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Who's on First?


In the form of a conversation with one of his students, J. Budziszewski provides sage advice on how singles should approach dating.

J. Budziszewski

It was only a little past 11, and the Union was almost empty. Expecting a quiet lunch, I chose a table where I could look out the window at the Quad. No sooner had I set down my tray than a familiar face materialized in front of me. "Expecting someone, Prof?" It was Mark Manasseh.

"Not at all. Pull up a chair."

He sat down with a plate of something I didn't recognize.

"What's that? Some kind of taco?"

"Haven't you ever had a gyro?" he said. "It's like a Greek taco. Gyros have been around a long time."

I shook my head. "Food has changed."

"Food isn't the only thing that's changed," he said, and lapsed into a moody silence. He chewed meditatively.

"So what else has changed?", I asked.


"You said food isn't the only thing that's changed. What else has changed?"

"Oh. The rules. They're always changing them on you in the middle of the game. I can't tell who's on first any more."

"Who's 'they'? Has the Faculty Senate changed the graduation requirements again?"

"No. Actually I was thinking of a girl." He played with his gyro, then looked up. "I guess I'm not being very clear."

"Clear enough. Girl changes terms of relationship, guy confused. You don't have to explain."

"Maybe I should. We've talked about this kind of thing once before, and I could use the perspective of an, um, older person. Do you mind?"

I shook my head. "I have time. Being so old, you know."

He reddened. "I only meant "

I laughed. "I know what you meant. Go ahead."

"There's this girl. Molly. She's a friend. But that's it: Just a friend. You know, we talk and do things together. But I talk and do things with all my friends."

"Do you talk and do things with them the same way you talk and do things with Molly?"

"Not exactly. She's a close friend." He paused. "But just a close friend."

I smiled. "Just very close."


"And a girl."


"When you talk and do things with her, are other people included?"



"But I do things just with other friends too. Like I told her."

"Like you told her? How did the subject come up?"

"I'm still trying to figure that out."

"Suppose you tell me what happened."

"Well, we were hungry, so we were having a pizza together at Molto Alimento."

"Just because you were hungry."

"Why does there have to be another reason? Can't friends eat a pizza?"


"Anyway, we were almost done when she said something about how we've known each other for almost two years. I said yes. She said we've had a lot of fun together. I said yes. And then she said some other stuff, I don't remember what you can't listen to everything a girl says or it would wear you out. I think I must have said yes to that too, which was probably a mistake. The next thing I knew, she was talking about how a girl needs a commitment or something. And I guess it took a few minutes for what she was saying to sink in, and I asked 'What do you mean?' And she said 'commitment' and spelled the word. And I said 'It's not like we've been dating or anything.' And she said 'What do you call it when we've been seeing each other exclusively for two years?' And I said 'What do you mean exclusively? I do things together with lots of other people.' And she said 'Not with other girls you don't' and I said 'Girls and guys both' and she said 'What girls?' And I said I couldn't think of any and she asked me why I was holding back and I said I didn't know what she was talking about and then all of a sudden she was crying and she left the table and the waiter brought the check and he looked at me like I was dogmeat and I couldn't find her and so I went home, and I keep trying to phone her but she won't return my calls and it's all I can I mean I well "

He looked embarrassed and took a deep breath. "So that's why I say she changed the rules."

"From what to what?"


"What did she change them from, and what did she change them to?"

"From friendship rules to dating rules."

"But that's not exactly what she said, is it?"

"What do you mean?"

"You quoted her as asking something like, 'What do you call what we've been doing?' So she thinks you're the one who's trying to change the rules."

"But I never said we were dating!"

"But weren't you?"

"Don't I have to think it's a date for it to be a date?"

"Do you have to think a car is a car for it to be a car?"

"This isn't like that."

"Mark, when two people of opposite sex enjoy a social activity, it's called a date."

"But it wasn't romantic."

"Not all dates are romantic, but any date is potentially romantic. That's why steady dating produces expectations, especially among girls. Life is short. Why should they waste their time dating guys who aren't serious?"

"We were never romantic."

"She thought you were."

"Yeah, well, I guess that's true."

"And are you so sure that it makes no difference to you that Molly is a girl? Would you worry like that if some guy wouldn't return your calls?"

"But she didn't say we were dating either. Not before. Once someone asked if we were dating, and she answered before I even had a chance. She just laughed and said, 'Oh, no, we're just friends.' See? She did change the rules on me."

I sighed. "Mark, these days neither girls nor guys seem to want to admit that their dates are dates. But they have different reasons for not wanting to, and those reasons kick in on different occasions."

"What do you call the reasons? Start with girls."

"I'm not sure, but I think one common reason girls today don't call dates dates is that guys today think 'date' means 'sex.' The idea of dating as courtship has almost disappeared."

