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Time for a Breakup

I live in a metropolitan area where the women outnumber the men by something like two to one. This is bad news for women who aspire to one day be married. The worst part is that so many of the single, heterosexual guys here don’t even appear to be trying that hard.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe it’s the man’s job to initiate when it comes to women – to make eye contact, to introduce himself, to ask a lady out, to plan a nice date, to go in for the first kiss, and so on.

When we don’t step up and initiate, it sends the woman a signal that we’re following her lead, that we need her to tell us how to do the dance. Quite frankly, I don’t know one woman who enjoys being forced to be the initiator, who finds it even slightly romantic. And I know plenty of women who are pulling their hair out, wondering what’s holding these guys back.

For a lot of men, there are profoundly painful reasons they are unable to make the jump required to romantically initiate with women. They may be dealing with paralyzing insecurity, serious childhood wounds, same gender attraction, severe, addictive behaviors, or any other number of other things. Working through those kinds of issues will, no doubt, probably require counseling and a lot of support, and this article may not really be for them.

But for the other guys – the mildly-insecure ones who have simply grown comfortable sitting on their warm, sweaty hands – I offer a hard kick in the shins. For those guys, I’m willing to bet that at least part of the reason that many of them don’t initiate is, well, they’re already in committed, loving relationships with one or more of three people: (1) their imaginary girlfriends, (2) their mothers, or (3) their emotional girlfriends.

Most men, at one time or another, have been heavily involved with an imaginary girlfriend, that is, a woman who only exists in their minds, a woman who represents a standard that no female could ever meet. You can usually learn a lot about a perpetually single guy’s imaginary girlfriend by simply asking him to describe the kind of woman for whom he’s looking.

He’ll say things like, “She’s not physically perfect, but, you know, she’s just got that look” (i.e., she has a vague, undefinable look that’s a slow motion collage of various shampoo commercials). She may also be described as:

  • fun-loving (i.e., she’s never depressing or critical),
  • adventurous (i.e., she likes sports and/or the outdoors),
  • challenging (i.e., she only occasionally questions his decisions, but does so with the highest deference for his great wisdom), and
  • highly spiritual (i.e., she takes 1 Corinthians 7:5 – regarding her sexual obligations – very seriously).

The origins of this imaginary, spiritual, love goddess hail from a variety of influences, which include: sermons on the “Proverbs 31 woman,” an overactive imagination, idealized high school memories, pornography, and excessive exposure to action flick babes. But no matter the origin of the imaginary girlfriend, the young man is committed to her fully and completely. He has attributed to her every positive characteristic he thinks he wants in a wife, and before long, he talks himself into believing this love fairy actually exists in human form.

Unfortunately, dating someone who is imaginary has serious drawbacks, which are summarized by this encouragement I’ve offered to a number of friends over the years: “Go ahead, keep on dating your imaginary girlfriend. She’ll never give you grief, never turn you down, and she’ll always affirm you. She’ll like what you like, and she’ll laugh at all your jokes. But here’s the problem: you’ll never have a real conversation with her; you’ll never have real sex with a real wife; and you’ll never get to go through the miraculous process of change that comes with a real relationship. Have fun.”

For a lot of guys, advice like this goes in one ear and out the other, because it asks too much of them. It requires them to let go of a sacred idol, the imaginary girlfriend, and be willing to go out on a limb in search of true romance. That’s too much of a threat to their fragile sense of identity, so instead, they choose to snuggle up to an ego-stroking fantasy, rather than initiate with a real woman.

And then there’s mother. Unfortunately, we have a whole lot of sons who are tightly wrapped up in all things momma. The mother/son relationship can take many forms (some of which are quite healthy), but when it is unhealthy, it can work to subtly undermine the man’s ability to commit to a woman his own age.

Some guys end up being their mother’s surrogate husband, well into adulthood, especially when dad has dropped the ball as a husband. Some guys emotionally snuggle up to mom, treating her as a confidant and best friend, alleviating some of the loneliness that ought to drive them to get a real, female companion. And some idealize the lady who nursed them, using her as the yardstick for feminine perfection.

These guys are involved in such an emotionally complex relationship with mom that they don’t have the time to consider adding another woman to the mix. And they’ve got a good, co-dependent thing going with momma anyway. Similar to their imaginary girlfriend, mom never complains or calls them out (not to mention the fact that she makes the best cookies!).

