This is how the conversation usually goes:
Curious person: “So, how did you and your husband meet?”
Me: “Funny enough, we met on my front doorstep.”
Curious person: “Oooh! Was it love at first sight?”
Me: “No. Not even close.”
Our story had much more awkward beginnings: he was late to dinner, dressed in a jacket that should have stayed in 1987, and he mumbled a very awkward “don’t I know you from somewhere?” — arguably the second worst pick-up line ever. Then there were weeks of misfired conversation, a DTR which revealed that he thought I was being flirty when I was trying to be friendly, followed by a few more weeks of silence.
And then, somehow, our paths crossed again, and I found myself interested in getting to know him. We started dating, even though I had put him firmly in the category of Not My Type. He was quiet, reserved, and didn’t seem to have the social chutzpah which I thought a man would need to have to deal with someone as outgoing, overeducated, and outspoken as me.
Yet, even though he didn’t look like My Type, or sound like My Type, I found myself wanting him to think well of me. Slowly, I conceded that perhaps My Type needed an update.
On one late afternoon drive home, God called me onto the carpet. He reminded me that I had prayed for four things in a husband: someone that loved Jesus first and foremost, someone who would love me for who I was (not just someone who would admire me), someone I could laugh with, and someone I could talk with. I had cheekily added a fifth sneaky prayer request: and please, God, if it is possible, could he be taller than me?
I laughed out loud at the memory. This man was all of those things: he loved God, he loved me in the sense that he supported and served me and my community (even if he had not yet said one word of romantic declaration), we did laugh together, and we did talk together, and — LORD ALMIGHTY — he was significantly taller than me: a man I could look up to in every sense of the word.
Why was it, then, that it took me so long to recognize him? In hindsight, I can think of two reasons. Firstly, I was expecting a different “package.” I thought a guy to laugh with would be someone who was the social funny-guy. He wasn’t — and yet we laughed. I had thought someone strong enough for me would be socially more dominant, an extrovert to match my energy. He wasn’t — and yet he had a quiet strength that felt like a harbor.
Secondly, though, I believe I did not give him a chance because I was expecting a different chemistry. Somehow, I had believed the dominant Hollywood narrative that when you meet the person you are to marry, you will Know. There would be some kind of chemistry, some kind of instant attraction.
I was not naïve enough to think that the instant attraction would necessarily be positive. I fully expected there might be an Elizabeth-Bennet-and-Mr.-Darcy-type situation where there was instant chemistry, even if it was negative at first.
But I did expect there to be a spark of some sort, some kind of conversational fireworks which would single this person out from everyone else in the midst of my everyday conversations.
As it turns out, there are different ways to start a fire. The lithium-in-water type of explosion is one way to get things going with a bang. Romeo and Juliet. Orpheus and Eurydice. Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler. Other fires require a bit more time. Hardwood is slower to catch aflame, but it burns longer.
Arranged marriages statistically fare as well as love-match marriages and give us an alternative viewpoint from which to consider our expectations that “chemistry” is a helpful (or necessary) indicator of compatibility. As Brian J. Willoughby comments: “Arranged marriages start cold and heat up and boil over time as the couple grows. Nonarranged marriages are expected to start out boiling hot but many eventually find this heat dissipates and we’re left with a relationship that’s cold.”
However, arranged marriages are not the norm for women in the Western world, and thus we remain responsible for trying to figure out how to decide whether this particular man, eligible as he may be, is the one we might consider for marriage. If we are underwhelmed by him at first, would choosing to pursue a relationship with him be "settling"? Or a hallmark of realism and wisdom?
In his diabolical advice on tempting a young Christian, C.S. Lewis’s fictional fiend Screwtape writes: “We have done this (undermining monogamy) through poets and novelists by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually shortlived, experience which they call ‘being in love’ is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding. This idea is our parody of an idea that came from the Enemy.”
I daresay, the belief that we should detect some initial “excitement” when meeting the One we are to wed is an outworking of that same deception.
Tim and Kathy Keller’s runaway bestseller The Meaning of Marriage is one modern word of wisdom meant to encourage our generation to approach marriage (and dating) with wise and healthy expectation. You never marry the right person, writes Keller in Relevant, for, he says, no two people are compatible. Quoting Duke University Ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas, he explains why: “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”
If this slow learning of sin-tainted compatibility is a necessary corrective to our expectations for marriage, we would do well to apply the same wisdom to our expectations for dating. For the truths that no couple is innately compatible and that we are constantly changing, apply as much in the dating years as they do in the marriage years.
All of this, however, begs the question: how then do we date? To answer, I offer only this: perhaps we would do well to date a little more broad-mindedly. For the guy in the horrid jacket may have more to him than first meets the eye, and the list of non-negotiables we pray for in a marriage partner may be packaged in a different wrapper than what we expect.
My now-husband asked the second-worst pick-up line on the day we first met, but he saved the WORST one for much later on in our relationship. With all the easy confidence of a guy-who-knows-he’s-already-got-the-girl, he leaned back and asked me coyly: “So, do you believe in love at first sight, or do you need me to walk past you again?”
As it happened, he had to walk past me a number of times.
But I got there, eventually. It just took a little time.