Leonard J. DeLorenzo introduces a new series, Letters to a Young Catholic, in which he…
Letters to a Young Catholic: How to date
I want to talk with you about dating. But first I want to admit an obvious but often neglected fact: Dating does not just happen when you want it to. Most people at some time or another want to date someone — whether a specific “someone” or not — yet cannot just make it happen. After all, we are not talking about how to care for a pet, because you really could get a pet pretty much any time you wanted to. By talking about dating, we are talking about developing a relationship with another human being who, unlike the pet, must be a willing and interested party. There is no store for “people whom you could date” next to the pet store in the mall. Please know that I know this.
That’s a weird but honest beginning to a letter like this. But if you think about it, we have already begun to consider what dating is, and what it is not. It is not about you getting something. Rather, it is about you freely sharing in something that someone else is also freely sharing in. And what you are sharing in together is learning about, enjoying and willing the good for each other. That’s my non-catchy definition of dating: a reciprocal relationship of learning about, enjoying and willing the good for someone else.
(I would never cut it as a producer of “The Bachelor,” by the way.)
Personally, I used to put a lot of pressure on every dating relationship I was ever in, beginning as early as short-lived crushes in middle school. Somewhere lurking in my mind was the expectation that for this to be a successful relationship, it had to be more and more intense, and then last forever. Any relationship that didn’t last forever was a failure. Any relationship that didn’t get more intense wasn’t progressing. With deep-seated assumptions like that, you aren’t really dating another person; you are dating a set of expectations and secretly subjecting the other person to secret criteria.
Important things to remember
Holding things in secret is where the downfall of relationships begins. I think it is fair to say, therefore, that the first important thing in how to date is committing to telling the truth. This is not the same as brute honesty, where you feel compelled to tell the other person every single thing you are thinking or feeling all the time, including whether you think their laugh can be annoying or that they really don’t look great in their favorite top. Telling the truth is about keeping things transparent. Respect the other person enough to let them be at peace around you, never having a reason to suspect that you are anything less than sincere. And respect yourself enough to mean what you say and say what you mean, rather than merely presenting yourself in one way when in fact that is not who you are or what you’re about.
Telling the truth is as much about being forthcoming about your motivations and intentions as anything else. That means that in order to be honest, you have to avoid constructing little hidden agendas and telling little white lies. Deception sneaks into relationships stealthily and corrodes them from the core. A commitment to truth-telling is fundamental to a healthy dating relationship (as with any relationship), and so too, therefore, is the humility and courage to ask for forgiveness when you have not been completely honest, and to bestow forgiveness when the other person falls short in that regard, too. The exchange of forgiveness is a form of truth-telling.
The second important thing in how to date is to follow through. There are two sides to this. First, to be a person who regularly follows through, you need to be careful with what you promise. Consider what it takes to fulfill the promise you are making, and consider what it will cost you to see that promise all the way through, come what may. Promising fewer things but fulfilling more of your promises is a sign of maturity, responsibility and respect. Second, though, is the challenge of actually following through.
Only rarely does follow-through come without obstacles. If you make plans for the weekend with the person you are dating, it is probably the case that early on in the relationship you couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do anything else. But later in the relationship, the excitement will have settled, which makes you less psyched about following through on your word when you hear later about what your other friends are planning for the weekend. Suddenly, you don’t want to follow through on your original plans.
And here comes a prime occasion for beginning to shy away from transparency. You want to make a little excuse about why you can’t do what you said you would do that weekend. What you are not saying is that the real reason you can’t do what you said you would do is that you actually just want to do something else more. Now, to follow through on what you promised, you would need to sacrifice what you suddenly want to do more to honor the plans you made. Or, if necessary and prudent, you actually talk to (don’t text) your significant other and tell them the real reason you want to change your plans. Be honest. Being upfront to say “yes” to truly being with the other person.
A fourth important thing in how to date is to pray for the other person. I know, this is now starting to sound lamely pious, if it didn’t sound that way already. Bear with me: I am not intending to be lame or unduly pious. What I mean is relocating your own center of concern through prayer. For most of us most of the time, the center of our concern is ourselves. So force yourself to pay attention to the other person’s needs and desires. Pay attention when you are together, then reflect on them and what is good for them when you are apart. Then pray for them: for their good, not only for your own good that happens to overlap with theirs. In fact, beg God on their behalf. Praying for the other person like this is the most significant way in which you can will their good. The second most significant way to will their good is, after you pray for them, doing whatever you can to serve them, help them, or support them in whatever way they need.
Do things together
The last thing I will mention as important for how to date is to do ordinary things together, even early on. Dating does not always have to be about doing big things together, with everything feeling like “a date.” In fact, too much of that “big date” feel contributes to false expectations and, honestly, a lot of play-acting.
While it is not wise to suggest that your first date be a trip to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to renew your driver’s license (this will only succeed in showing the other person right away that you are a person without any sense for human interactions), it is not at all a bad idea to do mundane things like that (or maybe things slightly less soul-sucking) as early as the first few weeks of a relationship. Do things where you don’t have to dress up, you don’t have to be on your best behavior, and you don’t have other people waiting on you. This is a way to start to “be real” with each other earlier, so there isn’t some sharp break between the early relationship magical fantasy and the real-life into which things eventually settle anyway. Practice being normal, early and often.
I haven’t talked much about romance here. Maybe that disappoints you, but it is probably more likely that you don’t want to hear that from me anyway. What I have tried to talk about is how to allow dating to enrich and develop your character (tell the truth, follow-through, pay attention, etc.) and vice versa. At some point, for some people, there will be a call and then a decision to commit yourself to the other person for life through marriage, and in that way, you continue what you have already started: becoming people of character and generosity, together, for the good of others. But for the majority of relationships that do not move toward marriage, healthy dating relationships — though never perfect — will form both people in becoming better at learning about, enjoying and willing the good of another person.
So here’s the truly last thing that is really, perhaps, the first thing. To date other people, you have to take a risk. You have to ask someone else on a date. If you want to date that person, you’ll need to say yes when someone else asks you. One date may only be one date. That’s fine. Try again and be open. But there is no way to start learning how to date without actually being willing to date. There is always a risk involved, because relationships — even short-lived ones — have to do with other real human beings who are never just what we expect or exactly what we think we want. Developing relationships with other real people requires us to change and to grow. Thank God.
P.S. Next time I’m going to talk about sex.
Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is “Into the Heart of the Father: Learning from and Giving Yourself through Christ in Prayer” (Word Among Us, $14.95).