Elimi-dated: Why can't the church and young singles hook up?

Why can't the church and young singles hook up?

JOE AND JOAN BEYERLE HAVE BEEN MARRIED FOR 51 YEARS. Both of them fondly recall the neighborhood house party where they met when Joe was 17 and Joan was 15. Bill and Jane Ryan, 54, first caught each otheelimidater's glances at a fraternity party at Marquette University in the late 1960s. For Ted and Lisa Singer, 43 and 41, it was a shared love of singing and piano during their college years that brought these two music majors together for life.

What better place to meet a future spouse than in one's hometown or at one's alma mater? While some spouses still do meet in their hometowns, the numbers are precious few, as more and more young adult Catholics attend college far from home. So what about college as a meeting place for a life partner? Background similarities abound and the sheer numbers on college campuses guarantee that surely students will find their one-and-only.

Not so fast, say today's young Catholics. The average marriage age continues to rise, and young adults approach serious dating with caution. Casualness replaces commitment and career concerns preclude courtship. Many older adults have been quick to criticize "sex without strings and relationships without rings.

It is difficult, indeed, to envision how much of current dating behavior fits within the bounds of Catholicism, which prizes marriage as a vocation and promotes sexual abstinence until marriage. A closer look at the dating scene reveals no shortage of new cultural challenges, however. The church may be able to help today's young adults navigate the dating scene, but not before listening to some of their stories.

The "old college try" seems obsolete
So why aren't more young adults meeting their future spouses in college when the campus atmosphere is rife with people and possibility? Wouldn't college be a natural place to develop a serious dating relationship? Many who work with college-age students, however, say that often nothing could be further from students' minds.

Father Ed Obermiller, C.S.C., director of campus ministry at the University of Portland, who lives in a residence hall with 140 undergraduate men, says that as far as successful dating relationships are concerned, timing truly is everything.

"I asked some of the guys in my hall what they would do if they met 'Miss Right' tomorrow," says Obermiller. "They responded that they wouldn't meet 'Miss Right' tomorrow. They're just not at that point in their lives yet."

Most college students have a bit of wanderlust in them, he says. "They want to travel and be independent before settling down in a serious relationship. They know that they want to get married but not right away."

Is this reluctance to date strictly a male phenomenon? Sister Carrine Etheridge, I.H.M., rector in a women's residence hall at the University of Notre Dame, remarks, "For women it is the kiss of death for a career if they get married and have a family right out of college. They want to keep it general since marriage is a ways down the road for them, which results in a more noncommittal kind of 'hanging out.' "

Mary Beth Ellis, a 25-year-old freelance writer and contributor to the Paulists' young adult Web site www.bustedhalo.com, says, "It's considered odd if you meet your future spouse in college. I went to a nationally known college, and it was totally the norm to be scattered all over the country after graduation."

Marta Brill, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan now living in Paris, agrees. "Dating in college is always so undefined. Everyone is trying really hard to keep things casual, and even if you spend a lot of time with one person you keep telling your friends, 'We're not really together.' Even if you really like someone you pretend like you don't want everything because everyone in college is so transient. When you first call someone your boyfriend, it's a huge deal. Nobody wants to be the girl who wants to be dating. If you are too interested in guys, it's viewed negatively."

What to make of this "keep it casual" scene? Those who work with and parent these young adults evaluate the scene from both sides.

John and Sylvia Dillon, campus ministers at the University of Notre Dame, speak to first-year students about relationships and faith during the first few weeks they arrive on campus. "We encourage students to take a lighthearted rather than heavyhearted approach to dating," John says. "And we encourage them to remember that time is not their enemy," says Sylvia.

People like the Dillons and Obermiller are heartened that young adults take a longer time to settle down with one person. "It shows that they take the sacrament of marriage very seriously," Obermiller says.

Anne Trick, mother of three young adults, agrees that a delay in marriage is a good idea. "I don't think children mature as fast as they did in other generations, and they have so many more options. This approach gives them time to live life."

Others are more skeptical. The main result of this reluctance to enter into a committed dating relationship, according to Father John Cusick, director of Young Adult Ministry in the Archdiocese of Chicago, is "10 years of casualness where the fear of commitment is enormously strong." Cusick cites career priorities, divorced family members, and previous experiences of verbal or physical abuse as reasons for young adults' reluctance to date seriously.

"I question how seriously people understand how to develop a sustained relationship, and I wonder how much quality time they really spend together," Cusick says. "Lots of them spend a lot of time together, but it's not quality. They can be together sexually, but it's almost a casual activity."

Father Jim Bacik, adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo in Ohio, sees a "need for the Christian faith to provide a context and a perspective for the dating process. We don't want people to think that their faith has nothing to say."

