Dos and Don'ts of Dating

Part 2 of our interview with Amy A. W. Bonaccorso, author of How to Get to ‘I Do’: A Dating Guide for Catholic Women.

Part 2 of our interview with Amy A. W. Bonaccorso, author of How to Get to ‘I Do’: A Dating Guide for Catholic Women.

What do you have against seminary dropouts?

I don’t have anything against seminary dropouts. What I don’t like is when men hop in and out of seminary, in a state of vocational confusion, and hurt women in the process. When a man decides to seriously date a woman, her heart is invested in the relationship. I’ve watched men nonchalantly break up a relationship, thinking they have a religious vocation, only to circle around for years and never fully commit to either the priesthood or a woman. I don’t think that aimlessness should be applauded or that men with commitment issues should be able to hide behind “discernment” as an excuse.

I advise women to avoid spending too much time with men who are hopping on and off the religious-life bandwagon. They should guard their hearts. These guys might be very well educated and joys to be with, but if they aren’t sure they are called to married life, why bother? It’s risky — let’s put it that way.

Why do you have a title referring to “Holy Rollers”? Sounds derogatory.

Yes, I talk about “church jerks.” Church jerks exist, and Chapter 9 is where I focus on how to identify them. In all seriousness, I think this type of honesty is important, and learning to read people is a good life skill when you’re weeding through potential mates. Not everyone who goes to church or knows theology has strong human virtue or the maturity needed for healthy relationships.

When I first converted, I was very idealistic and assumed that everyone I met at church was going to be such a wonderful, authentic, God-loving person. That naiveté wasn’t good and led to misplaced trust on several occasions. If someone had been more honest with me about these things earlier on, I might have made better choices and not gotten so scandalized.

You were attracted to convent life, you explain, “and the spirituality of the mystics.” How did you know that wasn’t for you? How did you discern that? Besides missing your makeup?

I spent a week in a convent to discern religious life. For all of my interest in the mystics and my love of contemplative prayer, I just wasn’t happy there. It was fascinating to be in a cloister … but I didn’t feel like I had arrived. I wanted to do things that I could not do in the convent. My mind didn’t stop thinking, “When I get out, I want to finish a master’s degree, and I want to pursue a job doing x, y and z.” I couldn’t turn that side of my brain off. And I’m a creative sort who chafes at rigid schedules. I need freedom to explore life, go to restaurants and listen to music. Cloistered convents are regimented to a degree. It was beautiful — and just not right for my personality.

There is no question in my mind that I found the right convent for me, though. I really nailed it. There was no point in convent shopping after I found “the one,” which was Holy Annunciation Monastery in Sugarloaf, Pa. It’s an Eastern-rite Carmelite convent, and Father Walter Ciszek, author of He Leadeth Me, knew the mother superior there very well. I’m half Greek, so the combination of East and West was a truly accurate reflection of who I am. I had closure after I decided not to stay, and I’ll always be grateful to Mother and the nuns for being so helpful in my discernment. We agreed that it wasn’t for me. I also got a special sign there from St. Thérèse that I talk about in my book.

In married life, have you held onto and deepened your love of the mystics? Who are your go-to helpful saint friends as a wife? Have they changed?

Padre Pio is one of my favorites. I never get bored with him. I’ve drifted a little from my Carmelite roots because it is a very austere spirituality, and I find it challenging to live it out with my frenetically busy life. You need a good deal of silence and stillness to really get into Carmelite spirituality, in my view. At the same time, my husband encourages me by noting that I still have a gift for conversations with God. I have coincidences every week, and my belief is that coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous. My husband says that my faith life inspires him to seek God more in his own life.

We recently became interested in the Jesuits. Father Walter Ciszek was a Jesuit. So, we’re re-reading The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and thinking about Ignatian retreats.

But, also, I’m starting to reflect on my upbringing to see how my family’s spirituality helped me become who I am now.

When did you and your now-husband know? Was it simultaneous?

I knew when I needed to go to an emergency room in the middle of a massive rainstorm and he drove 20 miles to accompany me there. In Chapter 1, I talk about a previous boyfriend who wasn’t very compassionate when I had a serious illness, so the whole “in sickness and in health” theme was still very much on my mind.

It took my husband longer. He works for the government and had to deploy to the Middle East with the Department of Defense. I didn’t leave him even though we were not engaged yet, and that’s when he decided that he wasn’t going to let me go. Other men wanted to date me while he was on the other side of the world, but I was loyal.

What’s your advice to the single woman who is sad she’s not married and sitting at home right now reading this?

Work time into your schedule each week to go out and meet people. It’s not enough to go out with the same group of friends over and over. Make an effort to meet at least one new person a week. Find live events that interest you. For me, I targeted things like Theology on Tap, book clubs and other events in the Catholic community, but you can also join political groups or volunteer.

And, please — get online. I know it can be intimidating, but if you are really at a point where you want to meet someone, it could spice up your life.

If you don’t have anything to do on a given night but have some energy, go through your wardrobe, put together some outfits and build your confidence and self-image. Everyone falls into fashion ruts. I recently had Stacey London of What Not to Wear help me pick out a new suit at an Ann Taylor in D.C. For blouses, she told me to go for richly colored patterns, and I had been avoiding patterns for years.

What advice would you give a woman who’s truly been hurt and is scared to try any of these things you suggest?

