An Eye on Dating

I hold what seems a fairly unique conception of how dating ought to be done. It is not counter-intuitive (people may often even think it is what they do), but it is counter-cultural: one should never be dating someone they don’t think they will marry.

The original version of this statement involved “could” instead of “will,” but that word is the gateway to utilitarian dating, dating for its own sake. “Yeah, I could marry her (but don’t intend to).” The “will” is also born out of an inversion of sorts as to why we date. Culturally, we date to find a reason to marry; my view is that you date to find out if there is a reason not to marry. A dating relationship is entered because the other is already someone worth marrying.

This distinction between “could” and “will” — or perhaps “should” — is the distinction between the courting movement and my conception of dating. The focus of courting tends to be on “discovery” rather than discernment. Courting is more wisely focused on marriage than contemporary dating, but it still has this embracing of uncertainty, at least in practice. This is made clear by the fact that courting is viewed as a long-term process. One takes years to court “properly.”

Perhaps the most unique part of my view is the approach to the ending of a relationship. Breaking up is today seen as a normal part of the process of finding a spouse, yet this it is a radically new element in the world of relationships.

The critical question here is “why do we break up?” That is, what things contribute to the end of a relationship? Under my conception, the only valid reason is that these two should not be married; the only reason they should not is that they have discerned there is a lack of the non-negotiables of marriage. What exactly constitutes these will vary person to person, but the core must always be that they have the same conception of marriage itself.

This is the only true compatibility, and certainly the most overlooked. We presume that if they “love each other” it’ll work itself out. But if their understanding of what they are entering into varies in any significant way they risk building on different foundations. For example, imagine a couple with differing views on the morality of contraception. The spouse who is okay with it must be willing to do without, as it is a one-way moral proposition (i.e. a change is immoral only for one party, in one direction). Eventually there will be strain, for one spouse will undergo a regular ‘hardship’ for an issue that has little personal moral weight. For them to ever have their way the other spouse must sacrifice their moral position. Compromise on the view of marriage is a compromise of morality, a never acceptable position.

When should a couple end their relationship? First and foremost, when they discern they are pursuing two different things, that they have distinct and exclusive understandings of marriage. (Less common reasons would include discovering a habit of abuse with insufficient reason to believe it can be corrected. A firm and irreconcilable aversion to the family should be sufficient reason as well, but our culture hates the idea of letting the state of our family dictate our ‘private’ lives.) Almost everything else we consider a reason to break up isn’t. They are, almost always, arguments of utility and egoism, that the other doesn’t “complete me.”

Here we come to an idea presented by Fr. Luigi Giussani, that the other is never enough. This discovery is one of life’s great provocations; it’s result usually is the discarding of the other in the search of another other. The Christian response must always be a turn to God while embracing the other as insufficient. A lack of fulfilment becomes a reason to love more, not a reason to “move on.”

Break-ups are hard, often because they are unnecessary. A dating relationship is properly one to marriage and its threshold is one far more open than commonly believed. What matters is narrow, precise, and of the greatest importance, but once it is clear almost nothing should stand in our way. The other is not enough, that is enough for love.

Justin Burgard is studying for his comprehensive exams and writing a thesis in between developing theories about how now we can live.

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