Single Discernment & The Issue of Attraction

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In a previous post on singleness, we discussed tensions around the “gift” of singleness, observing how even involuntary singleness can be a gift from God.  But what about singles who are in a position to discern whether God might be leading them toward a prospective spouse?  Here, too, there is ample room for confusion.  One of the often-reported areas of befuddlement concerns the issue of attraction.

A Matter of Attraction 

I once encountered an article in which I was particularly struck by the author’s description of a young man who was dating a wonderful, godly woman. The man found her “basically attractive,” but was reluctant to commit because “there was one feature of hers that he ‘just pictured differently’ on the woman he would marry.” This struck me for two reasons. First, it seems to represent a fairly common type of situation among singles today. And second, while the young man’s feelings might reveal an area where growth is needed, I nonetheless think the probable roots of feelings such as his are generally misunderstood, creating sizeable confusion among singles and those who would guide them. It’s typically assumed, I think, that anyone who at least admits to feeling as this young man did must just be a superficial “trophy-hunter.” Consequently, many react to those in his position with mere exasperation and condescension, offering equally superficial “advice” that boils down to a more or less polite way of saying, “You’re just immature— get over it!” And this, in turn, simply breeds shame in the one wrestling with these feelings of reticence, tempting him or her merely to bottle them up rather than work through them. So in what follows, I want to explore what seems to be the deeper issue that often underlies feelings like this young man’s, so that not only those in his situation (who seem to be many), but also those who would seek to understand or counsel those in such a situation, would have a better idea of what is actually at play.

What is Attraction? 

So for starters, let’s take a step back and ask, “What is attraction?”  Not speaking merely of romance, attraction is a response to beauty. God, the True Beauty, has made us in such a way that beauty compels us to self-giving adoration. I am a musician because the beauty of music (in which I see a reflection of the Author of beauty) compels me to devote my time and energy to its pursuit. Certainly, the flame flickers more brightly sometimes than others; but if there is a piece of music to which I simply have no attraction, I will not make the decision to devote myself to playing it—to do so would feel almost wrong. The context is different, but I do sympathize with this young man’s feelings. You can imagine someone in his shoes saying, “I realize that Christian love is about serving others, not self-interest. But to selflessly and radically serve others you don’t have to marry them! Marriage entails more than that: it’s giving myself in my entirety to someone else in her entirety in a way that implies a response to beauty. So if some aspect of this entire person doesn’t compel me with beauty, how could I give myself to her as though it did? If we’re all flawed (me included!), then could it be that, as much as I’d like to be married, I simply could never feel attracted enough to a real person to make a marriage succeed?”

A Deeper Issue 

At this point, it’s easy to simply offer moral advice. “You’re making X, Y, or Z into an idol. Give it to the Lord.” “Just stop being selfish. Period.” “Don’t be a hypocrite. You can’t expect more of a spouse than you yourself can offer.” “Either get over it or stop complaining.” We can say things like this all we want, but it’s probably not going to make much of a difference until the underlying false paradigm is exposed.

So let’s take another step back, this time all the way to Eden. When our first parents brought sin into the race, we lost our “shalom”—our wholeness and completeness: separation and dichotomy ensued. We became alienated from God, at odds with each other, dichotomized within ourselves, and so forth.[1]

The Crux: Segmentation 

One of the dichotomizing effects of the fall is that we have a tendency to “segment” people in our perception of them. This is the false paradigm I referred to above. Without even realizing it, we so easily look at someone and see not a single, whole person but rather a collection of features, from the superficial to the substantial: a hair color, a mouth shape, a disposition, a gift for this or that, an occupation, a heart for a particular kind of service, a style of dressing, etc.

