Back to the Dating Drawing Board

Can classic courtship make a contemporary comeback?

Gina Zaccagnini laughs at the thought of her first date. She was in high school. Her little brother had to come along to the movie.

Today, the 25-year-old college grad appreciates her parents’ protective measures. They helped her navigate the insecurities of teenage dating — and steer clear of the college “hook-up” scene that’s par for the course on so many campuses today.

Zaccagnini saw plenty of this as a student at Colorado State University. And, she says, it’s more of the same at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she works as a campus missionary for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. The hook-up mentality is most prevalent among the hard partiers, she points out, and it goes hand in hand with binge drinking.

“Where I went to school, a guy would call a girl he met the night before and invite her to a party or a bar. That was considered a date,” she says, adding that men don’t take women out on courtship-style dates like they once did.

The not-so-subtle message co-eds get, she adds, is that men reject women who don’t “give them something.”

Zaccagnini made chastity one of her unshakeable morals at an eighth-grade retreat and has kept that promise. In college, when her dorm mates started calling her “Virgin Gina,” Zaccagnini recognized that her friends’ sarcasm largely stemmed from regret over their own poor choices. Envy, after all, often expresses itself as peer pressure.

And she held fast to her mother’s wise words of encouragement: “You could easily be like them, but they can never be like you.”

Her mother was smart, says Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatric-adolescent specialist and counselor in Traverse City, Mich. A mother of three grown daughters and one teenage son, Meeker has appeared on numerous national TV shows to talk about her best-seller Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters.

Parents have far more influence on their kids than the culture, says Meeker. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, kids want guidance and boundaries.

Meeker tells parents to talk about dating with their kids before they start dating, particularly since they are going to have friends who both date and talk about it. She urges parents to allow only group dating until the teen is at least 17 or 18.

“Male attention seeking is really big among girls,” she explains. “I tell girls to focus on male friendships and not even to date until after high school. That helps them relax.”

Boys are a whole lot of fun, Meeker stresses. Once romance comes into the picture, the fun tends to fade. “Be his friend first,” she advises, “then you see all sides of him.”

Prepared for Pressure

Boys need guidance, too. Girls are using suggestive language at earlier ages, says Meeker, and many boys don’t know what to do with this. “They either respond (in kind) or run fast the other way. This might be happening to our boys at an early age, and we don’t know it.”

“Talk to your boys about the fact that some girls are more aggressive and they’re not necessarily the girls they want to date,” she adds, noting that the pushy girls are often “looking for attention from anybody — not just your son.”

In her practice, Meeker has frequent discussions with teens. She says boys are more sensitive and emotionally connected than most people realize. High school boys who have broken up after long-term relationships say they regret their premarital intimacy, memories of which now bring pain.

“Assume that your kids want to go in the right direction and want your help,” says Meeker. “Help them stay away from situations where they can get in over their heads.”

College life isn’t any easier than high school for most, and freshman year is the toughest, says Meeker. She’s often called in to help young people deal with the unfortunate results of the hook-up lifestyle — depression, anxiety, an ever-expanding slew of communicable but easily avoidable diseases.

“Expect your kids to be hit with a culture that is experimenting, and then help them learn how to handle it,” she advises. “Get them to think it through before they get there. Encourage them never to drink so much that they’re out of control. And don’t be afraid to read them the riot act.”

True Love Commits

Chris Spellman, 23, a graduate student at Boston College, didn’t date much in high school or college, but says he also didn’t get much direction on the subject from his parents. After joining Opus Dei while at the University of Notre Dame, he received some good formation on dating and started thinking about marriage.

Spellman met his fiancée, Cassandra Miller, on

“I realized what dating was all about, and I think that was the biggest influence on me,” he recalls. “Dating really is for marriage, so it can’t just be about having fun and not going anywhere.”

Miller, 24, a student at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, N.Y., says too many people think the physical aspect of the relationship will foster love, but it’s the emotional and spiritual relationship that really make love grow.

“I do believe that if people knew the message of chastity and what their experiences could be like, that’s what they would do. But the cultural messages are so contrary to chastity,” says Miller. “If the person doesn’t share your values, you have to be willing to wait and sacrifice until God does bring the right person in your life.”

God at Work

In the face of ubiquitous sources of pressure urging young people to go along with the cultural flow, God is working very hard on college campuses. That’s the observation of Zaccagnini.

In fact, she suggests, a new-fashioned but rightly ordered form of courtship might be making a comeback among Catholics.

At UC-Boulder, she sees men waking up early to pray the Rosary for the women and vice versa, along with dating couples attending Mass together, and faith-centered activities and relationships. She knows several women from a former Bible study group who went on a six-month dating fast and met their husbands soon after.

For her own part, as part of her first year as a missionary, Zaccagnini was on a dating “fast” and says it has been one of the best experiences she’s ever had.

“I’ve been able to give my whole heart to God, and I thought I had done that already,” she says. “If God doesn’t have my whole heart in the first place, no man will ever be able to have it.”

Barb Ernster writes from

Fridley, Minnesota.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.