Long Read - ‘Do you want to go for a coffee sometime?’
‘Do you want to go for a coffee sometime?’ he asked, smiling innocently. We were sitting on a bench outside an ice cream shop that just opened its doors for the impending summer. In Amsterdam you can smell summer before you can see it. It’s how the sun stays around for so much longer that the trees start blooming and the birds don’t stop singing anymore. And you know summer is near. I sensed it coming, this question, but while chatting over our ice cream I tried to will it away. This question I couldn’t answer in any other way than with ‘yes’. Which he knew. He was in my Datingcourse after all. The one I taught, with him front row, or maybe on the second, although he always claims he was more to the back of the room. But I can still picture him clearly, sitting there, close by, his eyes glistening as he listened to me spreading my wisdom on dating like I knew what I was doing and I wasn’t terrified myself at all.
He’s too young, I thought. He’s not handsome enough. He didn’t go to university. And anyway, he’s definitely not my type. At all. But I could still picture myself saying to the group he was in: ‘Always say yes to a first date unless you know the person to be completely unreliable. Always get to know someone before you turn them down. Go out with them once, and if there are no red flags, go out with them again. You have nothing to lose’. I really had no excuse to say no. He was fine. Not dangerous at all. These were my thoughts as I answered, with a fake smile, ‘Yes, sure. Sounds like fun’. I can’t remember what happened next, just my anger at my friend who left us ten minutes before saying she really needed to go to that thing with those friends. Knowing very well he’d ask me out. I went home confused. Was this it? Was this the end of my datinglife? Would this be the guy? Surely not!
Seven years before I read a book on dating. It was the first I read that was really good. It told me to stop getting so worked up about finding a husband and start having fun meeting people. So I did. I went from having three dates in five years to having three dates a week at some point. I went from thinking I could point out my future husband from across the room to accepting that I, like everyone else, had to get to know the person first. That the movies weren’t right and that true love didn’t exist as such. That looking for The One was a dead end and that real relationships grow, and don’t just happen to exist overnight. It was exhausting, all that dating, but it sure was fun too. And I learned so much, about myself, about other people, about God. I wanted to be married still, for sure, but the pressure was a bit off.
So when I shared with a friend what I was learning she immediately exclaimed: ‘We should teach this in our church! No one dates in church and its insane. Everyone is looking for The One and spiritualizing it, saying God will have the Perfect One for them and that’s nonsense!’. She was right, it needed to be taught, in our church as much as elsewhere, but really, by me? I was just beginning to discover these things myself and could hardly be called an expert. But my friend was adamant. She got together a group of friends and together we brainstormed about what a healthy datingculture in church would look like.
At the end of the brainstorming sessions everyone was convinced: this should be taught in our church as soon as possible. ‘Let’s start a datingcourse’. And so we did. The first course we opened up for subscription was fully overbooked within an hour. People were coming to me crying saying ‘nobody ever organised anything for us singles in church, and now that there is something, I need to be part of it’. I had to put them on the waiting list deciding then and there a second course would follow. As would a third, fourth and fifth in years to come.
Before long other churches in the country got wind of it and wanted to tag along. So I asked them to send delegates of people who could teach the same stuff in their own church to the second course we hosted. The second course was even sooner fully booked. And someone subscribed who was five years younger, had no university degree and none of the charmers good looks most Amsterdam guys have. But he had these glistening eyes when he listened to me. And he couldn’t be bothered with my objections to dating him.
He had wanted to ask me out that same day the second course started but at the time I was seeing someone so he put the thought out of his head. At the end of the course though he thought it would be wise to sign up to the team organising it, rightly thinking that would give him access to a load of single gals. But somehow his application got lost and nothing happened for another half year, until somehow our paths crossed in church. ‘So about the team’, he said, his innocent smile all over his face, ‘do you still need help?’ ‘As a matter of fact I do, when could you start’, was my immediate reply, thinking: a guy offering his help. That’s not something to take lightly ever. We exchanged some details and chatted a bit about what the tasks would be. ‘I’ll sleep on it for a bit and get back to you, is that ok?’ he responded eventually.
