Dating is easy today, right?
Hardly. It’s never been easy; but especially in a social media world—and after the pandemic, nothing can be taken for granted.
This is literally uncharted territory.
And yet, human nature remains fundamentally the same in so many ways.
So, can Christian principles of virtuous living still speak to our current age?
You Already Have a Savior
Betty Friedan, champion of second-wave feminism in the United States, wrote at length in 1963 of the boredom and unhappiness of the suburban housewife. Friedan insists that women will never find fulfillment simply in a role as wife and mother. For her, fulfillment is tied up with gainful employment (Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 303, 418, 421).
There is some substance to her critique and her perception of the suburban housewife between 1945-1960: in her view, they were living shallow lives. In her words, these women “have a hunger that food cannot fill” (Feminine Mystique, 15). And yet, on her account, they sought their fulfillment entirely in marriage and children. When that fell short, they turned to glamour and consumerism (see Feminine Mystique, 62)—as if a husband, cute kids, a certain socio-economic status, and looking the part would lead inexorably to happiness and fulfillment.
But here’s the thing: as Catholics, we know that no human relationship can be the ultimate source of our happiness—including marriage and children. We are made for the infinite God; our hearts will always be restless until they rest in Him, as St. Augustine said long ago. Friedan’s solution (abortion, contraception, etc.) may be off the mark, but she seems to have accurately diagnosed part of the problem.
Without this deeper Catholic perspective, we end up making literally “impossible” demands upon our relationships. We especially look to dating and the prospects of marriage to completely and totally fulfill us.
The paradox, however, is that the best and most fulfilling relationships typically do not come out of such desperation. Relationships are a bit like multiplication, not addition. One half plus one half does not equal a whole (one half times one half equals one fourth). In other words, when two empty and broken people come together and look for their relationship to complete them, it generally results in an unhealthy relationship of co-dependency.
We already have a Savior—his name is Jesus Christ. Finding our identity and wholeness first in Him is paramount to finding and developing a strong and thriving dating relationship. It places everything in its proper order. When first things are put first, second things aren’t diminished but enhanced. But when “second things” are put first, our lives tend to implode from within.
But It’s Messy
There’s always a messiness to dating and that’s okay. This is kind of how it works. As boy meets girl, the two wonder: “Does the other feel the same way I do?” “Was he flirting with me just now?” “Did she mean something more by that compliment?”
This is what we affectionately call the “Gray Area,” that in-between zone, as two people trod between being “just friends” and a potential dating relationship.
The gray area is inevitable. The question is how we handle it and how long we stay there. What we need is sincerity and clarity. We shouldn’t prolong the gray area any longer than necessary. If it becomes clear that it’s not going to work out, we shouldn’t stay in the gray area just to enjoy the emotional closeness without any kind of commitment or strings attached. This leads to heartache and confusion. Once we come to an answer, we either need to commit to the other person, or remove ourselves from the gray area. We need to be brave and sometimes bold here. Trust me—you’ll be thankful later. Life is simply too short to waste the other person’s time or your own.
Virtue, Chastity, and Dating
Virtue brings us out of ourselves; it frees us from the prison of selfishness and allows us to enter the world of another. Only with our identity rooted in Christ and a commitment to growing in virtue are we able to enter into healthy relationships and truly grow in our ability to love. If we haven’t become serious about pursing virtue and finding the truth of who we are in Christ, then our love will often become a “taking,” not a “gift” love. Without Christ and virtue at the center, we invariably fall back into the trap of seeking the other as something that “fills us up.”
Chastity enters here front and center. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to let our feelings and desires take over. It’s easy to deceive ourselves, thinking that our actions are truly “loving.” In this way, we can easily allow unchastity to take over our relationships—this can happen to very good people, who seem to be otherwise committed to their Catholic faith.
The truth is all sexual acts apart from the marriage bond are actually using the other person. It might not feel like use, but we’re taking something that isn’t ours. We’re saying something with our bodies that we haven’t yet backed up with an oath before God. The sexual act says, “I am totally yours.” But until this is sacramentally sealed by Almighty God, we all know that each of us have a way out. Marriage is definitely not just a piece of paper. Marriage places our union before God and before witnesses. It says that our union is not merely about our own physical and psychological satisfaction but is oriented beyond ourselves—to children, society, and God himself. It’s not just about us.
If we have this frame of reference, even if it’s not perfect and there are bumps along the way, our relationships will find much firmer footing. We’ll realize that we are God’s first and that our relationships find their ultimate raison d’ȇtre in our journey with and toward Lord as our last End.
This doesn’t make it easy. But it makes healthy and long-lasting relationships possible. Like most things in life—what’s really worth having only comes with sacrifice. The same is true here.
But absolutely more than worth it!
Keep Learning How To Develop Meaningful, Joy-filled Relationships Through A Life Of Virtue
Attentive to the challenges faced by young people today―online dating, social media, and more―Gift and Grit: How Heroic Virtue Can Change Your Life and Relationships presents the insights that Andrew and Sarah Swafford (the author of Emotional Virtue: A Guide to Drama-Free Relationships) have learned about fostering authentic relationships, answering life’s deepest questions, and remaining committed to a relationship with God from more than fifteen years of ministry to college students.
Beginning with stories of how God has personally transformed their own hearts and using the interactions they have had with the young adults to whom they minister, the Swaffords approach those who desire a truly meaningful life with a message of faith, hope, transformation, and joy.