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Dating While is a series from The Lily that explores the circumstances affecting women’s dating lives. Interested in contributing to a future installment of Dating While? Fill out this form.

Joy Beth Smith, 30, currently lives near Chicago but grew up in Charleston, S.C. She is an associate editor at Christianity Today.

You’re a committed Christian. What’s your experience been like dating in a devout religious setting?

Exhausting. I’m weary of dating in the church. Growing up as a conservative Southern Baptist, I was conditioned to believe that the purpose of dating is for marriage. You only date when you are ready and able to be married, and you only date people whom you would consider marrying. This, of course, presents all kinds of problems: How do you know when you’re ready for marriage, and is anyone really ready for marriage? Are you ready at the end of college, after your brain fully develops, or maybe once you’re financially stable — and your fertility is starting to decrease at an alarming rate?

By default, this mentality also teaches you to assess every guy as a prospective spouse before seeing him as a person; it creates a culture of commodification and dehumanization that only compounds dating’s inherent frustrations. It begins to seem like you’re only as valuable as you are marriageable. Anything that detracts from your marriage potential, like a quirky personality, thick thighs or a too-loud laugh, decreases your value as a person.

After a decade of navigating this world, I feel like I’m at an impasse.

In the orbit of a church culture that highly prizes the nuclear family unit, I’m unable to fully participate or create that family structure for myself, despite my best efforts. It makes sense that the church is where I would find someone who shares my values and is like-minded on many issues. But I don’t know how to be what the single men seem to be looking for, and it’s painful to continually put yourself on a market where there are no takers.

How do you talk about the importance of your faith when dating those who aren’t religious? How have those conversations gone?

I’m one of those weirdos who actually loves cracking open a bottle of moscato and easing in to a date with, “So, how do you determine morality?” After spending so many years insulated in my conservative, Southern bubble, I’m fascinated by people and their answers. Many have forced me to think more deeply about my own beliefs, and a few have left me thankful to have something greater than myself to believe in. Some discussions leave me just as curious and confused as my date as we wonder aloud about the repercussions of crimes committed within isolated tribes in other parts of the world.

Despite my expectations, I’ve never encountered hostility during one of these discussions. Dating people of various faith backgrounds has been enlightening for me — though that reality deviates from what I was taught growing up. (An unexpected perk: Coming into contact with men who seem much more accepting of my body.)

Describe one of the best dates you’ve had.

It began with me calling him the wrong name — twice. It was our first date, and I was getting to know more than one person at the time. Before I had drinks with Jon, I shot off a text to Chris wishing him good night, and between nerves and a walk in the biting cold of Chicago winter, I lost my mind. Jon had to point out to me what I’d done when he realized I wasn’t kidding. How do you recover from that, especially after he correctly guessed why I’d made the mistake (Jon was very astute)? We were well matched intellectually, and our conversation bubbled and boiled, never simmering enough to allow for ordering food during the first hours. It was a friendly but feisty tête-à-tête. I’d call him Sam, and he’d call me out on my mispronunciation of a word. We then would spend an hour discussing Oscar nominations for best picture, making impassioned cases for our favorite. After three hours of heated exchange and our knees brushing at the bar, I insisted on food, lest I be embarrassed by my growling stomach. We moved to a booth and spent another two hours covering everything you’re not supposed to on a first date: politics, religion, family and exes. After he picked up the check, we slowly ambled to our cars, and with snow flurries winding around us, he kissed me — no exaggeration — like I’ve never been kissed before. Every cell in my body was alive with the contact and felt bereft when he began to walk away. But, like a scene in a movie, he ran back for another kiss.

Then he ghosted me.

Describe one of the worst dates you’ve had.

