Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Insidious Trap of "Casual Dating"

Of the many communities and movements making up what is a very exciting contemporary landscape for young adult Catholics, the promotion of marriage and, of course, that whole dating process by which two people actually arrive at marriage is one of the most important and the most discussed.  Over the past decade or so, two particular approaches to the topic of dating have come to dominate the blogosphere and whatever might constitute the "watercooler" for devout 20-somethings (the perpetual adoration lobby?): Courtship and so-called "casual dating."  The emergence of both as a common topic of conversation seems to be predicated on the concern that young Catholics just don't date - however that might be defined - enough.

Casual-dating has been - at least in every circle I have been exposed to - by far the more popular of the two as far as ideas go.  In a recent post on the FOCUS blog, Therese Aaker adroitly lays out the argument in favor of the approach, hitting on all of the points that are commonly made by proponents.  I won't spend time reviewing them here; if you are unfamiliar with the idea then I highly encourage you to read her piece.  What I will do is explain why I could not possibly be more opposed to the idea and why indeed I think it is a bad one.

A very bad one.

First, casual dating greatly devalues the uniqueness and unrepeatable beauty of each human person. In his Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility, the indisputably most important theology of human relationships, Pope St. John Paul II describes how the mystery of a particular woman in a sense "calls" to a man, inviting him to delve into that mystery.  The importance of this mystery is a theme that he returns to often, and the identity of each person as an unrepeatable manifestation of God's love a key to the whole picture of man and woman.  From the standpoint of St. John Paul II's theology, a man chooses to pursue a woman because something about her has reached out and pulled him into her mystery.  From the standpoint of casual dating, a man chooses to pursue a woman because she has the right biology and happens to be Catholic. Not quite the same, is it?

To be fair, proponents of casual dating would argue that it's purpose is to allow men and women to get to know one another in a low pressure environment and so facilitate a connection that runs deeper than biology.  But this is not the point.  Just as the Church opposes many forms of fertility treatments such as IVF because every person has the dignity of deserving to come from the loving union of mother and father, every woman (or man) has the dignity of deserving to be pursued - even at the outset! - because of an attraction to the unique, unrepeatable person that they are.  No matter how we might try to look at it, being asked on a date because you meet the bare minimum requirements is demeaning.

Second, casual dating does not provide nearly the opportunity to get to know a person that normal dating after a period of acquaintanceship does.  I went on the first date with my now fiancee after having known her for about two and a half months.  In that time, I got to know some of her personality, her history and her interests just as any two friends or acquaintances do.  In short, I got to know her.  Having done so, something of her mystery called me to pursue her and now 10 months later, we are set to be married.  If I had asked her out without getting to know her at least a little bit first, I doubt things would have taken us to this point.

For one thing, the settings and course of discussion that two people can have over the course of a few dates - casual or not - are incredibly limited compared to just getting to know a person naturally.  There's only so much time, and short of going through a mechanical list of topics you are simply never going to be exposed to as much of a person in this way. Moreover, dating is awkward, no matter how much a person tries to think of it as "just a date."  At the end of the day, whether a person is seeing one individual for the next month or has dates with 3 different people over the course of a fortnight, the ultimate purpose is to find a spouse, and that is going to affect people.  Even having known Natalie for nearly 3 months before our first date, it was still awkward and a bit intimidating because even though we knew one date didn't mean we were committed to even "going steady" let alone marrying, marriage was still the ultimate purpose of that date.

Third, one of the central claims in support of casual dating, that it is lower pressure because its "just a date" is simply false.  As I mentioned above, marriage is the ultimate goal in dating, whether casual, "standard," or through courtship.  The knowledge that one has no commitment to a date on Tuesday and an upcoming evening with somebody else on Friday does nothing to change the fact that the purpose of the date on Tuesday is to help find a spouse.  Aaker puts it this way: "our attitude from the beginning should be, “Let’s just get to know each other and have fun..." but you're getting to know each other because you're looking for a spouse, not because you are looking for a new friend!  Put another way, casual dating proponents insist that it is lower pressure because people are not thinking specifically of marriage but only whether or not they wish to "pursue a relationship" with somebody.  Ahh, of course.  In regular dating, there's a lot of pressure because you're discerning marriage, but in casual dating, you're only discerning whether or not you want to discern marriage.  Much different!

