Thursday, December 15, 2011

Dating Culture: A Renaissance

**Sorry, I thought I had already posted this!**
A while ago, I got to spend time with some of my favorite high school girls and guys—the kids in my home parish’s youth ministry. On this year’s Puritas retreat, the girls learned that they should be pursued, and were now asking, “Why doesn’t that ever happen?” They must not have been satisfied with the guys’ answers, because when I entered the room, the flustered kids all but demanded to know my answer. My initial thought was that more guys would pursue girls if they had male role models and if girls were more modest (I’ll explain another day). I still think those are two important factors, but the more I thought about it, I realized that if I were an average, well-intentioned, adolescent boy, I wouldn’t be pursuing anyone either.
I would pursue a girl if it was as simple as going on a date, non-committally, to spend time together and get to know each other better, but not if it segues into this weird, amorphous crescendo from friendship to exclusivity. Putting myself in the shoes of an average, well-intentioned high school boy who is interested in an average, well-intentioned high school girl:
They know each other and they’re interested in/attracted to each other—this is good and healthy. But then if he initiates any sort of “pursuit,” he’s expected to suddenly be pseudo-committed to her, even if all he wants is to get to know her better. Now they’re “talking but not official,” and there’s this unwritten rule that he can’t be “talking” with any other girl, even though they’re not “official” (I resent the term official here, by the way. There’s nothing official about being boyfriend/girlfriend). “Talking” nebulously escalates into something more serious, and the boy had better be happy with how things ended up because if he backs out now, he’ll be labeled a jerk and everyone will say he led the girl on. When, again, ALL HE WANTED in the first place was to get to know the girl!
I could go on and on, but my point is: no boy in his right mind would pursue a girl in the way that the high school dating culture encourages him to do so. It is purposeless sacrifice (considering the low number of high school relationships that lead to marriage).
In the last blog posts, I have set out to describe the dating cultures I’ve witnessed, from junior high school to college. The characteristic that weaves each group together is ambiguity. Neither parents nor the culture at large communicate an expectation of “how far is too far.” Instead of a clear dating vocabulary, we have adopted phrases like “talking” and “hooking up” that give multiple impressions of what is going on. Texting and chatting online tend to diminish authenticity, accountability, and boundaries. Where previous generations have had clear stages with understood social implications and levels of commitment, we have a total lack of structure. Unintentionally, today’s young couples often end up “sliding instead of deciding” into undefined, pseudo-committed relationships without purpose.
A riveting conversation with my grandparents (married since 1955) confirmed my suspicion that their generation was right on track in one place where my generation gets fuzzy. Imagine a world where you could accurately perceive the intentions of someone of the opposite sex. Envision going to a school dance and being certain that you both consider this a date. Picture yourself spending a couple hours at dinner with someone of the opposite sex without the pressure of misleading him. They had this clarity! We can’t rewind the culture to 1955, but we can pause and clean up this mess a little.
My fellow adolescents, I propose a change in how we roll. Let’s bring back definition and intentionality in how we develop relationships. I propose four stages with names and purposes that could help us think about dating differently:
  1. Dating: spending time with individual member(s) of the opposite sex
    Purpose: Developing friendship with one or more members of the opposite sex and
    learning the sort of person you would like to marry
  2. Boyfriend/Girlfriend: Maintaining a steady, devoted relationship with one member of the opposite sex
    Purpose: Deepening friendship while mutually discerning whether God is calling
    you to marry each other
  3. Engagement: Preparing to receive and live the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony
    Purpose: Deepening friendship with your fiancé, while making arrangements for your
    wedding and your marriage
  4. Marriage: A covenant or partnership of life between a man and a woman, for the purpose of the spouses’ well-being, and for conceiving and raising children. For Catholics, marriage is a Sacrament.
    Purpose: Helping each other get to heaven through family life
Approaching dating in this way will not solve all of our dating troubles, but it might open the door for more clarity. Once we understand what we’re doing and why, we can more easily recognize what behavior is appropriate, with whom, and when.

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