Dear Searcher Open Letter Series Part 1: “How Often Visitation Should Be During Courtship”

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This is the first post of what may become a series if this continues to happen. I’ve occasionally had some pretty bizarre search terms pop up on my blog stats, some of them not surprising, others somewhat frustrating. While I can’t be certain that the person who did this will see it, I think this is a topic worth exploring again on this blog, and maybe someone down the road will stumble upon it who needs to see this.

On January 6th, someone found my blog using the search term, “How Often Visitation Should Be During Courtship.” This is an open letter to that person.

Dear person who stumbled upon my blog using the search term, “How Often Visitation Should Be During Courtship,”

I’m guessing that the person searching this isn’t a kid. It’s a parent. More likely than not, the parent of a daughter, possibly a young adult daughter. Even if it is the daughter or son doing this search, show your parents this letter. They should probably read this. As someone who had friends who participated in courting culture, I have a sense of how this works. I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve also seen young women raised in some form of conservative dating culture find themselves in situations you would never wish upon your children.

I know you want what’s best for your little girl. But you need to understand something: if she is at least 18 (in the United States), your little girl is an adult now. She may not seem like one in your eyes. Maybe she relies on you for a lot of financial things. Maybe she asks you basic questions about how to balance her checkbook and other adult tasks, and that makes you think of her as seventeen, or sixteen, but never eighteen. Adults know how to do these things.They’re independent! But the economy isn’t what it used to be. Just google the minimum wage in your state and compare it to the monthly cost of renting a studio apartment.  Financial independence doesn’t define adulthood anymore. Birthdays happen regardless of where we are in life, and even though you have her best interests in mind when you try to protect her from the world, you’re kidding yourself. You can’t keep her seventeen forever. It’s like putting a plant in a pot that’s too small for it. You’re stunting her growth. If you keep waiting for her to be big enough to move on to the big backyard outside without at least moving her to a bigger pot first, you’ll find that she stays exactly the same size. In my experience, incremental raises in expectations lead to a great deal of growth in a person. Some of the childishness you perceive in her may not even be the result of immaturity on her part. It may be a reflection of your expectations of her. Maybe it’s time you re evaluated those expectations.

It’s time for her to make her own decisions. If she’s 18 and you’re still making big decisions for her, some things need to change. Yes, dating is a big decision. Yes, dating the wrong person can lead to heartbreak and pain. Yes, adding sex to the mix of that can make it more complicated. You’re right about all those things, but your approach is not making them easier for your adult child to handle. There will come a day when you aren’t around to make her life decisions. Wouldn’t it be better if she figured out how to make those choices now, with you there to offer advice and support, than later when you’re not? There will always be adult men in your adult daughter’s life, and you don’t put the same restrictions around them as you do with the man she is courting–the man who is a serious contender for marriage to her. When the repair man comes to fix her washing machine, will you insist on having a chaperon there to make sure he doesn’t try anything funny, or will you trust your daughter to hold him to the standards of a professional? When she answers the door to sign for a package delivered by UPS, will you wait with her for the package that could come any time on Tuesday or Wednesday? Will you track the package to ensure that you know when it is coming, reviewing every correspondence your daughter has with the company to ensure that it is appropriate, timing her phone calls to be sure she isn’t giving up too much of herself to her involvement with this company? I don’t think so.

So why do you plan to do it for her relationship? Down the road, when she’s in the marriage you practically arranged, you won’t be there watching to ensure that the man you approved of is a good husband. You won’t be watching their dates to be certain that he is respectful, that he doesn’t disrespect her, or harm her, or abuse her in any way. That would be invasive. That would overstep some boundaries. After all, they’d be a married couple, and it’s up to them to manage their relationship, right? Right?

How are they supposed to learn how to do that in the first place if they’re not allowed to make the small decisions couples make when they’re first going out? How is she supposed to learn what he’s like when there are no chaperons around if she never speaks to him in private? For all you know, he could be putting his best foot forward because you’re there. You won’t be there to watch them every second of their marriage. So while they’re trying to decide if they like each other enough to make that commitment, let them go out to dinner together, just the two of them. They’re in a public place anyway. As a matter of fact, a movie theater is a public space too. So is the ice rink, the bowling alley, and so are many other perfectly good places to go on a date. Let him take her to them, and let them get to know each other’s full personalities, including the thoughts they don’t share with you.

For further reading, check out this great article that the Wall Street Journal did about how parents can positively influence their children’s dating decisions for the better. Hint: it doesn’t involve making those decisions for them. If you’d like to see some personal testimonies by women who know even better than me–who’ve experienced courtship themselves and can tell you first hand how that turns out in the end–check out the Homeschoolers Anonymous posts about courtship here. Remember, this isn’t about what’s best for you, or what gives you the most control. This is about what’s best for her.

As always, if you have any thoughts about this feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful of others and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

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Monitored Visitation: The Shackles of Courtship

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of stockimages at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Imagine being restricted to monitored phone calls, and visitation during specified hours, with guests who must go through a detailed security screening. Sounds like prison, right? What if dating worked that way?

While this does not reflect how many people experience dating, it is the reality for some, who participate in a form of dating commonly used and promoted by the deeply religious:  courting. Courting is often defined as dating with marriage as the ultimate goal. Despite it being a fairly accepted definition in my experience, I find it to not be a very clear one. There are plenty of people who consider what they do “dating,” not “courting,” for whom marriage is still the ultimate goal. I consider myself to be one of those people. True, dating can be casual, but many people enter long-term relationships prior to marriage with the intention of finding a spouse or life partner, and those relationships should not be discounted as less serious just because those involved do not label themselves as “courting.”

Another problem I have with that definition is that it says nothing about how it differs from dating in practice, only how the two differ in intent. In my experience, the main difference in the way the two are practiced is who is in control. In dating, the people making the decisions are typically the people who are dating each other. While a dating couple may choose to involve their families by introducing each other to them and asking for their advice, that isn’t typically the be-all, end-all. Dating partners are free to make their own decisions, with or without their parents’ approval. Courtship, in my experience, is the complete opposite. In courtship, the parents of the couple (especially the girl’s parents) tend to have at at least a fifty percent say in every decision–sometimes more. It is usually the father who has the most power, as the man and head of the household. He often maintains complete veto power over any and all decisions. As one girl explains, “my parents were firmly entrenched in the values of courtship, and any potential relationship would be controlled completely by my father.” (Check out her story about rebelling against her patriarchal family here.) In courtship, the parents are with the couple every step of the way, sometimes in ways that are downright invasive, and excessive. This control is the main issue I take with the practice.

At one of my homeschooling co-ops back in high school, there was a young couple (seniors) I suspected would be getting together soon. They were always side by side at co-op, and had chemistry so thick that the air practically dripped with their excitement to be with each other. I soon discovered that they were together in a sense, however, they were expected to court. I don’t know much about their courting experience because we weren’t close, but I did hear one startling thing:  when it came to communication over distances, they were required to limit themselves to infrequent phone calls–every other week. Furthermore, each and every one of those phone calls had to be monitored by their parents. I realize this sounds bizarre. What parent tells his or her daughter “Oh, you two want to talk? You can call him next Thursday. But I have to be on the other line.” It’s ridiculous. I used to make excuses for it. They’re teenagers, I said. Their parents want what’s best for them. Maybe their parents don’t trust them to date, so they’re taking extra precautions. This kind of parental monitoring doesn’t end when children turn 18, though. In families that practice courting, this level of parental control is expected, no matter what age the children are when they begin to look for a future spouse. You may have laughed when you saw 30-year-old Toula Portokalos in the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, living with no freedom at the mercy of her father’s control, but there are real people in the United States living this antiquated life.

