Human Life Education

Chapter Ten: Contemporary Dating is Serial Marriage

By Connie Marshner

One of the most painful rituals a priest becomes familiar with is the death of a marriage. While the singles group laments that people are not willing to make a commitment, those who are married seem all too familiar with how to break up. Why is this?

Sociologists suggest that the more people grow up observing or living through their parents' divorces, the less able they will be to make a commitment themselves. That is eminently understand-able: after all, we learn by observation. If one has never observed married love lasting through good and bad times, how will one be able to live it?

Especially if one has spent his or her adolescence learning how to break up. Learning how to break up? Precisely. That is what the contemporary dating scene, America's excuse for a courtship process, teaches.

Among some evangelical Protestants, the marriage preparation requirements of the Catholic Church are objects of envy. Michael McManus, the leader of the Marriage Savers movement, understands that the longer the wait, and the more extensive the preparation, the more likely that a mismatched engagement will be broken-and that is a victory for marriage.

But we Catholics must not rest on our laurels. First of all, not all dioceses do the in depth preparation that they should. The premarital personality inventory is not standard everywhere; instruction in the nature of Catholic marriage, especially with respect to the implications of Humanae Vitae, is still lacking in many places. Improving the program at the diocesan level is a lengthy process, one generally out of reach of the average priest.

But within the reach of the priest there is a very important contribution that can be made to raising the quality of married life, thereby reducing the divorce rate. It may be that the time has come for the parish priest to break his silence on that social custom which is the precursor to most engagements and most divorces: the contemporary dating scene.

What is Dating? The short answer is: probably not what you think. But first, an historical overview.

After World War II, the nation lived through a time of unprecedented prosperity. One side effect of this prosperity was that compulsory school attendance until high school graduation could be made the norm. Suddenly, an unprecedented number of young men and women of marriageable age were kept out of the job market, and, therefore, out of marriage. They had disposable income and disposable time. Meanwhile, Hollywood was entertaining them with a stream of more or less lewd frivolities about youthful romance, as the music industry was regaling them with endless songs on the same topic. Out of this social and cultural situation was born contemporary dating.

When it began, it was fairly innocent. Parental authority was still a given; Christian values were still dominant. Within that framework, dating was viewed by parents as a way for youngsters to have fun together before settling down to serious life. As originally practiced, it gave a girl a chance to receive attention from lots of different young men-a different one every weekend, if she played her cards right. There were lots of movies to go to because Hollywood was policing itself with decency standards, lots of inexpensive ice cream parlors to visit, and lots of friends to go around with, since not many had cars. There were few dangers in the system for a young person whose circle of acquaintances came from the parish or Catholic school, and who obeyed parental curfew requirements.

When a particular affinity was recognized, and marriage seemed an option worth considering, then the boy and the girl "went steady." While this was short of engagement, it meant that neither of them went out with anyone else. Human nature being what it is, when a young person spends considerable time in the exclusive company of another person of the opposite sex, engagement and marriage generally follow full soon.

Then came the sixties and the seventies. Parental authority was no longer respected; drugs became commonplace; the Sexual Revolution was loosed upon the world. In the meantime, aggressive upward-mobility had come to mean a transitory society. Simultaneously, the post-Vatican II upheaval cut loose the social moorings that had once been associated with parish and Catholic school. It was the era of free love and "don't trust anyone over 30."

Dating continued, but now it was different. There were few restraints anymore, and the rules began to change. To avoid the Vietnam War, college campuses were filled to the rafters-and student militance soon abolished curfews, sign-ins, and other protective measures, all in the name of freedom. There were fewer and fewer decent movies to go to anymore. It seemed everybody had a car, so one-on-one rather than group dating became the norm. Parties where the punch was laced with LSD were the really "in" thing.

The eighties produced the first young people reared on feminism and Planned Parenthood-style sex education. They claimed that women need men like fish need bicycles, and destroyed what was left of chivalry. Pizzas weren't cheap anymore, and girls were expected to pay their share - one way or another. During the nineties, women often became the sexual aggressors, and as the decade ends, it has ushered in rohypnol, the tasteless, odorless powder that can be slipped into a girl's drink, putting her into a semi-conscious state, leaving her with no memory of what happened while under its influence.

Rohypnol is a college problem more than a high school one as of this writing; it will take a few years to trickle down to the high school set. Meanwhile, the fallout of adolescent dating is toxic enough: Before 1960, dating was relatively innocent; it has become less so ever since. Vital statistics bear this out: in 1960, there were only 91,000 births to unmarried women under age 20 in the entire United States (and 502,046 to married women under age 20). In 1991, there were 386,451 births to unmarried women under 20, and 163,140 to married women the same age. This doesn't begin to count the abortions to those under 20. [Editor's addition:317,000 abortions and 132,000 fetal losses.]

A worse effect in some respects is the three to six million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in adolescents aged 15 -19 each years in the U. S. There are 22 common sexually- transmitted diseases; many of them are never diagnosed; most of them are incurable; some of them predispose their victims to develop cancer; and much of the infertility in the country can be blamed on them. In one study, up to 70% of women infertile because of obstructed fallopian tubes had blood antibodies to chlamydiae, one of the most common STD's. Those unfortunate women are victims for life of the dating scene.

In a few places around the nation, a discussion is beginning to take place concerning abstinence. It is encouraging that someone is suggesting that abstinence should become a socially-acceptable behavior for dating teenagers - as it manifestly is not at this time.

True love indeed can and should wait. But the common sense question screams for an answer: if teenagers date, that is, if they spend hours and hours of unsupervised, unstructured time alone together, the best lifelong abstinence education will be hard pressed to prevail over the natural passions of the flesh (as many a good family has learned to its sorrow). Meanwhile, dating continues, and what is amazing is that parents smile benevolently at it. And just about every marriage begins with a date.

Serial monogamy = divorce rehearsal.

Earlier, the question was asked: what is dating? Here is the answer: today, dating is the practice of serial monogamy without benefit of clergy.

There is no "dating" anymore - it begins as "going steady." A girl does not go out with a different guy on a different weekend - that is against the rules. She goes out with one guy and one guy only, until they break up. Young people expect to fall in love, and then to break up, and then to fall in love again, and to break up.... The peer group expects it, so young people feel they must do it, lest they be considered "weird" and excluded from the peer group. And indeed, the occasional student who does not date, like the student who is observably different in any other way, can expect to be the butt of wisecracks and insults from other students.

Incredibly, the dating partner is often chosen to please the peer group - "my girlfriends thought we made a cute couple" - rather than on a basis of merit, common interests or values, or parental approval. Parental approval, in fact, almost guarantees that a certain person will not be a dating partner. Everybody knows that the reason for the relationship is to be "cool" and to have fun (so, naturally, when it ceases to be fun, it is ended). Nobody pretends there is any serious commitment implied or expected. There's an undercurrent of defiance of parental standards.

Young people know that to date means to sleep together. They may tell their parents otherwise; if they know enough to avoid sacrilege, they may avoid confession altogether in order to avoid telling the priest a lie.

Now that we have established what dating is, let me make it clear what is not the target of my criticism: socializing in groups. Getting together with "the gang," or going out, even regularly, in large, odd-numbered groups of mixed company for some specific purpose may, indeed, be part of the solution to the problem. It is the pairing off that is the problem: one-on-one, unsupervised, unstructured, abundant time spent for the purposes of entertainment and diversion, with one's own transportation and on one's own recognizance.

Some of that paired-off time can be on "official," or dress-up, dates. Parents, at least, have some ways of monitoring that time. What parents have less knowledge of is the more abundant "hanging around" that idle young people do: after school, in school, after work, at the pool. One mother brought her 14-year-old daughter to a maternity home still astonished at how the pregnancy happened, exclaiming: "She's never even dated!" What the mother didn't realize was that when she dropped her daughter off at the mall for an afternoon's shopping, the boyfriend was also there. When the two got bored with the mall, they'd walk over to his house to hang out ... a house where no parent was present. But it wasn't a "date" - after all, the boy never even bought her a dinner! Another mother thought she was keeping her teenage sons well-occupied by having them join the swim team. Due to younger children, she could not stay to watch the practices. Imagine her surprise when she learned that one son had never participated in a single meet - and in hardly any practices. When dropped off at the pool, he headed for a girlfriend's house, where no parents were present ... confident that his brother would never violate the single most absolute rule of adolescence: don't rat on another kid.

"Fearfully and wonderfully made," as Psalm139 says we are, the human being is designed, emotionally as well as physiologically, to establish an emotional bond when there is sexual intimacy. But what happens if the first sexual encounter is not with one's wife? And what happens if that sexual encounter is followed by numerous others? That programming, as it were, is frustrated. The groundwork is laid to be dissatisfied with a single partner in the future.

Serial monogamy means repeated intimacy and heartbreak. The importance of the serial heartbreak must not be overlooked. It is that which teaches the skills of divorce.

Since these relationships are ill-founded to begin with, between people whose own emotional neediness is enormous simply because of their age, it is to be expected that they will be ephemeral. The investment of the emotional energy, the "falling in love" experience is, as is proverbial with youth, whole-hearted. So is the heartbreak that ensues. True, one "falls in love" again ... but with a difference. True, one "gets over it," but one is different. The next time, one holds back a little more of the heart ... and when one suspects that a breakup is in the offing, or when one wants to end it, one will know how to end it: how to drop the pretense of trying to meet the other's needs; how to do the emotional distancing, the closing of the door of the heart, the focusing on the self that invites solitariness and encourages resentments to grow. This is, in psychological terms, a coping mechanism to minimize the pain of the breakup - but it is a set of skills which, once learned, is never forgotten. It is a pattern which paves the way for every divorce. The tragedy is that this pattern of serial monogamy generally begins by age 12, and repeats over and over until a marriage is undertaken some ten or so years later ... only to resume after that marriage ends. Taken as a whole, it is preparation for divorce, not for marriage.

