Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Dating in Utah Sucks

Applying logic to dating is like applying a staple gun to a sleeping baboon's behind: it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in the long run you're just asking for trouble.

So even though it doesn't make sense on paper for any upstanding member of the LDS church to have trouble getting married in Utah, the reality is that many of my peers have felt compelled to venture far beyond state lines in search of eternal bliss. A week or two ago I sent a completely unsolicited e-mail to a girl in Arizona I have never met, in spite of the fact that I currently attend a ward with approximately 150 eligible females. One of my best friends married a guy from Russia, and they spent five of the six months of their engagement on different continents. Another of my best friends married a girl from Hungary. And why do we seek out such difficult options when there is so much before us? The simple reason is that the grass is greener the farther you get from Utah County. The real reason is more complex.

Granted, you can probably apply some simple rationale to the singleness of many of my eligible peers: chronic fear of commitment, refusal to accept adult responsibilities, slavish crack habit. But even if elements of these reasons are present, to get the full context of the situation one must consider a number of other mitigating factors.

Keep in mind, folks: these aren't excuses; they're just reasons. And this isn't meant to be a finger-pointing session, unless the finger is also pointed at yours truly as well.

The Media Play Factor

Have you ever walked into a CD store with no idea what you wanted to get? The options are overwhelming, and most of the time you don't even know where to begin. Now, imagine that you can only pick up one CD for, say, a lifelong trip to a deserted island...that just happens to have working electricity and a stereo. Wouldn't that make you think twice about which album to get? Maybe three times? Three hundred?

The very reason people think it should be easy to get married in Utah is the same reason it can be so hard; with so many options around, everyone can pretty much justify treating each other like crap. Why bend over backwards for someone who won't return your phone calls when you have another 10,000 eligible options within 10 square miles of your apartment?

Of course, even after you finally find the CD you want, you usually don't have to worry about whether it likes you back. The Media Play Factor cuts both ways.

The Comfort Zone Factor

Just because you have tons of options around doesn't mean you're going to do anything about them, especially when hanging out with your same five friends prevents you from ever having to take the risk of speaking to a girl or guy who has the potential to reject you. Most of us remember standing against the walls at junior high dances, wishing we had the guts to dance with someone, but paralyzed with fear in spite of those tempting Def Leppard beats all around us. Many of us are still leaning against those same walls.

The Culture Factor

I could be genetically disposed to go out-of-state to find a wife. My dad met my mom while he was attending grad school in Ohio. Up until she got engaged to my roommate, my sister had a reputation for attracting the interest of a variety of foreign suitors. When I was up at Utah State, this girl got a crush on me after I helped her in the writing lab, then she got deported to South Korea. For this reason I think my best solution for finding love is to enlist on a South Pacific oil freighter.

On a similar note, since my mom is a convert (and the only member of the church on her side of the family), I grew up in an environment that combined a rich church history with the perspective of an outsider just coming in. Which means I go to church every Sunday, but will always choose James Brown over Lex De Azevedo. The night my mom went into labor my parents were watching Steve Martin's debut on Saturday Night Live. When Rob Nish played "The Liberty Bell March" in Sacrament Meeting my family was doubled over laughing, because we were the only ones who knew the march was also the theme to "Monty Python's Flying Circus". Call me worldly, cultured, or just weird, but with an upbringing like that, it makes it really hard to relate to anyone raised on EFY soundtracks who thinks Tarantino is a kind of pasta.

The Aristocracy Factor

If there is one aspect of the dating process that girls seem to struggle with more than any other, it's that guys place a high priority on physical attractiveness. And I won't lie; if it's not there, the game is already over. The male equivalent is what I call the Aristocracy Factor. One of the difficult things about dating in Utah is the culture of success. We may not always realize it, but Utah is a very wealthy place. We all crack jokes about being poor and starving and all that, but there are a lot of us who are doing quite well. And so are most of our church leaders. That being said, sometimes there's an unspoken degree of expectation that comes with dating. Any guy who's out on the field understands that he has to market himself as a provider, no matter what the girl says about money being unimportant. Maybe it isn't, but no girl is going to be attracted to a guy who clearly can't take care of himself, let alone her and her prospective family. Unless it's one of those "attracted to the idea of fixing him" things, which I really don't get, and don't want to get into here.