I believe in the power of heartbreak. The force of it shouldn’t be underestimated. It can destroy a person. If someone is deeply hurt, they need to acknowledge that, seek healing and try to focus on turning the page and moving to a new chapter of life. Emotional trauma is a tricky thing, because sometimes people will feel the need to retreat into themselves and process their situation. But if they retreat for too long and remain in the same depressed spot, they could get stuck there.

In Chapter 11 of my book, I talk about coping with disappointment and betrayal. Since I mainly wrote it with young singles in mind, I encourage them to process their sorrow but be efficient about re-entering the dating scene. Singles worry that they may not be ready if they still long for a lost love or still have an emotional scar. But some pain never goes away. As long as you’ve made a clean break from a previous relationship and no longer feel the need to incessantly talk about it, it’s healthy to seek more promising opportunities.

Divorced or widowed people need to think more carefully before jumping back on the dating bandwagon. Some of them are called to remarry; others are not, and it’s something they need to discern. “Moving on” for them may mean a new beginning by reassessing their life focus and priorities.

How much of your attitude toward dating and related issues has to do with John Paul II? Should he be our Dr. Ruth, to put it crassly?

[Laughs] I helped organize a Love and Responsibility discussion group in D.C. when I was single. John Paul II wrote the book before he was pope. It’s a philosophy book on love, sexuality and marriage, and although it was very academic, it had a way of starting important discussions among us singles. The discussion group kept me thinking about my relationship choices.

When you meditate on how each of us is a unique creation of God, it fosters a more reverent view of each individual relationship and the blessings they bring to your life.

I don’t think John Paul II was a Dr. Ruth! Some people are so enthusiastic about Love and Responsibility that they may try to market it as a silver bullet for every relationship issue. I know we discussed that at the book club. It’s a philosophy book written by one of the most well-respected and highly intuitive priests of our time. While you can learn things from it that will influence how you view relationships and our culture, take it for what it is and don’t try to make it something it’s not.

You wrote it for women, but can men benefit?

Men are buying and reading this book! Fathers buy it for their daughters, and parents read it to gain a better understanding of how the world has changed from when they dated. Guys read it to understand the female perspective. They want to know what Catholic women expect of men they date. Some of those guys will recommend the book to female friends if they notice they are having a hard time finding a relationship that works for them. I have been really moved by how men really want to help their female relatives and friends.

You have insights from your husband scattered throughout the book. Does he generally agree with your “how to”?

Overall, yes. He is a little more progressive than me, at times, but I had him read everything in the book and give feedback. He told me if he really objected to anything or thought I was missing something.

I want him to write some articles on “man code,” but he tells me that “man code” is highly confidential and not meant for a female audience! Even so, his feedback helps me advise women because I can get some idea of what men are thinking in dating situations. If a woman writes me with a problem, I will bounce my response off of him. His input tends to flesh out my answer and make it more valuable to the person who wrote me.

What’s your best advice for a gal who gets engaged today?

Don’t let the engagement go on for years. Life will get humdrum at some point, and your enthusiasm will dwindle. Also, take the time to plan your wedding well, but don’t drive yourself crazy over it. Choose helpers who have your best interests at heart and won’t drive you nuts. And keep your priorities straight. Relationships and the true meaning of your wedding are more important than the money you spend on the event. If you have a certain amount of money that is available for the wedding, consider if you should spend it all on the wedding or save some for a mortgage or retirement account. Your long-term security shouldn’t suffer for one day.

Also, Catholics need to be aware that if their parish has a lot of weddings, they may have to wait a long time for a wedding date. This sometimes happens in a crowded urban area. If the wait time is unreasonable, couples may want to consider using a parent’s parish if it is in the suburbs or a less populated area.

What is the most fulfilling feedback you’ve gotten?

Women tell me that the book is empowering for them. It gives them the courage to honestly assess their life purpose and if their efforts to meet someone are enough.

Sometimes I hear about women going online for the first time because of my book and meeting a wonderful man. That’s the best!

The most curious?

The most curious has got to be the people who think we ought to go back to arranged marriage. I occasionally see comments from people who have a romanticized view of that approach. My perspective is that singles will be most successful when they learn to expertly navigate the modern world as it is. I mean, we don’t have the option of turning back the clock and returning to another historical period!

If you had to write it again, is there anything you’d include — that you’ve learned since then from readers?

Yes, I’d be more thorough on topics that have generated a lot of questions. For example, I’m not into the courtship fad at all. I briefly mention that in my book, but do not dwell on it, because rather than focusing on negatives, I wanted to spend my word count on positive and action-oriented advice. But people want to know what my specific concerns are, and I am writing articles to explain myself more thoroughly now.

I also might have elaborated on chastity. A lot of women are telling me about their trials and tribulations on that front, and I have to tell you … I know chastity is the unquestionable ideal from the religious perspective, but single-issue dating isn’t always productive. Yes, it’s hard to find a chaste guy these days … and the truth is that some women may not find one who works out. What do women do when they can’t find a chaste man?

What do you consider your most practical insight in the book?

While some people are very blessed and find a spouse with little to no effort on their part, it’s not safe to assume it will happen to you. Pray for someone, but don’t expect God to drop Fabio on your doorstep. You have to get out there — because a guy can’t find you if you aren’t there to be found.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist.