Whenever the topic of dating is broached, I always think that there has to be something better — nobler — than casual dating for my children.
Now that my eldest daughter is 18 and going to be a freshman at a local college, the need to flesh out a plan for how she and my husband and I are going to handle potential suitors is frighteningly imminent.
Until now, I’ve only told her that she couldn’t date until she was done with high school — and, afterwards, not to rush into dating.
From personal experience, I don’t regard the kind of dating where some guy comes by to take my daughter out for several hours on a Friday or Saturday night conducive to her earthly happiness and well-being — or the happiness of her eternal soul.
The Problem With Dating
The modern dating scene sets our sons and daughters up for repeated emotional pain, all in the name of casual fun or entertainment.
If a teen in junior high or high school is allowed to date, this pattern of making inappropriate emotional bonds — and, even, unfortunately, physical bonds — will be repeated a number of times before they reach a marriageable age.
This is not a good way to prepare for marriage, especially when so many young people come from families of divorce.
Kevin Prendergast, a licensed supervising clinical counselor in Cincinnati and a regular contributor to Sacred Heart Catholic Radio, explained, "We know from studies of the children of divorce that the most damaging effect of divorce only becomes clear when these children are in their 20s and 30s. The legacy of their parents’ divorce is a profound fear of adult commitment and a despair that two people could ever make a relationship work. This is often at the heart of a young couple’s decision to cohabit rather than to marry."
The Church, of course, condemns cohabitation and teaches that intimacy must be reserved for marriage; consequently, marriage preparation should focus on spiritual and emotional compatibility and developing a good relationship with one another.
"The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family. The conjugal love of man and woman thus stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2363).
And Pope John Paul II, in Familiaris Consortio (The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), stated: "The very preparation for Christian marriage is itself a journey of faith. It is a special opportunity for the engaged to rediscover and deepen the faith received in baptism and nourished by their Christian upbringing. In this way, they come to recognize and freely accept their vocation to follow Christ and to serve the Kingdom of God in the married state."
Dating vs. Courtship
If casual dating is not a good option, is courtship the answer?
Stephanie Wood Weinert, a Catholic mother and wife — as well as speaker, blogger and former EWTN radio host — says the terms create confusion.
"Everyone gets confused about the two terms — ‘dating’ and ‘courtship.’ I always tell people that it is more about the definitions than it is about the terms."
Before the advent of the car, couples got to know each other in the context of their family circles, otherwise known as courting. There was a measure of seriousness involved because couples were trying to discern marriage.
"With modern dating, couples date for the fun of it or for the emotional or physical draw of the relationship, but not for the purpose of discerning marriage," Weinert explained.
Drawing on her own experience, Weinert can’t say enough about courtship.
She and her husband, Peter, met on CatholicMatch.com and quickly began a courting relationship.
"Our relationship was very family-focused on both sides," she said. "We both come from large, strong Catholic families. We lived 500 miles apart, so when we saw each other, it was usually for a weekend. We spent time getting to know each other and each other’s families. It was a very holistic perspective on who Peter was, because we got to know all of each other’s siblings."
Weinert, who is the oldest of eight children, says that spending so much time with each other’s families was key to understanding what kind of person they each are: "You can’t pretend to be someone you’re not when you’re with your seven siblings."
The Weinerts married in 2009 and are expecting their third child.
In the days when courtship flourished, society wasn’t so mobile, but today there can be numerous challenges to courtship when one lives several hundred miles away from family or his or her intended’s family. But as Weinert explained, it can be done. Interested parties can spend time together at Newman Centers or the Catholic campus center if they’re in college or in other settings that encourage group events if they are post-college.
Sarah Swafford, a speaker for Chastity Project, is an advocate for group dating and getting to know one another’s family. "Hang out in groups. If you want to know what a guy is really like, see how he acts around his guy friends," she said. "How does he act around women he’s not interested in? How does he act around his mom?"
That’s how she came to see that her husband, Andy, was a good guy — they spent time together when they were undergraduates at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., before they dated. They became engaged during her senior year of college and married after graduation; they have been blessed with three children.
Marriage in Mind
Swafford was a "dorm mom" at Benedictine College for three years; each year, she took care of about 142 freshmen women, often advising them on dating and relationships.
She recommends that women (this goes for men as well) begin a relationship with the end in mind: "It’s important to approach every guy that you’re interested in with the knowledge that this man is either someone’s future spouse or reserved for the priesthood. If you can enter every relationship with that in mind — instead of ‘How does he make me feel? What is he going to do for me? And how am I going to look doing it?’ — then God will take care of the timing and chemistry."
Prendergast added, "Is what you’re doing now in your dating and sexual behavior getting you what your heart desires — or is it just a temporary release that leaves you feeling emptier and more alone? I sometimes will quote a line of Ernest Hemingway: ‘What’s moral is what feels good — afterwards.’ It’s that ‘afterwards’ that makes all the difference."
As a mother, I agree with Weinert that it doesn’t matter which term we use: "dating" or "courting." What matters is that the family is part of the definition.
Parents once again need to take an active role in helping their children choose a suitable spouse and to provide safeguards to protect their children’s virtue and their future happiness.
The Weinerts’ courting relationship is the kind of relationship that I want my daughter to have with her future husband. From the beginning, Peter set the bar high. They never slept in the same house before they were married. Their first kiss was at their wedding — and not because they weren’t attracted to each other. It was because they were.
"It was easier not to go there at all than to go there a little bit and make a list of rules and regulations of what we were not going to do," she explained.
"It was a necessary burden to place on ourselves because it gave us so much freedom. We focused on getting to know each other, having fun, doing lots of outdoor activities. It took the pressure off of me, and it was so freeing for me as a woman to be respected."
Lori Chaplin writes from Idaho.