Bacik suggests that homilies, written materials, and faith-sharing groups can all be good vehicles to present some of the church's wisdom and encourage young adults to find God in the ordinary parts of life, and that includes the dating process.

"We need to help young people to be better lovers," says Bacik. "It is not just a matter of accepting other persons as they are but of recognizing their God-given potential and helping them to develop it. Love does not have to be blind. It can detect hidden goodness and unrealized promise."

Joshua McIntyre (not his real name), a 25-year-old graduate student living in Minneapolis, offers his observations: "People at this age think they want to be in a relationship. They want the intimacy, comfort, and closeness, but they aren't ready to make the sacrifices that go along with it. They still want flexibility with their time to go out drinking, play golf, and go on crazy road trips." McIntyre adds, "A lot of people find someone, try dating, and it doesn't work out. They continue to hook up after that. It happens all the time."

Etheridge agrees. "There are a lot of random hookups on campus, and that can mean anything from holding hands to intercourse. When these kids say 'hookup' they mean it. It all comes from the Friends culture where by the end of the television season they all have to sleep with each other."

Amy and Leon Kass, University of Chicago professors who teach a class on courtship, believe that college students who shun the idea of meeting a future spouse on campus are missing out on a great opportunity, as they said in an interview on National Public Radio.

"They're at the time of their lives where they are, in a way, most open, where the world is fresh and new to them, where that's also true of the people they meet. And it may very well be that the people who are nearby and at hand are potentially the best long-term companions. . . . If you embark on a practice of simply casual associations with marriage off the table, you're likely to find yourself at the end of your 20s and deep into your 30s somewhat jaded, disappointed, embittered, and without a person to accompany you the rest of the way," said Leon Kass.

Looking for love in all the wrong places
If young adults aren't meeting their future spouses in their hometowns or in college, where do they meet? Post-college young adults complain that it is very difficult to meet potential mates out in the working world. Is this a new problem? Cusick thinks not. "I've been hearing that it's hard to meet people for 25 years," he says.

Though disillusionment with the bar scene tops the list of dating gripes, pubs and other assorted watering holes are still the destination of choice to seek that special someone.

elimidateMairin Ocheltree, a 28-year-old MBA student who recently moved from New York City to St. Louis, offers this caricature of a typical weekend night in the Big Apple: "A group of women goes to a restaurant or bar to get dinner and drinks. A group of men will approach the women and they pair off in conversations. As the night goes on, numbers are exchanged or 'happier couples' even move to another bar to talk more. Usually, however, the result may be a phone call and a date or two (at most) that results in nothing but the process repeating itself all over again. If the people do go out, they often find that outside of the context of each others' groups of friends, they have little in common."

Though many young adults turn to the taverns for fun, most admit their discomfort with the idea of meeting a significant other while tossing down a couple of cold ones.

"There's definitely something very hollow about looking for someone special in a bar," says Sue Birnie, a 26-year-old graduate student and contributor to www.bustedhalo.com living in Ontario, Canada. "I really don't want to tell my grandkids that I met my wife in a bar," says Brock Heinz, a 23-year-old applications architect living in Chicago.

Joshua McIntyre acknowledges that meeting someone in a bar almost always leads straight down the road to nowhere. "My weekend activities mostly consist of bars, drinking, and dancing late into the night. Every time I go out I get dressed up, try to look my best, and put on my 'game face.' I've been doing this for four years. Have I ever met someone this way? No! I keep asking myself, 'Who am I dressing up for? Am I really looking in the right place? Do my actions really fit the kind of relationship I am after?' It's just hard because I don't have the same kinds of social groups I had in college."

Such frustration with the bar scene often leads many young adults to try less traditional venues, such as the Internet, to find their match. Web sites like Match.com and CatholicSingles.com boast hundreds of successful matches that have resulted in marriage.

Some parents of twentysomethings may ask, "Why don't you just spend some more time at church? Surely that's where all of the nice young men and women are." Young adults, however, are skeptical when they consider the possibility of meeting their future spouse at church.

"I've never been too keen on the 'Catholic singles club' idea," says Kim Krug, a 23-year-old computer specialist in Dayton, Ohio. "Maybe because the folks who tell me about these groups are, to be blunt, not my type."

McIntyre attended one meeting of a singles and young professionals group at his parish and won't be back again. "There were definitely more men than women there, and there were many guys who were really stretching the definition of 'young.' You could tell everyone was kind of fishing, and it was all just kind of weird."

Avoiding the potholes
If a young adult is lucky enough to meet a potential mate in the first place, a whole host of challenges await. During the twentysomething years, the highway toward marriage is dotted with potholes: career concerns, divorced parents, gender differences, and a general reluctance to commit.