I once went on a date with a heckler. While that was not his profession, he made it his mission to mock me, as if I existed for his observing and criticizing. After insisting I pick our sushi rolls, he spent seven minutes detailing their flaws (“too adventurous,” “too crunchy” and “too fried”). He informed the waitress that no, I wouldn’t need the fork I requested, because he was certain I’d want chopsticks. He then grew frustrated with my inability to use them (“You act like hand-eye coordination isn’t needed in life. How’d you even drive here?”). His jabs were punctuated with a laugh, so I couldn’t take them personally. This led me to think how cute it was that we could make fun of each other already.

After sushi, we headed to a bar where I brought out my favorite date supplements: a game of “would you rather?” and Harry Potter Mad Libs. He vetoed them and insisted we play pool (I lost), darts (I lost) and three rounds of hot shot basketball (I lost). With every win, he grew more jubilant and I grew more sweaty. After this unexpected workout, I found myself in the bathroom, squatting underneath a hand dryer, unsuccessfully attempting to revive my damp bangs and glistening makeup. Toward the end of the evening, in between his punch lines (of which I was usually the punching bag), one of my own jokes elicited an unexpected laugh from him. “That’s the funniest thing you’ve said,” he admitted while I beamed. He added: “Probably because it’s the only funny thing you’ve said.” I am loath to admit that when we parted a half-hour later, I was hopeful for our future. It wasn’t until the next morning that the full weight of his wretchedness sunk in.

If you could give your younger self some advice about dating, what would it be?

Don’t spend so much time chasing guys who don’t like you. Because of family dynamics and poor self-esteem, you’re growing up hungry for attention and even more so for connection and intimacy. There’s nothing wrong with that — we all have needs that must be met. But make sure they’re met in healthy ways. Emotionally manipulating others into spending time with you isn’t a solution. Spending years wallowing in unrequited love while nursing rejection feels familiar (as does abandonment), but that won’t heal or satiate you. You have the power to break this cycle, but it’s going to take work and time. Put in the work and time.

Believe what people show you. You want to believe the best of people, but don’t let that make you naive. If a guy pops up once a month and fills your ears with flattery, don’t listen to what he is telling you before you believe what he is showing you. If he says you’re important to him but he doesn’t prioritize time with you, believe his actions. Your compassion is a gift, but don’t let it be diminished by your inability to discern who deserves it.

Be honest and take risks. Often, these are the same thing. Honesty is a huge risk. Without being honest about expectations, about what you need and want, about how you feel (or don’t feel), you’ll never get that life you dream of. Good relationships require the greatest risks, the most honesty. Your needs might be too significant for some people, or theirs might be too much for you. You might want different things. You might be headed different places. All of this is okay, but you’ll never know until you are honest.

What’s your dating philosophy, in one sentence?

Leave people better than you found them.

What’s your current outlook on dating, and why?

I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t know many other 30-year-olds who’ve never been in a serious relationship and desire a family as strongly as I do, but I’ve done a lot of work to discover my value, to figure out where I fit in and what I’m bringing to the table. I have piles of therapy co-pays that attest to how much time, money and intentionality I’ve invested in myself these past few years. And that makes me optimistic — because I’m a better version of me than I was 10 years ago. Continual growth is a pretty good path, even if it doesn’t end exactly where I’d like.

What are you looking for in a relationship? Do you think you’ll find it?

Lots of people talk about wanting to find someone to “go on adventures with,” but most of life isn’t adventures — it’s taking out the trash, going to the gym and walking around a farmers market on a Saturday morning. I want someone who I enjoy spending time with more than I enjoy being alone. Someone who I can sit with on a Friday night in silence, except for the rustle of pages as we read books on topics as varied as we are. Someone who will mess up my Netflix queue and delight me with his excessively particular Chipotle order. Someone who always makes me laugh, teaches me things and opens up.

I want someone whose soul settles easily, effortlessly, beside mine.

When I was 20, I thought I knew what I wanted and when I’d find it, so I won’t try to predict the future here, but I’m hopeful. I know this type of partner exists. I hope he’s in the cards for me.

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