“Anna, what do you say to a guy who wants to marry you?” my dad asked my sister Anna. We were all quite young–I would guess that Anna was four or five at the time– and we were passing the time on a family road trip.
Anna’s voice was sweet as she piped up with the perfect answer. “Speak to my father first.”
“Good! And Linda, what would you say if a guy asked to marry you?”
My two-year-old sister didn’t miss a beat. “YES!” she shouted.
It was funny. We all roared with laughter, and I immortalized it in one of the little comic strips I liked to draw of funny things my sisters said.
Today, though, it isn’t all that funny. Because today I am sitting around, halfway between resentful submission and outright antagonistic revolt, because my father is unhappy with me, a twenty-seven-year-old who has lived on her own for almost six years now, for having a guy friend without consulting him.
It would be funny if it wasn’t me. And my dad. And my dear friend. And the holidays.
My dad is generous, and kind, and wants nothing more than to protect his family, provide for them, and see them happy and safe. He also wants to serve God with all his heart. I know–as, in fact, my guy friend keeps having to remind me–that he loves me, and that all of his actions come out of a heart that loves and longs to protect. But somewhere out of this desire, he has subscribed to one of the many variants of a word that I am beginning to loathe: courtship.
Now, there are about as many different takes on that word as there are people who use it. I find that most people in my particular conservative Christian circle mean a variant on dating (though heaven forbid calling it that) which includes the guy who’s interested in you talking to the father, the father taking the guy through a sort of screening process, while the guy and girl get to know each other in supervised situations, particularly in groups of friends or with the girl’s family. Then, once the guy passes the screening process, he once again asks the father for permission to marry the girl, and the girl can at that point say “yes,” and he can put a ring on her finger. In a few months, they’re walking down an aisle.
My dad’s version includes something he calls “the Program,” which is a systematic method by which he hopes to get to know the fellow in question and show him for who he is, including reading a carefully selected reading list along with my dad and having weekly reading discussions.
The problem with all (and I mean ALL) man-made formulas is that they are just that: man-made. And when something is man-made, it will have a margin of error. It will not be one-size-fits-all.
The particular problem with this version of courtship is that this schema was not designed to accommodate a woman who is nearly thirty, has been living on her own, and has not screened her choices past her father for eight or nine years. Further complications arise when this particular young woman feels strongly about being able to make her own decisions.
The conflict was inevitable.
I was aware that my father would eventually like to know my friend. However, I knew that, to him, it would be highly singular and furthermore deeply suspect if he knew that I spent plenty of time with a guy as a friend. The whole “just-friends” thing, by the way, is rarely if ever found in the courtship schema, as far as I have seen. I mean, you’re hanging out before your dad has had a chance to screen him?
The problem was that my friend and I really, really wanted this to be just-a-friendship. We’re both cautious people, and we’ve been burned before, and we have no desire to rush into something. Why not just be friends, for a good long time, if not indefinitely? And if it turned into something else, save all the awkward parent conversations for later?
But I was growing uncomfortable with having to deliberately sidestep the gender of my friend in conversations. I never lied, but it was feeling sneaky–sneaky about something I shouldn’t have to be sneaky about. So in typical fashion, I decided to run at it headlong. I introduced my father to my friend, figuring there would be unpleasantness so we might as well have it out.
They spent all of twenty minutes in each other’s presence. I thought it didn’t go horribly, but alas I was wrong. Two nights later, I got a call from my dad. He wanted to talk about it.
I don’t really “talk about” stuff with my dad on a regular basis. Listening is not his gift, and submitting graciously is not really mine. So our interactions, while pleasant, have avoided controversy by skimming on the surface. But I had reached a sort of epiphany. The truth is, I loved my dad. I want very much for him to be part of my adult life. And while I do not feel obliged to “obey” him letter-by-letter, I do very much want to give him honor.
As my friend Mary pointed out, honor could very well mean opening my heart to him. It could mean trusting him to handle this situation well. And a relationship of trust is a relationship of truth.
