The Dangers of “Filler Relationships”

On Holy Thursday, I joined my fellow Catholics all over the world in obeying Jesus’ request to spend one hour with Him, and gave some time in front of the Blessed Sacrament. For years now, one of my most heartfelt prayers in adoration has always been for God to send me a good Catholic man who I could marry and raise a Godly family with, because I want so much to be a wife and mother. Unfortunately, because of how rarely I meet active and committed Catholic men, over the years I’ve struggled with growing discouraged and impatient and I’ve often been afraid that I would never actually find a man who I could say “yes” to without concerns or reservations.

I recently came to a realization that, as a response to that fear, I tend to fall into the trap of having “substitute boyfriends,” men who, because of moral concerns, I couldn’t actually date but who I became attached to to fill that boyfriend-shaped hole in my life. Because of this new understanding, this year, as I once again lifted up my prayer for a good man, I also added something new. I thanked God for not allowing me to keep some of the men I could (and almost did) have. In other words, I rejoiced in my being single, which is a new thing for me.

This was the pattern I had unfortunately established in my life: when I would meet an attractive and likeable man who was interested in me, but who I knew was unsuitable to date because he wasn’t a man of God, I wouldn’t pass him up. Instead, I would make friends with him and then prioritize that friendship, so much so that I would end up profoundly attached to him, even though I wasn’t dating him. It’s important to point out that this is in no way meant to imply that the man in this situation was responsible for my behavior or was taking advantage of me. He was usually nice, decent, attractive, and intelligent… but he was no spiritual leader with no interest in the future I wanted so badly. I would see only on his good qualities, however, and I would emotionally pour myself into this man, all the while insisting that he was just a friend (because, as I told everyone who asked, “He’s just not someone I could really be with.”)

Emotionally investing myself so completely in an unsuitable man was harmful for several reasons. First, I wasn’t able to give nearly as much focus to myself and to my own personal growth and I began to lose sight of some of my own efforts and goals. I would concentrate so much on the relationship I had with this man that I would lose important opportunities to grow on my own. Second, I was constantly distracted, which in turn made me unavailable to men who I could actually date. I was wasting my energy, my time, my resources, all on making the most of this relationship–even though there could be no positive outcome.

Finally, and most importantly, the more I would invest myself in this man, the less important it would seem that we didn’t share a foundation of faith and morals to build a real relationship, marriage and family on. As he would continue to have a larger place in my life, he would begin to crowd out those standards that separated me from him–making everything else seem less important: my purity, my standards, even my faith. As I learned, you can’t give  someone such a place of honor in your life and not lose some of yourself in the process. You can’t weave your life into another’s so fully and expect to be easily separated from that person. Before long, it can seem a very small step to take to forget those goals of a Catholic marriage and end up with this man who has become a fixture in your life.

Consider this famous line from the Bible: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered Himself up for it:” (Ephesians 5:25) This is a pretty serious order–my future husband is supposed to love me as Christ loved the Church? Certainly around Easter time we should all have the image of Christ’s love for His Church fresh in our minds: His unimaginable suffering and cruel death on the cross for Her. That should be my future husband’s model of love: a sacrificial love based on everything good and lawful and pure. It is an unreachable ideal, of course, but the man who reaches for it is the man I want to build a life with, because I know that he will strengthen my faith, not weaken it, and will bring me closer to God, not lead me away from Him. He will also be a man that I could obey without betraying my conscience–which is very important because Ephesians 5:22-24 also says this: “Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. … Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things.”

I want to be not only available (in other words, not already absorbed in a man I can’t be with) but ready for this type of Godly man. I want to focus on being “singular,” not single, as Dawn Eden says in her inspiring and challenging book, “The Thrill of the Chaste.” She explains that a singular woman defines herself not by what she lacks: a relationship with a man, but by what she has: a relationship with God. Being singular means living your life for God in an active and committed way, prioritizing Him and making every effort to foster a full and happy life rooted in Him. It is a way of life for everyone, married or single, because it is a life focused on God, not on self. Being singular means that no time is wasted, because whether God intends for you to be married or not, you will have lived well and you will not have put your life on hold for a person.

I have to tell you, this article is difficult for me to share because of how close it is to me personally. As much as I hate to admit it, establishing “substitute boyfriends” has unfortunately been a default behavior for me for years. I always thought that, because I wasn’t specifically dating the man involved, I wasn’t doing myself any harm and that I was still upholding my goals of eventually marrying a good Catholic man. As I’ve come to grips with the reality of what this habit of fostering these relationships was doing to my efforts toward establishing a real relationship, I realized I was doing worse than standing still, I was moving backward, and focusing on all the wrong things just because I wanted to make myself feel better about being single and because I wanted to feel like I was “almost” with someone. It is my hope that this article will help others who struggle with this and who desire a marriage based on God to identify and end this pattern of behavior in their own lives.

So, this Holy Thursday and throughout Holy Week, I thanked God for keeping me single and for allowing me to face Him truly on my own. No filler relationship, no substitute boyfriend, just me. And it feels wonderful. Alleluia, Jesus is risen and I am single and blessed to be so!

Avatar photo


Rebecca Smith is a music teacher at a Catholic elementary school and serves as music director (pianist/organist, choir director and cantor) for a Catholic parish. She can be reached at [email protected].

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage