Our middle son recently announced his engagement to a young woman he has been friends with since childhood and dated for nearly four years. My husband and I are grateful for the way in which Luke and Audrey have discerned their engagement and their plans for a Church wedding this May.
In our house, group dating may begin at age 16, but one-on-one dating is forbidden until age 18. Our reasoning is that dating is a prelude to marriage, and no one should date who isn’t ready to begin the search and make the commitment to marriage.
Dating and discernment are important and require the right intentions and approaches, based on individual personalities and holy purpose.
Gregory Popcak, who, with his wife, Lisa, authored Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Sexually Whole and Holy Kids (Ascension Press, 2012), says that age is less important than maturity when it comes to dating.
"It’s more about having accomplished certain developmental and moral tasks," he said.
Popcak recommends that parents ask themselves certain questions when deciding whether and when to allow their children to date, including: Does my child know how to be friends with the opposite sex? Do I know my child to be a moral and spiritual leader among his/her peers?
"The more you see your child demonstrating these traits at home — with you and his/her siblings and friends — the more you can safely assume that your child is ready to date," he added.
Dating plays a vital role in the marriage-discernment process, giving young people experiences with the opposite gender so that they can learn what types of personalities may be a good match for them.
For Stu and Liz Sigmund of Oconomowoc, Wis., dating was an indispensable factor in their marriage discernment. The Sigmunds dated for four years and were engaged for one before marrying in 2011. They have a 7-month-old daughter.
When they began dating, Stu was 23 and Liz was 21; neither had seriously dated anyone before, and that’s the way they both preferred it. They also both were discerning vocations to the religious life, with Liz being more certain that she was called to marriage, but Stu still divided between marriage and the priesthood.
"There’s no reason to date someone you don’t really think you would marry someday," said Liz. "I used to actually tell my mom that I was only going to date the person that I was going to marry. That turned out to be true for me."
The Sigmunds also point out that dating is about family: learning to live with each other’s families, which sometimes can be quite difficult, and preparing to form a new one together.
"Something I always felt to be important for a good relationship is for each spouse to be accepted and supported by the other’s family, and our dating time was often centered on the time spent with each other’s family. How could I have ever expected Liz to marry me and become a part of my family if she didn’t know firsthand what that was going to mean?" Stu said. "Plus, I always have believed that marriage is about family. Anyone who is not interested in having or being a family has no business getting married."
Even after spending time together and with one another’s families, how does one know whether the person he/she is dating is the one God has intended to be his/her spouse?
God intends marriage to be based on authentic love, aimed at bringing one another closer to Christ.
As Pope Pius XI noted in his encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage): "To the proximate preparation of a good married life belongs very specially the care in choosing a partner; on that depends a great deal whether the forthcoming marriage will be happy or not, since one may be to the other either a great help in leading a Christian life or a great danger and hindrance. And so that they may not deplore for the rest of their lives the sorrows arising from an indiscreet marriage, those about to enter into wedlock should carefully deliberate in choosing the person with whom henceforward they must live continually: They should, in so deliberating, keep before their minds the thought first of God and of the true religion of Christ, then of themselves, of their partner, of the children to come, as also of human and civil society, for which wedlock is a fountain head.
"Let them diligently pray for Divine help, so that they make their choice in accordance with Christian prudence, not indeed led by the blind and unrestrained impulse of lust, nor by any desire of riches or other base influence, but by a true and noble love and by a sincere affection for the future partner; and then let them strive in their married life for those ends for which the state was constituted by God.
"Lastly, let them not omit to ask the prudent advice of their parents with regard to the partner, and let them regard this advice in no light manner, in order that, by their mature knowledge and experience of human affairs, they may guard against a disastrous choice and, on the threshold of matrimony, may receive more abundantly the divine blessing of the Fourth Commandment: ‘Honor thy father and thy mother, (which is the first commandment with a promise), that it may be well with thee and thou mayest be long-lived upon the earth.’"
"He/she will unleash in you the best, highest and most virtuous version of yourself," explained author and speaker Mark Hart, executive vice president of Life Teen International. Hart is also known as the "Bible Geek." He and his wife have three young children. "Marriage, and dating before that, is not about finding ‘someone you can live with.’ It’s about finding someone you desire to die for daily — to die to yourself, your selfish wants and human sins — and seek to live for the other. Dating and marriage are not about what we ‘get,’ but about what we give."
Real love, says the Sigmunds, isn’t something to take for granted. They encourage young couples who are dating and discerning marriage to surround themselves with people who have positive feelings about marriage, go to Mass and adoration together and participate in activities that make it easier for them to learn and grow deeper in their faith together.
"Don’t use the word ‘love’ casually," Liz advised. "Make it deliberate, and wait until you really know. I know I wanted to say it so quickly, but I waited until Stu said it, because I knew that he needed time to accept it. Also know that the devil will try to break up a good relationship; he is not happy when you are faithful to God and your significant other."
And parents help their children to discern true love by modeling healthy and holy love themselves.
"Parents should be affectionate in front of their kids," Hart advised. "They should model healthy communication, even healthy ‘arguing’ and ‘disagreeing,’ constant gentleness, mercy, compassion and mutual respect. In short, parents should ‘become’ the person they desire their children to ‘bring home.’"
Above all else, prayer is a top priority in dating and marriage discernment, according to all sources interviewed for this article.
Southern Californian Leslie Lenko depended on prayer and the sacraments to guide her through a tough discernment process before marrying her husband of 20 years. The Lenkos have two teenage children.
"I remember many times, after work, driving to a beautiful Catholic church for prayer. I took great comfort in praying before a statue of holy Mother Mary," she said. "I had a broken engagement two years prior, and I needed to be very sure this time. I also went to Mass a great deal, took long walks and asked many questions."
One day, while attending Mass with her future husband, she received a sign; shortly thereafter, they became engaged.
"The graces are many for those who discern well," Lenko said.
Added Stu Sigmund: "It takes a lot of silent prayer and reflection to hear what God has written into your heart. We are called to love our spouse as Christ loved the Church.
"He loved us when it felt like being gathered around the table with good food and conversation with friends, but he carried that love right through from there, on to when it felt like hatred, betrayal, thorns in his head, nails through his hands and his blood pouring on the ground. If we can choose to love someone like that, not knowing how it could ever be possible, but trusting that if that is what God asks of us, then he will give us what we need to do it, then marriage is possible and wonderful and full of his incredible blessings."
Marge Fenelon writes from