Rebecca Self, Religion & Ethics Editor
“Dating: For Life.” Any person coming across those words, would have reason to wonder what they mean. Does dating for life mean dating forever, and if so, why would anyone want that?
In September 2013, Philosophy Professor David O’Connor gave a lecture through the Right to Life club seminar series entitled “Dating: For Life.” In the course of the lecture he established two interpretations of the phrase “Dating for Life”: one in which a couple is always dating even if they get married because they never fully commit to each other; the other in which a couple dates in a way that leads to a successful marriage. O’Connor said, “If you date properly, in a life-giving way, you won’t need to date much or for long. But if you don’t, you’ll be dating for life—you may have a wedding but you probably won’t have a marriage.”
There are many misconceptions about dating at Notre Dame. Like any place in which the fragmented philosophies of popular culture and traditional ethics collide, young Irish men and women are pressured to have their cake and eat it, too. During first year orientation, men are encouraged to score as many girls’ numbers as possible at Domerfest while also remaining chivalrous. Notre Dame women, on the other hand, simultaneously receive advice to build careers and put off family life as long as possible, but also to be domestic, feminine geniuses as they embrace motherhood.
These factors, among others, have resulted in a campus culture in which not many students truly date. Some have casual sex, as is evidenced by anonymous posts on popular pages such as ND Crushes and ND Confessions, and some are in serious exclusive relationships; but not many are spending time with each other to get to know each other as something other than friends. Dates at Starbucks or one-on-one meals off campus are not common.
O’Connor’s comments at the “Dating: for Life” lecture and in other settings offer insight into the popular culture’s perception of dating and how that perception has affected young people. One student wrote that O’Connor’s perspective was “helpful and relatable.” Another student, speaking for the subset of Notre Dame students who want to date well but struggle with the cultural challenges, said, “Professor O’Connor was preaching to the choir. Our problem isn’t that we don’t want to get married until we’re 30; it’s that we often can’t find the right person to marry before then.”
On whether dating is good at all
In an attempt to counter the hook-up culture, some proponents of traditional Christian relationships have denounced dating as a system fraught with temptations. Joshua Harris claims in his best-seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye that dating fails to develop Christ-centered relationships because people focus more on their own satisfaction than on the other person. O’Connor, however, thinks the problem is not with the system, but with the mindsets of the people involved.
In an interview with former Rover writer, Chris Damian ‘13, O’Connor defended dating as a good way to “get to know people.” He said that young people need dating because, unlike friendship, dating provides a natural opportunity to enter an exclusive relationship. At Notre Dame, O’Connor noted, “Two dates come pretty close to establishing exclusivity. That seems to me a mistake.”
He went on to say as a caveat that casual sex and casual dating are not synonymous. Sexual attraction within dating is often either demonized or idolized, to the point that young people have a hard time navigating the waters. Young people do not have a vocabulary to talk about their romantic relationships, so they resort to equating them either to friendships, which is inaccurate, or to the vague, undefined “more than friends” zone.
On the importance of being honest
When a young person tells a friend that he or she is “talking with,” “seeing” or “going out with” someone, the friend will have learned next to nothing about the relationship. The words with which young people talk about romantic relationships are often unclear; one person’s definition of “like” varies immensely from another’s. O’Connor said the ambiguity is often intentional.
Why might young people want to be vague about their relationships? To be mysterious and make people wonder? To resist the pressure to commit to something long-term? To avoid sounding presumptuous about the future? To defend themselves from sounding naive or idealistic? To disguise the fact that they do not understand the relationship themselves? All of these reasons may help explain the imprecise way many teens and young adults talk about their love lives.
O’Connor said that some caution about prematurely defining the relationship is healthy, but that most of it is “pathological.” He expressed skepticism about a prolonged refusal to articulate what a relationship is about and where it is headed, because true dating ends in either heartbreak or marriage.
On the role of sexual attraction in dating
Contrary to many critics of youth culture today, O’Connor does not think the turbulence of young relationships is explained by the so-called sexual revolution of the past half-century.
