Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The "Placeholder Syndrome"

"We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions."

On Monday L posted an interesting NYTimes piece and some thought-provoking commentary. I agree with her entirely that the idea of having no alternative between "hookups & hangouts" and Joshua-Harris-inspired courtship/dating is as unimaginative as it is harmful.

L suggests as a positive way towards establishing middle-ground options, that "dating" in a reasonable sense should definitely be left on the table. I'm all for the "intent begetting actions" motto that I suspect undergirds her thinking: the intent of getting to know each other as multidimensional, unique people gives rise to interesting, meaningful interaction issued from both sides. The details of how this plays out will of course differ, but this foundation remains to guide.

But here's my question: What happens when there is meaningful action or behavior (beyond or excluding the physical) without any intent? I've seen it happen with both men and women, and I call it the "Placeholder Syndrome": A person who is perhaps a good friend (and yes, perhaps a la When Harry Met Sally there has always been a little something "extra" in the mix) begins to act in ways traditionally interpreted as "significant" toward the other. For example, you go to concerts together, you make each other dinner, you are each other's plus-one to dances or informal gatherings with colleagues, you are spending most of your free time with each other, and mostly uno-y-uno. And yet no clear intent is declared until finally, at a point of utter confusion (or in some cases, the arrival of another...more datable?...person on the scene), one party forces the other to protest that s/he never meant anything other than good, even best friendship, and that is all.

Maybe this is an inevitable if heartbreaking byproduct of our being humans and thus often misunderstanding one another. Maybe it all boils down to the age-old question of whether singles can be friends if the possibility for romance exists even as a hope in the glimmer of the twinkling of the eye for either party. And it must be stated for the record that many true and lasting romantic relationships ARE borne of the awkward, ambiguous friendship stage.

But I want to ask this question specifically in terms of intention verses action, and what this might look like in a dating culture where the rules of interaction between "potentials"--and in particular between "potentials-qua-friends"--are in such flux that we are told to give up on anything that isn't easily managed, convenient, self-serving. So I ask: can we hope to get rid of the Placeholder Syndrome? Or more generally, are there better rules of conduct for engagement here, regarding one's intention verses one's actions, that help us avoid the extremes of never going deep enough (either via perennial hanging out or hooking up) or always going too deep (marriage-or-bust)?

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