To be frank, this argument reminds me a great deal of the kinds that scientific materialists make in asserting that astrophysics or some other such thing has eliminated the need for belief in God.  First its, "The big bag theory explains the origin of the universe, and so we have no more need for God."  When its pointed out that the big bang theory has only pushed the question back a step to what caused the big bang, they may cite string theory.  When it's pointed out that they have just pushed the question back a step again to what caused certain movements on the level of strings to occur, they may cite M-theory, pushing the question back again.  Ultimately, casual dating does the same thing.  The claim that a casual date has less pressure than a "regular" date is really just pushing the "question" of marriage back a step; the question is still there, it's just covered under another layer of pretense.  The important thing is that anyone on a casual date knows that the question is still there - and so the pressure remains the same.

In fact, it might even be worse in many cases.  On a "normal" date there's some established interest between the two parties and there is normally some previous knowledge of one another.  The boy already knows that the girl has some interest in him, and vice versa.  The girl already knows a bit about the boy, and vice versa.  When I went on my first date with Natalie, I had some idea that she was interested in me and I wasn't concerned with laying out who I was - and so I was able to, largely, just be myself.  On a casual date each person knows that they may only have that one meeting to get to know another person or, perhaps more importantly, to show the other person who they are.  As I have seen from the firsthand experience of friends, the experience of going on dates with anyone who seems eligible can also lead to an incredible amount of pressure over time.  No matter how much one tries to tell oneself that it's "no big deal" if a casual date doesn't work out, those "no big deals" begin to pile up quickly into one very big deal of a sense of self-doubt, frustration, or even despairing of one's desirability or lovability.  This brings us to the incredibly important fourth point.

Fourth, casual dating is extremely dangerous to those seeking to guard their hearts.  Some years ago I learned an incredibly important lesson.  I had a female friend - a strong proponent of casual dating, though it's not particularly relevant to this point - who was incredibly rational, preeminently concerned with ceding to the Holy Spirit's guidance about all things in life, patient, and very committed to viewing dating as "no big deal."  Everything about her proclaimed that she was a woman who viewed the world objectively, and so I carelessly offered a thought about her romantic life which I believed would be taken well.  The reaction was immediate, and a deep pain showed itself forth in her eyes.  I realized at that moment in a very close to home and visceral way something which I had seen in St. John Paul II's theology and heard in some Catholic discussion of relationships: for all that made her seem different, she was still a woman, with the heart of a woman.  She still desired to be loved, accepted, respected, and treated tenderly  It is a lesson that I took to heart and have applied well since I met my fiancee, who, though it is in many ways entirely hidden from the world's view, has a  heart seeking love and tenderness.

Women are women, and have the hearts of women.  Men are men, and have the hearts of men.  This is true no matter how much we might try to tell ourselves "this is no big deal," or, "it's just a date," or, "it's casual!"  A young man who takes a woman out on a casual date, only to have it not work out will still feel rejected - a great fear and weakness in men's hearts.  A young woman's experience of casual dating will go similarly.  We can tell ourselves "its no big deal" all we want, but when things do not go well it is a big deal.

This is especially true if both parties are not on the same page.  Consider a man who has developed an interest in a particular woman over the course of a month and asks her out.  As a "casual dater," she may agree even though she has no particular interest.  After "a date or two," as Ms. Aaker puts it, she tells him she is no longer interested and moves on with no trouble.  He will not.  Consider a woman who has been waiting for a particular man to invite her out for two months.  After reading an article like the one I linked above, her decides he should ask her out because, even though he has never felt too much interest, "it might go somewhere," She will be excited, and then wounded - perhaps deeply - when his initial lack of interest proves to be accurate.  This is why I think that it is strongly advisable that we date those that we know at least to some degree and have interest in at least to some degree.  It fits much more properly into the spirit of guarding the heart.

In fact, I dare say in what may be the most controversial thing in my post that the danger to our hearts from the emotional side of casual dating may be just as large as the danger to our hearts posed by the physical side of hooking up.

Fifth and last, I put forth what is admittedly the limited value of my experience.  In nearly 8 years of heavy involvement with the Catholic young adult community of Boston, I have known many casual daters, many standard daters, many who tried both, many couples, and and many who indeed found their spouses and got married.  I am not personally aware of any marriages that were borne out of casual dating.  In every case that I am aware of - including my own - two people who had known one another for a few weeks to a few months recognized a mutual interest in one another, began to date, and eventually discerned marriage together.  Some years ago, I asked another Catholic friend heavily involved in both the young adult communities that I was as well as others of her experience, and she was somewhat surprised to find the same was true for her.  It is not scientific, but it is my (our) experience: getting to know people, recognizing their unique mystery, and the choosing to pursue it with all of one's heart produces faithful Christian marriages.

And hey, it's also the teaching of St. John Paul II, a man who will possibly - nay, almost certainly - one day be declared a Doctor of the Church because of his teachings on human relationships and marriage. For what that's worth!

No comments: