I attend a small college, where everyone knows everyone else and dating is taken very seriously; which means that to start dating someone usually causes at least a few ripples in the pool of community life. So whenever a new couple forms, I notice a slew of advice starts to swirl around them from all quarters. Everyone wants to help them by offering tips, counsel, and warnings along with their congratulations.
From a supportive and helpful community, offering advice can be very good, especially if it is coming from people you know, respect, and trust. Yet, what is a little peculiar about it is that so much of the advice seems to conflict. This wasn’t a question of “worldly view of relationships” v. “Catholic view of relationships,” but pious, prudent people offering at times seemingly contradictory views on the same question. Some of those issues have already been debated on this blog: how to define dating, when to date, when to call it “courtship,” things to avoid while dating, things to do when dating, etc.
Here's a few examples:
“I think one should date dozens of people. There are tons of important things about someone you can’t learn about them unless you enter that ‘official’ relationship stage.”
“I think I would wait until I am more certain that a person might be ‘the one,’ before I ever would consider dating them.”
“You should never start courting someone until you’re positive they’re the one for you. Until then, you should just get to know them in a group setting.”
“One shouldn’t date until after highschool, but then it’s fine.”
“Never date during the first year or two of college.”
“I don’t think it’s prudent to seriously date until after college years.”
Somehow, the subject of relationships especially seemed to resurface as a perpetual tangent in my theology classes of last year. I think it was one of my professor’s favorite topics, and throughout the year he liberally dropped tidbits of “relationship advice” here and there like largesse, scattered amidst our Scripture studies, from Genesis to Revelation. There was quite a bit of it, but one line stuck out to me in particular. “You should never get engaged to anyone,” he said, “Until you’ve had at least one knock-down, drag-out fight with them.” His idea was that you could never know if you could bear to be yoked for life to another person in marriage until you found out if you were able work out arguments together, square differences of opinion, and manage quarrels and reconciliations well together.
Yet, on the same campus, I heard a talk on relationships given by a happy, Catholic married couple who said, upon being asked, that to be honest, they had to admit that they had never once had a serious quarrel. And they had been married for years.
All this is extremely confusing, but it’s typical of “relationship advice” in the Catholic world. Everyone has a different opinion, and it’s not exactly a matter of dogma that can be clarified by looking in the index of the Catechism. So, by far, I think the absolute best piece of “relationship advice” I ever heard was from one professor who, hearing how some pieces of counsel from different well-respected people seemed to conflict, said simply:
“You have to understand that everyone’s dating advice is anecdotal. It’s based on their relationship experience. So-and-so had a rough relationship in early college years that didn’t turn out right; so he thinks you shouldn’t date in early college years. The other guy dated dozens of women and eventually found the right one; so he’s an advocate of dating a lot to find the right spouse. One fellow started dating freshman year and married her and has lived happily ever since, so he thinks that’s the way to go. All you can do is take everything with a grain of salt, and just try to act prudently. And pray a lot.”
I think his words can be helpful for Catholic young adults who are trying to live, faithful, holy lives, and may feel called to discern a vocation to marriage but are having difficulty balancing all the advice that comes from Catholic circles about how to date, and when, and who. In the end, the individual is called to use common sense, prudence, patience, and prayer when it comes to discerning relationships and possible vocations to marriage. While there are some obvious rules of thumb to follow that almost everyone will recognize—like not dating someone you barely know, being careful to preserve one’s chastity, and giving due weight to the opinions of those you respect and love—when it comes to relationships, it ultimately depends on each person to prayerfully discern God’s call.