Recently, I was on a movie date with a Long Island cop named Vinnie, when we bumped into some acquaintances of mine. I apologized to them for missing a barbecue they’d hosted and offered to catch up soon. As they crossed the street, Vinnie asked if they were co-workers.
“No,” I said. “We go to the same church.”
He didn’t reply, leaving my words to hang in the air between us. The awkwardness was still there when he bent down to give me a stiff parting hug at my train’s turnstile. We didn’t go out again.
This sort of thing has become a trend in my dating life: I meet someone who seems funny, smart, and interesting. We hang out a few times, and eventually get around to talking about how we see the world. He finds out I’m an earnest, practicing Christian; I find out he is not. And then I break it off with him by telling him I’m looking for a partner who shares my faith, or he saves me the trouble by getting weirded out and losing interest.
I didn’t really mean to make my faith an ultimatum. Not at first, anyway.
I graduated from college in 2010, when chances for employment of any kind were slim. I hastily accepted an internship with a small advertising agency in Flatiron, the kind of workplace that was so barebones, they hadn’t even bothered to disguise the fact that they’d set up shop in a former doctor’s office. It wasn’t the world’s greatest gig. But it was where I met James.
At first, I wasn’t interested. Another co-worker had already asked me out, and I didn’t feel like I could manage two work flings at once. Still, he kept inviting me to lunch, and sometimes, I accepted. On one of those outings, I let him know I was finally single again. Without missing a beat, he invited me to dinner.
I left the job not long afterward, and decided to move back to New Jersey for a while for a mental regroup. James and I kept in touch, and soon I was spending weekends at his place in Greenpoint. My journal from this period reads like a series of wide-eyed TripAdvisor reviews of Brooklyn: “The restaurants have old, dim bulbs installed on purpose.” “On Saturdays and Sundays, you can order eggs till four p.m.” Every experience was shiny and new, including my feelings for him.
We had many similarities, but faith wasn’t one of them. “Do you believe in God?” I asked him once. We were sprawled out on a patch of dusty crabgrass, half-watching a group of hipsters play kickball as we covertly sipped beer from paper bags. He paused. “I grew up Catholic,” he said.
“But being here in the city has made me see things differently.” It was an honest answer, and it was up to me to decide how much it mattered.
James grew to be the person who understood I needed three pillows on my side of the bed. He knew to show up with lemons and aloe-infused tissues when I caught a cold. He knew about the anxiety I wrestled with daily. But he didn’t understand why I schlepped to Union Square on Sundays for church, or how big of a deal it was for me to lead a Bible study in my neighborhood, or the unique encouragement I got from my Christian friends’ insights. During these occasions, I would attempt to share my feelings and be met with silence.
Years passed, and eventually, we decided to work on the issue in couples therapy. Our therapist said our conflict wasn’t really about religion; it was rooted in identity. My religion was closely tied to who I was, which meant that James’s avoidance of the subject felt like an outright rejection of me. But I had a role in our problems, too, namely my selfish desire for him to convert. I believe one of the core principles of Christianity is free will, and here I was trying to pressure him into it for my sake. If God ever were to have an authentic conversation with James, it wasn’t going to be because I browbeat him into reading a book by my pastor. It appeared we’d reached an impasse. Though the thought of it scared me, I knew we had to break up.
After James, I consciously made shared faith a non-negotiable. It would’ve been nice if my newfound self-awareness had produced a boyfriend who carried a gold-edged Bible in his backpack and had abs that caused Mary to weep all over again, but in reality, it drastically reduced the pool of eligible men. And that already limited supply is actually even smaller than it seems, because there are a lot of men — like Vinnie the cop — who list Christianity as their religion on dating apps, but only mean it vaguely. These men tend to balk when they realize I mean it sincerely.
And then there’s the other side of the spectrum: extremists, the ones who prove it’s possible to be a little too into Jesus. Some of these men send mystifying messages, like this one I’ll paraphrase: “I’m looking for a woman of God. One who is virtuous, ripe with the fruits of the spirit and able to cook meatloaf. She has been picked for me before the foundation of the world. Are you her?”
The struggles of trying to “date Christian” have started to chip away at my resolve. Right after breaking up with James, I wrote in the “Things I’m Looking For” section of my OKCupid profile: “I’m interested in finding someone who is actively pursuing God and lives out their Christianity in practical, meaningful ways.” Now, the statement has been watered down to: “I’m interested in dating a Christian dude.”
I don’t know yet if my commitment to finding someone who shares my faith is setting me up for loneliness in the long run, but I do know this: Love requires us to lay out our insecurities as offerings, unsure whether they’ll be accepted or rejected. Love requires us to defer to the other generously, hoping our present sacrifices lead to a happy future together. Love requires faith, no matter what you believe.