“I came to this group willing to meet singles who share my faith, but I’ve noticed it is more like a group of people dreaming to find a copy of the Virgin Mary herself, or of St. Joseph. Can anyone relate? Or is it just me who feels like they can’t approach anyone because I’m afraid they’ll run away as soon as they know the real me?”Woman, 35, shared with permission
In the Catholic dating world, there is a lot of talk about how the ideal woman is Mary and how the ideal man is Joseph (aside from Jesus, of course). I’m not countering this idea, but I am saying that if people become too attached to the idea of trying to date a perfect Mary or a perfect Joseph, then no one on earth will ever be seen as “good enough” to date.
Though we are indeed called to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), perfectionism is a character flaw. That is, the degree to which we hold people to an impossible standard is a character flaw within ourselves. It’s not a comfortable idea to face. In fact, it was only recently that a friend of mine loved me enough to point out that I exhibited perfectionist-type tendencies with regard to who I would consider dating. I was basically looking for a “perfect” girl, or at least one that was “perfect” for me according to some unrealistic standards, while also “forgetting” that I was looking for a relationship with another human being as opposed to a relationship with an idea. Anyway, being in my late 30s and single at the time, I wasn’t going to simply brush my friend’s comments aside even though they were challenging to hear.
Perfectionism as a Symptom
After reflecting upon my life, I was able to see how my tendencies to lean into “perfectionism” were largely rooted in my desire to mitigate triggering anxiety. After all, in holding people to an impossible standard, I didn’t have to open my heart to them too much. This kept me feeling safe and gave me the illusion of control. I hid behind the idea that I just hadn’t yet found someone who I was interested in enough to get to know in a more intimate way. The reality was that I was terrified of sharing my heart, and for some reason, was attached to the fantasy that somehow the “right” person would show up and all my anxieties would magically disappear. I didn’t yet realize that those anxieties would only disappear if I chose to face them head-on.
I share this because I know how crippling anxieties can be. I know how the tendency to avoid triggers can manifest as a result of being in survival mode, which is not a fun place to be. Also, however, I acknowledge that not everyone shares in my experience of being in survival mode, or trying to mitigate anxieties (subconsciously or not), but many people do share this experience—and this may include someone you might be interested in. It never hurts to learn about anxieties, and how the brain works, especially if there has been some underlying trauma. It may help you understand a loved one or someone you hope to love one day.
Not About Lowering Standards
By inviting people to become detached from the idea of finding Mary or Joseph, I am not saying that people should lower their standards. Having high standards is not a character flaw, but a character strength. However, so too is it a character strength to continuously seek to improve oneself, and that may include re-evaluating ourselves and how we have arrived at certain conclusions. This could include conclusions about the formation of our expectations. That is to say, it is not necessarily a bad thing to examine why we are the way we are, why we desire what we desire, and why we expect what we expect from ourselves and others.
A Higher Focus
Another drawback of perfectionism is that it can point us towards becoming overly fixated on outward behavior, and therefore under-focused on striving to understand the state of one’s heart that exists behind the behavior. The fixation on outward behavior can prevent us from entering into the messiness of the human experience, wherein the state of one’s heart and well-being must be considered. However, because God models this consideration, it behooves us to strive to model it for others.
Further, God knows that we are fallen, and he knows that our victories in holiness cannot be anchored on how “perfectly” we behave, but rather ought to be measured on our desire to turn and surrender to Him despite our imperfections. In other words, our victories are first and foremost in our fidelity to Christ in our heart. Further, by focusing on fidelity, we can remain in the hope that we are all only one decision away (repentance) from experiencing success in the Christian journey. If, however, we focus first and foremost on outward behavior, then it can be very easy to slide into the despair of feeling like we will never measure up to what that “perfect behavior” actually looks like. I have known people who have fallen into this despair. If only people knew that the Lord simply desired their hearts, and that he would pour out his graces upon us to help us with the rest!
Virtue and Knowing Others
As we become more aware of ourselves through the lens of our own openness to grow in the fullness of virtue, we become better at receiving people where they are. We become better at knowing others, and ourselves. We become better positioned to journey with people towards holiness and spiritual maturation. However, we will not be able to engage in this type of shared journey as long as our faith does not go beyond the external, Catholic-looking behaviors.
Further, to accent the rightful primacy of the pursuit of virtue, we must remember this: While Catholic-looking behaviors do not necessarily beget a heart that is open to growing in the fullness of virtue, a heart that is open to growing in the fullness of virtue does necessarily (eventually) beget Catholic-looking behaviors. That is to say, if we want a Mary or a Joseph tomorrow, we ought to strive to grow in the fullness of virtue today.
Just because someone is striving to grow in the fullness of virtue, it does not mean they are automatically ready to enter into a holy relationship. That is, a person must not only be striving, but must be sufficiently striving. What does that look like? It is hard to say exactly, but there will be some consistencies, such as an openness to eventually accept the authority of the Catholic Church as the True Spotless Bride of Christ, a recognition that sin can be described in a concrete way (as a rejection of truth, CCC 1849), and, most importantly, through the presence of an ever-increasing joy—even amidst suffering.
It will also manifest, to some sufficient degree, a successful walking-the-walk, both consistently and for long enough, such that the risk of backsliding towards the countering of the fullness of virtue will be minimized enough to make it reasonable for a potential spouse to have their expectations of a holy marriage actually fulfilled.
Men, stop looking for Mary. Instead, look for a woman who is striving to be like Mary—someone who is more concerned with striving to grow in the fullness of virtue than simply behaving in a “Catholic-looking” way. Women, same idea regarding Joseph. And for everyone, we must strive sufficiently, such that there will be a greater probability of our success in the Christian mission overall, let alone within dating or even marriage. Further, let us all strive for the greatest success, so that when we fall short, we may still be well above where we need to be in terms of living the virtues successfully.
That is, in striving for the greatest success in growing in the fullness of virtue, we build the foundations needed within our own character such that we will be able offer ourselves in the way that we must within the context of any relationship. In striving for this, we will be brought into alignment with the hearts of both Mary and Joseph in ways that we would never otherwise be able to imagine, and thus will make ourselves better suited to be the spouse of someone who is seeking to enter the hearts of Mary and Joseph as well.
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Hudson Byblow is a Catholic speaker, author, and consultant who lives in the Midwest where he has a career in education. He has presented at National and International conferences in the United States and Canada and also presents to clergy, schools, and parishes, specifically on the topics of healthy relationships and the joy of pursuing a heart of chastity. His website is www.hudsonbyblow.com.
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