The Problem 

What’s fundamentally wrong with this kind of segmentation is that, even if we place emphasis on the “right” segments, the very fact of segmenting a person fundamentally strips him of his humanity, of her essential “her”-ness, however much we may pay lip-service to it.  If we encounter a person as a person and come to be drawn to her or him as a whole, unified person, then that attraction will come to encompass all that constitutes her or him because each feature belongs to the admired one. Jane’s specific “Jane”-ness becomes the basis for John’s attraction. But if we eliminate that unique “Jane”-ness through segmentation, the only remaining basis for John’s attraction to anything about Jane are his own personal preconceptions. And when your preconceptions are the criteria by which you evaluate each segmented aspect of a person (sounds awfully clinical, doesn’t it?), it’s certain that you will always be disappointed with what you perceive he or she doesn’t have in one or another of the categories that you have dictated. God created us as whole persons, and therefore we have to understand that we must perceive, know, accept, and appreciate others as whole persons—as the proverbial forest, not the trees.

Know Your Enemy 

It’s crucial that those unwittingly finding themselves thinking according to the segmentation paradigm become aware of this. But it’s equally essential for anyone giving advice to such a person, because if we fail to recognize that segmentation might lie at the heart of the struggle, the best advice we can give in the face of such apparent superficiality is simply, “Value what’s important” (as we so often hear in today’s advice to Christian singles). And certainly that’s not bad advice: in developing holistic attraction to a complete, unified person, it’s essential that we’re valuing what’s important about him or her. However, to give this advice without correcting the segmentation paradigm gives a couple of dubious messages.

First, it suggests that superficialities are negligible or perhaps even should be ignored—all that should be valued is character. But that’s simply not true: no aspect of the beloved is to be ignored—look at the Song of Songs and how extravagantly the poet praises every detail of the beloved (and do we really think that she happened to meet a preconceived “laundry list” in such minute detail?)  Superficialities are important; our valuing them is not the problem. The problem is that our system for valuing them is backward: we ought to value the superficialities because they belong to the beloved rather than valuing the beloved because we’re inclined to be fond of the constituent superficialities.

The second dubious message that can be construed is that feelings of unattractedness are not important; and by extension, that considerations of attraction don’t really matter in choosing a spouse.  That’s simply not true, and assuming that it is can lead to all sorts of problems.  The problem isn’t that we’re paying attention to feelings of unattractedness when they’re present (as if they should be swept under the carpet); the problem is that segmenting a person almost necessarily creates feelings of unattractedness because it artificially multiplies categories to be evaluated in isolation and then brings hollow criteria to bear in assessing each one.

The End of Segmentation 

But the other essential point to remember is that we operate according the principles of the world we experience. We tend to dichotomize others precisely because we ourselves are dichotomized. Our valuations of others are backward because something in us is backward. And we are so content to operate as though there were no unique life in others greater than the sum of its parts because, by nature, we ourselves are dead—alienated from Life Himself. But the good news is that God looked on us in our deadness and brokenness saw something beyond our sin and disgrace: He saw who He created and intended us to be. He saw creatures that He had purposed from before all time to redeem. He loved us for nothing less secure than His own sake. And to that end, God offered up his own Son to be torn apart, to hang on the cross in our stead, to invert our upside-down world in order to bring us abundant life and peace—shalom, wholeness, reconciliation—as our fallen world became invaded by the world to come. If this same Jesus is the vine on which we are the branches—if He is the One in whom all things (including human relationships) hold together—then how will He not give you and me the wisdom and indeed the new heart we so desperately need in order to deeply cherish another human being with Christ-like love, not merely duty? After all, if you go to great lengths to buy someone an expensive gift, don’t you especially want them to have it? Jesus went to the unthinkable lengths of the incarnation to pay with His own blood. That is “blessed assurance” indeed.


[1] This isn’t just a “religious” tenet. Few have articulated the dichotomized state of godless man as forcefully as the atheist literary philosopher Julia Kristeva: “…man’s epic and tragic unity as well as his belief in identity and causality” is destroyed: “he has lost his totality and no longer coincides with himself” [Julia Kristeva, “Word, Dialogue, and Novel,” Desire in language: a semiotic approach to literature and art (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 83].  And again, “Man, alienated from nature and society, becomes alienated from himself” [ibid., 84].