There are two things (among others) in the romantic sphere that have been on the rise lately (on the scale of humanity itself; the last 50 years or so) that I would argue are more correlated than we think: dating and divorce.
At first glance there is not a clear correlation between the two. One is associated with the beginning of a romantic relationship, the other with its end (they would come together in the case of the married man who starts dating other women, but we shall ignore that example). Dating is our culture’s fundamental means of establishing relationships and divorce is (almost) the presumed norm for how they are to end (assuming anyone is even bothering to marry anymore).
A quick note: what do I mean by dating? Basically dating is the one-on-one approach to romance. A man and a woman go out together, just the two of them, so as to establish or improve a romantic relationship. This idea is so culturally ingrained that many people do not even know there are other ways to do it. Even among Christians who claim to ‘court’ they usually spend most of their time dating and simply giving it another name.
What is the problem I am seeing here? The issue is with the very heart of dating: it’s one-on-one nature. There is nothing wrong with a couple spending time together as a couple. That is of course natural and, really, mandatory. The problem is that our culture has determined that to be the primary – and indeed, sole – method whereby a couple is created and reinforced as a couple. This is terrible training for marriage. At the heart of marriage is the fact that couple is no longer simply two, but our the foundation of a family. And not simply the family formed by them and their children, but also the family that reaches back and out. While it is a cliche, “I am not losing a daughter but gaining a son” has a radical truth to it: marriage brings together a broader family, one much greater than any two people. A marriage is about many.
Dating interrupts this by making the relationship about the two. Even when a couple does not intend this (and many do not) the very nature of dating implants it on some level into their romance. For them romance is a solitary activity, naturally removed from other eyes (which is, incidentally, part of the reason extramarital sex rises with dating as well). Romance is a private, non-familial event.
What is the solution? In the end, it’s simply family. If one spends some time reading biographies about people living in the past two hundred years or so, one will come across a surprisingly regular occurrence: couples meet at family events, often the man spending time with his future wife’s family long before they have any inkling of romance. The couple is brought together as friends because their families are friends.
There is something rather wondrous about this. Young men and women meet without any weight of romance over them. There is simple fun and fellowship and an honest relationship of familial friends. From this can grow a truly beautiful romance, something grounded on so much more than ‘time together.’ When they marry they are already in love with their spouses family, already belong to it. Their marriage is not simply love for the two of them, but love for everyone involved.
This does not mean, of course, that all dates are bad. Alone time is a normal and important part of any relationship, but it can not be the heart of a relationship (‘heart’ is not a perfect word here; what it means in this sense is the core, the foundation, rather than anything romantic. In this latter sense of course alone time will be the heart). But in today’s highly mobile culture, this becomes increasingly difficult. Couples meet at college without the family to provide the chance for this relationship to flourish.
It is here that one’s local church community can often fill the gap (though many parishes really need to step up on this). There is a fundamentally familial character to the local church and it should provide, in many ways, a young man or woman’s family when they are away from their family. This community is a safe haven for people to simply get to know each other and, more importantly, enjoy each other’s company with the weight of dating over their heads.
This is a challenging demand, but one that can only benefit relationships. The couple that falls in love within a family context is the couple that can overcome the difficulties of their own family. Their romance is not based, in fact, on their romantic feelings for each other; it’s foundation is much deeper than that, in the very person of the other (something beautifully extolled by John Paul II of blessed memory). This rock beneath them gives them a place to stand in the storms of life, a place that does not easily give way to divorce.
Where selfishness in romance is strong, selfishness in marriage is strong. This selfishness is an (accidental) byproduct of dating, of turning a relationship in upon itself. To save a romance we must turn it outward, point love not simply to the singular other, but to all who love and are loved by that other, to the family (in the broad sense) and to God. Only then can selflessness by at the heart of marriage, only than can love truly be free to be love. And that is a beautiful thing.