By Stephen W. Hiemstra
In graduate school, I met and dated quite a few women, particularly during my time at Cornell University. Ironically, Cornell had just gone “co-ed” during my time there so the girls I met were often quite choosy and many guys I knew had very little success dating. But since my definition of success was developing a more permanent relationship, my frustration with dating grew to be a major theme because the women I dated did not seem to value relationship, except within limited bounds. Offering a 100 percent commitment and finding a 20 percent commitment being offered in return left me feeling used and abused.
Commitment, of course, meant that I needed to make some adjustments—expecting to meet “miss right” meant that I had to become “mister right”. In the 1970s as now, “mister right” had to have the financial capacity to support a family and not everyone was willing to date someone with great expectations. With rapid inflation, high energy prices, and a deteriorating job market, my economics training suggested that the package for “miss right” also needed now to include a serious career, which suggested that dating attractive younger women was risky because a serious career required more commitment than many people—male or female—were willing to invest.
Those women willing to invest the time and energy in a career expressed less interest in men and had much higher expectations, which posed a real problem in dating. The problem was simple—career expectations for men were going down with a weak economy and competition from women while the expectations of attractive women with career potential of eligible men were going up. If women’s expectations were unrealistically high because of the historically unique nature of this problem, then the dating market need not yield a solution—a disconnect would emerge.
This disconnect was obvious to me from the quirky responses I received from American women that I dated. One woman I dated broke up with me because she wanted to spend more time with the rowing team; another women who I dated was still in the process of divorce; still another wanted to meet me and bring along half-a-dozen friends from her department; another was engaged but wanted just to hang out with me until she got married. By the time I left Cornell, I resolved not to date American women because of all the relational confusion and the pain that it caused. It was simply much easier to date foreign students who were more committed to and conventional in their relational expectations.
During the late 1970s, I had a serious relationship (more than a year) with a foreign student—let me call her Betsy (not her name) and let me be vague about time and place and nationality so that I can speak more freely. Betsy and I worked hard to find a financial path to marriage while continuing our education. While that path never materialized, another problem emerged to threw our relationship in disarray.
This disarray began when Betsy and I traveled to her hometown to visit her mother, where Betsy put me up for the night with a friend. In the morning when Betsy came to pick me up, she looked like someone who had been beaten up—unkept and shaken—and she had been. At this point, she shared with me that she was an only child and her mother had had her at a young age out of wedlock; her untimely birth caused a scandal so her parents never married; and in the years that followed her mother became an alcoholic and blamed Betsy for all her troubles. When her mother learned that Betsy was dating an American, she went nuts and beat her up—as a consequence, my introduction to mom never took place.
Unprepared to deal with physical abuse and alcoholism, I quietly freaked out. I had never the financial nor the emotional resources to offer Betsy the shelter she needed. I was no use at all—useless, helpless, and unable to process what was happening. I offered her the support that I could, but I was clearly out of my league, having hit my emotional threshold. Sheltered in family and church, I had never learned to deal with abuse, addiction, or a chronic illness—the bandwidth on my empathy was too limited and I withdrew emotionally. Over the next few months, our relationship melted away, like an ice cream cone left too long in the sun, and we eventually broke up.
In my shame, I started reading about alcoholism, especially Howard Clinebell’s Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic (1978). I learned to recognize the signs of alcoholism, some of the contributing factors, and the spiritual nature of the problem. More than simply learning the details of the problem and of various groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous, that have attempted to deal with it, I gained an appreciation for the need to study brokenness before attempting to deal with it—a lesson which has served me well over the years. Clinebell’s book was the first counseling book that I ever read; interestingly, it is still in use and is considered a classic in counseling addicts.
The spiritual side of alcoholism is well known. For me, the story of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane is most instructive—when we are faced with a difficult pain or decision, do we turn to God in our hour of need or do we turn into our pain? If we turn to God, our faith is strengthened and he promises to walk with us through our afflictions; if we turn into our pain, then we are easily deceived into thinking that our drugs of choice—food, liquor, sex, work, or narcotics—are part of the solution, not part of the problem. This confusion over problems and solutions means that the alcoholic cannot be helped until this twisted thinking is exposed for what it is—Satan’s bondage.
While I was never myself an alcoholic, alcoholism runs in parts of my mother’s family, which suggests that I may be genetically predisposed. Since this experience I have felt fortunate to have learned enough about the problem of alcoholism in time to learn to avoid it—not everyone I know has been so fortunate. During this period of my life, I began avoiding hard liquor and, significantly, I made a serious effort to enter the mission field, applying for a position in Latin America with the Reformed Church of America.
Clinebell, Howard J. Jr. 1978. Understanding and Counseling the Alcoholic: Through Religion and Psychology. Nashville: Abingdon.
 Evidence of this disconnect between the expectations of men and women was everywhere to be seen, but it was most obvious in the high divorce rates during this period. Many of my male colleagues in graduate school had married their high school sweet-hearts who supported them both financially and emotionally during graduate school only to divorce on graduation—evidence that the guys were taking advantage of their new earning power to divorce.