionality in some regard. Yet I believe I speak for every single evangelical when I say that we need a balanced, comprehensive theology of dating that is rooted in Scripture and actually helps us relate to the opposite sex day-to-day.