Staring down the barrel of Valentine’s Day, many young men and women have few and scanty models of what a romantic relationship looks like—especially (though not exclusively!) young people of faith interested in chastity and marriage. The Love and Fidelity Network has set out to #BringDatingBack with a postering campaign, thus taking the broad approach. After all, everyone should benefit from reminders that dating need not be so very fraught: as the posters say, “It’s not that complicated/scary/old-fashioned/awkward.” It’s smart to remind everyone that dating can be normal, which will perhaps make it more attractive to some than the confusing morass of contradictory expectations that make up the “hookup culture” (a term that bills the erotic misadventures of late adolescents as something of substance, rather than a wild of nothing).
The full set of “Dating 101 Protips” from the Love and Fidelity Network emphasize communicating clearly and managing expectations. Under “How To Ask Someone Out” some of the tips are: “Ask in person,” and “Be clear. ‘Date’ doesn’t have to be a four-letter word.” They advise not to: “Ask to ‘hang out,’” “just text,” “be vague,” or “mumble.” Later protips advise, “Keep expectations realistic,” “Remember it’s okay to seem interested,” and “It’s just a date. Have fun.” The two categories of points reinforce each other: dating can be less stressful, diffident, and mind-game-y if people communicate, for example, talking about what they’d like to learn from their dates.
All of these are impulses worth applauding! Dating is not as out-of-reach as one might fear, because it’s not as bizarre as popular culture portrays it. Take this question of clear communication. It isn’t just a problem for people who want to ask someone out but are afraid to use the word “date.” An overwhelming amount of the media we consume (from romantic films to television sitcoms) suggests that couples work out their whole relationships through some kind of telepathy—that the need to talk (about each party’s expectations, hopes, reservations, etc.) shows that something is going wrong. A healthy relationship is a sort of hive-mind; talking with one’s beloved about serious matters is at best worrisome. Even if we have the life experience to laugh this off, the preponderance of such morally insane examples can color all our relationships (not only romantic ones) with a feeling that they lack something…but that something is the magical speechless intersubjectivity of lazy writing.
In fact, why not go a step further than the #BringDatingBack posters? Say we were to recall that dating is in service of courtship, finding and winning the right one for marriage. Would this ratchet us back to being debilitating nervous about dating? I don’t think it needs to, because marriage is also not dependent on Grand Romantic Gestures and pop cultural fairy dust. Many young people would benefit from a reminder: men and women have courted and married for generations, so there is no requirement to re-invent the wheel. Being too afraid of marriage expects too much of it, and almost makes it an idol. As Christians, we believe marriage requires supernatural grace, but that grace permeates ordinary moments, from a solidly traditional wedding to the daily encounters of bed and board.
Though it would not fit on a poster, I think the Love and Fidelity Network could do great things by promoting Leon and Amy Kass’s marvelous book Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar (maybe with book clubs across the campuses they operate on?). This eclectic collection of marriage-minded writings offers examples of courtship (good and bad) that precede even the somewhat-vanished culture of dating. The Kasses include this delightfully clear-sighted passage from Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage, a sadly out-of-print book by the married Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon:
Romance as a justification for marriage is pretty much a folk invention of less than eight hundred years’ standing. On the whole, it’s not a bad one at all. It’s mostly better than worse. For if marriage itself is the mystery written small—if it is indeed the earthly image of the union of Christ and his Church—then it would be hard to find a better starting point than the glimpsing of that same mystery in the Beloved. Dante never married Beatrice, but we feel obliged to; all in all, it is rather a good idea.
Romantic love is about as close to the real point of marriage as anything can be: it is a mystery leading to a mystery, an absurdity inviting further absurdity. We were meant for greatness, for glory, for the vast coinherence of the City. Our romantic notions fit that. If our marriages do not, it is not because marriage is contrary to romance, but because we have violated romance itself, have made the fatal mistake of stopping at Beatrice instead of the glory. My wife is not my destiny, and she cannot stand being treated as if she were.
To bring dating back in a healthy form, we should heed Capon’s reminder that dating (and even romantic love) are recent and momentary compared to the ancient institution of marriage—and it is to that mystery that they should be handmaids.
Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.