"I don't pressure girls for sex."

"Does she know that?"

"She ought to. She knows I'm a Christian."

"I'm sure she knows that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is contrary to Christian principles. But a lot of so-called Christian guys do pressure girls for sex. How does she know that you won't?"

"I haven't pressured her yet, have I?"

"But you say you aren't dating, remember?"

"Oh. Well, yeah."

"She might think that one reason you haven't pressured her for sex is that up to now she's gone along with the myth that you aren't dating."

"Maybe," he admitted.

"There's another reason."

"What is it?"

"Often girls these days don't call dates dates because guys these days are so afraid of commitment. You wont say that one doesn't apply to you."

Mark shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

"You see, the girl may feel that the only way the guy will ever court her is if he doesn't have to admit that it's courtship."

"All right, I see your point. What do you say are the guy reasons?"

"We've already covered the first one," I said. "Girls are right guys these days are afraid of commitment. It's part of their fear of growing up. And there's another reason. Fear of failure."

"Fear of failure?"

"If you're 'just friends' and she says no to pizza, it's no big deal. But if you ask her on a pizza date and she says no, it's humiliating. To relieve the pressure, guys don't call dates dates. That's related to another girl reason. Most girls don't want to humiliate guys, so if the guy doesn't call it a date, they go along with him."

"Stop. You're bringing back memories of junior high school."

"That's just it. Some guys never quite get past that stage."

"Are there any other guy reasons?"

"There's one more, but we've covered that one too."

"We have?"

"Sure. You mentioned it yourself."


"Right at the beginning of the conversation. You said that the rules of relationships have changed and that you can't even tell 'who's on first' any more."

"It's true."

"Of course it is. Pressure for sex, fear of commitment, fear of failure all those things have changed the rules of relationships. Add to those things the feeling that men and women are adversaries, and things look pretty grim. No wonder guys aren't willing to call dates dates. They don't know what they might be getting into."


"The problem is that not calling dates dates doesn't work either."

"Why not?"

"Think of your dinner with Molly."

"Oh." Mark thought a moment. "So does anything work? What are the moves of courtship?"

"So does anything work?", Mark was saying. "What are the moves of courtship?"

"The first moves are all in your head," I said. "When you're enjoying a social activity with a girl, you should admit to yourself that it's inherently unlike a social activity with a guy friend. Call it what it is: A date."

"That makes it sound like it might lead to something," he grumbled.

"It might lead to something. That's the point. Dating generates expectations. The problem in our time isn't that it generates expectations because it ought to generate them. The problem is that too often it generates either wrong expectations or conflicting expectations."

"What do you mean by that?"

"By what?"

"Wrong or conflicting expectations."

"An example of a wrong expectation is when the guy thinks he's entitled to sex. The sexual powers are too powerful to play around with outside marriage."

"I see that well enough. What about the conflicting ones?"

"For instance when the guy views the girl just as someone to have fun with, while the girl views the guy as someone she might be interested in marrying." I smiled wryly. "And I have to tell you, in a case like that my sympathies are with the girl."


"Her biological clock is ticking a lot faster than yours. From a purely physical point of view, you can father a child at almost any point in your life, but she has to have children while she's young. So it makes sense for her to be viewing every date in terms of possible marriage and it's childish and selfish for the guy to expect her not to."

He grimaced. "So from your point of view, the whole purpose of dating is for the girl to find a suitable marriage partner."

"No. For both of them to find suitable marriage partners."

"Don't put any pressure on me or anything, Prof."

I laughed. "You call that pressure? I could put a lot more pressure on you than that."

"Like what?"

"Like saying that you shouldn't date anyone you wouldn't consider marrying."

"Hey, wait," Mark said. "You're going pretty fast. That's not in the Bible, is it?"

I smiled. "No, Mark. Do you think that lets you off the hook?"

"Doesn't it? After all, we're Christians."

"Nope. When certain Corinthians threw in Paul's face their slogan that everything not forbidden is permissible, he replied 'but not everything is beneficial.1 Thinking like a Christian means a lot more than doing what the Bible says; it also means thinking like the Bible thinks, even about things the Bible doesn't mention. That includes having respect for human nature as God designed it, like the difference between your biological clock and the girl's. It also includes realism about temptations."

"Well, OK, I guess I see that. But what if the girl knows I'm not interested in marrying her?"

"How do you know she knows that?"

"Because she says so. Why are you laughing?"

"Sorry. I happened to remember what my wife said about that to one of our nephews the other day, and she's very funny. Her advice was that if you're dating a girl and she says she understands that you're not interested in marrying her, don't believe her."

Mark was scandalized. "You mean I should expect girls to lie?"

"No, no. Well, yes, they do sometimes, but no more than guys do, and that's not what I mean. It's just that if a girl says she understands a thing like that, she doesn't understand herself any better than the guy does."