At the 2011 Edith Stein Conference, O’Connor gave a talk entitled “She may be my wife: how a real man looks at a woman.” In that talk, he said: “Far from being too focused on the body,” the “atmosphere” that young people live in is “not focused nearly enough on the body.” He went on to talk about the importance of the physical and sexual dimensions of human nature.
According to O’Connor, the modern image of a human being to which many college students subscribe includes an “asymmetry” in which the body is seen as somehow detached from the person. Part of this detachment he ascribes to the contraceptive revolution—not to the ‘sexual revolution,’ as sex is an essential aspect of human nature, but to the new norm that anytime a young man meets a young woman, he has a right to expect that she is sterilizing herself.
The “contraceptive norm,” as O’Connor calls it, is what changed the dating culture by creating social impediments between men and women, leading to awkward introductions and assumptions. Notre Dame cannot escape this culture in which the mysterious power of fertility, which once guided and drove dating couples toward marriage, is viewed as an illness or even a failure to practice good hygiene. When young people are told that it is not just unwise but stupid to be committed and entirely vulnerable to only one person, their desires for meaningful sex and romantic relationships are frustrated. What are they to do?
On the importance of being ‘old enough’
Popular culture dictates not only that fertility and pregnancy are undesirable burdens, but that “getting serious” as a young couple is unwise. Notre Dame has absorbed this relatively new development and embraced as fact that most students will not be married within a year or two of graduation. Popular post-grad programs like the Alliance for Catholic Education make few or no provisions for married or engaged applicants. There are just two housing options for married graduate students—the Cripe Street apartments, which do not permit children, and University Village, which does permit children but is not equipped to accommodate many couples with more than two children.
Beyond the dearth of housing options for married couples, though, the general assumption that smart, young people wait to get married is in the air at Notre Dame. O’Connor said that young people on campus have the best odds for “finding a good person to marry, but ND won’t tell you that.” The university’s image partially rests on its ability to claim that recent graduates are earning sizable salaries at firms with recognizable names or are immersed in intense higher education at schools with recognizable names. Students are encouraged to find internships to fill their summers and to attend various fairs and workshops during the academic year to set up their careers.
But if Notre Dame’s mission is to educate the whole person, and if relationships are essential to living well, why does Notre Dame not take into account that some people will not have typical careers? O’Connor quipped that the Career Center could be more aptly described as the “First Job Center” because most people do not continue down the same path on which they start at age 22. The university’s careerist environment, according to O’Connor, is one of the factors deterring students from dating.
The strong current of careerism makes real romance seem frivolous and premature. Who has time for tea with a nice stranger?—there are LinkedIn connections to be made! The idea that people become more marriageable as they age is “bogus,” said O’Connor. As time passes and individual habits become more and more entrenched, the idea of merging one life with another starts to seem more radical than natural.
Dating is not easy in the culture in which Notre Dame students live and study every day, even if, as O’Connor says, dating is healthy and natural. Among the tensions that university students face, O’Connor emphasized that “it is inconsistent to give college-age people the mixed message that on the one hand they are too young to marry, perhaps for an indefinitely long time, and that on the other hand they shouldn’t have sex before marriage.” People want intimacy because it is a good thing, and they are told to have it without all the elements that make it good—trust, commitment, vulnerability.
Sexual attraction, according to O’Connor, is what makes dating work. Young people, by getting to know each other and coming to love each other, increasingly desire to have “mature, honest sexual relationships….Sexual attraction rightly conceived is an engine of maturity, a prime reason to grow up. And I have confidence people your age can in fact grow their spousal powers, if they have a mind and heart to.”
To watch Professor O’Connor’s presentation at the 2011 Edith Stein Conference, visit http://vimeo.com/24886532.
Rebecca Self is a sophomore with a major in political science and a minor in education, schooling and society. She is blessed to be dating a wonderful guy but is still very intimidated by the prospect of trying to articulate Prof O’Connor’s wisdom. To let her know whether she succeeded or failed, and how badly, email her at email@example.com.