Fast forward four years. I’m now a senior in college, and during the fall semester, one of the student organizations I’m part of planned a mandatory, 2-day retreat for its leaders. As annoyed as I was for having to attend something at a time when I had a great deal of assignments due, I had a good time and really got to know the other members of the group. In a brief dull moment though, I did a head count, and realized someone was missing. Someone who had attended every meeting. On the way back, one of the attendees told me why. The missing student is Indian. (Meaning, she’s from India. I wish I didn’t have to explain this, but there was this idiot called Columbus.)  Her family is very strict, and as a rule, they do not permit her to spend the night anywhere other than home without her parents. No slumber parties. No retreats. Nothing. If she were under 18, I wouldn’t make a big deal about this, but she’s an adult college student with a job. Legally, she’s autonomous, but in her family, she isn’t. While this particular example isn’t overtly part of the culture of courting, I suspect that it stems from a similar source. This type of precaution, like the excessive monitoring of potential suitors, is often presented by conservative families as a way of protecting the girl’s purity–her virginity. The father ensures it by keeping his eye on her. I do not know if this is the case for her family, but a fair number of Indian families practice arranged marriage. It is still common in their culture, and I have known a young man who was nearly forced into one. Excessive parental control works well with a culture that promotes parents’ choice over the couple’s. The more I learn about courting, the more I see how it can become dangerously close to arranged marriage.

Why is courting even popular when it is so controlling? Like many things in the conservative world, the popularity of courting is largely due to a negative attitude toward pre-marital sex. It is the perfect way for parents to do their darnedest to prevent that awful deed. During my strict religious upbringing, the idea that pre-marital sex can ruin relationships was presented to me frequently. Supposedly, couples who have sex before marriage do not get to know each other as individuals, just as objects to fuck. This makes their relationships doomed to fail. Also, God doesn’t like it, therefore courting is the Godly thing to do. The important thing, as usual, is keeping people “pure.”

Maybe there’s a way to do it right, but based on what I’ve seen of it, it sucks. If anything, courting actually prevents couples from getting to know each other thoroughly enough to commit to marriage, thanks to the constant chaperoning and excessive parental involvement. The more I think about it, the more I worry about people like that aforementioned couple I knew, and the Duggar daughters of 19 Kids and Counting, who also believe in courtship rather than dating.

Because they are in the public eye, the Duggars are an excellent example of courtship that can be examined in detail. An article I found, called “The Duggars’ 7 Rules of Courtship” sums up some of their courtship rules. Much like that young couple I knew, the Duggar children are somewhat restricted to monitored correspondence. Their parents expect their text messages to each other to all come in the form of group texts that go out to the Duggar parents too. The article describes how that works, and quotes the father of the family, Jim Bob, on the subject:

“It’s neat to see their conversations,” says Jim Bob, adding that the couple texts about everything from scripture to their future as a family and ideas on parenting. For the most part, Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in. But occasionally they do.

I’ve seen conservative parents comment on their children’s Facebook pages, actively getting in the way of their children expressing opinions that differ from theirs. Because of that, I find it hard to believe that Jim Bob and Michelle don’t chime in much, and don’t influence the conversation much with their presence. Even if they exercise restraint and really do only comment “occasionally,” the fact that they are included in the conversation means that every text is carefully constructed; it is a performance. The daughter must uphold the image of absolute purity that the parents expect, and the man must tread carefully, choosing subjects of conversation that are fit for the dinner table. If they really do have conversations about their future and ideas on parenting, I doubt they do so using their real opinions and observations because of the possibility of offending the ever-watching Duggar parents.

What kind of relationship are they building? I was relieved that shortly after that quote, it says that the couple is permitted private phone conversations for one hour per night. That’s a step in the right direction–but only a step. How private is a phone conversation in a family with 19 kids who share bedrooms (which is the case for them)? Where does the couple go to find privacy? What if they want to have a conversation about sex? If you’re serious about marriage, you need to (at some point) have open dialogue about sex, about your expectations, hopes, fears, and to clear up any confusion you have about how it works before you–you know–start. I realize they believe in waiting until marriage, but imagine going into your wedding night having never had the chance to talk to your spouse about what’s going to happen that night? That conversation is important, and with mommy, daddy, and 18 siblings wandering around, it’s not likely to occur.

