The Dating or Waiting Game
Rain trickles along the sides of my windshield wipers and disappears into the black, night air behind me. Water droplets on the windshield reflect red as the brake lights of the car in front of me flash. I’m driving home by myself - just sitting back and enjoying the ride. Passing the car, I turn up the radio to a song I have heard before. Usually I don’t listen to lyrics, but the woman singing sounds so self-righteous that I feel guilty not giving her an audience. It seems her boyfriend has left her for another woman. I listen as the singer, hissing with rage, addresses her ex. "Every time you say her name, does she know you told me that you’d love me until you died? But you’re still alive," she gibes. "You can’t escape this mess you left behind."
These harsh words draw me into the singer’s ugly circumstances. I feel discouraged; something has gone terribly wrong with the way so many of us see and live relationships. The singer, like everyone else, only searches for love. Yet, tears and scars - black pasts - are the only rewards she and so many receive for their efforts. What has gone wrong? Over the past six months I have been reading and re-reading two books that portray just as powerfully as the song the many problems in our relationships today. And, while the singer is too passionate to figure out where she and her ex went wrong, these books do propose an answer.
I Kissed Dating Goodbye - by Joshua Harris, published 1997 - challenges the very concept of dating. It promotes the idea that young men and women like myself need to seriously consider putting off dating until they are ready to seek marriage. While this book discusses the state of singleness, Boy Meets Girl - its sequel, published 2000 - speaks about having the right intentions and motivations when pursuing marriage. BMG tells beautiful stories to give guidelines for the who’s, how’s, and when’s of dating and marriage.
To everyone’s astonishment, both of Harris’ books have become best sellers among Protestants. Right now, Boy Meets Girl is 2nd on Christian paperback best-selling lists. Both books are affecting people; I see it. Over the past three years, many of my Protestant friends have read them, some deciding not to date. And, these days, I meet more and more Catholics who have heard of these books. Like ripples in a still pond, word is spreading.
I have always had some doubts about dating. So, when I finally bought IKDG six months ago I was eager to agree with Harris on some points and ready to be challenged by others. While I accepted that some kinds of dating introduce immorality, I believed that the "right kind of dating" could be enriching. Joshua Harris questions this view.
Harris tells a story about a talk on love and sex that he once heard given by a pastor. This youth minister spoke about Eric and Jenny, two strong Christians he knew who began dating. Though innocently begun, their relationship became increasingly physical. In spite of their best intentions, they finally began sleeping together. Guilt-stricken soon afterwards, they broke up. To this day, both carry scars from this experience. "When I see him, I remember it all so vividly," Jenny had confessed to the youth minister even after years had passed and she had married a different man.
Joshua Harris describes the atmosphere in the room as the minister finished telling the story. "We all sat waiting for some sort of solution. We knew the reality of the story he told," Harris writes. "We wanted something better." But, instead of giving any practical advice for avoiding Jenny and Eric’s situation, the pastor said the moral of the story was not to give in to temptation. "Is this the answer?" an incredulous Harris asks. "Head out on the same course as those who have fallen and hope that in the critical moment you’ll be able to stay in control?" If dating really leads us on such a dangerous course as Harris suggests, I agree it deserves re-examination.
Dating promotes and implies intimacy between couples, but unless marriage is intended, it does not demand the commitment that such intimacy warrants. There is a contradiction when couples say they have given their hearts to each other but aren’t willing to consider marriage. In addition to emotional intimacy, physical intimacy is part of dating for many. Physical intimacy, such as kissing, seems natural, but what affect does it have on a relationship? At the very best it strengthens an intimacy that nonetheless will most likely not continue into marriage, and at the very worst it introduces lustful desires which in their selfishness destroy true affection and respect. Purity is such a precious gift - why risk losing it forever by playing with temptation? And, even barring a physical relationship, the possessive nature of dating gratifies the apparent good of one without considering what’s best for the other ("you flatter me, you give me security, you bring me high social standing - but do I care about you?"). When there is an absence of commitment, purity, or selfless interest in a relationship - all too easily lost in dating - that relationship must invariably leave scars of guilt and pain.
These pitfalls of dating make a very convincing case against dating. My conjecture that some dating is okay no longer seems reasonable. Walking the thin dating line between temptation and sin - between hurting oneself and hurting another - is not "being reasonable" when that thin line can be avoided altogether. In other words, if we’re not dating to find and marry the person destined for us, what do we hope will come out of the relationship? Are our intentions pure? Ultimately, Harris is asking that we examine our intentions to see whether they line up with what we profess to believe. To truly ‘kiss dating goodbye’ we must have an interior change of attitude that affects the way we think of and act with the opposite sex.
Change and sacrifice are required to follow this path, Harris acknowledges. But, he promises that young men and women will begin to see their state of singleness in its true light, as a chance to form strong friendships with both sexes and as an opportunity to explore and develop a passion for studies and work. As Catholics, we also discern whether God calls us to married or celibate life during this time. Dating may confuse and distract us from these responsibilities and joys. For it seems that sacrificing dating actually brings us joy. Joshua Harris, also waiting to date, ends IKDG believing that someday he and all those committed to this attitude will have a story to tell.
Sure enough, five years after giving up dating, Joshua Harris - now ready to take on the responsibility of marriage - does have a story to tell. The beauty I find in the story of Harris meeting his wife, told in Boy Meets Girl, has quieted some of my qualms about postponing dating. Reading BMG I see that adopting Harris’ attitude not only makes us more joyful and receptive to goodness while we wait for our vocation (be it to marriage or celibacy), but also as we embrace it.
Since Joshua and Shannon Harris are real people, their love story isn’t always simple or perfect. But, their story is devoid of the destructive tendencies of dating. Their intimacy grows as their commitment to each other grows. Their friendship blossoms before and during their courtship. Joshua Harris and Shannon include family and friends in their relationship, and they humbly ask advice of those they trust. They treat each other with careful, dignified purity all throughout their courtship. They communicate with each other sincerely and endeavor to protect each other from sin. As their love for one another grows, they slowly realize they truly are meant for each other. And, when their wedding day comes, Joshua Harris gazes at his bride resting on her father’s arm; he knows that God, in His beautiful plan for them, has brought them together to this day. They make their vows. Now they belong to each other; now they share their first kiss. This is the manifestation and beginning of what we all want most of all. This is love.
I’m almost home. My headlights make a bright path through the rainy darkness as I pull into the driveway. Letting the last words of the bitter love song fade away, I turn the key. In the silence, the rain patters softly, and my conscience whispers in my ear. I can never choose the world of the singer on the radio. And, having read Harris’ books, I more clearly know why.
I just finished writing this article. It's something I've been thinking a lot about in the past few weeks, so it really makes sense to let you see these thoughts. I'm hoping that it will be published in a Catholic magazine (you may have noticed that I address Catholics as "we" once). If it is published, it will be my first and, hopefully, not last published article. Although it took a lot of work and time, I really enjoyed writing it.
let me know how you think about this issue.