Indeed, mom plays her part well as the emotional Band-Aid who helps her shaky son feel secure. She conveniently never requires him to really give her much more than a returned phone call and a listening ear. And besides, calling mom back is probably a lot easier than trying to initiate a phone call with a woman who might not answer the phone at all.

Finally, some guys have emotional girlfriends – you know, women who aren’t actually being pursued by the guy, but both of them nonetheless hang on to a relationship that’s characterized by non-romantic, emotional intimacy. She hopes that, one day, he’ll see that they’re right for each other. He hopes she’ll do the honors of serving punch at his wedding.

It’s sort of sweet at first glance, until you see that the woman is just being used by the guy as an emotional doorstop. One day, if he finally realizes what he actually wants in a woman, sure enough, the phone calls to his mere friendgirl will stop (and, if his fiancee has anything to say about it, the friendgirl will be lucky if she even gets invited to the wedding).

Nonetheless, the guy convincingly demonstrates, over time, an impressive ability to brush off the regular suggestions that there’s more going on between him and his friendgirl. He even appears troubled by the suggestion, when pressed; but deep, down inside, there’s something in him that just eats it up.

He gets all the attention, all the time, and all the estrogen-centric friendship he could ask for, and he never even has to pay for a meal. At the heart of it, he never has to pursue a woman who might reject him, who might tell him he’s a bad kisser; he gets a friend with emotional benefits, but he never really has to take the risk of manning up and initiating a real, romantic relationship.

And this is where we come to the part about breaking up, which isn’t easy to do. But if a man is ever going to move into a romantic relationship with a real woman, he’s going to have to start by parting ways with his imaginary girlfriend, his mom, and/or his emotional girlfriend(s). As hard as it is for him to believe, he’ll be doing everyone a favor, especially his future wife.

Each breakup will require a different approach, and it may require painfully detaching from the familiar. For example, letting go of the imaginary girlfriend may require a man to sit down with a few married men and openly share his lofty expectations (he should not, however, get his feelings hurt when they fall on the floor, gasping for air, laughing at his insane ideals). Breaking up with mom may require the man to stop talking to her on the phone two to three times a day. And breaking up with an emotional girlfriend may require the man to establish healthy boundaries and thereafter offer an apology for being a user.

Pulling away will, in each case, probably leave the man feeling lonely and isolated. This could lead him to unhealthily medicate his isolation with video games and cold beers. Hopefully, though, it will make him consider getting off the emotional recliner to respectfully pursue a woman. A healthy pursuit will happen in small ways, like walking across the room to say hello, and in bigger ways, like bluntly explaining to a woman that she was asked out because she’s attractive, inside and out. But it will be worth it, and she will appreciate it – even if she doesn’t end up being “the one” (whatever that means).

Yet without the initial, crucial breakup, there likely won’t be any pursuit – not when a man’s being held tight in relationship purgatory by unhealthy attachments to mom, his friendgirl(s), and/or fantasies. It may be uncomfortable for him to make a break from what he’s always known. However, speaking from experience, the practice of real, romantic pursuit will be a challenge which, despite misfires and rejection, could lead to a lifetime of romantic initiation with a real woman. And that, my friends, is most certainly worth it.

32 Comments
  1. Joshua – nice to hear all this. Consider it seconded! And nice to read the blog of a great southern gentleman like you =0)(They do exist!)-Jess

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    May 27, 2010
  2. I just had this conversation the other day. I introduced a two people I know at a party and to my dismay, the man gave the woman one word answers to her questions. I told my roommate later that I felt like he didn't even care that a woman was trying to engage with him, is he holding out for a model or something? It was a bummer.

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    May 27, 2010
  3. Thanks for this article. I wish more of my guy friends from church would read it.-A girl πŸ™‚

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    May 28, 2010
  4. A young lady from church emailed me and said, "I have developed what I call a man space theory. A man isn't allowed to take up that 'man space' in my life – unless he is dating me." You go, girl. If he wants to spend quality time together, he can ask you out.

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    May 28, 2010
  5. In additon: "Man space" is important to monitor because if a man is in your man space, other men can't get in…either because you appear taken or because you emotionally and mentally are! (aka blinders)My goal: if a man's in my man space, it's because he's winning me over and plans to continue to win me over each day:) Good luck ladies – you deserve to be won over! And tell your male friends when they are crowding your man space, you'd be surprised how much men appreciate the honesty. It's an affirming experience to speak truth in love. I can say that that is what has been the foundation to healthy male/female friendships in my life. And, it's what has gotten me invited to weddings when my guy friends get married! It can be done! –Said young lady–

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    May 28, 2010
  6. Right on. You need to write an article about this.

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    May 28, 2010
  7. I think this is a great post. But…I also think that ladies do accept quite a bit of the blame for number three (and arguably the biggest category men fall into). It's kind of cool these days for women to pick on men, without thinking how they may, in fact, be enabling men. Spiritual Klutz's next article should focus on some of the ways women can encourage men to be men and pursue them rather than use them!

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    May 29, 2010
  8. Hey, thanks for the comment. Writing follow-up articles with advice for the ladies could definitely be helpful, but there's a reason I dealt with the topic by so frankly and forcefully addressing the men: because it's their job to man up, evaluate their relationships, and recognize where they're behaving more like boys. So, though I recognize that dysfunctional relationships always take more than one party, in these relationships in particular, I think men ought to initiate the process of getting healthy. If they don't, then women will have to do what the commenter above has done and kick them out of their "man space."

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    May 29, 2010
  9. Please keep these a little shorter and less advice and more confession if you are still a spiritual klutz.Spiritual Giant

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    May 30, 2010
  10. I've decided to let that person's comment go and just encourage you. Your blog is great. I enjoy reading it. Your entries informative and encouraging. Keep it up!Kimi (Hattiesburg)

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    May 30, 2010
  11. Thanks Kimi. And to the anonymous commenter above, thanks for the feedback. I was just talking with someone about the need to shorten my posts, so I'll work on that. Regarding me making Spiritual Klutz more of a personal confessional, that's not really what I'm aiming for, just to be clear. And I understand that when I share my opinions, they might be seen as offensive (especially in this case, where I shared them pretty strongly). I understand if some of my opinions end up alienating those who don't agree or who'd prefer for me to write differently. That might result in a smaller audience, and I'm okay with that. Thanks again, though, for the tip on tightening things up.

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    May 31, 2010
  12. Here's a vote for whatever length seems to fit with what you need to say. I did not find the length too much, and it's the internet! It isn't a sermon where you have to sit through it politely if you'd rather get up and leave. This topic is of great interest and concern to many people, speaking for the ladies in particular!:) When the men don't 'man up' the women feel compelled to initiate and that makes the woman doubt her desirability and the man's real commitment–is she seducing him? She'd rather he take the risk of rejection to prove she's worth that risk. She's being asked to surrender her life, potentially, someday, and it is helpful to know that he's willing to suffer a little wounding if she says no. A man who's not serious will seriously wound a woman.

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    May 31, 2010
  13. Wow. That was an amazingly well-put insight. Thanks for taking the time to post that response.

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    May 31, 2010
  14. Here is a little push back … could it be that guys in the Church are asking women out, but they may not be the "right guy" [that the ladies have some unspoken expectation] and if she is not interested, there is suddenly an odd tension, not just with her but also with her girlfriends? What I've seen, the context inside the Church of positive and negative rewards is helping to create passive males more than "imaginary girlfriend, his mom, and/or his emotional girlfriend(s)."Merely an observation looking at dating cultures inside and outside the Church.

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    June 1, 2010
  15. In regards to the commment about women encouraging men -"Spiritual Klutz's next article should focus on some of the ways women can encourage men to be men and pursue them rather than use them!" If this is meant to say that in general it is a woman's responsibility to guide, correct, foster the development of men she knows- that stinks. I, for one, don't want to be the "mother" of my guy friends nor of my boyfriend. And if I don't do that, according to you, I am using the man? What exactly would I be using him for? I don't think I'd be getting very much bang for my buck there. It is my belief that keeping healthy boundries is everyone's job. And everyone should work towards encouraging each other. Why would it be one way, that women must encourage men?And, I disagree with the assumption of encouraging "men to be men" because frankly that is just a bunch of sterotyping. When I've watched individuals try to make "men become men" that only pushes those guys into sometype of cultural mold and doesn't allow them to grow as the individual God created them to be. In summary, being a loving human being is a universal trait. Being pushed into a mold by the opposite gender is not love. – Said young ladyP.S. the use of the word pursue makes me want to throw up on your shoes. Pursue implies a defeat at the end. I don't want to be defeated, I want to be loved – for who I am (even though I'm not the Christian subculture sterotype of the ideal woman:) In addition, I want to love and respect the man that sees me as the broken person I am and says 'this is what it's like for Christ to love the Church.'

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    June 1, 2010
  16. To the anonymous person above the last anonymous commenter (pick a pseudonym!): you say, "The context inside the Church of positive and negative rewards is helping to create passive males more than the 'imaginary girlfriend, his mom, and/or his emotional girlfriend(s).'" I'm not quite sure what you mean. Within the church, there is definitely this "imaginary man" that's being created in the image of a lot of women's expectations. But I think men have an obligation to say, "Hey, I'm living in this weird context – screw that. I'm stepping up to the plate and breaking with it. I'm going to introduce her to a real guy and be willing to get shot down if need be." I did a lot wrong in trying to work through things in the dating game (including some of what you read above), but one thing I think I did right was push back against that weird culture I think you're describing. I came to a church where almost nobody at all was dating, where the passive, male culture was alive and well. I could have said, "Well, this is how the church culture created me." But I decided to push back. Dozens of mostly respectful dates later with a variety of women (most of them from my church), I met my wife, and the rest is history. I did not let unfavorable conditions within the church disqualify me from pursuing a woman. As a man, I decided to take the initiative, rather than wait for my church to change. So again, I could be gravitating to an extreme, but I think it's important the heaviest burden on the men.To the next anonymous commenter: I enjoy reading your vigorous defense of a more egalitarian approach to things. I think that seasoning my thoughts with more of that could be very healthy. Please, however, do not throw up on my shoes. πŸ™‚

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    June 1, 2010
  17. Goodness gracious! This is one hot topic!I posted earlier (as an Anonymous) that Spiritual Klutz should consider writing a post to help women "encourage men to be men and pursue them rather than use them" Clarification one: it was the women who would be encouraging the men not to use them (the women). In my mind, this is done by sharing regular encouragement, having healthy boundaries, man space πŸ˜‰ what have you.Clarification two. Encouragement is what I meant. Just encourage. You'll notice I said it's kind of cool for women to tear down men in the church these days. And that's not healthy for general church relations OR for the fostering of relationships…and guys simply don't like it (who would?!). Women, rather than tearing down men as I have unfortunately seen way too much of, should encourage men that they see living a godly life, doing things well, etc. (as they should all sisters AND brothers), asking girls out, going out there on a limb (assuming you subscribe to the basic principle outlined by Spiritual Klutz that men are the ones who should be doing the asking. That's the premise I was operating from). And you're right. "Pursue" is a word that gets thrown around a lot and, quite honestly, makes me want to hurl sometimes, too. But I think the original intention of using "pursue" when describing a man's relationship with a woman was to hit on the idea that husbands are to love (and pursue) their wives as Christ loves (and pursues) the church, as outlined in Ephesians 5. Quite frequently in the Bible, God's love for his people is described as a pursuit (Hosea is full of this language). That's where it all comes from…too bad such a beautiful word has been drug through the mud!

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    June 1, 2010
  18. Great, great thoughts Elizabeth. Thanks for posting them.

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    June 2, 2010
  19. Great discussion. Thought: and we women have to stop being such cry-babies — moaning about men when we are in fact trying to manipulate the situation — that is, when we don't get what we want and instead get what God intends for us to get.Signed, Been there, done that, and fighting it daily.

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    June 9, 2010
  20. To the last commenter, way to go in taking responsibility for your life. Just an FYI, pretty soon there will be a female guest writer who will talk about this topic at length. The "friendgirl" aspect of the article got a lot of feedback, so I figured it deserved to be addressed (but not by me).

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    June 9, 2010
  21. Great thoughts! Great article. Personally I thought the person who wrote…Please keep these a little shorter and less advice and more confession if you are still a spiritual klutz. -Spiritual Giant ….was completely tongue in cheek. Maybe not, but I laughed when I read the comment and it sounds like a compliment to me! lol

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    June 20, 2010
  22. Joshua,Thanks a bunch. I just read this. I think you've got a point that bears action. However, I am pretty tired of the "men are wimps" storyline that I hear so often — particularly in the church. There are some passive men and that is not respectable or mature. On the other hand, there are quite a number of men who are very proactive and intentional in their lives; some of them are "pursuing" women right now and some are not, but they ought to be respected for living their lives on purpose for God regardless. In short, the measure of manhood should not only be in his pursuit of a wife but in handling himself and his relationships on purpose before God. I think the root problem behind what you describe is that men and women are not maturing well as individuals — are not proactively suiting ourselves for healthy, self-sacrificing, nurturing relashionships whether through dating/marriage or otherwise.

