At almost 25 and single, I was teetering on the edge of becoming a spinster. From what my mom had told me for years—about how she was an “old maid” when she married at 25—I knew the time was drawing nigh. Already feeling bad because all my college friends, plus my siblings, had married, I anticipated my impending 25th birthday with increasing doom. In my drearier moments, watching 90210 in my darkened apartment (and on an old black-and-white set), I vowed that if I reached my 30thwithout being married, I might as well be dead, and that I needed to do everything I could to make sure I didn’t remain an old maid for long.
This was back before the Internet, and so I contemplated placing a classified ad in the Riverfront Times, a weekly in St. Louis that covered arts and culture, and had a place for singles’ ads. I’d spool through the ads every week, looking desperately for someone I might find even remotely interesting. All the men seemed to be seeking attractive women, though, and I knew my short puffy dishwater hair and mediocre clothing wouldn’t be enough, even if I did like walking through the park on warm summer evenings and lingering over Sunday brunch at outdoor cafes.
I never got brave enough to place the ad, instead pinning my hopes on any single and seemingly available man I’d meet, in my graduate program, at my church, even standing in line to buy muffins at the nearby bakery. Sometimes, pinning my hopes lasted only a few minutes—like when the bakery man finished his purchase and left; and sometimes, my hopes could last a good few months—like when I continued to dream about dating Chris, another single guy in my comp theory class. Turns out, Chris had a live-in girlfriend (he never let on); and when, during an after-class conversation, he said something about the number of sexual partners he’d had (something like 75, at that point), I finally let that dream die. I was still a virgin, and knew that Chris wouldn’t want to date the likes of me.
I sometimes wonder how the era of online dating might have changed my fortunes. Not that they ultimately needed changing, mind you: I’m incredibly satisfied with my marriage and my family. But I wonder how all the online dating sites, specifically those tailored to Christians, might have changed how I approached my single 20s. Would I have felt so desperate, eager to see a potential mate in every man wearing pants and no wedding ring? Would I have felt even more desperate, knowing that every time I checked email, The One might be lurking in my inbox, ready to share my love for long walks in the park and The Lord?
Because it’s pretty clear, from the Christian online dating sites I visited to do research for our project, making sure you love the Lord is an important part of the dating equation. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. But can you truly divine someone’s relationship to the Divine by reading a 50-word blurb that outlines (according to one site) her “Christian faith and favorite scripture passage.” What kind of winnowing process would that entail? I can’t imagine, looking through pages and pages of profiles, then stumbling upon one and thinking “wow, long walks in the park, a love for The Lord, and a special penchant for Hosea 4:7? Sign me up!”
Let’s face it: I imagine these dating sites are like other secular ones in a fundamental way—they focus on physical appearance first, and other qualities second. It may be a meat market, but at least it’s a Christian meat market. What troubles me more than this, though, is the pervasive sense on these sites that “this is it!”: that God is finally going to “bless” each visitor with a mate, and that the single life—for some, a clear mark of God’s displeasure—will finally end, all with a magical, holy click of the button. On ChristianMingle.com, the sense that those who marry are truly blessed is obvious right there, on the splash page, with a quote from Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Right away, you know; if you haven’t found that which you desire, a partner who can fulfill all your dreams, you definitely aren’t delighting in the Lord. Get yourself right, damn it! And then you can look like the happy couple pictured below the scripture passage, smiling with chaste lust at each other. And we’re told the guy in the picture is a youth minister. Perfect! How could anyone be more blessed than that?
Over at ChristianSingles.com, there is another happy couple staring into each other’s eyes, showing just how potent the dating service is. Actually, the woman is looking down while her mate looks lovingly at her, a reminder that a “marriage-minded” woman who uses the site is still submissive and docile, no matter how aggressively she seeks out her mate by flipping through the “thousands” of on-line profiles the site provides. This organization—like the many other Christian dating sites I looked at—makes it clear that folks here are serious, looking for a Soul Mate and not a fly-by-night long walk in the park.
But it’s the testimonials, both here and on other Christian dating sites, that truly grate me. I know, I know: the testimonials are meant to drum up business, to appeal to the slightly-desperate 20-something (like I was) who knows her One is out there or who believes that only when she finds The One will she truly be blessed by God. Seriously? Seriously. So that the testimonials gush about how someone prayed that God would bless her before she coughed up cash for ChristianSingles.com, and sure ‘nough, only a month or two later, she’d found the profile of her soul mate, the man she’d been searching for all her life. Testimony after testimony, you can read the same language about The One, and about The Lord’s Blessing, and about how an online dating site is the tool through which God works to help you meet your Soul Mate. (And at ChristianCafe.com, if you find that Soul Mate in ten days, well, your search is free! Making me wonder: does God want people to find their mates in ten days, thereby avoiding costly membership fees—or not?)
I need to be clear: I’m not critiquing online dating, nor those who use it as a tool for meeting others. After all, I was tempted to use the prehistoric form of the instrument when I was single; and, truth be told, I developed an email correspondence with my husband long before we met “in person” (though our virtual relationship was arranged through a mutual friend). So no, I’m not critique online dating sites necessarily, but rather the language they use to promote their product: the sense that The One is out their, floating in the ether, and that using a particular site will help singles find The One; the sense that only those who find The One are blessed by God and truly delight in God’s goodness; and the concurrent sense that God gives marriage as a gift to those truly deserving.
Those messages, propagated in a million different ways by evangelicalism, is problematic for those who are single, by choice or by circumstance; and for those who are not heterosexual; and even for those who are disappointed by the realities of a marriage that seems more difficult than the church led them to believe (which, in reality, is most marriages). If I hadn’t heard those messages in my 20s, I might have relaxed a bit more, not worried about becoming an old maid, celebrated being independent and free to explore my bliss. Who knows, I might have enjoyed standing in line at the bakery, too, deciding what I could eat for breakfast, rather than dreaming about the ring-less man in front of me, and about a long walk together in the park.