So I listened to my dad. I listened to him talk about the shortcomings he perceived in my friend. I listened to him talk about what he wanted “the Program” to look like. I listened to him talk about how what he really, ultimately, wanted, in case of a serious romantic relationship of mine, was to get to know the guy, to have a relationship with him himself.
Then I shared my heart. I was finally honest with my dad about the things about the Program that made me nervous, about how I didn’t like everything being put into a formula because not everyone fit a formula. I told him that I wanted to trust him but it was hard, and when he asked why, I was honest with him. I got to say a lot of things I’d been wanting to say for some time, in a way that I felt was honest but not unkind.
Then I went home this weekend–and my little sister told me about the aftermath. Apparently he had discussed my conversation with him over dinner, and he had told the family that I did not want him to be part of that aspect of my life. Apparently it had also been seen as a sort of betrayal that I had had a guy friend without his knowledge, as well.
I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.
I tried to talk to my dad that night, to no avail. He had worked a long day and was too tired to focus. I did manage, the next morning, to convince my mom that I hadn’t said those things, nor was that how I felt. But I felt so violated. I had finally opened my mind and heart to him, and I had been misunderstood on a catastrophic level.
My initial and regrettable impulse, once I recovered somewhat, was to decide that, well, it must be time for someone to stage a revolt against this whole system. But the more I tried to wrap my head around this Hunger-Games-esque resistance movement, the more it sat wrong with me. I don’t want alienation from my family. I don’t want to sit alone in my apartment, secure in my independence but with unraveling family ties. I love my family. They matter to me.
What I want is an adult relationship with my dad. I want him to listen to my side. I want him to hear my perspective and give it thoughtful consideration. I want him as a friend and advisor, not a dictator. I want to find a way that I can hang out with a guy friend–and go on dates–without being afraid that he will find out and object. I would love to be able to tell him about things like that without worrying about him suspecting me of inappropriate behavior or demanding to meet the guy… because the truth is that I have a pretty strong moral compass (thanks to my family and faith), and I know my own mind and furthermore have high standards of my own when it comes to gentleman friends.
So the revolt it is not to be, at least not yet. As I go home for Thanksgiving this week, I need to be carefully considering how I can pursue this dialogue, but, even more, I need to deliberately show my dad that I love him and that I know that he loves me. I need to steel myself and try to talk with him again.
Don’t think better of me than I am. Reopening this conversation is the last thing I want to do now.
It was my guy friend, actually, who gently reminded me of the love inherent in my dad’s words, actions, and even in the Program. Despite the unfairness directed at my friend and the rather vitriolic version of the weekend that he’d heard from me, he could see the love and protection in my dad’s methods. And when I asked what he thought would be the best way I could approach my dad about the situation, he said the last thing I was expecting.
“He needs to know you love him.”
Retreat or open rebellion would both be so much easier. This approach involves trusting when I am already suspicious, being vulnerable when I already feel hurt, and showing love when I feel antagonistic. Seriously, it feels like it will never work. It feels as foolhardy and impossible as the X-Men sending Wolverine back in time to talk sense back into young Professor X. It requires tact and delicacy and patience, and I’m feeling more like sullenness alternated with claws-out attacks. I have next to no hope that the situation will be resolved peacefully, and next to no confidence in my own ability to handle it well.
But what is the truth of the matter? The truth is that I have done nothing wrong–in having a guy friend, in being honest with my father about how I feel about his Program, in any of it. The truth is that no one else actually has control over me, and that the only person I “belong to” is my Heavenly Father. The truth is that “courtship” is a cultural construct, and that the intentions–purity and discernment– can be achieved by other paths as well. The truth is that, if my dad and I are willing to find it, a middle ground exists in which he can act as the protector while allowing me to be the adult I have become. And, even if we cannot find it, no part of my life needs to be destroyed thereby. None.
And the truth is that I love my father and he loves me. And in recognition of that love, however distorted and twisted its expressions might be, I intend to give the whole dialogue thing another shot. I’ll redirect my fighting spirit and, instead of fighting against my dad, fight for a new kind of relationship with him. It probably won’t work, but isn’t that the most epic kind of fight?
Excuse me. I’m going to go listen to the Gladiator soundtrack.