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    June 22, 2010
  23. Great point, Micah. I really like your comment, "the measure of manhood should not only be in his pursuit of a wife but in handling himself and his relationships on purpose before God." I did qualify my thoughts by saying that this article doesn't cover all guys out there, but I'm really glad you specifically shared a solid reason many guys might not be initiating, and how that might be a good thing.

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    June 22, 2010
  24. Hey, Joshua,Found your post via Donald Miller's blog. This topic has been at the forefront of my reading material lately, seemingly by accident (but I'll bet God's smirking at His handiwork). Look for Mark Driscoll's "Boys who can Shave," "Miss Meg Goes to Washington" on the Bluevine Collective, and the NYTimes "What is it About 20-Somethings?" for further reading.To my point: Thank you! I laughed out loud, but was encouraged to hear this kind of view in Christian guys. At least they exist! I have a loooot of work left for God to do in my own heart and life (and am reading up on that aspect too). I'm reminded over and over that a movement for change doesn't fully begin until someone acts. I think that's the cry this generation needs: Act!And kudos on the hard kick in the shins. That's my preferred method of attention-getting.

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    September 16, 2010
  25. Jess, thanks for your encouragement. I get a sick enjoyment out of shin-kicking. It makes me feel more spiritual when I call it my "prophetic gift."

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    September 16, 2010
  26. This is awesome! Thanks for telling it like it is! I was a Christian relationship advisor for six years and I love it when men aren't afraid to tell the truth about these things. You did have me laughing out loud with your characterizations of who men need to break up with, as well as the term "friendgirl." I am totally using that from now on, by the way.

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    February 8, 2011
  27. Joshua, This was excellent, as is your Boundless article which I just read, I just may have been set free from a ridiculously hot, super godly and blonde imaginary girlfriend. In fact, I have jokingly claimed I'm looking for "Claudia Schiffer's hotter, younger and godlier sister". I am an idiot.

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    August 26, 2011
  28. Anonymous, I pray God gives you grace as you move into being a real man who will marry a real woman. It's a really good thing.

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    August 28, 2011
  29. Joshua, Why don't you suggest that men take a better look at their friendgirls, and decide to date them? Or at least have good reasons for not dating them?

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    January 7, 2012
  30. Good point, anonymous. You read my mind. This Wednesday, I have an article addressing those very questions coming out. You can find it at Boundless.org. It's called "Your Friendgirl Deserves Better." Thanks!

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    January 7, 2012
  31. How would a girl, who is pretty sure she is a friendgirl, go about breaking of frielationship? It has become long distance. I have pondered this many times. The what "How to" if you will. So does she stop taking his calls and just never respond again? Does she initiate a conversation about feelings? What does that look like? I haven't wanted to start a conversation out of fear. Fear that I would be "initiating" and fear of rejection because I really think if he wanted to have a positively clarifying conversation, we would have already had it. At the root, I would really love to know what we are doing. If this is just friends, I' would like to move on. But how do you find out? Is there a way to find out without having to ask? Is the fact that I have to ask proof that it is just friends. I'm at a loss for what to do. I know something needs to change. I'd love to hear your insight.PS I think this is a common question that friendgirls have. And I would love a male perspective. We are a little leery of our single girlfriends advice as they are still single trying to navigate the frielationship waters themselves.

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    March 15, 2013
  32. I hear your frustration, and this topic drives me insane too. Let me share a couple of links with you and see if you find this to be helpful (you'll have to copy and paste them, sorry): First, here's an article I wrote at Boundless, and although it addresses the man-boys who do this, I think you'll find it helpful. http://www.boundless.org/relationships/2012/your-friendgirl-deserves-better.aspxAnd here's a relevant guest post about the topic from a couple of years ago. http://www.spiritualklutz.com/2010/06/stop-settling-for-scraps-ladies.htmlRespect yourself enough to be real about what's going on.

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    March 15, 2013

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