"I don't get it."

"Have you forgotten already? Think of Molly, Mark, think of Molly."

He winced. "I get it."

"Any more questions?

"Lots. What about this? You say that I shouldn't even date anyone I wouldn't consider marrying. But what if I'm not interested in getting married at all?"

"Are you not interested in getting married at all?"

"I don't know. I haven't thought about it much."

"Then start thinking now."

"Why? I don't have to get married, do I?"

"No. But there's a good reason and a bad reason to avoid marriage, and the matter isn't just up to you."

"What do you mean by that?"

"Some people especially guys avoid marriage because they're too selfish to get married. Actually marriage and family are one of God's ways of breaking us out of our selfishness. So that's the bad reason."

He raised an eyebrow. "What's the good reason?"

"Jesus says that a few people are set aside by God for an unmarried way of life for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.2 Paul talks about this too.3 But Jesus makes clear that the single life is difficult. Those who are called to it should follow it; those who aren't shouldn't try. So it isn't just a matter of going your own way. In fact it's the opposite of going your own way."

"So if, say, I was called by God to singleness "

"Then common sense creational common sense, the common sense about human nature that I called 'thinking like the Bible thinks' says you shouldn't date at all."

"Because you'd be tempted?"

"Yes, that's one reason. And also because it would be cruel to arouse expectations of possible marriage which it wouldn't be right to fulfill."

Mark blew out his breath through his mouth. "I don't actually think I'm called to a permanent single life."

"Maybe not. Let's suppose you're not. What then?"

"Then it's OK to date. As long as I date only girls I might consider marrying."

"Right. Any thoughts about what sorts of girls those might be?"

"Um compatible girls?"

"Naturally, but what else do you need to know about them?"

"That they share my faith in Christ?"

"Right, that's a scriptural absolute, and I'm sure you can see why. What else?"

"That they're hmm mature? Of good character?"

"Good. Go on."

"That's all I can think of."

"In the creation story, God blessed our first parents and then told them to be fruitful. Good thing for you and me that they obeyed that better than his commandment about the tree."

"You mean I should be looking forward to having kids? So I guess I shouldn't date a girl unless she would make a good mother, too."

"Right. Just like she shouldn't date you unless you'd make a good father."

"Me being a fatherthat idea's a little hard for me to wrap my mind around, Professor Theophilus."

I smiled. "It's easier to do it than to envision it. We were designed for it."

"Do you have kids?"

"Several. Anything else you find it hard to wrap your mind around?"

Mark thought for a moment. "Yeah. One more thing."

"What is it?"

"Suppose I did decide I was interested in marrying someone. I mean if she was still interested too."

"Go on."

"Suppose she was all those things and I did feel something for her though I'm not sure exactly what."

"That's hard for us males to sort out."

"Why is that?"

"I don't know. I have a theory, though. Want to hear it?"


"There's a part of the brain that communicates between the sensitive, emotional side and the rational, analytical side. It's said to be smaller in men than in women."


"So my theory is that we men feel all the same emotions that women do, but we just don't notice."

Mark gaped at me for a second or two, then burst out laughing. "Are you serious?"

I grinned. "Only half serious. But you were saying?"

"Oh, yeah. Suppose I asked this girl to marry me and she said yes. What then?"

"I'd say 'Congratulations.'"

"That's not what I mean. I mean, what are the moves for engagement?"

"I'd say the moves of engagement take care of themselves. Except for one thing."

"What's that?"

"When two people know they're going to be married soon, they begin letting down their guard. Actually this is one of the most important times to keep their guard up."

"You mean sexually?"

"Of course. For example, they may have every intention of remaining chaste, but spend every waking moment alone together. That's a formula for disaster, because being alone with the beloved is supposed to be arousing; that's how God made us. So they need to spend their alone time where there are other people within view."

I paused. "But aren't you getting a little ahead of yourself, Mark? We were talking about dating. You haven't even decided whether you want to marry Molly."

Mark startled, then gave me a sheepish look. "Oh, yeah. I forgot."

Interested in reading more about courtship? Then you might want to order Boy Meets Girlby Joshua Harris.

  1. 1 Corinthians 10:23 (NIV); compare 1 Corinthians 6:12. See also Proverbs about "Wisdom."
  2. Matthew 19:10-12.
  3. 1 Corinthians 7.

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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J. Budziszewski "Who's on First?" Boundless.

Reprinted with permission of J. Budziszewski. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

The Author

CommentaryJ. Budziszewski is professor of government and philosophy at the University of Texas. He writes at Underground Thomist, and is most recently the author of Commentary on Thomas Aquinas' Treatise on Law, Cambridge University Press.

Copyright © 2002 J. Budziszewski

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