I’d complain about their “no kissing, no hand holding” rules, which I’ve always considered to be extraordinarily excessive, (I know people who set similar boundaries), but really, it’s up to the couple to decide what physical boundaries are right for them. For some people, the boundary is “no butt stuff.” For others, it’s “clothes stay on.” I’m fine with that. I’m a little concerned, though, that the parents had too much say in this decision. While I understand that the parents want their children to practice the kind of pure relationship building that their religious beliefs mandate, as I’ve stated in my post about purity pledging, it works a heck of a lot better when the couple chooses it for themselves, setting boundaries that they think are important. If a couple says “We’re not kissing before marriage” because their parents want them to, but that doesn’t fit what they want as a couple (or as individuals), they’re probably going to end up kissing before marriage. I say this as someone who practiced “purity” because my parents believed kissing should be the furthest one goes before marriage, and watched my line get redrawn further and further and further until finally I literally said “fuck it,” and did just that. I wasn’t making a purity pledge for myself. I was making it for them, for my religion, and for the people around me who said it was the right thing to do. As those reasons melted away, so did my sexual boundaries. I’m not the only one who’s experienced this phenomenon either. It’s an 8-part story, but this girl promised she wouldn’t kiss before marriage as part of her courting experience, and in short, that’s not what happened.

Ultimately, in any form of romantic relationship building, the actual members of the relationship are the important ones. They need to form a bond with each other. They need to find common ground. They need to understand and appreciate their differences. They need to learn how to talk about subjects they wouldn’t discuss in front of their parents, because those subjects will all become part of their lives if they get married. I’m completely fine with “dating with marriage as the ultimate goal.” What I’m not fine with, is two adults dating under the constant watch of daddy and mommy, with daddy getting the final say in any and all decisions. An adult should be able to have a private conversation with his or her significant other without their parents’ knowledge or permission. An adult should be able to make his or her own decisions.

Happy thinking!

-Nancy

 

Age of Consent and Age of Purity Pledging

Not old enough to give consent? No worries. Make a purity pledge!

I’m lucky enough to have been raised by a family that didn’t really push purity pledges until I was in high school, which, if you’re going to make one, isn’t horribly early for most people. The thing is, they also failed to give me adequate sex ed while I was homeschooled, so I didn’t learn about sex until I was 15, which, coincidentally, was after I’d already made a purity pledge a year earlier.

While consent is hard to define, and is often defined by the situations in which a person cannot give consent rather than the ones in which someone can, I suspect most people can agree that consent should be informed. That means that the people involved have to know what they’re agreeing to in order to say yes to it. I think that’s a fair requirement, since there can be lots of negative consequences to saying yes to things one doesn’t understand. Don’t understand how loans work? Don’t get one. Don’t understand sex? Don’t have it. Don’t understand the rules of the road? Don’t drive. (Please, please don’t. That one has the added problem of endangering others as well as yourself.)  

But then you have my situation. Can a student who doesn’t know how sex works truly make a binding promise to not do it for an extended period of time? Now, granted, it was a promise to myself and God, not a legal document or an agreement to have my genitalia mutilated. But I was 14. There are girls who make that pledge at age 9, or younger, at ages when they’re not able to fully understand what they’re agreeing to. They may be told they’re agreeing to be “pure,” which certainly sounds positive. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with deciding to abstain from sex if that’s something that you think is a good idea for you. It’s certainly the safest option, but if you don’t understand it, is it fair to expect you to make that promise?

Then there’s the issue of the way many of these purity programs are run. If you’re put into a room with 100 girls, and told, “Here’s a piece of paper. Write down a promise to yourself to be pure” (which is basically what happened to me), you’d be very weird if you stood up and said, “No thanks.” So not only are you being encouraged to make this promise, you’re being pressured to do so by the crowd around you. To me, that seems less personal and less binding than a promise made to oneself based on an informed decision, and also made without outside influence. I’ve made multiple purity “pledges” in my life, and in the end, none of them was binding to me. When I became informed, and eventually met someone who was attractive and kind and with whom I was seriously considering having sex, I made a decision not to because I wasn’t ready. But when I eventually became emotionally capable of it, I decided to study my earlier pledges. Were they binding? The first one, the one I made at 14 without any information, was not. But the later ones? They were all made in a similar situation to the first:  on retreats where girls were taken into a room to write letters to themselves. That was nice, but there was considerable peer pressure involved. Sure, I could have written nonsense and signed Micky Mouse, but what if someone had noticed? I wasn’t a rebel back then. Even if I had objected to the pledge, I would have written it down, and signed it, just like everybody else. That peer pressure, to me, makes it no longer binding. You can argue that I’m rationalizing it, but it’s not a legal document, and the only person I promised besides myself is a divine being whom I no longer believe in, so at least in my case, the only person I’m disagreeing with is my younger self–and she and I would disagree on a lot of things, not just sex.

The whole peer pressure issue doesn’t just apply to sex in my opinion, and I may get some disagreement on this, but I’m not fond of marriage proposals made in crowded places, especially with any kind of camera or spotlight involved. Football games, Hockey games, Baseball, Basketball–I don’t care, I would be thoroughly pissed off if someone proposed to me at one. Just think about the pressure! All eyes in the packed stadium are on you, and if you say no,  what started as a sweet moment has ended with labeling yourself a cold bitch. The audience wants you to say yes! If you say no, you’ve disappointed them. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people say yes, and then say no when they’re in a private place. I’d say that sucks for the person who proposed, but he or she should have considered the large public pressure before deciding to propose in that place. Granted, there are some cases where the couple has already agreed to get married, and the public proposal is just their way of publicly declaring their engagement–that’s fine by me. But to do it in such a public way without any warning is extremely inconsiderate, and frankly, manipulative. It’s a big decision to make, and when you consider how easily people are influenced by what they think the people around them expect, it makes peer pressure all the more problematic.

I’ve come to the conclusion that if teens or young adults realize that they want to have sex, and decide to, they’re going to rationalize that decision. Don’t want to let them do that? Then encourage them to make a promise in a way that they feel is binding, not in a way that involves peer pressure, or pressure from adult authorities. In the end, the decision to remain pure is up to them, and while choosing to have sex is a big decision, choosing to avoid it is too.

What Movie Romance Teaches Us About Sexual Assault and Manipulation

We’ve all seen them:  the scenes where the guy hits on the girl, who rejects him. Then he rushes to her, spins her around, and plants a big sloppy kiss while squishing her body up against his. In movies, this is love, passion, and a sign of things to come:  the start of a happy relationship. In reality, this is called sexual assault. This kind of behavior should never be condoned in real life, and boys and men alike watching these scenes get the wrong idea about how romance works. Worse, sometimes they act them out in real life. These scenes can also give girls an inaccurate idea about love, and even render them incapable of recognizing sexual assault when it happens.

As someone who has experienced sexual assault in the past, I can’t help but cringe a little at these scenes, even in iconic movies and musicals that I’ve loved since my childhood. I’m not going to argue that sexual assault (or rape for that matter) shouldn’t be shown in films or books–it should. But I’d like for it to be presented as what it is, and for the characters involved to have to at least discuss what one did to the other so that they can have some semblance of a truly healthy romantic relationship in the end, rather than a hastily scripted wedding scene.

Take this scene in Guys and Dolls, for instance (if you don’t mind the singing). If you want to skip most of the singing, start watching at 3:16. You’ll get the idea.

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/415266/Guys-And-Dolls-Movie-Clip-I-ll-Know.html

Sky and Sarah are one of the show’s lead couples, and–you guessed it, at the end, they’re married. Even though Sarah is clearly repulsed by him, and not at all interested–heck, she freaking slaps him–the hero gets the girl. What kind of world do we live in where even a violent act like smacking someone in the face as hard as you can doesn’t mean no, and isn’t taken as a sign that things won’t work? Granted, in the plot of the story, Sky has a lot of money riding on his bet that he can take prudish Sarah on a date–but still, she rejected him multiple times. This is not the start of a beautiful romantic relationship; it’s a crime. While she does eventually fall for Sky, that isn’t the point. She’d rejected him, and once a person is rejected, he or she needs to back off and leave the rejecter alone. The only person who can turn that rejection into a date is the rejecter. If that person changes his or her mind, then yay for the rejectee! But in reality, that doesn’t happen often.

Scenes like this one have perpetuated the idea that the key to successfully getting someone to date you is persistence, not, you know–asking politely and letting the other person make their own damn decision. While yes, persistence can eventually get someone to do what you want, it’s not acceptable to beg that person until he or she just wants you to stop. Besides, do you really want someone to date you just so that you’ll shut up and stop hitting on them? Wouldn’t you rather have that person date you because he or she is attracted to you and wants to date you? I’m going with the latter reason.