I was flabbergasted. Seriously, sleep on it? You should jump at the opportunity and say yes immediately. It was interesting to me that i felt rejected a bit. Why? It’s not like I asked him out on a date. I wouldn’t, right, he wasn’t my type. But I mean, who was he to not say yes to me immediately? In hindsight this should have been more food for thought than it was to me at the time. Here was this guy, not jumping at my every wish on the one hand, but actively connecting to me on the other hand. Isn’t that really all you want in life from a partner? That balance between connecting and autonomy? Between softness and firmness, approachability and the capacity of the other person to hold their ground?
But he wasn’t my type, so why think about it. I waited for his reply and when it came back positive later that week that was it. He was part of the team. And he kept surprising me. He always did as he promised, within the timeframe he had set himself. He cooked for the team so we could have dinner while meeting, and he phoned me from time to time to check in if I wasn’t overworking myself with the flood of interest for the course. And in spite of my anxiety for long phone conversations with strangers or near strangers, I found myself happily chatting away with him for almost an hour at some point. He asked the right questions, what can I say? I just liked chatting to him and lost track of time when we did. Which is very unlike me at all. I never lose track of time.
Another thing that never happens to me is being surprised. I’ve always wanted to be surprised by love. But I’m terrible at being surprised by anything at all. I can’t cross a street without saving old ladies from being driven over because I can spot the incongruence between their pace and incoming traffic from afar. I can’t be pictured because I have a sixth sense for photo cameras pointed at me. I hate surprises. Yet there I was. Having no clue of what was coming for me.
Meanwhile I started seeing a counsellor. Being a counsellor myself made me acutely aware of the commitment issues I was actually facing. Going on three dates a week can be a steep learning curve at first, but three years into this project it didn’t have much to do with learning anymore, and remarkably more with massive commitment anxiety issues. I needed to face those, I knew I did after rejecting the tenth really good guy with no university degree, slightly younger than me, not completely Calvin Klein model handsome. My standards had become too high, not because I thought that a slightly older guy with a big student debt who was in love with his mirror image would make me happy, but because going for that was a sure-fire way to not have to commit at all. Those guys are single for a reason.
Call it arrogance, call it narcissism, call it an anxiety disorder, but being picky for women is an easy mode to slip in. Other women (single ones that is) will tell you to ‘go for something better’ all the time. They will encourage you to keep on dating, there’s plenty of fish in the sea, and above all will say ‘yes sure, you can’t settle for less if it’s the rest of your life you’re talking about. You are absolutely right to be picky. You are too lovely to go for a so-so guy’.
And although carefully choosing a mate has its benefits, it’s too easy to hide behind your pickiness when you are single and over 30. ‘I’m just not that in to him’, may very well be an excuse not to make any efforts to get to know him. But chances are if he’s a really nice guy you’re not immediately in love with, he will actually turn out to be a very good catch. Because that’s what picky women need most of all, nice guys. They just don’t realise.
‘Show me his picture’. My counsellors response shocked me when I told her the story of how I was now dating this guy I wasn’t really into. It must have been a few weeks in. ‘I have no picture of him’. ‘Sure you do’, this grey-haired woman said, peering through her glasses. She could have easily been my moms age. ‘You are Facebook friends I assume? So you have his profile picture’. Staring at his picture she smiled: ‘I like him. He looks nice. He looks like a good guy’. I couldn’t believe I was having this conversation. Surely he wasn’t good enough for me?
‘Tell me what you don’t like about him’. ‘He’s not tall and blond and I doubt he’s smart enough. He didn’t even go to university’. OK, saying that out loud made me feel like a real pretentious snob, I had to admit. Not even a smart one too. My goodness, counselling was bad for my self-image. I had to actually admit how proud and arrogant I was, something I was hiding so well up until then. ‘So what does your father look like?’ she asked. I was dumbfounded. Could this really be happening? Could this be what I had missed in all those years of dating? I absolutely adored my dad. Could that have been the real reason I was looking for the perfect guy in a certain shape and colour? ‘He is tall and blond’, I replied.
She smiled. ‘How does that affect his character, you think’. Sure, go ahead, make me say it out loud. I was raging mad by this point. ‘Not at all’, I said trough gritted teeth. The thing about counselling is that most of its effectiveness is about stating the obvious. Yet, try finding the obvious in your own life.