Who is safe?

I speak in broad terms, describing the culture at large. To be sure, some families manage to protect their youngsters from the vicious cycle. To be sure, certain individuals remain aloof. To their credit, charismatic communities have historically tried to restrict teen dating among their members' children. Certain private high schools have superior records among their students and alumni. And there are certain subcultures which do not match this gloomy pictures: Mormon students, for instance, are typically chaste, as are Moslem ones, especially when there is a significant population of them in a given public high school. I wish I could say that Catholic high schools in general were exempt from this description. But when a Catholic high school cancels classes the Monday after the prom so that seniors can remain at the beach where they've been since Saturday - and when a Catholic high school has eighty-some pregnancies in its student population in one year, but barely twenty births - do we dare risk the hubris of saying we are different?

Please, Father...

And then, in your parish, along comes the annual seventh and eighth grade dance, and some parents ask: can you please open it up to sixth graders, Father?

Perhaps the time has come for Father to ask the question why the Catholic people are buying into the dating scene.

Priests are obliged to help parents recognize and undertake their sacred obligation to preserve the purity of their adolescent children, and to prepare them for the arduous, self-sacrificing work of Christian marriage. Contemporary dating is one of the biggest hindrances to this - it is an up-close and personal contact with the general flood of sensuality engulfing young people. Instead of asking parents to try to protect their children from the current while standing in the middle of the river, might it be possible for the parish to start building an island in the river? Not to advocate staying on the island forever ... but at least, until their legs are stronger and they're able to swim without drowning. For the younger ones it might be a lifesaver.

An alternative to secular dating is needed: an environment which fosters wholesome, purposeful friendships between young men and women. Note the word friendships. There is no need and no place for romance until marriage is the goal. If the friendships are wholesome and purposeful, there will be lots of fun.

Right now, most parents, while oblivious to dating as a societal problem, have experienced a taste of its fallout at the personal level. They may have noticed how grades plummeted after a son broke up with a certain girl ... and in the subsequent depression, he smoked his first marijuana. There may be a certain boy they don't trust, but they made the mistake of saying so and now they feel they are powerless to prevent their daughter from seeing him. She will throw a temper tantrum if thwarted; she will sneak out if forbidden. She will say "everybody else is allowed to date!" And the parent, feeling isolated, gives up the fight.

Therein lies the clue for the parish priest. First of all, among convinced, practicing Catholics, "everybody" is not allowed to do "everything"! There are families which have figured out how to protect their children from the pervasiveness of the dating scene. Upon investigation, the following characteristics will probably be found in most of these families:

Parish plan of action

These families are a resource worth their weight in gold for the priest who wants to help restore the culture of Catholic courtship. Spend some time finding out the resources in your parish; talk to the parents of teenagers who seem happy and successful; ask them about their families' policies on teens' social lives. Talk to young adults in the parish, or the area, who may have decided to opt out of the dating scene. Try to find one who would be willing to talk about the decision.

Gather your resources carefully. Then, call a meeting of parents of pre-teens and teens. Prepare the way by talking with the successful parents, and explaining to them that you need them to be informal "mentors" for other moms. When the meeting happens, don't be disturbed if more mothers than fathers actually come: the fact is, the parent who most closely monitors the teenager will be the mother. It's the moms who need to be thinking about these things and talking about them.

At the meeting, let the young adults describe the dating scene, and the harm it does. Nothing will generate concern among parents as much as a personal story. If there isn't a "converted" young adult available, then you, the priest, may have to raise the questions in this article or distribute copies of the Arlington Diocese brochure "Dating for Marriage - Not for Divorce" to get the conversation started.

Expect naivete and blind trust from some ("My children would never deceive me") but other moms will be sadder but wiser. Ask parents to share their strategies of what alternatives worked as well as of what didn't: not to discuss individual children, which might be embarrassing, but to discuss strategies.

The least that will come out of it will be that a few parents who should know each other will meet each other and be able to begin supporting each other's efforts to protect their children. If that grows into a parish parent support group, count it as a gain. A monthly meeting even to watch and discuss a parenting video could be a real help to many. Keep the parental-support identity of the group clear, however: those who most need the counsel of experienced parents may feel subtly unwelcome if they perceive it as a "rosary club," which only the parents of "good kids" attend. Be sure an absence of childcare for younger kids doesn't keep away the families with both teens and toddlers.

If the parents end up deciding they need some help from the parish, be willing to cooperate. Maybe a re-design of the youth group will grow out of the parents' recognition of their need for your help, with more structure or more chaperons, or a shift in emphasis to more group projects to perform corporal works of mercy and less frequent "fun" activities which lend themselves to pairing-off. Maybe you will be asked to spend more of your own time with the youth group, talking with them more. That's a golden opportunity.

And maybe the parents will end up beseeching you to not only refuse to open the eighth-grade dance to sixth-graders, but maybe to skip it altogether this year! Who knows, maybe next they will beg you to give a homily series on the Church's ideas on marriage!

Resource List

Next Page: Chapter 11: NFP for adolescents?
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