Not to mention the fact that sexual assault is ILLEGAL, and morally objectionable. Just because there’s no penis-in-vagina action doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong. There’s a reason consent is required in relationships. Both parties have to decide they want to do something, and pressuring that person until they give in is not true consent.

An important part of the concept of consent is that if one of the parties involved is not emotionally or physically capable of saying no, they can’t give consent. All participants need to 1) understand what they’re doing, and 2) know that at any time they can say no, and that no will be respected. I once saw my brother hitting on a girl who was maybe 13 at the time. He was about 14, and much taller than she was. I could tell she was trying to shrug his arm off her shoulders, and her body language told me she wasn’t interested in his advances, but she wasn’t saying anything with her words, and he was still, well, advancing. My brother’s very bad at reading social cues from body language, so I wasn’t surprised by this. I was maybe 16 at the time, and I said to her, “He’s not responding to your body language that you’re not interested. You should tell him verbally.” She responded, “No, it’s ok, I don’t mind.” Granted, this was in front of him. Had I been older, I would have taken her aside and said this to her privately, but I still stand by my observation and the words I said to her. The girl probably didn’t understand this, but it is clear to me that at the time she was not mature enough to give consent. If you don’t feel comfortable verbalizing your no, then your yes doesn’t mean anything. Which brings me to another scenario where movies are at fault:  manipulation.

There’s this scene in The Notebook that reminds me of my sexual assault, and it sucks that this is considered the start of a great movie romance, when really, it’s manipulation.

This is the beautiful Ferris Wheel scene, where Noah threatens to kill himself to get a date with a hot girl he’s never met.

Let me repeat that. HE THREATENS TO KILL HIMSELF TO GET A DATE. And she says no at first, until he drops one of his hands and dangles, pretending to slip. The girl below them yelling at him has to be my favorite character in this scene. It’s been a while since I saw the movie all the way through, but this scene always stuck with me. I thought at first it was romantic, and a beautiful image of the persistence that proves that Noah loves her. Frankly though, it’s actually proof that Noah is a manipulative jerk who knows he’s getting a pity date, and doesn’t care. He’s convinced himself that if he can just get a date with her, she’ll fall for him. It happens to work out that way for him–just as Sarah’s one date with Sky happens to work out for Sky too, but in real life, that’s simply not the case.

She seems to be thoroughly turned off by Noah’s irrational, immature behavior. The only thing she’d be thinking in real life is, how do I get this guy to leave me alone and get off the Ferris wheel? Noah is not actually suicidal, and she doesn’t like him, so there is no reason for her to date him. She should say no, or, if she says yes, should say no once they’re back on the ground. So she does something immature to retaliate? It’s funny, but pantsing someone doesn’t make up for the manipulation.

Having been sexually assaulted by a guy who threatened to kill himself so he could get alone with me, and have my undivided attention whenever he felt like it, I can honestly say that this is a tactic used in real life by real douche bags–and listen–whoever’s reading this:  DON’T BUY INTO IT. It’s one thing if a close friend reveals his or her depression or suicidal thoughts. If it’s someone you know well, it may be legitimate, but when a person you don’t know well does it, there are 2 reasons they could be doing it for, and those are for your attention or pity, both of which can be used to manipulate you.

As a young woman who watched these scenes growing up–and saw many others just like them–I didn’t recognize my sexual assault until well after it happened. I knew I had been touched, often against my will by that manipulative loser, but I didn’t understand consent. I thought my absence of a no was giving him consent, but in reality, I only let him touch me because I was afraid he would kill himself if I did anything that would upset him. Even after I broke off my relationship with him, I still thought he was genuinely suicidal. It took the convincing of some very close friends, one of whom had legitimately struggled with depression, to get me back on the path to safety and healthy thinking–and guess what? That “suicidal” asshole? He’s still alive, even though I broke it off. He had no intention of killing himself, but man, did he milk it for the attention. This is not to say depression is not real–it is. I’ve known people who’ve suffered from it. But usually, they don’t talk about it to people they don’t know well, and when your distant acquaintances start telling you what sound like their most intimate, dirty secrets for absolutely no reason, after conversations that you could barely call deep or intimate,  you should be suspicious. They’re not telling you because they’re your true love. They want your pants off, and your shirt too.

Happy thinking my fellow daters.