Mark Kane, a 28-year-old financial systems manager from Los Angeles, insists that for him, romantic relationships will take a back seat to career concerns for the foreseeable future. Kane has been in a steady dating relationship for more than a year and is currently applying to graduate MBA programs. "I want to finish business school before I make any relationship decisions. . . . I don't want to be unreceptive to my relationship, but my career is definitely my focus right now."

Kane sees himself as a "typical guy in LA," he says. "Only two of my guy friends are married—two out of maybe 30. And nobody has any intention of getting married. I think part of it is a regional thing. On the coasts people are more focused on their careers than they are in the Midwest."

While career concerns certainly seem to top the list of young adults' reasons to keep dating casual, the fact that many of them are children of divorced parents also causes many to proceed with caution when it comes to committing themselves to one person. "We are a generation raised with divorce," says Mary Beth Ellis. "I have dated people who are children of divorce, and they are absolutely paranoid about it happening to them. It's definitely detrimental to dating."

As young adults progress into their 20s, gender differences emerge in a variety of ways. By and large, the age-old stereotypes still seem to prevail. Women are more ready for serious commitment, while men proceed with caution, content to wait longer before settling down.

"Women are usually looking at the whole relationship and always asking questions like, 'Where is this going?' or 'What does this mean for me?' whereas the guy is thinking 'Does she think I'm cool?' " says Ellis. "The guys are focused more on the here and now, and the women are thinking more about the future.

"Most women will never admit this," she continues, "but when they meet a guy, they are picturing themselves in a wedding dress next to him."

Kane agrees that this kind of behavior is typical. "I have two friends who have been in relationships for four-plus years, kind of in a 'wait, see, hold' pattern. The girls in both cases broke up with them after asking the tough questions about commitment. I think the guys would have been content to go out indefinitely. Now guys my age are starting to date younger women because the younger ones don't have that commitment mentality."

Kane sees this shift toward dating younger women as a good thing. "I have seen many relationships run into problems because the guy is not ready but the girl is. If you're not ready for a relationship, it's no big deal to date people who are on your wavelength and are just having fun."

Kim Krug doesn't think that traditionally held gender stereotypes tell the whole story. "I think by the time you hit your mid-20s both sexes are starting to think about settling down," she says. "Sometimes men are pushier about commitment than women are. Just as women start to get settled with the fact that most men aren't in the marriage mindset and begin to enjoy the dating process, men start changing their focus."

Mairin Ocheltree believes that gender stereotypes often rest upon who does the asking in the first place. "I think there is a perception that men tend to be more immature or deceitful in dating, but I don't think that's true. The reason this image persists is because men are usually the ones who ask for phone numbers so that the responsibility for future contact rests on them. I think the same amount of 'dropped relationships' would happen if the tables were turned and women asked for phone numbers."

Father John Cusick would like to see more women asking for phone numbers or at least taking the initiative in a dating situation. "There are a number of women who would never think to ask a guy out, and they miss a lot of opportunities. If you like a guy, what's the matter with asking him out for coffee or to go get a sandwich?"

Some young adults credit the media rather than age with allowing gender stereotypes surrounding relationships to persist. Media present less-than-desirable figures as the ideal. "Movies like Rounders and Swingers tell guys that what's fun and fulfilling is being a player and gambling, things like that," says Matthew Tilghman-Havens, a 27-year-old teacher from Boston.

Dr. John Van Epp is a marriage and family counselor and founder of PIC (Premarital Interpersonal Choice) a Partner. He conducts seminars and conferences, and his video "How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk," is used by thousands of churches and military bases throughout the world. His Web site is http://www.nojerks.com/.

NUMBER FIVE: Opposites attract, but differences often divide.

Take inventory of your similarities and differences of personality, values, and lifestyle. Go for a high degree of compatibility.

NUMBER FOUR: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Family patterns form scripts and molds that often are replicated in future relationships. Talk about his or her family background and watch how he or she interacts with different family members.

NUMBER THREE: History repeats itself.

Look closely at the way he or she acted throughout previous relationships. You probably will get something similar.

NUMBER TWO: Take time to get to know the talk AND the walk.

The first three months can be exhilarating . . . but then you start to see patterns. Going too fast too soon will infect you with the "love is blind" syndrome. It is a good rule of thumb to first develop a strong friendship.

NUMBER ONE: First remove the log from your own eye.

A relationship cannot fulfill what is deficient or unhealthy in your own personal life. Get your act together before you complicate things with a relationship.

Brock Heinz agrees that the media's influence is pervasive. "Take a show like The Bachelor, where one guy dates like 20 women. There's a big emphasis on the physical part. Shows like that distort the way physical and emotional relationships should be. It really clouds things, and it's a challenge to see through it."