‘Ok, so what’s wrong with this guy?’ she asked. ‘And by the way, how old are you?’ My goodness, why did I pay this woman a fortune to ask questions like these? ‘31’. ‘So do you want children?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Than how much time exactly do you think you have here?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know, loads? Aren’t women fertile until well in their 40’s?’ ‘No they are not. Not all of them and anyway, you cannot count on that. If you continue dating this guy and you like him, and you marry, you will be 32 maybe when you marry, or 33. If you turn him down you need to start dating again. Suppose you are 32 when you start dating again, you may be 33 or 34 by the time you meet someone you actually want to be in a relationship with, and 35 or 36 before you marry. That would mean you are 37 by the time you can start thinking about having kids. By then your most fertile years will almost be gone’. Again the peering through the glasses. Now I really wanted to strangle her.
But she was right. My goodness, she was so right it was frightening. And no one in my life had dared saying something like that to me before. They may have thought something along these lines, but they wouldn’t risk saying it. In the weeks after that conversation I frequently thought back about how right she actually was. And again, how could I not have seen that? It’s not like I never challenge my own clients to see things like that, to look ahead, to be realistic. Yet I never, up until then, owned up to the fact that actually, my sense of needing to find someone soon made sense. It had clear, realistic roots in the fact that it is not easy to find someone who you’d actually want to father your children and have by your bedside when giving birth. Which are far better criteria than looks or diplomas can ever be when you think about it. And somehow, in spite of all his obvious flaws, I could see this guy I was dating by my bedside when giving birth.
It was mind blowing. Here I was, teaching dating to half the churches in the country, writing books about it and all, almost completely missing the point myself. ‘Don’t be the one who stays single’, a friend warned me earlier in the year when we were strolling through Paris in search of croissants and good coffee. ‘Don’t be the one who teaches everyone else but doesn’t take the time to find love yourself’. Her warning connected to the thing my therapist was trying to make me see. That I both needed to take time and hurry up. That I needed to take the time to get to know someone better while not buying into the lie I had all the time in the world.
By now summer was in full bloom and we were on our third date. I had been up all night trying to figure out how to answer the next question I knew was coming. ‘Will you be my girlfriend’, he asked after the longest silence between us that sunny Saturday morning. ‘I really, really don’t know’ I answered as truthfully as I could. ‘I don’t want to not be your girlfriend. That’s all I know now and I know that sucks for an answer’. ‘You can leave judging that answer to me’, he said, with that gorgeous smile of his. ‘It’s up to me to decide whether that’s good enough or not’. As often I was stunned by his wisdom, his sense of boundaries and his graciousness. He was right. It really wasn’t up to me to decide. It was up to him. If this was all the answer I could give, it was up to him to accept it or not.
He looked at me and all of a sudden I had this overwhelming urge to kiss him. And because he didn’t say or do anything other than smile at me innocently, that’s exactly what I did. He was trembling as if it was his first kiss ever. I was thrilled as it was the best kiss I ever had.
This is what I remember. We were sitting at the waterfront of the big river IJ that flows through Amsterdam. Facing the city, the newly build cinema behind us we overlooked the water. The world was quietly spinning around us, the sun was shining and from over the water a cheer rose up from a rowing boat full of guys. They pointed and us and just shouted with what seemed to me, back then, sheer happiness. I’d like to imagine they were actually angels in the disguise of English guys on an Amsterdam bound stag party. Rowing their tiny boat on the river IJ where you actually are not allowed to row a boat in danger of being run over by massive cruise ships and frighteningly fast ferries. Daring to be out there.
Now there is no happily ever after to this story, seeing that the story still, five years in, feels like it’s just beginning. But there was, after some struggles and more fears on my part and drawbacks on his, a wedding. And there is now a marriage and one beautiful child. And the happily ever after comes and goes and then comes back again, as it does in any real relationship. But looking back on the summer that changed my life, going back to the bench outside the ice cream shop, the air heavy with summer impending, I’m so, so glad I said yes to the guy with the innocent smile who wasn’t my type at all.
Aukelien Van Abbema is a singles and couples counsellor, public speaker, and successful author, including the title Dare to Date.
Helping people with Christian dating, relationships, singleness in church, dating in church, loneliness, connectedness, christian connection, healthy relationships.