What it comes down to is this: I'm just as ambitious as the next guy, but I want to know that my wife will be willing to live in a cardboard box with me if we have to, and sometimes it feels like if you're not in line to become a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or just rooted in a family already stocked with them, you're out of the running. I realize this is not true with a lot of people, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

The Technology Factor

Back in the stone ages of the 1990's, one of my biggest dating concerns was whether Girl X's little brother would actually give her the message I left when I called her home phone. Nowadays, with everyone tied to a cell phone, that's not a problem. But our technological advances are hurting us as much as they are helping.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the reason most girls don't return phone calls is because they aren't interested and don't have the nerve to call the guy back and tell him so. This fear to engage another human being, combined with the accessibility of technology (IE, the text message), has enabled our generation to hide inside pretty little cubicles built of digital walls, which keep us from ever really having to interact with the world around us in a meaningful way. I can call some girls and leave voice mails that never get returned...but if I send the same girl a text message she will respond inside of sixty seconds. There have been times I swear I have been standing in groups of a half dozen people, and all but one of them was texting or talking to someone else who wasn't present. And chances are, if the people they were calling/texting WAS present, they'd be trying to contact someone ELSE, because for some weird reason, no one seems to want to interact with the person right in front of their face anymore.

But texting is not dating, and neither is posting comments on someone's Facebook Wall. It may feel good to have all sorts of cute prospects in your friend network, but there is no joy to be found in reading a bunch of status updates on a lonely Saturday night.

The Happiness Factor

If you want to make a 26-year-old girl mad, tell her about the 19-year-old girl you want to ask out. In general, this is because the 26-year-old assumes you are just chasing the 19-year-old for her looks, as part of some short-sighted quarter-life crisis thing, and in many instances she may be right. But there is something else at work here. Another advantage the younger girl often has.


Don't get me wrong, here. Not all young girls are optimistic, and not all "older" girls are pessimists. There are exceptions to every rule, I know. But in general, the older you get, and the more experienced you get, and the more rejections and disappointments you pile up, the easier it is to get bitter. And that's true regardless of gender. Now, you want your spouse to bring out the best in you, just like all the GA's recommend. But who is going to bring out your best? The girl who's sarcastic and cynical, or the girl who's happy and excited about life? After dating for fifteen years, you get the feeling that you lost your innocence somewhere along the way. So even though it might be fun to kick back with your peers at a party and gripe about how much it sucks that the ward is getting younger (when in truth you are only getting older) and how dating is such a pain in the behind (always has been, always will be), when it comes to a real relationship, I'm going to go where I can feel positive about the future, not where I can complain about my past.

The Sensitivity Factor

This is by no means confined to Utah, but part of the reason singles are hesitant to interact face-to-face is because showing any degree of sensitivity or vulnerability has been deemed inherently uncool. And yes, I realize I'm calling the kettle black right here. I as much or more than anyone, have worked very hard to keep my social circle guessing as to my true thoughts and intentions. After all, why give my enemies the advantage over me?

Seriously, though, I think that the majority of us WANT to be in situations or relationships where we can show vulnerability or sensitivity; we just think we CAN'T. Either because it isn't cool or because we're worried that we'll scare the other person off. Or just get kicked to the curb like someone's red-headed stepchild. So it's easier to just maintain a distant air of confidence and refuse to let anyone really get to know you, because, you know, playing hard to get is the best way to go, right? Everyone is justified in being a little gun-shy to open up after getting your heart kicked in a time or two; but at some point you're going to have to stick your neck out and take that risk again. Eventually it's going to pay off, right?

* * *

So when you consider these factors, it's not super hard to see why looking beyond Utah might seem like the grand solution to a long-term dating dilemna. Don't misunderstand me, I love my home state, and will defend it to the death. But sometimes dating in Zion makes me feel like Michael Corleone in "Godfather III":

"Every time I think I'm out, they pull me back in."

If you got that reference, chances are you didn't grow up in Utah.