Moving toward marriage
So, with these challenges in mind, how do young adults successfully move from casualness to marriage? Amy and Leon Kass think that older generations can help young adults "become more thoughtful about the meaning of their own sexuality, to think about what love is, wants, and seeks," and also "encourage them to trust rather than be suspicious of the real longings of the heart." The Kasses use literature—everything from Shake-speare to Jane Austen—to encourage college students to think about key practices for courtship, like "attentiveness, dependability, care, exclusiveness, and fidelity.

The church promotes such practices and values, says Cusick, but they often haven't been presented very well. "We're seen as an institution that employs the word 'no' all the time, with everything from throwing rice at weddings to artificial birth control. Under every belief we hold there is a value, and we need to explain that value better. We tend to stop at the rule."

John and Sylvia Dillon agree that the church has wisdom to offer in matters of sexuality and dating but acknowledge that the number of young adults who are already sexually involved presents a formidable pastoral challenge. The Dillons, who guide engaged couples through the marriage preparation process, encounter many men and women who live together.

"We give them resources to read and try to give them pause to think about their choice and remind them that this is not the best way to prepare for marriage," says John Dillon. Given the delay in marriage age, young couples often find it more difficult to postpone sexual activity until marriage. Popular culture offers little support for saving sex for a permanent, monogamous relationship, creating an atmosphere in which it becomes crucial for the church to voice its views on sexuality.

What does the church say?
Contrary to what some of their elders may think, many twentysomethings yearn to hear from the church on matters of dating and sexuality, though they don't feel the church presents its values in a manner that speaks to their own experience. "We are a generation thirsting for moral direction, but more than just smacking us for wearing tank tops," says Mary Beth Ellis.

"I've heard a little bit of everything," says Ellis. "Once I went to Confession and the priest told me that kissing a guy with passion was a sin. And then on the other end of the spectrum, one of my college professors told us that anything outside of intercourse in a relationship was OK. I just want to say to the church, 'What do you want?' We [young adults] kind of throw up our hands. The leaders are not consistent."

Jennifer Tilghman-Havens, a 29-year-old employee at Boston College who has been married to Matthew a little over a year, sees the church as "very fearful and disinterested in matters of dating and sexuality, so it comes off as irrelevant. It's the church versus MTV, and the church comes off as not having the power. In general, it seems like ordained and lay ministers are not trained to deal with it, so they just avoid it."

Kelly Rich, a 23-year-old campus ministry intern at the University of Notre Dame, suggests that the church hold up married couples as examples of holiness just as much as those who are ordained. "Having an intimate relationship with another person needs to be lifted up as a good and holy example as much as ordained people are," she says.

Amy and Leon Kass see good friendships as a solid foundation that could eventually evolve into courtship. "That would be absolutely key and a prerequisite for developing other kinds of intimacy with a person," Amy Kass told National Public Radio.

Michael Leach, coeditor of I Like Being Married (Doubleday), agrees that friendship as a starting point is key. "[Young adults] should do the kinds of things that friends do together. When you are a good friend, you tell the truth. Be authentic, be interested in the other person. Everything else is secondary."

Mary Ehret, associate director of the Family Life Office in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, offers similar suggestions. "Young people should be really trying to get to know one another, discussing things like hopes, dreams, aspirations, and what gives them joy or sorrow." Attending cultural events such as opera, good plays, or the ballet, she says, are good discussion starters.

In guiding young adults through courtship, some institutions have taken the damage-control approach. Paul Kelly, a young adult specialist with the Diocese of Cleveland, notes that at the most recent Ohio Young Adult Conference, the workshop "How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk" drew more than one-quarter of the conference's 400 participants.

On a few college campuses, simply sponsoring a program that provides safe space for discussion and dialogue has been tremendously successful. And a tantalizing title doesn't hurt. "Sex and Chocolate," a program jointly sponsored by campus ministry and the university health center at both the University of Portland and Santa Clara University, provides small groups of students opportunities to ask anonymous questions related to dating, sexuality, faith, morality, and health in written form.

"The title comes off as catchy, but it's amazing how comfortable students are sharing their intimate thoughts on these issues. There is a real sense of respect and honor among the participants," says Portland's Obermiller.

The dating scene presents no small amount of challenges to single young adult Catholics, with careers beckoning, genders differing, morals wavering, and the number of meeting places seemingly lacking. The wisdom of the church and older generations can be a tremendous resource, yet gaps in culture, language, and trust need to be bridged before a balanced exchange can take place. There has to be some give and take on both sides—just like in any good relationship.

Rene M. LaReau is a pastoral associate at the Church of St. Charles Borromeo in Kettering, Ohio and author of Getting a Life: How to Find Your True Vocation (Orbis). She has a Master of Divinity degree from the University of Notre Dame. This article appeared in the February 2003 (Volume 68, Number 2) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles